My name is Owen and I am a very proud first time dad to my perfect son Kaspar, who was born prematurely at 23 + 3 weeks in January 2018. I think it’s worthwhile writing about my experiences to date from a Dad’s perspective (and I’m very aware that I don’t have a monopoly on this- everyone’s experience will be massively different and all are justified). In this blog I want to explore some of the thoughts and feelings I have as a Dad, going through the experience with Tasha and Kaspar.
WARNING! This article contains genuine male feelings. Don’t let this put you off.
The majority of the focus in terms of support out there (rightly) is for mum’s, especially on the internet, but I think there needs to be more for the dads as well. Even though as a man you don’t experience birth physically, we are there too. In most births, including Kaspar’s, we are right by our partner all the way through it; and from discussions I’ve had with friends and family, it’s often a physical and mental test for dads and an indescribably massive event in anyone’s lives whatever the outcome. I went through the experience of birth also knowing that my child was due to be born that day and had only a tiny chance of surviving. That’s a traumatic experience to go through on the day and to comprehend at any time and a lot to deal with in terms of emotions, which I chat about in a bit.
The other aspect to it was that I had completely no influence over the outcome, which is quite a rare situation to be in for most people; usually you can do something, whatever the predicament. We were “fortunate” in a contextual sense that we got to meet, love and interact with Kaspar and spend 6 hugely valuable hours with our beautiful, brave little man. But ultimately, we also knew that we would lose him and have to say goodbye over the next few days and weeks. All of this out of the blue, even for a couple that had experienced loss before with the two previous miscarriages, so all the romance and naivety of pregnancy had already gone by that stage.
How then did I deal with that feeling of ineffectiveness and futility, and all the other emotions (bad and good)?
Supporting Tasha- Going against the male “solve it” instinct to avoid feeling useless
If you are like me (and acknowledging that all men and women are different) you may have a stereotypical male attitude, a “see problem, solve problem” approach (unless it’s a small tedious household task, then clearly this has to be put off for as long as physically possible!). The difficult bit comes in trying to reconcile this desire to solve stuff with the fact that in this situation, this doesn’t work. As a dad in this situation you do not have much, if any influence. Sadly I was slightly more prepared for this, I learnt this from when Tasha had two previous miscarriages before Kaspar. You can’t bring your child back, which is the only thing that will actually “solve” the issue.
This is about acknowledging, communication and to an extent managing the feelings of yourself and being as reflective and supportive as you can for your other half, who will be feeling even worse than you and not trying to solve anything relating to the situation, as you can’t. Does that sound fair? No. But it’s true- whilst you will be feeling truly awful, you don’t have any of the physical anguish and reminders that mums will (other than a sense of empty arms as a dad), so you can only ever have a supporting role.
My Feelings as a Dad with empty arms- what have I been through so far? Did it help?
I’ve tried this a lot. It makes me sad, a bit embarrassed and very tired. This has manifest itself in various ways- from actual shouting, to a sudden inner feeling of wanting to punch a hole in the nearest wall or snappiness over minor questions, in the most part for no obvious direct cause. I’m finding that I can’t suppress anger even if society or my own desire is to do so. It cannot be ignored, but I want it to be channeled into having a purpose (I’m not there yet, I should add, sometimes it just comes out to no use whatsoever). Having just started counselling with Tasha, one of the recommendations was to acknowledge this angry feeling and ask what purpose it served- sometimes it was useful for communicating, others it was just not helpful and might be better served letting it subside. This is not easy.
Envy/Jealousy- Why me? Why Us?
Why us and not other people (see if you can also spot the carefully, subtly disguised anger here…), why not those ***** you see that don’t look after or care for their children (n.b. I am trying to be honest as I can on this blog and this is only ever a fleeting feeling at most at my lowest ebb, I don’t wish this situation for anybody, not even the aforementioned *****, but I do get very angry if I perceive people to be mistreating or undervaluing their kids. Children are precious. Know this.). However, I’ve worked out that it’s not a zero sum game either, it’s not like you can exchange our terrible situation for somebody else’s better one can you? You can’t reverse what has happened and no other kids will ever be Kaspar and I’m glad of that. I’ve found that for me, bitterness causes further tiredness and so can’t be sustained in the long-term even if I want it to, which I don’t. This initial bitterness definitely has its place in the process for a very short while though, as let’s face it, there is nothing equal or fair about this. This will fade and has done for me already. Occasionally it briefly rears its ugly (but justified) head .
That hollow, yearning feeling of empty arms. I miss my boy. As he is now and as all that he could have been in my imagination. I miss all the endless things that we could have done with him (I wanted to teach him to talk, cook, hold a cricket bat, do quick crosswords, correct duck-feeding technique, the musical importance of Prince!). This feeling is forever a keeper, but I found that it comes and goes in terms of acuteness. Crying helps in the most acute phases. Get it out if it’s there. It might take 5, 10 or 20 minutes but you will feel better and don’t worry, you won’t be doing it all the time! At the same time, if you don’t feel like crying, don’t cry. Some of the situations that you or other people would expect to cry in, you don’t, at other times, small things might set you off. Who knows? Just do what’s right at the moment, I’m finding out that nobody of any significance in your life will judge you for it.
Feeling guilty about feeling normal about daily activities, tasks and particularly when enjoying stuff. For example, Tasha and I took a trip to Bruges to celebrate our first wedding anniversary and I enjoyed many moments when I felt almost normal – definitely not how we planned it originally, so it was definitely bittersweet overall. The waffles and beer were great though (not together, I might add, this might be different kind of bitter-sweetness! As my friends will tell you I’ve been nailing the dad jokes for years already…). Afterwards the guilt comes, as shouldn’t I still be “grieving” and completely down all the time? Well… I could, but what purpose would that serve? Wouldn’t that make me feel even more useless? What I’ve found is that there is no magic formula on how to react or grieve, do what you need to do and don’t feel guilty about it. Very few people have been in this situation before themselves (thankfully), so who are they to tell you what is right and wrong in terms of what you do to get through it? You can listen to people’s advice, quite often it will be useful in part, but take what you need and ignore the rest.
My overall feeling…Accepted Shitness
I repeat. This situation is shit! (note to others, it’s likely that it won’t just “be alright eventually” as is the usually admirable British instinct to try and take the “silver lining” when something awful happens, all those “at least…” statements don’t apply here). It might be difficult for others to accept that there might not be many positives from this situation, Cosmic Kaspar himself aside, but do you know what? That’s OK too.
So friends, family, colleagues of anyone in this situation, my own bit of advice is- listen, be present for the people going through this (as our friends and family have been for us) and don’t try and solve anything (see above), because unfortunately as awkward and helpless that might make you feel, you can’t, it just has to run its course.
This shouldn’t have happened and its shit, but there are some positives. I already accept the shitness and am trying to look for the day-to-day pleasures where I can and crucially, only if I want to at that time. I can still eat, drink, laugh, feel, enjoy sport, enjoy music, nature or films, but also be miserable when needed. I have a son (and a wife) who I am immeasurably proud of and nothing can take that away. This experience has certainly made us stronger as a couple and we will not give up battling any adversity that life throws our way, whatever it might be.
I just wish he was here with us, because I miss him incredibly.
Love and thanks,