“There is another parent in the room. It’s time we acknowledged them too.”
The decisions and issues surrounding having children are numerous. Having children, not having children. Where to give birth. How to give birth. To breastfeed or not. Experiences of abortion, miscarriage, infertility. Each is wrapped up in layers of meaning and consequence for those involved. In our more open and enlightened times we are becoming more comfortable with airing our thoughts and feelings around these issues and providing support for those involved. We are becoming better at supporting women as they navigate their way through their reproductive journeys but, as recent reports have made clear, there is often another parent in the room whose needs and views are often completely ignored.
A recent report by Fertility Network UK found that male infertility care can be insensitive and one-sided with fathers often feeling excluded, ignored and unsupported. Fathers decsribed being made to feel like they were wasting the NHS’ time and money, that they were less of a man or that they were merely an appendage to their wife. One reported that letters about his genitalia were addressed to his wife. While in the Daily Mail, Robin Hadley spoke about the emotions surrounding being an involuntarily childless man after his wife was unable to have children. He explained that the grief that accompanies the realisation that you are unable to have children is often difficult for men to articulate due to the fear of appearing weak or unmasculine. And despite miscarriage occurring in 1 in 4 pregnancies, where in the majority of cases both a dad and mum are involved, the support available is often overwhelmingly female focused which ignores the very real distress and grief that fathers feel at this time. Bob’s experience is unfortunately very common:
“Kate was offered support when we had the miscarriage. We went to the hospital and they talked to her there and said to give them a call whenever she wanted but I was offered nothing. Again, it was a mum’s thing. Mums have miscarriages, dads don’t.”
The lack of acknowledgement from society and the healthcare sector that men are affected by these issues reflects the wider culture that becoming a parent is a female experience with any male merely an unaffected bystander. But my own work has shown how men undertake the same thought and decision processes as women when considering whether and how they wish to become parents. They experience the same grief and guilt when experiencing miscarriage or infertility and while not as physically exertive their experience of birth is an equally profound physiological and psychological process. Fathers undergo dramatic changes in hormonal levels and brain structure and extended periods of behavioural and psychological transition as they assume the identity of “dad”. It fundamentally alters their relationships, their attitudes to work, their priorities, their health. There is another parent in the room. It’s time we acknowledged them too.