We left the hospital – my wife Ali and me – and returned back to our holiday cottage, washed ourselves and changed our clothes. We were both exhausted, but neither of us could cope with the idea of trying to sleep.
We went to the beach, standing with the tide lapping over our feet, and I thought about the tiny thing we had left in a cardboard bedpan at the hospital, which should have been our daughter or son. Its minute but unmistakable arms and legs and eyes. All that excitement again; name ideas; would it have my brown eyes or her blue eyes, my big ears or her tiny ones? I held Ali's hand and we stood in silence.
It seemed wrong that the world just kept spinning like nothing had happened. Miscarriage affects one in four pregnancies, yet many feel they shouldn't talk about it. For men, that taboo is amplified. After our first miscarriage earlier last year, on a trip to Edinburgh, we told no one, internalising the anguish that had washed over us, replacing the excitement of awaiting our firstborn. It was early on in Ali's pregnancy, we reasoned – six weeks – and we knew that miscarriages are common at that stage.
The second time around, our hand was forced – we'd arranged a barbecue bringing together our families, and they had undoubtedly guessed there might be some announcement. We had excitedly planned how we would tell our parents: the baby would be due in mid-December, we would ask about bringing an extra guest for Christmas. It had been further along this time, and everything felt right.
It was at 12 weeks when we got the scan confirming the baby had gone, though it apparently had died at nine weeks. The chances were much slimmer to miscarry at that later stage, and having had two in a row also significantly raised the probability of further miscarriages and the prospect of being unable to have a child at all.
Sharing the burden with our families helped massively, but I still felt unable to tell my friends. I was incapable of talking about it without dissolving – even with family, we initially broke the news by text. I liked to believe I was strong enough to be comfortable with crying in public, but in reality, the idea of that loss of control was terrifying.
It was hard to know how to grieve. There of course is no single right way, but the traditional masculine prescription of a stiff upper lip is unquestionably damaging. Talking about your emotions at all as a man is to fight internalised taboos, let alone on a "women's issue" like miscarriage. We are supposed to be strong, stoic, and self-reliant; I pride myself on thinking logically, practically, rationally. Grief is a failure on every front. What use is moping? Pull yourself together.
This is particularly the case as we feel the need to be pillars of strength for our partners – if we are crumbling, who do they have to lean on? Talking about your own feelings feels like throwing yourself into the well with her, when your job is to be pulling her out. Instead, I found out everything I could about the causes of recurrent miscarriage.
One study talked about an issue where the womb allows embryos that have no chance of survival to develop, where normally they would be rejected much earlier. I showed it to Ali – she was heartbroken, feeling I was blaming her body. I was using research as a distraction; in doing so I failed to see things from her perspective, and neglected simply to be there with her and share in expressing our mutual grief.
We stayed with Ali's mum for a while after the sad barbecue with our families. I called my office to say I would work from home, intending to explain about the miscarriage. But in the moment, instead, I said something else: I said Ali was unwell and had been in hospital with a "gynaecological issue".
Why? The implications – that it was simply a medical issue, to be faced primarily by my wife, with mine being a purely supportive role – of course couldn't be further removed from my considered view. But in that moment, I didn't feel it was appropriate to claim the experience and the grief as equally my own. To bring it up and call it by its name felt like attention seeking.
The answers to the criticisms of your internal monologue – and, at times, your reflexive instincts – may be obvious from the outside, and in retrospect. But they are far more difficult to see inside the fog of bereavement.
When we found out Ali was pregnant for a third time, we felt more anxiety than joy – like the next few months would define the rest of our lives. Going through miscarriage again was unthinkable. We worried about our relationship – if the worst happened, what if one of us wanted to carry on trying and the other wanted to give up? Ironically, conceiving brought the prospect of being unable to have children to the fore, which left me permeated with a sense of existential dread.
A third consecutive miscarriage would be a medical red flag. At that point, the NHS would fund tests for underlying causes. When I thought about the future during previous pregnancies, I'd daydreamed about what the baby would look like; now I was planning for the worst, lost in a labyrinth of hypotheticals. What if we couldn't have children? What if one of us could, but the other couldn't? How did we feel about adoption? We found out that IVF isn't funded at all in our local area – would there be any way around that? Could we afford going private? Would we need to move house?
At 11 weeks, I was convinced that our worst fears were being realised. Ali's symptoms of pregnancy seemed to have disappeared. The morning sickness and heightened sense of smell seemed to have tapered off. Ali mentioned a "stormy" feeling in her tummy. Remaining in purgatory waiting for the 12-week scan was unthinkable, so we paid for a private scan. The tiny, grey, flashing heartbeat was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
Arthur is now 4 months old. He's happy and healthy and completely wonderful. He has my ears and Ali's blue eyes. I will never forget our children that weren't, who should be here by now. Life is complicated – if they were here, Arthur would not be, and I wouldn't change him for the world. My grief for their loss makes me appreciate even more keenly the joy he brings to my life. My joy in his life does not diminish my grief at their loss.
We're incredibly aware of how lucky we are. My heart breaks for the many going through what we went through and far worse – particularly at the moment, when you may be forbidden by law to literally find a shoulder to cry on.
There are things we could all do to help. The "12 weeks" rule – that you don't tell anyone about your pregnancy before 12 weeks have passed from conception – reinforces damaging thought processes. The supposed thinking behind it – that by this point miscarriage is unlikely – implies that it is your responsibility to "protect" friends and family from the awkwardness and anguish of unwelcome news, and suffer in silence. It's toxic and should be binned.
When I did eventually open up about my experiences, several men told me that their employers had been less than empathetic, and they had to fight – and take annual leave – to be there and support their partners through miscarriage.
I have no doubt that my employers, now or at the time of our miscarriages, would have been thoroughly supportive – though I was on holiday for both of them in my case. But many people, and men in particular, are not so lucky. Employers are not legally required to provide bereavement leave, relating to miscarriage or otherwise; you are allowed "reasonable" time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependant, but there is no requirement that it is paid leave.
A change in social conventions and expectations – which I believe is under way, but clearly has further to go – would provide greater flexibility for grieving fathers as well as mothers (and ultimately a more well-adjusted and committed workforce). But more generous legal provisions are required to help those whose employers will only give the minimum stipulated by the letter of the law.
Mental health support around miscarriage is – as is so often – scant to non-existent on the NHS. We were provided with a leaflet which referred us to Tommy's and the Miscarriage Association, who both have helplines; they in turn refer to more general counselling services such as the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy.
But every feeling of guilt about expressing your grief applies doubly if in doing so you feel you are using up extremely limited resources – and every barrier and further step in the process makes it less likely that men, who may already be hesitant, will take it up. Presenting such support as a normal part of the process and being more actively signposted to it would lead to far greater uptake (though of course far greater investment would be required to meet the demand).
A recent study found a quarter of women who suffered a miscarriage had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder months later: not everyone wants or needs counselling, but lowering the barriers to access would surely lead to better outcomes in terms of mental health. The media coverage of the study almost universally featured the stories of women sharing their traumatic experiences of miscarriage. That is unquestionably a good thing – letting women who've gone through something similar know they are not alone – but male voices were effectively non-existent.
It is vital that men speak more openly about their experiences of miscarriage – and are given the platform to do so. The outdated masculine ideal of emotional repression is toxic, as is the idea that issues relating to children – before and after birth – are only for women to emotionally involve themselves in.
My hope is that if more men talk openly about their emotions and experiences, that for my son and his generation, a more positive vision of masculinity can take root.
Watch all the episodes of the Herald's video series about miscarriage at nzherald.co.nz/MisconceptionsNZ