I’m the Dad. It’s my job to be strong for the family
I’m meant to protect my children
It’s one of the things I fell prey too despite having done all the reading, all the learning about grief and bereavement. It shows how deeply ingrained the messages are around fathers, masculinity and stiff upper lips. Even if you do manage to understand the factors at play and reject the model deemed by society to be right for you the structures exist elsewhere to put you back into the acceptable box. Sometimes it will be your own actions that put you back into that box.
It’s clear we already have a cultural taboo around death and that taboo leads to people feeling lonely, isolated and ashamed of their grief. It prolongs the agony of an already agonising experience and twists the knife again and again. The belief that men should suffer in silence is destructive and self defeating.
Returning to work
One of the few ‘benefits’ of still birth is that the grieving mother is able to continue a full period of maternity leave. For the father, unless you have an understanding workplace, it’s the two week statutory paternity leave.
[A brief aside is that there is now Shared Parental Leave (SPL) allowing mother and father to share the allowance but for the purpose of this blog I am writing as of the point where SPL has yet to bed in and become widely used in workplaces. As it is so relatively new there’s not a great deal of more than anecdotal reports of uptake and even fewer for parents making use of SPL in the event of stillbirth.]
I was lucky enough to be able to take 7 weeks off work following the death of our boys. 2 weeks paternity leave, a week compassionate leave and the rest was leave I had saved up to spend time with my newborn children.
I would have been in no fit state to return to work after two weeks. My wife would have been in no fit state for me to return to work at that point either.
Others are not so lucky and do have to return shell shocked to their jobs to carry on working or at least maintaining the pretence of working all the while their mind is reeling from events that still don’t seem real.
The expectation of being seen as the breadwinner and protector of the family can become crippling. Whilst there may be an element of comfort in returning to the relative familiarity and normality of work it can become an unhealthy refuge creating distance between parents already struggling to cope with their new lives as the bereaved.
The pressure to be seen as being a fully functioning member of the team and to deliver can lead to long hours and over compensating rather than admit being unable to cope for fear of losing their reputation or even their job.
The mantra of “I must be strong for my family” whilst well intentioned works to discourage sharing complex feelings of pain, loss and confusion by encouraging misplaced stoicism that could be interpreted as hurtful and puzzling detachment.
I am concerned that what I know to be your inner firmness may be viewed by others as arrogance.
It also discourages fathers from seeking help when they need it most. It’s not a realistic or sustainable position to expect to be strong all the time. Something has to give and deferring it won’t work forever. The desire to be strong so as not to burden their partner can lead to carrying it all alone at a time when they should be with their partner more than ever.
I’ve done this. I made the mistake of believing that I shouldn’t look for help for my own mental health because I had to look after my family. It took my wife to point out that if I didn’t take care of myself then I wouldn’t be able to look after our family. My belief that I needed to protect my family blinded me to the fact that I wasn’t doing as good a job as I thought I was.
I wasn’t coping. I was angry and upset and it was obvious to those around me that I wasn’t hiding it as well as I thought I was. Grieving can be a team sport too! It works best when we take it in turns to fall apart knowing that the other is able to help glue the pieces back together.
Differences in grieving
It’s different for fathers as our involvement is minimal in comparison to our partners. We watch as our partners carry our children but we don’t physically feel the same things they do. The subtle early movements, the somehow impossible shifting of organs to make room for the growing baby, the terrible nausea, the bizarre urge to nest by cleaning the strangest places often involving being precariously perched on a ladder, the feeling of having a bladder being used as a punchbag or trampoline…
We hear about it and witness it but we don’t feel it in the same way. We sympathise but we can’t truly empathise. We are not Arnold Schwarnegger in Junior.
Similarly when our babies die we don’t feel the terrible stillness inside where before there had been flurries of kicks, we just see it on a glowing screen and in the downcast eyes of the sonographer. We don’t feel that our bodies have let us down or that we were responsible for the death by not being strong enough.
Our partners do. Ours is a feeling of helplessness. The urge is to try and fix but there is nothing we can do to change things. For me it is now the feeling that if I had pushed harder for staff to take us seriously when we had concerns that it could have been different. That I would be listening out for their baby monitors rather than looking at their unchanging photos. That I could be lighting candles on a birthday cake rather than on a memorial.
It goes both ways
The expectation that fathers have to be strong for the family goes both ways. If we expect fathers to be strong, to protect their families then we need to provide them with the support to allow them to do that. To allow them the space and give permission to look for help when being strong isn’t an option anymore. Sometimes strength is not about resisting feelings of sadness and weakness but facing it and being able to ask for help rather than silently struggling.