I have written this piece for International Father’s Mental Health Day to try and bring a focus onto a part of a pregnancy journey that I increasingly feel requires highlighting. It is something that has come up more and more in what I do and in my own personal experiences more recently too. I do feel it necessary to make it clear though that I am not at any point attempting to make out that a father’s mental health in pregnancy is more important than that of a mother. They are equal, and I say this as someone who spends their days doing everything in my power to ensure that vulnerable women get all the care and choice in their pregnancy and postnatally that they deserve.
I’ve become acutely aware of mental health over the last few years in a setting of grief. Both my own and many of those who I have come to know through walking this path of fatherhood, to loss, through the myriad of grief and all it throws up, to recovery, finding the enjoyment in life again and with it a truly wonderful love.
The background is one of tragic experiences in how I lost my wife just over 5 years ago. She had been diagnosed with cancer mid way through the pregnancy of our second child Merlin. We already had a daughter Martha who was three at the time. The cancer interrupted what was otherwise supposed to be a wonderful experience. The completion of our family and the two children we hoped for.
At the time, like many who experience cancer or who support partners through cancer or other serious illnesses, it became a blur from one week to the next. A routine kicked in and we went from treatment to treatment, then Merlin’s birth and then back to treatment again…and then the worst part happened. Mair went downhill fast, unexplainably with what turned out to be an aggressive secondary cancer to the lining of her brain. She passed away 3 weeks before Christmas 2012 and just 10 weeks after Merlin was born. I look back at pictures of myself now and I look ashen faced. Pictures of me holding Merlin break my heart. I have no love in my eyes for him at all. Only pain at what had just occurred. Totally and utterly lost at 32!
Now, over the years I have, I think, come to reckon with all that happened. I understand what happened, why etc. I acknowledged the low lows when they came, tried different methods to deal with these as they came, different forms of counselling, exercise etc. I have also, in my work with Mummy’s Star, been at pains to highlight that the care we received as a family from pregnancy, through diagnosis, treatment, palliative care, bereavement and beyond was second to none. It was! And for these things I am incredibly grateful. I hope to bring up Martha and Merlin to know this too. That even when bad things happen there are glimpses of good to be sought and drawn out.
In short I have never been one to try and soldier through with a sense of belligerence saying “I’m fine” when blatantly I wasn’t. I’m open to help and support and I see seeking support as a sign of great strength, not weakness, as much of society sadly portrays it for men.
Since the loss of my wife I think it’s fair to say I have grown. Grown to see and accept equally my strengths and the areas where I can improve.
In mid-2016 life changed in the most wonderful manner possible and in a way, I hadn’t really seen coming despite it staring at me in the face. After several years of great friendship, mutual understanding and appreciation of the challenges that life can throw at you and so so much more, I got together with Nicola and in an instant felt true love and happiness. I thought it had gone. The ability to smile from the inside out had been extinguished through tragedy I thought but here it was lighting up my life and that of Martha and Merlin.
I knew how happy I was, I knew I wanted to marry this girl and I knew I would love us to have a child together if we could.
We were very fortunate in that it happened quickly and in July 2017 we found out we were expecting our baby. We were ecstatic at the news of having this together
In my wildest dreams I never seriously considered, throughout my grief, that I may ever become a dad again, moreover how it would feel to go through a pregnancy, birth and fatherhood after my previous experience of it was so interrupted.
And so, something began that I always knew might, but never quite knew how it might unfold.
Firstly, seeing my partner pretty much hammered by crippling nausea, bed bound and unable to work for 15 weeks was tough. I felt useless to be able to accelerate us to that point where she could fully enjoy this, her first pregnancy. Secondly, here I was once again seeing the person that I loved unable to do much at all during pregnancy. An extraordinary sense of déjà vu. Nicola repeatedly said to me “Please try and focus on the fact that I am just feeling ill. I am not sick” She knew where my mind had gone. It had gone back. Back to the last pregnancy. Back to how it unfolded. I took her words and went with them but every few days I would again feel useless. Why couldn’t I help her feel better.
During this period, we had our first midwife appointment. The questions focussed on Nicola, how she was feeling, her hopes about the birth etc and then she was asked if this was her first child. She replied as she so beautifully does “We have two, but this is my first” Now I would think that this would prompt some kind of gentle enquiry as to the structure of our family. Nicola then followed this up to clarify to the lady that I had two children already. Again, rather than prompt some kind of “Oh, can you tell me a little about your family” which perhaps would have opened an avenue to perhaps give some background, if to not delve into the depths of the loss that had gone before…but no. What came out was “and they both live with you?!”
Yes, they live with me! I, a man, is responsible for the upbringing of his two children and has been for several years now, perish the thought. Why was this concept so unimaginable? A little more enquiry would have revealed that sadly my wife had passed away but here we are, Daddy, two happy children, his beautiful fiancé and they are expecting their exciting and eagerly anticipated baby.
Moreover, this should have been the point where a clear note should have been put in the notes “Dad has been through absolute hell and back during his previous experience of pregnancy – he may understandably have some fear of birth. Please be mindful of this and enquire every now and again”
But no. Nothing. It wasn’t acknowledged and so we move on
Thankfully by about 17 weeks, the worst of Nicolas sickness had lifted, and we moved to a new house with our pregnancy now fast approaching that significant stage. The 20-week scan. We get to meet our baby properly for the first time.
A special moment for us both for the same reasons and for different ones too. A chance for me to put behind the previous experience of the 20-week scan. The one that began the road to cancer. The day the first mention of “Its worth just getting that checked”
The day came and sadly it was a forgettable one. It was rushed, uncaring, deeply unpersonal and we felt let down. Several similar comments from our first midwife appointment were also made about the family structure and a similar shocked response was received.
In my mind we went into a room to meet and see our baby. A process I have absolutely no visual memory of whatsoever from 2012 and Merlin. I remember Martha’s 20 weeks scan like it was yesterday in 2009, but Merlin’s? Nope. There’s just a blank. A black hole!
As the weeks went on and our wonderful pregnancy progressed further, so did the interaction. The kicks and jiggles. The responses to Nicola’s voice and mine. Lying my head on her bump as we went to bed and feeling baby wake up. Rubbing her bump, reading the weekly updates on our app. Every Sunday morning Martha and Merlin’s excited expectation of what comparative sized fruit baby was, marked another amazing pregnancy week.
At about 28 weeks I think, I went back to see my counsellor for the first time in a while and talked about some of what I was experiencing, about the shared experiences, about the déjà vu about the memory gaps, the black holes.
This, she said, is trauma! This is what experiencing trauma can do!
These things I can’t remember, could and probably did happen and they are in there somewhere in my mind, but trauma has blocked me from accessing them.
I don’t honestly know if I lay on Merlin’s bump and chatted to him. I don’t know if I remember those intimate moments as pregnancy grows. I simply don’t know.
Trauma! It’s a bloody big word! And it’s one I have used over the years about what happened with Mair. That we experienced something traumatic…but did I ever truly take the time out to acknowledge what it meant? I mean properly meant? It’s a scar.
Who knows what else it has taken away from me. Maybe in time it will become clear
Thankfully, our pregnancy progressed smoothly. Nicola felt well, I sought some intervention to reckon with the thoughts I was having and we loved it.
Time raced forwards and suddenly, just shy of two weeks early, our little boy arrived. In the words of our amazing friend who delivered Flynn, Nicola laboured like a goddess.
Flynn arrived on Tuesday 6 March 2018…Mair’s birthday. Something that could rightly freak many people out, but for us and I mean both Nicola and I, we found the cyclical nature and timing of his arrival very comforting. The kids see it as a great opportunity to forever have double cake on Mair and Flynn’s birthday 😊 Our friend Nicolette who delivered Flynn was the person whom I established Mummy’s Star with 5 years prior…and who had once met Mair. Their shared experiences of cancer around pregnancy having brought so much comfort to Mair and indeed providing one of the founding support features that the charity now offers.
Flynn was born a great healthy weight and instantly fed like a trooper. Nicola took to breast feeding like a duck to water and seeing her feed him is a sight of true beauty that makes my heart pound.
Seeing the bond between them, his brother and sister and the feeling of us all together is one that I treasure.
A week after he was born I broke down in tears one evening, holding him in what was a mix of love for him, for this great happiness that I am surrounded by and in acknowledgment finally that this time around I am not doing it on my own as I did with Merlin. That this baby of ours is shared and the loneliness that I felt bringing up Merlin, is not now being repeated. I treasure late night wake ups because I’m no longer on my own feeding through tear-filled eyes.
I wonder now how on earth I did it 6 years ago. How did I juggle the complex emotions of grief and being a father? I don’t honestly know. I don’t know how I didn’t understandably crumble My only explanation is that Merlin being so tiny, I simply didn’t have the chance too and when he got older at about 3, that’s when I had my real struggles and when my mental health was at its lowest point and I began to push away those around me. Once the tap opened though and I began to talk, it was a flood of emotion with every counselling session spent crying over what had gone before. I talked before I got worse and that is whats key. We won’t always say straight away. We won’t always talk when asked directly a few times, sometimes we won’t even talk until we hit a crisis point but as long as we eventually do then we can help ourselves and be supported by others too.
This is an unseen and unacknowledged side of fear of birth for men and could be and is likely to be repeated in several guises, with different illnesses and situations.
Even after his birth, during a health visitor appointments at home, despite acknowledging knowing of the charity and what had led to its establishment, there has not been one question asked “How Are You Dad? despite me act ally sitting there in person!
Why? Shouldn’t this be part and parcel of postnatal care? The whole family?
To anyone reading this, please always ask mum how the dad is and better still, try and arrange appointments when dad can be there. Pregnancy involves two parents and sometimes it won’t be the words that leave someone’s mouth that tell you the full story. It will be the empty look in their eyes that shouts everything you need to know.