Mr. Spit Spouts Off

As promised, a post from Mr. Spit. Back to the abortion debate tomorrow.

On sexism and infant loss

A few weeks ago, on reading my darling wife’s blog regarding the reactions (good, bad, and unfortunate) upon her return to the office, I was forced to consider the reaction of my own co-workers on my return to work. In doing so, I am coming to understand that we live with a distinct cultural duplicity in how we deal with men and women when they have lost an infant.

After the loss of my son, I was able to take some time off work. I actually got extra time off work because my office basically shuts down over the week of Christmas to New Year’s Day. It’s a nice element of working for an engineering firm; we generally have nothing super urgent at that time of year. As a result, I was able to stay with my wife while she was at the hospital after we lost Gabe. I was able to take her home and to generally do everything that I could to stand beside her and grieve with her in our loss.

A couple of days after I took her home, several co-workers of mine dropped by our house with a gift basket to offer some consolation. But it wasn’t the usual sort of thing. We hardly talked of Gabriel, or the fact that he was gone. They came to support me, but in the way of men in a woman’s world – i.e. pregnancy – they didn’t know what to say or how to offer their support. “Awkward” would begin to describe it! So we put on a brave face and had some smiles, explained what had happened, and tried to be good hosts in our own kitchen less than a week after Gabe died.

I don’t blame my co-workers, it’s just that they were all men, mostly younger than me. This sort of experience is outside the realm of most people’s lives, so I can understand the obvious feelings of unease that these guys felt. At the same time, I was disappointed that they didn’t know how to offer heartfelt support to a co-worker and friend who had just lost his son.

After I returned to work in the new year, I was further disappointed. I came back to the office with everyone else. The normal banter of office life ensued, yet nobody talked about the elephant in the corner. I had a couple of quiet conversations with a couple of the guys about losing Gabe. That’s it. Since then, with a couple of exceptions, nothing has been said. Nobody seems to care how I am coping, how I am feeling, how I am reintegrating myself with normal life.

Through the grapevine I heard of a horridly insensitive comment made by a guy that I work with. He commented to another that bereavement leave is five days, so how is it that I was allowed to take the ten days between Gabe’s death and the Christmas shutdown off from the office? To put it mildly, this surprised and offended me. Five days? I can see five days being a reasonable amount of time if an elderly aunt who isn’t that close to a person died. But give me a break here. Not only am I suffering from the debilitating loss of my hopes and dreams for my incredibly anticipated son, but I am the primary supporting figure to my wife who just lost the baby that was the center of her universe for the last six months. And for this guy to then have the unmitigated gall to complain about it to another of my co-workers? I could go on, so let’s just finish by saying that my personal opinion of this individual was negatively influenced by this incident.

This leads me to the goal of this journey, the blatant sexism that is exhibited by our civilized society towards the victims of infant loss. My wife was given every resource to help her in her grief. Not only was she required to take time off for maternal leave – a phrase that is ever so bitter in this case – but she was encouraged to take extra time to make sure that she was ready to return to work. As for me, the sperm donor? Why didn’t I make it back to work before Christmas? Truly, the way that some people reacted and interacted with me, you’d think that my sole purpose was the provision of genetic material. Since my wife carried the baby, how could I be attached to the baby that I only felt for less than an hour? While this was never voiced, it’s not hard to read the undercurrents.

The dichotomy of the situation is remarkable. Countless times well-meaning people would ask me “How is your wife doing?” or “How is your wife getting on?” or “We’re thinking of your wife.” Worse were the people who told me that I had to be strong for my wife in this difficult time or that I should support her like a good husband. The number of people who actually appeared to care how I was getting on was minuscule in comparison.

It’s like people just carried over the idea that a man has the easy part of a pregnancy – knock the girl up and then it’s all on her shoulders from then on. This rolled over to how we should be affected by perinatal loss – since I never knew my son, how can I be as affected by his death? Sure, she is in massive amounts of emotional pain at the loss of the son that she felt growing in her – that’s to be expected. It’s a sad fact of our culture that the man is expected to buck up, be strong, and not cry for the premature loss of a child. Is this different for those men who lose children who are 12 months old, 5 years old, 25 years old? I don’t know, as I’ve never been there. But I sure feel sympathy for those men a lot more than I ever used to.

When you look at the literature that is available to parents who have had an infant loss, the stark contrast is even more obvious. The hospital provided a list of publications to assist families who had been through infant loss. We looked into the list. It was horribly out of date and even the magicians at our favourite local book store couldn’t find most of the titles in print. We ended up buying a large selection of books about coping with baby loss. It was frustrating, because of lot of them were poorly done – so says my wife, as I didn’t read a lot of them as they all focused on how the mother in this situation can deal with the loss of her baby. Yes, they ALL focused on the female perspective. There were a couple of chapters sprinkled into the mix for the father’s point of view, but more often than not the effect of the loss on the father was neglected.

My darling wife, knowing that I was hurting as badly as her, went looking for books that dealt with baby loss that were aimed at the father. She was actually successful in the hunt – she found two books. Two. Says something doesn’t it? In my cynical moments, it says to me that in the eyes of society, I don’t matter as much as my wife. To be fair though, it also says that since women are generally much better at verbalizing their emotions and their feelings, people have a much better body of knowledge about how women are affected by the loss of an infant – because they have been much better at putting into words the grief, the sorrow, the heart-wrenching loss that they have undergone.

As men, we have been sold on and have bought into the concept of what men are like as embodied in countless cultural examples such as Clint Eastwood in the early westerns, playing the quiet drifter who doesn’t say much except with his pistols. So when it comes to expressing our grief, we are really bad at verbalizing how we feel. This is a knife that cuts in multiple directions as well. By not my talking about how I felt, my wife didn’t know that I was grieving in a powerful way. When she looked at the behaviours I displayed, I didn’t grieve the same way as her either. So not only am I trying to function in a world that doesn’t think I should be grieving, my wife has taken a long time to realize that I was in pain similar to her own, but that it came out in different ways.

Outside the home, when I was at work, I could see a real change in my productivity. Though I have understanding supervisors, they still don’t see that I’m not the same guy who was employed there a year ago. They expect me to be the same guy who sat at that desk and did that job. They don’t see that I still haven’t clawed my way back to that level of effectiveness yet. Being a conscientious guy, this really bothers me as well. I want to be as productive, I want to contribute as much, and it frustrates me deeply when I am not. All that the world sees is that I haven’t been up to my normal level of performance of late. Being a man means that I am not given the same latitude to come back to speed in my work life. Maybe because I’m not talking about Gabe anymore, they think I’m over it?

Yeah, I’m over it. I’m over it in the same way as a soldier who steps on a mine and loses his leg. As the pain fades, he has to learn to live with the disability. He has to learn how to walk with a prosthesis. After time, he can live a normal life. If he is good, when he wears pants nobody is the wiser that he lost his leg. The thing is, he knows, he mourns, his still wishes that instead of having the $50,000 artificial leg that he could be a whole person. I wish that, instead of taking a trip financed by life insurance, that I could hold my son when he cries and look forward to a life raising him to be the best man that he can be. I don’t know when I’ll feel whole again now that he is gone.