My wife started feeling strange during our vacation. That is to say, she didn't feel anything. Those annoying quirks of the first trimester had disappeared.
A quick visit to the doctor suggested nothing was wrong, but just to be sure, she went to the ultrasound technician. It was a Friday morning, my brother's birthday, when she called and told me the news.
I knew something was wrong before she spoke. She never calls.
We had thought she was at 11 weeks, but the technician told her (quite coldly) that the fetus had stopped growing at week six. We had no child.
I didn't feel anything.
Truthfully, I didn't know how to feel.
A failed pregnancy is surely a shared hurt, but with one key distinction: men are more spectators than participants. That dissonance results in confusion about what to do, say, or feel, which for some, I'm sure, comes off as callousness or distance.
I can only speak from observation, but women who have been through the terrible loss of miscarriage experience at least some physical pain. In contrast, a man's suffering is mostly theoretical—I had no tangible reference for what had happened.
And all of this was exacerbated by the overwhelming sense that the pain was not "ours" but "hers." People wouldn't ask how I was doing, but rather, how my wife was feeling. And why not? The miscarriage happened to her—not me. Why should they be worried about me?
It's not fair to say I felt ignored. My parents and friends were all concerned with my welfare, but certainly more people asked after Mallory. I don't feel bad about it or resent them; in my state I actually preferred that the attention be deflected. But it does highlight both the difference in the way we experienced that event and the mindset of those who asked about it.
Whether consciously or not, everyone is affected by society's view of gender roles, and this only proved they were more effective than ever. If we believe life according to advertising, fathers are disinterested parties in their children's upbringing. Anything to do with commitment and pregnancy is left to women, and we're affected by this even if we don't think we are. (Ever seen a man in a diaper commercial?)
So with this in mind, why should I be affected by something like a miscarriage?
For weeks I had convinced myself I was going to be a father. As every parent knows, this changes how you think. Those flippant statements you may have made about raising a child all of a sudden carry some weight. Even the little things you say to people make you think twice. Would I say that if my kid could hear me?
Then, all of a sudden, I wasn't anything.
All of this was magnified by the pressure I felt not to talk about what had happened. To tell people the truth—to confirm a pregnancy and then watch the realization on their faces when they hear that it had failed—would be like watching a miniature version of the roller coaster I was already on. No thanks.
The byproduct of this silence was, for me, depression. So many times I would be staring someone in the face and not hear a word of what they said. I didn't care. I remember attending a barbeque shortly after my wife's call. I was open about the miscarriage with these close friends. Still, I faked a pretty good smile.
This is an emotionally inappropriate way to deal with anything. I kept asking Mallory if she needed some sort of counseling. But truthfully, I'm the one who needed it. I suspect that's what many men do, and not just in situations such as this. We try and deal with our own pain by making others deal with theirs.
There is another, more serious way to approach the ambiguity of my response during this time, and it has to do with labeling miscarriages for what we believe them to be—deaths.
If we take as true the popular Christian belief that a child is formed at conception, then the church has done a terrible job of addressing miscarriage. The consistent message used in pro-life protests, literature, and countless pictures shared on Facebook is associated with death. Horrible images of aborted fetuses are used to shock people into action. (Whether or not they succeed is another issue.) It's curious that as much as we talk about the sanctity of life, there is very little said about miscarriage.
Of course, there are clear reasons for this. Both sides of the abortion debate tend to draw a line between themselves and others, often casting themselves as "the good guys."
Miscarriage has no champions, only victims, and so understanding its ramifications becomes more complicated. There is no one at whom to be angry, no earthly scapegoat. This is something beyond our control. If we're honest with ourselves, we're angry with God—but we're hardly going to be the ones to voice that particular gripe.
More broadly, however, we're just too afraid to talk about anything.
How can we? The environment many churches cultivate (often without malicious intent) is one of encouragement and positivity. We're passively trained not to upset that balance. This is why men and women who are convinced that life is formed at conception shut their mouths when it comes to miscarriage. They can deal with what they believe to be oppression, but they can't deal with a confusing, complex sort of pain. C. S. Lewis's words still ring true: It's easier to say "My tooth is aching" than "My heart is broken."
Mallory declined to go to church for a few weeks after the miscarriage. It was too painful for her. But I went. And as the service happened around me, I suffered in silence.
Sometimes that approach is appropriate. We needn't feel pressured to speak. But surely the option should be there for us to talk about this very specific hurt and receive comfort. It requires courage on behalf of the suffering to speak up about their pain, and grace on behalf of the comforters to understand that this is a very different type of death. How that looks in each congregation will be different. I've often seen members who are available at the end of a service to listen and pray with others. Sometimes it's just that simple.
As with all things, perhaps awareness is part of the answer—an acknowledgement from the top of the church structure on down that miscarriage exists, it is real, and we should be free to talk about it more and support others in their pain.
But, God help us, men can be passive when it comes to emotional assistance. We need to give them a space to be real. So many men's retreats and gatherings don't go deep enough into the type of suffering and exhaustion men can experience—especially those who believe it their burden to carry the emotional weight of their family. It's not often considered that they don't need to carry that weight alone, so they heap more and more stress on themselves, sometimes with disastrous results.
Simply put, men just need someone to encourage them. They have to be strong—we expect them to be strong—but how can they be when we don't give them any support? There is clear biblical tradition for sorrow and lament as a collective. The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus came to raise Lazarus, and many had gathered for Mary and Martha to console them.
Paul address collective sorrow in the church in the first chapter of 2 Corinthians, praising God who "comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction."
I don't know what the solution for all this will be. But the church needs to create an atmosphere in which these men can talk. Sometimes, maybe talking will be all it takes.
Patrick Stafford is an Australian journalist who writes about art, entertainment, and spirituality. He tweets @pdstafford.
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