The day my friend got married, there was a delightful paunch protruding from under her silk gown. It was a much-wanted child and, while she hadn't told everyone yet, I had already seen her scans and been asked to be the baby's godmother. I didn't know who was more excited, her or me.
Soon after she returned from her honeymoon, the phone call came. At first I couldn't understand who was calling, as all I heard were wrenching sobs and haunting, anguished howls. Then I made out words I didn't want to hear. "There is no heartbeat. The baby's gone."
It was not only my friend’s mental health that took a turn for the worse: her marriage did too.Credit:Shutterstock
What followed was not only the unravelling of my devastated friend's sanity as she plummeted in to a deep depression, but also her marriage. Her new husband didn't know what to say to his distraught wife and, like so many men, tried to fix the situation with well-intentioned consoling platitudes like "we'll try again", "at least we know we can get pregnant" and "we're lucky it happened early". Within six months of the miscarriage, they were living apart.
I was brought back to that heart-breaking time this week when reading how former Home and Away star Tammin Sursok suffered two years of devastating back-to-back miscarriages before conceiving her now 10-month daughter, Lennon.
But what did cheer me somewhat was her describing how the tragedies strengthened her relationship with her husband of eight years, producer/writer Sean McEwen (the couple have another daughter Phoenix, 6). "It brought us so close together," Tammin, 36, said. "He was unbelievable. I would just wake up sometimes and start sobbing and he would just hold me – he was beyond anything that I could ever imagine in a partner."
Tammin's marriage is one of the lucky ones, a survival story in the aftermath of miscarriage when so many aren't. It is hard not to feel for men going through the experience – and there is a hell of a lot of them considering almost one in three pregnancies in Australia ends in miscarriage (technically termed as before 20 weeks' gestation). When my friend lost her baby, she was dismayed at the lack of literature out there to help her – and there was certainly none for her clearly struggling husband.
Dan Singley, a psychologist who focuses on men's mental health and reproductive psychology and is the media chair for Postpartum Support International, says men in our culture are socialised to be stoic. "One common reaction that I see with the dads who experience a miscarriage is a profound sense of guilt," he says. "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 – kind of like, 'Hey, I'm not the one who lost the baby, so what right do I have to be taking up her emotional bandwidth with my issues?' "
It is a view backed up by another leader in the field, reproductive loss psychologist Irving Leon. "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."
While research shows that 40 per cent of women who have recently experienced miscarriage say they feel very alone, and that up to 20 per cent of women will struggle with subsequent depression and anxiety – studies show men also profoundly suffer, yet often in silence. One survey revealed 45 per cent mourned the loss of their family's hopes and dreams, 50 per cent reported they did not share feelings with their partner, and 40 per cent reported a strong sense of vulnerability and powerlessness to help their wife. The grief men experience tends to be level higher according to how long their partners' pregnancy existed, and whether they had seen an ultrasound scan.
What experts suggest will happen to men as a result of miscarriage is a maelstrom of emotions, often occurring at different times to their partner. The first will often be shock at the turn of events, quickly followed by anger either at medical staff for not preventing it happening or the sheer unfairness of the loss. Grief will kick in as will a sense of isolation and/or loneliness, especially if a partner shuts them out.
Feelings of guilt, failure, helplessness and frustration are also common: that they couldn't or didn't do enough and still can't ease their partner's pain. Men are also likely to experience a loss of interest in sex and anxiety about their relationship and any subsequent pregnancy. Some may feel impatient to get back to normal or to start trying again. And, should the pregnancy not had been wanted, there may be feelings of relief, which will likely bring on more guilt and anxiety.
Happily, between 50 and 80 per cent of women who experience miscarriage will become pregnant again. However, research shows a live birth does not necessarily take away the pain of an earlier interrupted pregnancy. The mourning often continues for both.
The good news is that my girlfriend who miscarried went on to reunite with her husband and, following lots of couples' therapy, now have a healthy child together (I got to finally be a godmother!). But even better is how much closer she is to her husband now, how learning to grieve together deepened their bond and, she believes, secured their relationships. "We got through that, we can get through anything," she says.
He agrees. Soon after they got back together, he confided to me that he didn't really know the woman he had married before the miscarriage. But what was worse, he reflected, was that he didn't really know himself.
Wendy Squires is a Melbourne writer.
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