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Men don’t talk about their feelings.

They bottle them up, shove them down, keep them at arm’s length… pick a metaphor.

While this cliché is beginning to lose some of its truth in 2022 – as much-needed conversations about men’s mental health and mental health in general become more common – it is unfortunately still the case for a lot of the UK’s menfolk. For some, the prospect of sharing their most painful emotions with strangers (or, God forbid, friends and family) remains an unthinkable one.

I’m not particularly sure why this is and, quite frankly, it’s not my job to figure it out. I can only speak from my own experience and tell my own version of the truth.

For me, I think it quite often comes down to a very specific kind of impostor syndrome.

I should clarify here that I don’t mean the ‘tough love’ impostor syndrome that keeps you grounded in a high-flying job or reserved in the face of personal success. No, this particular species of impostor syndrome is the opposite of that. It’s not helpful, it’s destructive. It doesn’t humble you; it belittles you. It tells you that your pain, your feelings, are not as important or as serious as other peoples’, so you should keep them to yourself.

It was perhaps because of this that I struggled so much when my wife and I experienced the loss of a pregnancy.

 

I told myself that my wife was the one who was suffering, not me.

My job wasn’t to feel upset, it was to be there for her, to absorb whatever tiny fragments of pain I could, because she was the one who had lost the child that she had been growing.

On top of this, I quite often zoomed out to the bigger picture (as I so often do) to remind myself that plenty of people had it even worse than we did. After all, people lost babies to complications after birth, they lost toddlers to leukaemia, they lost teenagers to car crashes and stabbings. Children lived in warzones, they endured famines.

When you start to compile a list like this – a litany of the pain that other people go through on a daily basis – often your own doesn’t quite match up. This kind of mentality is not only damaging, it’s completely illogical. The one thing does not affect the other.

I read once that a good way of combatting this reflex is to imagine a friend coming to you to with whatever problem you’re currently facing. Pretend to reply to them with the same responses you’re inflicting on yourself.

In this thought experiment, my friend would be supporting his wife through a miscarriage and I’d say, “man up, it could be worse”, then proceed to reel off potential tragedies like someone reading the pools. It’s so cruel that it’s almost laughable, yet it’s the exact way I treated myself during and after the loss of our unborn child.

 

My wife often says that I’m good in stressful situations.

She says that she tends to panic and think the worst, while I manage to stay relatively calm and positive. Although this might look like the case from the outside, I can tell you with a great deal of certainty that it isn’t.

I’m not calm, I’m frozen in shock. I’m not positive, I’m lost in denial. Even worse, once the dust settles and ‘normal life’ beckons, the stress I’ve spent so long repressing tends to hit me like a train.

Just before my wife had the miscarriage, I’d been on a work trip to Ukraine. On the way home, I was changing flights in a German airport (I can’t remember which) and I wandered past a Steiff shop that was selling their collectable teddy bears in all shapes and sizes. I was only aware of the brand because my wife had always cherished the one her grandmother had bought for her as a child, so I thought it would be a cool surprise (and a great ‘nice-to-meet-you’ gift for the baby) to buy one.

Obviously, what happened, happened, and once again I displayed my fake-it-til-you-make-it brand of stoicism from start to finish. I never cried, I never lost my nerve, and I never allowed my focus to drift from my wife and the pain she was undoubtedly overwhelmed by. That was until, on a random car journey a few days later, I thought about the bear.

 

It was like being dropped into a tank of freezing water.

That same gut-punch that comes with the death of a loved one, where the world stops spinning, and all other thoughts fly away like startled crows.

Everything that my wife had spent days processing and openly expressing had hit me in the space of two seconds; the realisation that all of the dreaming we had done together, all of the plans we had made, were – for now, at least – meaningless.

I wept like a child in the car that day, my head in my hands, blubbering about a stuffed teddy bear. Is that manly? Is that what we’re aiming for when we ask someone to ‘man up’ through a tough situation? I don’t think so.

Whether men talk about their feelings or not, the feelings are there all the same, and in my experience, it helps to address them – the good, the bad, and the ugly – if only with yourself.

I beat myself up a lot about how I felt in those first few weeks and months of grief. I was angry, I was heartbroken, and I still felt as if I had no right to be either of those things. As much as I hate to admit it, I quite often found myself looking at dads walking down the street with their kids and – embarrassingly, selfishly – I resented them.

 

For anyone who has experienced the loss of a baby, whether through miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death, or termination for medical reasons. Tommy’s offer support here.

What had they done to deserve children? What had I done wrong?

Now, with hindsight, I can see those emotions for what they were. Yes, they were self-pitying, misguided, and irrational, but they were also understandable. I was in a lot of pain, and the person I loved the most in the world was in a lot of pain too. How could that not affect you in a profound and visceral way? The hopes that we had spent so long building up were gone, and it all seemed so unfair.

I’m not necessarily in a position to prescribe mental health treatments to anyone, and I’m aware that no one has asked, but I’m going to give a little bit of advice anyway, because I genuinely believe it to be true.

If you have experienced loss in the past, or if you’re forced to endure it in the future, please remember to acknowledge the way you feel and allow yourself to grieve. This sounds like something that should be innate, but I can guarantee that it isn’t for a lot of people.

By all means maintain your focus, support those you love, but ensure that at some point you stare your own emotions in the face. It takes bravery – the fundamental, elemental kind of bravery that my wife has – to do this, but it will benefit you in the long run. You can try to ignore your feelings, to push them down, but I assure you that they will not stay buried forever. They will come back with interest, often when you least expect them.

Once you have done this, if you want to go one step further and talk to someone about it, then I encourage you to do that too. Again, I’m not usually in the business of doling out unsolicited advice (and I’m aware that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea), but I do know of where I speak.

Acknowledging difficult emotions helps. Talking (or writing) about difficult emotions helps.

While I don’t think it’s healthy to play the aforementioned ‘someone always has it worse’ game, the one advantage that it gives you, is the realisation that you are not alone in your pain. The loss of a baby is a powerful, devastating thing, and no parent – or potential parent – should ever feel like they aren’t worthy of acknowledging that.

 

I’m aware that a number of caveats and qualifications that could be made here (given identity politics and political correctness) but I didn’t want to take too much of a tangent. The way I see it, I was asked to tell my story, from my personal perspective, and that’s what I’ve done, so it shouldn’t cause too much offence?

 

For anyone who has experienced the loss of a baby, whether through miscarriage, stillbirth, neonatal death, or termination for medical reasons. Tommy’s offer support here.

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