How Men Deal With Miscarriage
In the winter of 2007, Dr Chandran*, then 41, was enjoying Christmas dinner with family. There was much to celebrate besides the holiday; his wife was in the early stages of pregnancy with their first child, and the mood of the evening was warm and convivial.
“It was such a lovely evening,” he said. “I saw my brother-in-law and his wife off at the door. Just as I shut it behind them, my wife told me that she was experiencing spotting. My heart just sank.”
A scan didn’t tell them much, as it was too early in the pregnancy to detect any fetal distress. What followed was an agonizing wait, a time that Chandran, a physician, remembers as being punctuated by immense pressure at work.
Ten days later, his wife experienced more bleeding and pain—only this time it was heavier, more intense. Chandran found himself torn between administering care to his long line of sick patients, and trying to deal with his own personal crisis. When he and his wife finally arrived at the ER, doctors confirmed the worst: Chandran and his wife had lost the baby.
“A consultant carried out the surgical procedure to evacuate the womb of the ‘retained products’,” Chandran said. “It seemed such a bitter end to a life for whom we were planning names, and so much else already, as parents do.”
Women are often the focal point of care after a miscarriage. After all, it’s something that can only happen in their bodies and so the repercussions are more personal, more direct. But studies show that pregnancy loss can be just as devastating for their partners, albeit in a different way.
In 2010, Dr Grace Kong, a physician at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Hong Kong, led a team that tracked the psychological reactions of 83 couples for a year after a miscarriage. They found that, immediately after the miscarriage, more than 40% of men (and comparatively, 52% of women) experienced immense psychological distress. One year later, 10% of women and 7% of men still had depressive symptoms.
“I returned to work that very morning with no time to mourn. Business as usual.”
Despite these findings, seldom do men find the same support after a miscarriage. Societal conditioning leads many to deny their feelings, in an effort to stay strong for their spouses. It can also lead others to overlook or dismiss men’s grief in the wake of a miscarriage; even when Chandran broke down in tears as he told his employers of the miscarriage, he was not offered any personal leave.
“I returned to work that very morning with no time to mourn,” Chandran said. “Business as usual. The work atmosphere seemed so grim at the time. My receptionist, staff and nurses comforted me. But my bosses didn’t offer a word of condolence.”
The lack of empathy compounded Chandran’s grief.
“If as a man, you think it won’t hit you hard because it’s not happening within your body, you couldn’t be more wrong,” he said.
It’s not unusual for men to feel Chandran’s same sense of loss, says Dr Shobha Gupta, Medical Director of Mother’s Lap IVF Centre, New Delhi.
“During pregnancy, a woman will forge a more immediate, tangible bond, dreaming of how a baby will feel in her arms, imagining a face, fingers and toes,” Dr Gupta said. “Men on the other hand tend to think about the future, pondering over their responsibilities and how life will change.”
While loss affects both parents-to-be equally, it affects them differently. Because it is their body, women often compound the loss by blaming themselves.
“Miscarriage is most often a result of serious chromosomal abnormalities and not because of something the mother did or did not do,” said Dr Gupta. Yet most women, she said, feel guilty, even though they know on some level that it is unreasonable.
Because it is fraught with such emotions, miscarriage can place great strain on a couple’s relationship. Men and women often grieve in different ways, and it can be easy for one partner to assume the other isn’t as affected, causing tension and conflict.
“Nobody will mention it unless you broach the subject yourself. But approach it, you must. It’s the only way to stay positive, hopeful and heal.”
“While my wife was inconsolable, I felt completely numb,” said Rishi Oberoi, 42, an entrepreneur based in Mumbai. While trying to conceive a second child, his wife experienced two miscarriages in five years. Both times, the miscarriage was only discovered in the course of a regular doctors’ visit during early pregnancy. Both times, the couple was shocked when the gynecologist couldn’t find a heartbeat.
Rishi realized his reaction might leave the wrong impression with his wife and took pains to share his grief with her.
“The only way to resolve this is to reach out to each other and communicate,” he said. “It’s important to understand that a man and a woman often grieve differently. Talking about what happened, sharing your sense of irrecoverable loss definitely helps.”
Rishi found reaching out to his social circle helped too. It wasn’t until he spoke about his own experience that as many as ten friends admitted similar feelings after their wives had miscarried.
“Nobody will mention it unless you broach the subject yourself,” Rishi said. “But approach it, you must. It’s the only way to stay positive, hopeful and heal.”
This may be more easily said than done. The same social norms that undercut a man’s grief over a miscarriage often dictate he keep his troubles to himself. In Gender, Emotion and the Family, psychologist Dr Leslie Brody describes how men may display or communicate even less emotion when stressed or angry. Whereas women, she writes, are more likely to verbalize or use facial expressions to convey feelings like sadness or distress.
In spite of these differences, healing often depends on the attitude of the couple and circumstances of the miscarriage, said Dr Gupta. Man or woman, it can hit you harder if you’ve been trying to have a baby after a great deal of effort, if it’s your first child or if you’ve lost the baby unexpectedly. Whatever the case, she said, counselling should be considered.
Two years ago, Dr Gupta was holding intensive, daily counselling sessions with the husband of one of her IVF patients. After five years of fertility treatments, he was bitterly disappointed when the couple had a miscarriage.
“We tried to help them both understand that miscarriage is often natural,” she said.
Moving on as a couple can be the biggest challenge, but it’s also the greatest need.
“Take the opportunity during this tragic event to invest extra energy into your relationship and spend some quality time together,” advised Dr Gupta. “Only then, can you recommence your journey towards pregnancy together.”