Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

February 5, 2020   5 mins

Our first miscarriage happened on my wife Ali’s birthday, in early February last year. It was our first pregnancy, and everything seemed to be ticking along perfectly; we conceived quickly, and though she had a few odd symptoms, Doctor Google reassured us that they weren’t uncommon.

We were in Edinburgh and I convinced her that clambering up Arthur’s Seat in the snow would be worth it. Nearing the summit, she slipped on the ice onto her belly. We’d already had the first symptoms by then, but it’s still something that plays on my mind.

The symptoms grew over the weekend — from spotting to bleeding, and what she describes as a “stormy feeling” in her tummy — and with them our healthy optimism morphed into denial. Eventually, the reality of the situation forced itself upon us and we rushed to the nearest hospital.

When we made it to the right place — after traumatising a happy couple looking forward to finding out their baby’s sex — the sonographer told us bluntly that if there had been anything living ‘up there’, it had passed. It would have been tiny and easy to miss in the mess; at six weeks, the pregnancy had still been in its early stages. We were sent home with condolences and a leaflet.

The leaflet’s science and statistics were reassuring: one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage; the vast majority of people who suffer a miscarriage go on to have a healthy baby; our age was on our side (we were both in our late twenties). The leaflet also took us through the emotions we might be experiencing. It was pretty accurate. For me there was a dull, aching sadness; an emptiness where there had been excitement and hope.

Miscarriage is extraordinarily traumatic. A recent study found that one in four women who suffered a miscarriage met official criteria for probable post-traumatic stress disorder a month later. This news triggered many women to share their devastating experiences.

But it is not only women who suffer the psychological impact. Notably absent both in the research and in the cathartic articles, vox pops and social media posts is the male experience.

Men are an afterthought. Our trauma is obviously less physical and direct. But the father’s loss is still unquestionably painful — and our secondary role in pregnancy and miscarriage adds further layers of confusion and guilt to the grief. Mothers frequently worry about their grief for a child they never met being unjustified; fathers often feel even further removed — and as such that their pain is not reasonable, or even in some way not real.

Traditional expectations of masculinity also dictate that men should be strong for our partners — rocks for them to lean on — and so repress our emotions. Complaining about my own pain feels selfish, to talk about the pain of men androcentric, when that of your partner, of women, is more direct and acute. This is reflected in the lack of resources and communities by and for men affected by miscarriage.

Ali discovered a wealth of resources and communities by and for women with difficult fertility journeys. I searched for male equivalents; they did not exist. There were occasional special episodes or guest appearances, but there simply wasn’t anything by and for men.

We need to start sharing our stories.

At the time, Ali and I decided against telling anyone else, and started trying again at the earliest opportunity. In June, we booked a holiday to Cornwall. Ali had fallen pregnant again, and our 12-week scan was booked for when we came home. We’d organised a barbecue the following weekend, bringing together our respective parents and siblings, to break the happy news.

Again, the same symptoms — that stormy feeling — built. We drove an hour and a half to Plymouth for an emergency appointment with a GP, who made us a next-day appointment at a hospital in Barnstaple.

I held on to hope, right up until the sonographer confirmed what Ali already knew. The foetus had died at nine weeks.

As her body had already begun to “deal with it”, he recommended letting things take their natural course, rather than opting for surgery. So we went back to our holiday cottage. But when it — literally labour — started, there was no question that Ali needed proper pain relief and hospital care. The paramedics were incredible; in hospital, the nurse found a flip-out bed for me, so I could sleep by Ali’s side during the night of contractions.

At around 4am, lying in a cardboard bedpan was a little translucent, gelatinous blob, something halfway between a prawn and a dim sum, which should have been our daughter or son. I should have cuddled it seven months later, skin-on-skin in the hospital; I should have taken its photo on its first day of school; I should have embarrassed it at its wedding.

We were sent home with condolences and that familiar leaflet.

This time, we told our families, having decided to go ahead with the barbecue that was supposed to be a celebration. Talking about it was awful, but having someone else to share our emotions with made the burden that much lighter. I thought about sharing it with my friends, but was unable to talk about it without completely dissolving; I told myself it was to spare them the anguish and awkwardness of having to console me, but it was more to do with macho pride.

The statistics were less reassuring this time — only 2% of women miscarry two times in a row, and miscarrying as late as we did was similarly rare. I used Google as a crutch, feeling useful and proactive in looking up all the potential causes of recurrent miscarriage, what tests would be done if we had a third (the NHS requires three consecutive miscarriages before looking into underlying causes).

I found a study that linked ease of conception with recurrent miscarriage — that the woman’s body was insufficiently ‘picky’ about the likelihood of an embryo developing properly and let doomed embryos latch on and grow. We had conceived on the first try each time. I shared this with Ali — she was devastated, feeling I was blaming her (or at least her body). I wanted desperately to understand everything about miscarriage, perhaps subconsciously hoping I’d stumble across something that would somehow fix it; Ali just wanted someone to share her pain.

We considered whether to start trying again. Both optimistic by nature, we now felt pessimistic about our chances of having a baby. I had always assumed I would have a family, and prioritised my family life before everything else. What was the point of my career, my house, my life if it was not a pathway to having my own family? It stirred dark questions about whether life is worthwhile for its own sake. The thought of conceiving was now a scary one — not in the momentous prospect of becoming a parent, but in the prospect of not becoming one. But the only thing scarier than trying again was not trying again.

When we got our third positive pregnancy test of the year, my reaction was anxiety as much as joy. At 11 weeks, we convinced ourselves that it was over — Ali felt a ‘stormy’ feeling, morning sickness had dissipated and her breasts were no longer swollen. Not wanting to wait, we paid for a private scan to confirm the inevitable — cruelly, it was located in (now defunct) Mothercare; we had to navigate aisles of prams and tiny shoes and babies on new mothers’ hips to seemingly confirm the inevitable. Instead, we saw a heartbeat for the first time.

Ali is now approaching six months pregnant, but every time there’s confirmation that Baby is still there — every ultrasound or kick through mum’s tummy — I get emotional. I still think of the babies that weren’t, who should be here by now. I’m still anxious where I would once have been purely excited.

And talking about these emotions is difficult. As a man, it means fighting deeply internalised, unspoken taboos — especially since pregnancy is traditionally seen as a ‘women’s issue’.

I still worry that I’m making it all about me — that my grief is somehow in competition with my wife’s.

And I’m of course aware that comparatively we’re extremely fortunate — to have found it so easy to conceive in the first place, and to have reached the stage we’re now at (though nothing is ever certain, and assuming Baby is born alive and well, I’m sure I’ll remain constantly anxious about his or her wellbeing long into adulthood).

But men have seemingly spent forever finding excuses for bottling up their emotions. Talking about our experiences, and encouraging others to share theirs, is the only way to break that cycle.

Harry Carr is Director of Innovation at Demos, developing new research capabilities