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 to 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 understand the factors at play and reject that model, the structures exist elsewhere to put you back into the 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 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
I was lucky enough to be able to take 7 weeks off work following the death of our sons. 2 weeks paternity leave, a week compassionate leave and the rest was leave I had saved up to spend time with my twin sons. 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 seem unreal.
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 fully functioning can lead to long hours and overcompensating 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 must 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 us 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 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 Schwarzenegger 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 then 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 their birthday cake rather than on their 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 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.