The hours, days, weeks and months that follow are complicated, nasty pockets of time. Each one happens without much warning, and brings with it a fresh new hell; emotions that offer little insight, pain that stems from something that is intangible—at least for a man—and a lack of preparedness for what to do with a partner who has literally had another life torn away from them in losing an unborn child.
You will say: “Everything is going to be okay” when you don’t know that it will be. You will offer facts, statistics, and medical advice that you know to be good and true when you also know that none of it will bring your precious baby back.
You will cry when nobody’s looking; furtively punch all the pillows in the house; walls, too. Multiple times. You will have your fleeting moments of sadness and anger, always in private, never wanting to show a flash of weakness, of your own fragility.
It is a time when everything feels like it is held together by old Blu-tack and hope.
And like it or not, it will be up to you to hold it together.
You’ll learn that you can do a lot, or nothing at all; either way you’ll be pushing shit up a hill.
What nobody will tell you is how these emotions evolve over time. How a man’s natural, heroic, manly mission to “be there” and “be strong”— both well-intentioned and noble desires —are actually one crooked piece of a larger puzzle.
The 30th of September, 2019: the day you and your partner find out that you’ve lost your little boy will probably be the easiest one to handle. You learn this with hindsight.
A partner trapped in the eye of a storm is an awful thing to witness, but not an impossible thing to fix. Arguably one of the best things about a relationship is the ability to be there for somebody whom you know will return the favour when it’s your own turn to tear through a box of Kleenex.
Standing on the beach together watching the puppy you both just rescued chase a ball you found (because that’s what you do when you’re starting a family), her phone will ring. An unfamiliar voice on the other end will say that her usual gynecologist is away on holiday, but that her CVS results are back.
She’ll hang up the phone, look at you, and before you open your big dumb mouth—”Is everything okay?”—you’ll know that it isn’t. You’ll forget what CVS even stands for.
The moment your partner will be taken away on a hospital bed to an operating theatre is the only time you’ll hint at having awful feelings bubbling beneath the surface. Only your mother in law will see it—at least you’ll think she did, and rather hope she didn’t.
It’s in those moments that the human ability to disconnect will show. To separate the mental fibres of emotion from the raw medical realities of what will happen behind that horrible blue curtain. Perhaps it’s a desperate sort of hope that a black and white perspective will show strength.
There, inside an operating theatre, your gynecologist will use a vacuum to pull a dead fetus from the person you love the most in the world. In these literal, perhaps brutal terms you will find a brand of stoicism that becomes near-impossible to shake.
“After all, it wasn’t our son, how could it be? I’ve certainly never had the chance to change his nappy, feel his tiny fingers wrap around one of mine, wake to his shrieking, sleepless cries in the dead of night, or watch him take his first steps”, you will reassure yourself.
“People who lost babies, real babies, that’s who the sadness should be reserved for.” Yes. “We’ll be fine”, you will say to yourself. “We can always have another.” That makes sense. Good on you for being practical and controlling your emotions, this is very good and sound husbandly behaviour.
Here, have a beer.
“Besides, we wanted a healthy baby. If anything, we were lucky it happened when it did”, and, “It happens to lots of people, don’t feel special.”
When you’re in a relationship and refuse yourself the chance to air grievances, open up about a Very Bad Thing, or face the music, no matter how shitty and unfair a symphony it may be, it never matters that you know it’s all just a tough-guy show. Outwardly, your stoicism makes your emotions hard to decipher.
Inwardly, they simply suppurate.
Supporting a partner who loses a baby invokes a maelstrom of internal contradictions and confusion. Your practical embrace of perceived masculinity—the desire to be tough and stoic—is followed by a flood of self-doubt and panic that you’re doing or saying the wrong thing.
Your eventually destructive style of self-preservation ultimately becomes a dangerous feedback loop; a bear trap without teeth, clamped firmly on your ankle without causing pain; a well-appointed room with no doors. Pleasant but maddening.
And it works. For a week or so. Your partner’s cries get louder, tears flow more, and both of your nights get shorter. Your literal outlook goes from offering the two of you a sense of stability to giving you, the unwittingly resilient male, the appearance of a cold and emotionless bastard.
And she will notice.
Is there such a thing as too much positivity? There’s definitely such a thing as not enough empathy. Will a well-timed joke, a bad pun, or a gentle reassurance be misplaced? Misguided? Resented?
You have no say in the matter. You didn’t cause it to happen, so apologising is worthless. And you certainly can’t bring your baby back, so every noble, heartfelt, or even half-hearted word and action feels clumsy and superfluous.
In the hospital, when they bring her back and you sit while filling out forms and waiting on a few test results, awkwardly discussing dinner, you’ll make a clown costume from the latex gloves and hairnets on hand, and dance around like a dickhead, distracting the woman you love from the reality in which you now both exist: officially childless.
The nurses will think your clown costume is great, as will your mother-in-law, though, as usual, she will not know what to make of your antics.
And your partner will be grateful. Sad, but grateful.
On the way out of the ward, as you walk past a geriatric on a drip, a bald teenager in a wheelchair ravaged by chemotherapy, and a worried mother with a hollowed stare, you will tell yourself it could always be worse.
Still wearing purple latex ears and a red nose, you’ll make your way towards the exit, past these sick and sorry types whose evenings won’t involve your excellent home cooking and the comforts of a bubble bath, or their own mattresses with their own bodily contours, and near the door.
Almost out into the real world and finally away from the Very Bad Place, you’ll hurry past the gift shop with its cheaply stitched teddy bears and brightly-wrapped chocolates, and will spy bouquets of overpriced flowers and overinflated balloons.
“It’s a boy”, one of them will say.
Through all of this, you struggle to overcome the feeling that no matter what you say, no matter what you do, your partner—the person you love the most in the world, and for whom you would do anything—is torn to pieces. And will be for a very long time.
Facts cease to matter, and feelings get confused with facts. After a few months, your attempts to separate yourself from these feelings start to disintegrate. Your objective to take a grown-up, third party approach that employs practical coping mechanisms—without care for sanity—shows the first cracks in an implosive shell that is sliding between your stupid, useless fingers.
It is not all doom and gloom, of course. You share rosé in the sun. You tell safe jokes and laugh. You spend money in fancy restaurants; something you certainly can’t do with a cumbersome pram and a wee bairn on the teat. So you constantly remind yourself.
You walk the dog together and pretend things are getting back to normal. You cook dinner, clean the house, do the dishes every night. All of this is very, very healthy, you say, making sure the house has fresh flowers, the bed is always made, and there’s always a bottle of something half-decent on hand to share at dinner.
Friends stop dancing around the subject. “I’m so sorry for your loss” turns into silence, which becomes “Well you two are so young! You have loads of time to start a family”, which eventually turns into the inevitable, casual, and cowardly tentative “Soooo... Do you think you’ll try again soon?”
Polite utterances—well intentioned sprays of piss in the wind—remind you that what you have buried as deep as humanly possible simply cannot be buried, and that same shitty, unfair symphony is screeching its awful melody in the background like a broken record. It has been for months.
That is how you will find yourself standing in the middle of a desert of your own making. A desperately sad partner who will bear the scars of physically losing a child on her psyche forever, a desperately hopeless series of hugs, kisses, cuddles, sleepless nights and ostensibly reassuring sentences, and a desperately sad realisation that to move forward, you need to go back and pick up the pieces of your puzzle and start to make it again from scratch.
Desperate—the very antonym of what you have worked so hard to define you, for fear of appearing so.
Thoughtless talk about “picking up the pieces”, “getting back to normal”, and “rebuilding” when anything like this happens is wont for humans: we’re an exhaustingly positive species when we want to be. And there’s certainly no harm in possessing a sunny disposition. There are many, many instances in this life where tightening your belt, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and keeping your eyes on the road ahead is the best course of action.
Clichés, sadly, become common parlance in your internal monologue.
But on the topic of miscarriage, there is little solace anywhere. It’s a downturn in your life with no upsides. A question without answers, a tunnel with no light, and eventually a sentence with too many metaphors when not one of them is enough.
Short of a poor literary quip, there’s no humour to be had. There’s no light-hearted joke on the subject that can ease the pain, or lift the veil from your partner’s face, and no guarantee of when things might go back to normal, or that, if they do, you’ll even remember what normal was.
The knowledge that time heals all wounds becomes the last piece of hope onto which you, the man in the scenario, can grasp. It becomes a lifeline—a flimsy one, yes – but a lifeline still.
Two weeks before your son was due to enter this world; when you should really be swearing under your breath at the child car seat installation instructions and painting a cot blue; readying yourself for the labour plan, and mentally preparing to cut a bloody cord, you’ll sit down to write it all out.
You will realise there was a lot more grief in the tank than you knew and that your efforts to keep your hand steady and your face stony have actually left deep grooves in your soul that you must now go about healing. Alone.
You’ll write, and write, and delete, and write, and rewrite, and delete, and rewrite, before labouring over the perfect way to finish sharing your story: a snappy one-liner or clever riff on a famous saying or phrase, perhaps. Something baby-related, or maybe just something on grief—grief being good? Is it? (Good grief! No. BAD grief).
You’ll give up on the snappy ending because for all the typing and recycled lines in your mind, you come to the realisation that the story is not really over — not yet anyway — and in that tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, you will find the most hope you’ve allowed yourself in a long, long time.
For our boy.