BY MPHO KUHLMANN
If there is any one incident that brings the conflicting emotional socialization of men and women to a head, it has to be the loss of a baby through miscarriage. This can be one of the most devastating things to happen to a couple. Women tend to grieve in solitude while their partners either detach or hit the bottle hard.
Studies have shown that married couples’ risk of divorce can go up after the death of a child, and now new findings suggest that relationships may also become more fragile after a miscarriage or stillbirth. In one study researchers found that couples that suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth were more likely to break up in subsequent years than couples who had a baby.
Specifically, couples who had a miscarriage (the loss of a fetus before the 20th week of pregnancy) were 22 percent more likely than those who had a live birth to separate during the 15-year study period. With stillbirth (loss of a fetus after 20 weeks but before birth), the risk was 40 percent greater.
This is hardly surprising. Men deal with grief differently from women as a result miscarriage will most likely push a couple apart. Men all too often grapple with the emotional fallout of miscarriage largely on their own and miscarriage still tends to be considered strictly a woman’s topic. Men often express many emotional reactions in different ways than women, often times if a man is suffering from grief, he doesn’t necessarily cry or express emotion about it in a way that therapists or their wives might be looking for. They take action, they avoid. They become workaholics sometimes to cope or alcoholics. Men don’t always show their reactions as grief or loss, and sometimes the people around them and they themselves don’t connect that with the real source when it’s a miscarriage. Whenever the miscarriage happens, many men feel they must be the firm rock, the one who keeps the family going. This is a very typical male response, but unfortunately for women it’s the inappropriate response. She wants him to cry. She wants him to feel as devastated as she does. He may be grieving but this isn’t how most men process their grief. Women are much more open with their grief. They talk to friends. They cry. Men tend to be more internal. They keep themselves busy with work or physical activity. They might tell a close mate that they’re feeling down while some wouldn’t.
Kgomotso Jongman, of Jongman Psychosocial Service Clinic in Gaborone says, “once a miscarriage occurs men tend to emotionally detach, this is partly because they aren’t included in the antenatal process and maybe because they also don’t take part hence when a miscarriage happens they don’t know what to do. That emotional detachment makes men want to quickly conceive another baby in hopes to replace the one that has passed also because in traditional Setswana culture, a couple is encouraged to conceive again after a miscarriage but what most men need to know is this new child they want to conceive won’t replace the one they lost. Most men can’t talk to their friends about how they really feel so they tend to turn to alcohol to numb their pain and deal with their emotions because of the emptiness they fee inside. Some are terrified at the thought of conceiving again in case the new baby also dies, they feel all these emotions because they can’t talk to anyone for professional help. Miscarriage is treated like a taboo but it is really time that stops, a lot of men are suffering in silence. We need to hear men’s cries.”
One common reaction with men who experience a miscarriage is a profound sense of guilt. And the guilt is very often the result of the fact that he himself is struggling. He’s got a lot of anxiety and depression but doesn’t feel entitled to it, he feels as though he’s not the one who lost the baby, so what right does he have to be taking up her emotional bandwidth with his issues. For many women, the experience of miscarriage is emotional; they mourn the loss of something they already felt deeply connected to. For many men, it’s more logistical; they see a change in circumstances (my wife was pregnant, now she’s not) and a problem they try and work through by talking about next steps, like trying to conceive again.
The challenge, then, is that men who are really struggling after a miscarriage often fail to get help. This is in part because they do not necessarily present their grief in a way that others recognize. Male depression often goes undiagnosed because men often show different signs and coping mechanisms from women and are generally less likely than women to seek help for mental health problems when they crop up. And also because there is a perception that miscarriage, pregnancy, infertility all of it ÔÇö are primarily women’s issues, not men.
Dr Sethunya Mosime, senior lecturer at the University Of Botswana says “Often times it’s easier to sympathize with the one who had the baby bump and it disappeared. Our cultural thinking around reproduction is very female oriented, things like being there for the birth of your child, is not allowed. Even the burial of the child is traditionally done in secrecy and very few people are involved (usually older women) the man isn’t really involved as much. I think a miscarriage is a personal painful thing to go through and often time’s people are always expected to move on quickly. We can list all the stereotypes as reasons ÔÇômen aren’t as emotional, men grieve differently , men aren’t as attached and so forth but these stereotypes only serves to alienate them from grief and pain.”
Lemogang Gabaake from Thuso Psychotherapy in Gaborone says “When a woman miscarries, people often assume that she will have a stronger sense of connection with the baby, and thus experience a deeper sense of loss, than her partner. This may be true. You might feel more upset by your partner’s distress than by the loss of the baby. You have not experienced the same physical and emotional changes caused by pregnancy hormones as she has, and might not yet have seen a scan or felt the baby kick. For these reasons or for others, you may not feel such an intensity of sadness, rather a sense of disappointment. You might even feel that your partner is over-reacting. On the other hand, you may be overcome by a real sense of loss. If you did see the baby on an early scan or saw or felt movements later in pregnancy, he or she may be quite real to you. This might have been an especially precious pregnancy, perhaps conceived after years of fertility problems, so that the loss is especially acute. Some men are quite shocked at the level of grief that they feel even after an early miscarriage and find it hard to cope with. “
Thuso Oleseng a lecturer at IDM in Gaborone says “The person who is most often forgotten in a family bereaved by a miscarriage is the father. Men don’t grieve in that they don’t feel the failure of their body. Women’s grief is more intense and self-blaming. Men aren’t as oriented to express the loss. They’re afraid they if they show hurt or sadness, it will bring the wife down. Yet its critical men get help, too. Not only is their own mental health at risk, their isolation can hurt their partners’ well-being and destroy their relationships. As a bereaved father, however, it can be very difficult to have your own needs recognised and met. In the weeks that follow miscarriage, attention tends to be focused on the mother and the father’s feelings can be overlooked. You may be taken aside and asked how your partner is, while few people ever think to ask after you. Some people may feel uncomfortable asking a man about his feelings, but others may simply assume that you are less affected by what has happened.”
Amogelang Keetile a waitress at Flavourz restaurant in Gaborone. “The woman carries the foetus inside her body and so we often easily think of miscarriage as a woman’s issue. You and your significant other have been excited. You’ve been reading naming books and checking out strollers, all that translates to excitement, and now the excitement is no more but men grieve too. Men are more likely to do their grieving silently, needing to appear strong for his partner, a man may suppress his expression of grief. A miscarriage is heartrending and a man finds himself in a tight spot, he’s often the silent sufferer, the one called upon to support and encourage and comfort yet he’s equally torn up as his spouse, as unsure of what to do next, as grief filled, discouraged and aching.”
Malebogo Kedisang works in admin at Cleaning Queens in Gaborone; she says “I think a lot of the times if a miscarriage happens early in the pregnancy we expect to get over it quickly. I think most parents would agree that they begin to feel a bond with their “future child” as soon as they find out about the pregnancy. An early miscarriage is a painful disruption to that bond and the stronger the bond the greater the pain. The loss may get little acknowledgement from the wider society, perhaps because of the absence of a funeral or perhaps because no one has actually seen the baby. Society has it all wrong, miscarriages can be devastating and the effects can last for longer than society thinks they should. Women need to realise that men suffer grief too, even when they are silent and men need to realise that their grieving partners need them to say how they feel.”