Three years ago, my wife, daughter and I took a photo shivering on a beach amid the howling autumnal wind. Last year, for 11 glorious, anticipatory weeks, while my wife was pregnant, I planned to update the picture at the same location with a new baby in tow.
But that plan was abruptly upended when we had a miscarriage. Now that picture that sits on our mantel would still be just the three of us, squinting into the camera, buttressing one another against the cold.
The miscarriage itself lasted only a few hours. But the self-recrimination lingered long afterward because I wasn't sure how to grieve when my wife's emotional response seemed more important. When I searched online, women's perspectives abounded on websites, in YouTube videos and in news articles, but men's perspectives were scarce. Academic research was little better. A pattern emerged: Although there is a spotlight on Mom's emotions and well-being during a miscarriage, Dad's experiences are rarely discussed.
The pregnancy for our first daughter went smoothly. So, when my wife found out about our second pregnancy, we told family members and friends immediately after finding out, around the two-month mark. This meant that when the miscarriage occurred, we had to backtrack and explain to everyone what had happened, in painful conversations.
My wife's friends, mostly women, showered her with messages and flowers. On the other hand, for the few friends, all men, I contacted, the comments ranged from the trite ("Sorry, that sucks") to the callous ("Gotta try again!") to, well, silence. My best friend, with the best of intentions, emailed my wife his condolences but excluded me.
Eventually, another friend who had recently experienced two miscarriages carved out some time to chat over dinner.
"How are you feeling, buddy?" he asked.
"OK," I said.
"Tough as it seems right now, it does get better with time."
"Good to know." I felt like a sullen teenager.
"You know, while discussing miscarriages is in general taboo, for men it seems especially so," he said.
The entire arc of the miscarriage, from conception to loss, occurs within the female body. Aside from contributing sperm, I felt like a bystander. I was traveling when my wife watched the double pink lines appear on the pregnancy test. She occasionally saw the obstetrician on her own and started organizing the baby's room without my input. I had an ancillary role in the pregnancy, so I wasn't sure I even had a right to feel devastated.
The event itself is permanently etched in my psyche. Throughout the night, my wife had unremitting abdominal pain. I was asleep when she barged through the door from the bathroom.
"The baby's gone," she said through tears.
"I'm so sorry," I said. I got up and hugged her. "What should we do now?"
"I don't know."
My wife went to the obstetrician, while I stayed home with our 2-year-old daughter.
After a sushi lunch — no longer pregnant, my wife could eat raw fish again — we dropped our daughter off at my parents' house. To distract ourselves, we caught an animated movie. That evening, we drove to a deserted parking lot at the local elementary school. I shut off the car ignition and let the jazz radio buzz in the background. I held my wife's hand as we stared into the darkness. We talked about the movie but little else.
The next day I was back at work.
The best thing I could do was to just be with her. I felt like I didn't have a right to express my despair, so I actively suppressed my emotions. My wife needed to lean on me, so I became a stoic, unperturbable oak tree for her. According to a study published this year, after a miscarriage, men have described themselves, in supporting their wives, as "rocks, guards and repair men." We adhere to traditional notions of masculinity, of being steady and capable, and never, ever succumbing to emotions.
A couple of weeks later, my wife healed, and she was game to try for another pregnancy. But my own melancholy deepened, made all the worse because there was no one to blame. There was a strict demarcation in our family's life, before and after the miscarriage. With a baby in utero, there is a glistening future of birthday parties, first days of school and graduations — milestones unspooling like a movie reel before my eyes. Maybe he — to be honest, I hoped for a boy — would be tall like his sister, introverted like me. Now that future ceased to exist, and I mourned it.
I'm blessed with a daughter. Nevertheless, my family felt incomplete. I'm an only child. For as long as I can remember, I dreamed of a sibling. Since my daughter was born, I've wanted one for her as well. My inability to will my perfect family into existence brought a searing male shame: shame at my possibly defective sperm, with the wrong number of chromosomes. And shame that I could not protect my family from this, thus disappointing my wife.
A couple of months after the event, I finally opened up to her.
"You know, I'm still really struggling with the miscarriage," I said. "I can't let it go."
"You seem to be taking the miscarriage harder than I am," she said, taken aback.
"You're doing OK now."
"In the days afterward it was hard, but I was preoccupied with my own thoughts," she replied. "I thought you were doing fine on your own. But you have been acting more aloof with me lately."
My eyes welled with tears.
The prolonged silence slightly strained our marriage. I should have trusted her with my pain from the beginning. Heaven forbid, should another miscarriage occur, we plan to communicate openly.
Over time, with the help of a therapist, I reoriented my thinking. Rather than viewing myself as a victim of circumstance, I had an active, intimate role in comforting my wife because I made a sacred vow to be present in sickness and in health.
When a miscarriage occurs, it is easy to fall into conventional gender roles. Whether it's society-driven or self-imposed, the lack of a space for men to grieve makes the loss all the more isolating. But no gender has a monopoly on bereavement. I now accept that I, like my wife, shed some tears, to mark an occasion that induces grief in even the most hardened individual. We can simultaneously process our own emotions and each other's, as it's not only my wife's loss — it's our loss, together.
Still, I don't have complete closure a year later. There is no gravesite or urn to visit. Had the fetus grown to term, it would have been born in August 2019. Instead, August quietly came and went, and the status quo, the picture on the mantel of our family of three, bracing one another on a frigid day, persisted.
But a whispering part of me still refuses to accept that the miscarriage occurred. Somewhere out there, our baby is waiting for me to scoop him up and whisk him away.
Charles Feng is an allergist and immunologist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He wrote this for The Washington Post.