Daddy, the Protector
By: Armin Brott
As if worrying about finances weren't enough, many expectant fathers find themselves preoccupied with the physical health and safety of the other members of their growing family (but not their own—studies have shown that men go to the doctor much less frequently than usual when their partners are pregnant). Some men's health and safety concerns take on a rather bizarre twist. Psychiatrist Martin Greenberg, for example, found that "more than a few men purchase weapons during a pregnancy." Fortunately, most of them sell their weapons after the baby is born.
In my case, I quizzed my wife about how much protein she was eating; I reminded her to go to the gym for her workouts; I even worried about the position she slept in. All in all, I was a real pain. (I was right about the sleeping position stuff, though. Sleeping on the back is a bad idea; the baby-filled uterus presses on the intestines, back, and a major vein—the inferior vena cava—and could cause hemorrhoids or even cut off the flow of oxygen or blood to both your partner and the fetus. It's rare, but it could happen.)
The sad fact—especially for pessimists like me—is that miscarriages happen fairly frequently. Some experts estimate that as many as one pregnancy out of five ends in miscarriage. In fact, almost every sexually active woman will have one at some point in her life. In most cases the miscarriage happens before the woman ever knows she's pregnant—whatever there was of the tiny embryo is swept away with her regular menstrual flow.
In most cases, miscarriages—most of which happen within the first three months of the pregnancy—are a blessing in disguise, the body's way of eliminating a fetus or embryo that would be better off not surviving. If your partner has a miscarriage, neither of you is likely to find that particularly reassuring. But remember that over 90 percent of couples that experience a single miscarriage are able to conceive again and have a healthy baby later.
Many expectant dads also worry about birth defects—this seems to be especially common among guys whose partners are over thirty-five, when all those prenatal tests are constant reminders about the possibility. If one of those tests indicates that your baby will be born deformed or with any kind of serious disorder, you and your partner have some serious discussions ahead of you. You and your partner have two basic options: keep the baby or terminate the pregnancy. Fortunately, you won't have to make either of these decisions on your own; every hospital that administers diagnostic tests has specially trained genetic counselors that will help you sort through the options.
If your partner is carrying three or more fetuses, you may have to deal with the question of "selective reduction." Basically, the more fetuses in the uterus, the greater the risk of premature birth, low birth weight, and other potential health hazards. Simply—and gruesomely—put, all these risks can be reduced by reducing the number of fetuses. It's an agonizing decision that only you and your partner can make.
Whether you and your partner chose to terminate your pregnancy or reduce the number of fetuses, or whether the pregnancy ended in miscarriage, the emotional toll can be devastating, and don't make the mistake of thinking it won't affect you. You won't have to endure any of the physical pain or discomfort, but your emotional pain can be just as severe as your partner's. You shared the same hopes and dreams about your unborn child, and you'll probably feel a profound sense of grief if those hopes and dreams were dashed. And many men, just like their partners, feel tremendous guilt and inadequacy when a pregnancy ends prematurely.
Almost all the studies done on how people grieve at the loss of a fetus have dealt only with women's reactions. The ones that have included fathers' feelings generally conclude that men and women grieve in different ways. Dr. Kristen Goldbach found that "women are more likely to express their grief openly, while men tend to be much less expressive, frequently coping with their grief in a more stoical manner." This doesn't mean that men don't express their grief at all. Instead, it simply highlights the fact that in our society, men don't have a lot of opportunity to express their feelings.
It's critical that you and your partner get as much emotional support as possible. Many men who attend support groups say that until they joined the group, no one had ever asked how they felt about their loss. The group setting may also give you the chance to stop being strong for your partner for a few minutes and grieve for yourself. If you'd like to find a support group, your doctor or the genetic counselors can refer you to the closest one—or the one that might be most sympathetic to men's concerns. Some men, however, are not at all interested in getting together with a large group of people who have little in common but tragedy. If you feel this way, be sure to explain your feelings tactfully to your partner—she may feel quite strongly that you should be there with her and might feel rejected if you aren't. If you ultimately decide not to join a support group, don't try to handle things alone—talk to your partner, your doctor, your cleric, or a sympathetic friend. Keeping your grief bottled up will only hinder the healing process.
A nationally recognized parenting expert, Armin Brott is the author of Father for Life, The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be; The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year, A Dad's Guide to the Toddler Years, Throwaway Dads, and The Single Father: A Dad's Guide to Parenting without a Partner. He has written on parenting and fatherhood for the New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Newsweek and dozens of other periodicals. He also hosts "Positive Parenting", a nationally distributed, weekly talk show, and lives with his family in Oakland, California. Visit Armin at www.mrdad.com.