Wall art depicting a woman and a fetus in a womb with Nursing Clio logo superimposed over it.

The Gendered Dynamics of Miscarriage

 

“I don’t like the use of ‘our.’ It’s ‘her’ body.”

I was sitting in a small meeting room in the Olympic Village at Squaw Valley for a writers’ workshop. There were thirteen people in our group, eleven women and two men. For a week, we took turns reading and critiquing each other’s nonfiction work, and on this day, my essay on my wife’s recent miscarriage was up for discussion. The discussion was lively, and in line with the rest of the week, it stayed away from personal opinion until the moderator, a literary agent from New York, stated she did not like that I claimed the miscarriage as “ours.” The miscarriage belonged to my wife, Patty. It was her body, after all.

I don’t recall what was discussed after that, though I vaguely remember two or three of the women around the table nodding in assent. My mind spun. Patty had always called the miscarriage ours, not just hers. The baby was ours after birth, so why wasn’t the baby ours before? If the miscarriage wasn’t also mine, then the grief wasn’t either.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by the reaction. Researchers have found that of 3,976 studies about miscarriage written in English from 1995-2016, only 29 (less than one percent) focused on the male partner.1 My own experience bears this out. After our miscarriage, a two-month process that resulted in Patty hemorrhaging during a second dilation and curettage procedure, I was deeply lost and angry, but struggled to feel validated in my sadness. Patty was entrenched in her own grief; other men, including my best friends, had no idea what to say; and my family responded with trite religious sayings about “God’s plan.” When I asked about support groups, various medical professionals scoffed or laughed. The only people who really understood – other women who had miscarried – felt uncomfortable talking to me about something that happened to their bodies.

So I turned to that trusty friend: the television.

This Is Us main cast members (left to right) Jones, Watson, Brown, Ventimiglia, Moore, Hartley, Metz, and Sullivan at PaleyFest 2017. (Chris Roth/Wikimedia Commons| CC BY-SA 2.0)

This is Us, a drama series on NBC, follows three generations of the Pearson family as they deal with real life issues like marriage, parenting, alcoholism, race, and, for one episode, miscarriage. In the episode “Number Two,” Kate Pearson and her partner Toby find out they have miscarried. The rest of the episode follows the couple as they deal with the news. While many films and television shows have addressed miscarriage before, this particular episode does something new – it gives the male partner nearly equal airtime. It is a real depiction of what miscarriage can mean for a man.

On the show, an emergency room doctor explains what happened to the couple. Though Toby’s face shows his emotional pain, when he sees Kate’s heartbroken reaction, he controls his reaction, wipes the pain from his face, and turns to Kate to make sure she’s okay. Like Toby, I also went into “protector” and “supporter” mode as soon as we got the diagnosis. It was our first ultrasound, and the doctor could not find a heartbeat. I was floored. I’d never felt such sudden and deep sadness. But I felt right away that as a man, I should not start crying. Society had taught me the emotional realm was not for men. Patty had physically lost our child, and I could see her devastation. I felt instinctively that it was my job to console her as she wept uncontrollably into my chest.

Researchers have found that in the aftermath of a miscarriage there are social expectations for the man to be “strong” instead of grieving with their partners.2 The way Toby and I handled gendered expectations was very similar. On This is Us, Toby hides or throws away things that might remind Kate of the baby. Later, he realizes a baby bathtub they ordered was arriving that day. Wanting to protect Kate, he drives to the warehouse to try and stop its delivery. When the warehouse worker, Karl, can’t help him, Toby says: “The hardest part, Karl, about seeing someone you love in pain is not being able to do anything about it except try and not make it worse.”3

Like Toby, after Patty’s miscarriage, I tried to protect her. That meant not only avoiding discussing my sadness with her, but also logging into her Facebook account and blocking friends who posted about their babies. It meant hiding the maternity clothes her friend loaned her. It meant screaming at the person on the What to Expect What You’re Expecting help line when they took too long to unsubscribe Patty from their emails. I researched movies and TV shows before we watched them to see if the plot included pregnancy or miscarriage, which meant we stopped watching our favorite shows The Big Bang Theory (Bernadette was pregnant) and Downton Abbey (Mrs. Bates miscarried).

In another study, researchers found that men said they couldn’t cry in front of their partners, even when they felt like their whole lives had caved in.4 In This is Us, we see Toby parked in the car, slamming his hands repeatedly against the steering wheel. Like Toby, when I felt like screaming or crying, I took a long shower, went for a long drive, stayed late at work, or just sat in a parking lot somewhere hoping my eyes didn’t look puffy when I got home.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if we could talk to other men. Although Toby is close to Kate’s two brothers, now his best friends, he doesn’t call them to talk about his grief. In fact, the only man he does talk to is warehouse employee Karl. After they eventually find the package, Toby offers Karl the bathtub without saying why. When Karl accepts and says, “I’m sorry if something happened,” Toby just says “yeah.” When I got my male friends together for the purpose of talking about the miscarriage, they avoided the subject by making eyes at the attractive bartenders or hollering at the basketball game on television. Hours later, after I was finally able to discuss my grief with them, one of my best friends said his wife had miscarried just weeks before. I asked how they were doing. He said “fine” and that was it.

When I looked for research about how miscarriages affected men, I was astounded how often researchers focused on demonstrating that women had stronger emotional responses to miscarriage than men. To me, this rings true, but it doesn’t capture the whole story. Men feel grief too and often have no outlet for it. For example, near the end of the episode, Kate and Toby have an argument, and Kate tells Toby the miscarriage didn’t happen to him. Toby replies:

Now, I will be your entire support system through this. I will hold your head in my lap, and I will stroke your hair, and I will tell you that everything is going to be okay until the cows come home. But what I will not do, what is not fair for you to do, is to tell me that I wasn’t a part of this. Now, yeah, it didn’t happen to my body. I get that. I have no idea what that must be like for you. And I’m trying to be strong here ‘cause that’s the gig, but it happened to me, too. And it hurt.

Patty had always called the miscarriage ours, so I never felt I had to have this conversation with her, but I wish I could have had it with the rest of the world, including that literary agent in that writing workshop. One study found that while women had more intense, active grief following a miscarriage, men felt more delayed grief, leading to future coping difficulties and feelings of despair.5

Other researchers quantified grief after miscarriage and found that male scores not only decreased at a lower rate than women’s, but in some subcategories, actually increased over time.6 The reasons for this appear to be clear: gendered social expectations for strength, the general lack of societal awareness or empathy concerning male grief, and men’s inability to accept and talk about emotions.

Though we have yet to see if the This is Us writers will keep the miscarriage in Kate and Toby’s storyline, I know what effect pushing down this grief had on me and my wife, even after we had our daughter a couple of years later. Just as my wife turned the corner, the grief that I had buried for so long exploded out of me. I was mad at everyone. I couldn’t sleep. I cried all the time. Like many of the men interviewed in those studies, I felt utterly alone.

Since then, I’ve been writing a lot about my experience with miscarriage, and it has helped. Though she couldn’t say so at the time, Patty has thanked me for the ways I tried to “protect” her, even as the grief inside me grew. Between writing and talking about my grief, I’m finally beginning to feel like myself again. My hope in writing this is that some will accept as truth what Toby said: though it doesn’t happen to our bodies, the aftermath of miscarriage happens to both men and women, and it hurts for everyone.

Notes

  1. Stephanie Chiarolli, Clemence Due, and Damien W. Riggs, “The Impact of Pregnancy Loss on Men’s Health and Wellbeing: A Systematic Review,” BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 17, no. 1 (2017): 2. Return to text.
  2. Martin Johnson and John Puddifoot, “The Legitimacy of Grieving: The Partner’s Experience at Miscarriage,” Social Science & Medicine 45, no. 6 (1997): 844 Return to text.
  3. This is Us, “Number Two,” NBC, November 21, 2017, written by Dan Fogelman, Kay Oyegun, K.J. Steinberg, Shukree Tilghman, and Jas Waters, directed by Ken Olin. Return to text.
  4. Bernadette Susan McCreight, “A Grief Ignored: Narratives of Pregnancy Loss from a Male Perspective,” Sociology of Health & Illness 26, no. 3 (2004): 337. Return to text.
  5. M.P. Johnson and J.E. Puddifoot, “Active Grief, Despair, and Difficulty Coping: Some Measured Characteristics of Male Response Following Their Partner’s Miscarriage,” Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology 17, no. 1 (1999): 92. Return to text.
  6. Judith N. Lasker, Janet Lohmann, Kandi M. Stinson, and Lori J. Toedter, “Parents’ Grief Following Pregnancy Loss: A Comparison of Mothers and Fathers,” Family Relations, 41, no. 2 (1992), 222. Return to text.

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