By Andrew Nielsen
Stanford Community Writing Program
When an infant passes away and the coming of another baby is expected, it can be an apprehensive time for the both the mother and father. Fears from the previous pregnancy linger, and each milestone during the process can bring back painful memories of the past. Although much emphasis is placed on helping the mother deal with the anxiety and anticipation that comes with carrying and awaiting another baby, the father’s perspective is often overlooked or neglected.
In her book “Pregnancy After a Loss,” Carol Cirulli Lanham writes how after the loss of a baby, the focus continues to stay on the mother. Doctors, relatives, friends, coworkers, neighbors, store clerks will want to know how she is doing. In many ways, their concern is well placed. No one will feel the pain over the loss quite as intensely. But fathers have feelings, too, even though they may not always show them. Although men may show their grief differently than women, the male experience of losing a child and preparing for another one is nevertheless unique, relevant and substantial.
Joe, a father who is also involved in the software and managing data from NASA missions, has worked on the Mars Global Surveyor, the Magellan mission to Venus, and the Galileo mission to Jupiter, and his group has proposed to participate in a future mission to Pluto. When he and his wife Jill lost their first child Talia to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in March of 1999, Joe explains, “it is the most unexpected thing, you just don’t think you’re going to get a phone call to come to the hospital if there’s a problem.”
Richard is a high-tech executive who works out of south San Jose designing supply chains. After he and wife Christy had three miscarriages including twins, Christy contacted HAND of the Peninsula. Richard remembers how the first time around, “it hits you like a truck. You don’t know what to do.” Richard explains that even though still difficult, adjusting became easier later on, because “you know what the worst is, and the worst comes, and you deal with it.”
Michael is an account manager working in the electronics industry. He and his wife Christine lost twins Edgar and Christian at thirty-two weeks in July 1999, and contacted HAND of the Peninsula shortly thereafter.
“Before approaching HAND, I felt very isolated,” he explains. “Then I realized that there are many others out there with similar or worse circumstances.”
Men may grieve differently than women, and it is important to realize that there is no set pattern under which this process happens,” Joe says “There’s no formula. There’s no cookbook recipe that you can follow to make someone better. You deal with it as best as you can. You can’t say ‘I wish I was over this,’ or ‘I wish I could function better’. Everybody’s going to grieve differently and move at a different pace.”
In Richard’s experience, he explained that a long process to get through the shock of losing a child is a gradual process. It took Michael eighteen months after he and his wife lost their twins to start dealing with his grief. He remembers, “there have been many stages” and that he used “a combination of HAND support, a very close relationship with his wife, homeopathy and talking with friends.”
Because of differences in hormones and actual biological closeness to the baby, men and women may have different “ups and downs” during the process of losing a baby and preparing for a new one, Joe explains. “I can’t fully appreciate it, but carrying a baby for nine months and going through a delivery and then having a newborn, it’s really hard on a woman. It’s hard physically and then there’s hormones and other emotional things.”
Richard said that his experience differed from his wife’s in that “it’s very real to her, and, then to you it’s very real but it’s one step removed. There’s a whole physical component that you don’t have as a man. You’re not pregnant, you don’t (physically) lose the baby, your wife has got hormones doing crazy things, it’s very physical. Therefore, because of this, it is important for the man to support his partner during these times.”
Pat Schwiebert, R.N. and Paul Kirk, M.D., authors of “Still to be Born,” offer advice for men in helping their wives: “You just hold her tenderly during these times, allow her to express herself without feeling she will be put down and if she is talking about some reasonably valid concerns, help her follow up on them. Go to the doctor with her. Be as supportive as you can be. Remind yourself that there will also be good days to share. Make sure you get your needs met too.”
Reflecting on his and his wife’s experience, Joe says, “I thought that our ups and downs didn’t coincide, which was probably good. When I was feeling really down, Jill really picked me up. When she was feeling really down, I really tried to pick her up.”
To reciprocate support is essential, as relationships can either go one of two ways during this time: becoming stronger, or allowing the hardships to break it up. In Joe’s experience, after losing his daughter Talia, he and his wife had two pregnancies that resulted in miscarriages. But, in sticking through the difficulties together, Joe feels that his relationship with his wife Jill has become stronger than ever. “In fact, only two things can happen when you lose a baby like we did,” he explains. “Either your relationship becomes stronger and you become closer, because you’re going through this incredibly difficult period together, or your relationship becomes so strained that it might be hard to keep it together. We had a sense from each other that we wanted to just make it through together. As a result, if you can make it through that, you can make it through anything. I have that feeling now, that short of losing another baby, I can’t see that there’s anything that we would have to go through that would be that hard.
We’ve already done it once. I think we could probably deal with anything right now.”
Michael believes that his relationship with his wife has become better through his experience with the loss of their twin babies as well, and that “it does go one way or the other. We managed to help each other through huge lows and self-doubt. We now feel very lucky.”
For Richard, his relationship with his wife Christy has become much stronger. “That’s one important thing about this whole thing: you’ve been through something incredibly traumatic together. it’s kind of a make or break thing. It is powerful enough to break the relationship, but if you make it through, by definition you have a stronger relationship.” Acknowledging the pain, offering support and maintaining hope are three very important things, and the father’s role in facilitating these three things is crucial in helping with subsequent pregnancies. It is a position that should be taken seriously, and in assuming it, men can provide much needed support in difficult times. When the time is right, however, a couple may decide to try to have another child. Richard believes that if you’re physically and emotionally able to try again, it’s great to be able to try. An organization like HAND of the Peninsula. can be helpful in that it can guide couples through subsequent pregnancies, helping find the right medical help and best practitioner for specific conditions or circumstances.
Richard explains, “the good thing about an organization like HAND is we wouldn’t have been successful had it not been for it. I’m not sure we’d still be together without the doctors HAND referred us to, we wouldn’t have been successful this time. They were able to say, ‘Hey guys, these are the specialists you need to go to who can help you through this. They’re the ones that will make it successful.’ ”
For Michael, preparing himself and his wife for another pregnancy seemed hard initially, but soon became the only option. “We were in our mid-thirties, and therefore had some time pressure. However one of the first prerequisites was to first allow myself to face my feelings rather than bury them.” To get through the different stages is important, and taking them one by one can be beneficial for both the husband and the wife.
Mostly it was just preparing mentally for what seemed like a series of hurdles, Joe remembers. “We wanted to get past the first trimester because that is the most likely time for miscarriages to occur and we had already had a couple of them. Then we wanted to get through the amniocentesis with positive results, and then we wanted to get through the last trimester and have a healthy baby.”
Although the memory of babies who pass away should always appropriately be kept, it is often possible to have successful subsequent pregnancies even if one has experienced a previous loss or series of losses. Michael and his wife Christine, now have two children, Emily is two and Alexander is four months old. “ I love the look of trust and expectation in the eyes of my children, he says. “They are helping me to regain my emotional balance and establish a better work and life balance.” Joe and his wife Jill now have a five−
Month-old baby girl, Lea. “She’s just the sweetest little girl,” Joe confesses. “I’ve reduced my time at Stanford from fulltime to three-quarters time, and I’m working at home four days a week. So I’m Dr. Mom.”
Richard and his wife Christy have recently had a daughter named Gemma who is now three-months-old. “It teaches you what’s important,” Richard explains. “You go home and it’s 3 a.m. and Gemma’s screaming, you change her diaper, you’re happy to change it. The alternative is you wouldn’t be able to change it and get awakened, and you’d be worrying about work or something stupid like that. The joy is that it’s what’s important in life, you now have the ability to enjoy that, whereas before you didn’t and you had something taken away from you.”
I asked the three fathers I interviewed if they possibly had any advice for other fathers who have lost a baby before and may be expecting another into the family. Michael advises that one “stay focused on the fact that you have faith in your wife to have a live baby. She needs someone to believe in her.”
“Remember how important the anniversary date of the previous loss was, the previous due date was,” Richard advises. “Not everyone heals at the same rate. You’ve got to remember that your partner might be looking at something completely different from the way you’re looking at it. Try to be very empathetic to your partner’s position.”
Joe urges couples to educate themselves well enough to do the right things: go to your doctor, find out what you should be doing, get the ultrasounds and all of those things. In addition to this, Joe explained that keeping a good attitude about the whole situation is important. “Keep as positive as you can,” he recommends “There are so many different issues and every case is different. There’s no reason to believe that things won’t go well. They may have gone badly in the past, but you can still try to be positive and believe that everything will be fine.”
Richard, Joe, and Michael are wonderful fathers to their children, and the memories of those lost will always be special to them. Perhaps one day, they will tell their kids about the family members they never knew. They can tell them that they would have been great brothers and sisters. For the meantime, however, these three fathers are doing the best that they can, making the moments with their families count, while continuing to keep the memories of those lost alive.