Fathers and Perinatal Loss Pt. 23: Fathers as Managers

Tracy Schaperow, Psy.D.

Tracy Schaperow

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

This article is part of a larger work.

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Anger. Anger has been identified in the grief and perinatal grief literature as a common reaction to a loss (Bowlby, 1980; Dyregrove & Mattieson, 1987; Frost & Condon, 1996; Hughes & Page-Lieberman, 1989; Mandel, McAnulty, & Reece, 1980). All five participants in this study exhibited anger, directing it at either those who invalidated their experiences, those who were not supportive of their grief, those who blamed them for the loss, or at no one specific. Dennis, Karl, and Raymond all became angry with people who either invalidated their loss or suggested that they were responsible for the loss. Their anger appeared to be related to their overwhelming sense of guilt. As discussed above, perinatal loss often leads parents to feel extremely guilty. When someone either invalidates the loss or suggests that they may have caused the loss, their sense of guilt and self-blame intensifies, leading to an externalization of rage onto others (Leon, 1990). Dennis’s rage was directed onto his mother, who made invalidating statements suggesting that Susan was not important, and that his grief was not valid. Karl’s anger was directed onto the child abuse team who interviewed him after Dana’s death. This team suggested that he may have done something to cause her death. Because Karl most likely already felt guilty and responsible for the loss, these feelings were exacerbated by the interview, causing him to externalize his feeling into rage. Raymond described feeling angry at his wife’s friend on the night he found out about the death because she was not supporting his wife. His anger may have been rooted in his own guilt for not being able to do more for her, or may have been projected onto her, as he may have felt angry that no one provided support to him.

Peter and Ryan reported that they felt angry, but that their anger was not at anyone in particular. Peter felt most angry about the fact that his daughter had died. Ryan reported feeling angry at the situation in general, and described his anger as more diffuse, “ . . . like holding an automatic rifle and just spinning around trying to hit anything.” It is not clear if these participants’ anger came from their sense of guilt or not, as they did not elaborate on their feelings.

Anxiety. Anxiety was found among all participants. This emotion has been commonly found among mothers after a perinatal loss (Dyregrove & Mattieson, 1987; Lee & Slade, 1996; Vance et al., 1991), but has been reported less among fathers. The timing and direction of their anxiety varied; however, it generally came about during, or in anticipation of, subsequent pregnancies or with subsequent children. Dennis felt anxious right after he found out that Susan had died, as he was concerned about her upcoming delivery, and what she would look like when she was born. His anxiety also emerged during the subsequent pregnancy, as he then knew that “anything could happen.” Karl’s anxiety displayed itself in his parenting style, where he found himself to be more cautious and protective with his subsequent child. Raymond’s anxiety was over becoming a father in the future. He feared that he would be too old as a parent, rather than about losing a baby in the future. Peter felt anxious about losing a baby again in future pregnancies. Ryan’s anxiety came with his second pregnancy, as his wife had just miscarried. He also felt concerned about his wife’s well-being after both losses.

Sadness. All participants reported feeling sad as a result of the loss. Each described a different source of their sadness. Dennis felt sad when he had to bury Susan, describing this procedure as “unnatural” for him. Karl described feeling sad over the fact that Dana died; he felt that there was no reason why that should have happened to her. Raymond reported sadness; however, he denied feeling much sadness about the loss itself. Interestingly, when he was asked what made him sad, he described his sense of guilt and responsibility for the death. Peter’s sadness revolved around his sense of disappointment that he had been planning for this second baby for a long time, and did not “get” one. Ryan was confused by this emotion, describing it as being “tied up” with other feelings, such as fear and regret. Interestingly, these participants did not elaborate much on this emotion. Perhaps sadness is an emotion that they were uncomfortable having or talking about because it is not “manly.” These fathers’ sense of sadness is consistent with the findings of the Hughes Page-Lieberman (1989) qualitative study on fathers’ experience of perinatal loss, reporting that, overall, 98% of fathers experienced sadness.

Fathers as Managers

Consistent with Mandell, McAnulty, and Reece’s (1980) findings on fathers’ responses to SIDS, all participants in the present study assumed a manager-like role soon after their loss. More specifically, these fathers focused on taking care of their wives, being “strong” for their wives, and hiding their true feelings about the loss.

Mandel, McAnulty, and Reece (1980) identified one aspect of these fathers’ manager-like role: being preoccupied with providing emotional support to their wives. Each participant in the current study described focusing on his wife’s well-being, concentrating on her emotional or physical needs. Often, this focus was reality-based, as many of the wives had severe emotional or physical reactions, and thus, may have been “suffering” more than the fathers. Dennis talked at length about how, during the first year after Susan’s death, he focused on taking care of his wife’s and his immediate family’s needs, as his wife was having difficulty coping with the loss. During that time, he was constantly worried about her (and his family’s) well-being. Perhaps his intense focus on her, rather than on his own feelings, was a necessity, due to her difficulty in coping with the loss and day-to-day activities. Likewise, Karl also focused on his wife; however, his primary concern was informing her over the telephone about the loss. He described thinking more about her reactions than his own reactions, and feeling extremely helpless over not being able to comfort her. Karl felt that this helplessness “deeply affected” him. Raymond’s focus was that of concern about how his wife was going to proceed through the delivery and cope with the loss. In addition, he found that his “protective instinct” emerged the night they first learned about the loss. On that very night, he found himself taking care of her and protecting her. Peter’s focus was on his wife’s physical well-being, as she had a life-threatening condition. Like Peter, Ryan also focused on his wife’s physical well-being, as her life was also in danger.

These participants’ focus on their wives’ well-being is consistent with societal perceptions that fathers are not individuals who mourn a perinatal loss, but are supporters to their wives following the loss (Johnson & Puddifoot, 1996). This role of supporter begins long before the loss. Throughout pregnancy, fathers are expected to support their wives, who are going through physical and emotional changes (Jordan, 1990; May & Perrin, 1985). For the participants in the present study, the role of supporting their wives, and focusing on their wives’ needs, continued after they had perinatal losses. This need for a participant to focus on his wife may have been exacerbated by her situation of being pregnant. She may have been in psychological and physical distress; in that case, their support was reality-based. These fathers, moreover, may have projected feelings about the loss onto their wives, especially as they may not have been comfortable with these feelings. For example, Raymond reported that immediately after he learned that Bryan had died, he was concerned about how his wife was going to endure the delivery and cope over an extended period. Perhaps he was actually concerned about how he, himself, was both going to endure the delivery and cope with the loss, but he projected it onto her.

Mandel, McAnulty, and Reece (1980) identified a second aspect of fathers’ managerial role as the need to be “strong” for their wives. Although only three of the five (rather than four of the five) participants reported the need to be strong for their wives, this aspect of their reaction to the loss will be discussed, as it is one component of the managerial role. Dennis tried to be “strong” for Tammy soon after their loss, fearing that she might “break down” at any moment. He continued to act in this way throughout the first year after their loss, justifying it by explaining that his wife was depressed, in bed, and not taking care of their children. He stated, “If she was having a bad day, I couldn’t go home and have a bad day because the kids have to be taken care of.” Karl also reported that he tried to be “strong” for his wife for the first year after his loss. He described having the need to be a “stoic and strong rock.” Similarly, Raymond had the need to be the “strong one,” being like a “rock to which she can cling.” Unfortunately, Karl and Raymond did not elaborate further on their need to be strong. It seems that all three of the five participants identified with a hyper-masculine set of cognitive beliefs. These beliefs include adhering to a culturally defined set of hyper-masculine behaviors (Brooks & Silverstein, 1995; Doyle, 1989) such as having to emotionally support one’s wife, and not identifying one’s level of psychological distress. Indeed, men’s identification with rigid, stereotypical masculine gender roles has been reported in the literature to create conflict with others (O’Neil, Good, & Holmes, 1995). O’Neil et al. (1995) stated, “Gender role conflict is a psychological state in which socialized gender roles have negative consequences on others ” (p. 166). In the present study, the negative consequences may not only rest on the participants, but also their wives, as these fathers may not fully work through their losses, due to their need to be strong.

A third aspect of the managerial role identified by Mandel, McAnulty, and Reece (1980) is the forced control of emotional expression. Four of the five participants described both hiding and controlling their emotions. Often, rather than expressing their feelings about the loss to their wives or other loved ones, they grieved and expressed their emotions alone in their cars, and at times, while listening to music. Dennis talked at length about how, during the first year after losing Susan, he grieved primarily in his car so that he could be available to his wife. As a truck driver, he was alone in his truck for eight to nine hours a day. This allowed him time to think about her and to cry whenever he heard specific songs that reminded him of her. Karl also described hiding his feelings from his wife, and grieving primarily in his car. Similar to Dennis, he expressed his feelings in the car while listening to music, especially to songs he identified as “Dana songs,” crying and sometimes screaming as loud as he could. Raymond also hid his feelings about the loss from others; however, he claimed that he had no desire to talk about the loss. He further explained hiding his feelings, describing himself as an “internalizer,” or someone who does not talk about his feelings, but instead resolves his problems himself. Similar to the experiences of Dennis and Karl, Raymond found himself thinking about the loss and grieving the loss primarily in his car. Peter also hid his feelings about Tabitha’s death; however, he denied that he had to grieve the loss alone, reporting that he felt no need to think about the loss or to display his emotions.

The lack of emotional expression of these fathers in response to their loss may be influenced by gender differences in emotional awareness and expression. Previous research has documented that, in Western culture, men have less of an emotional awareness than women (Barrett, Lane, Sechrest, and Schwartz, 2000), and that more traditionally masculine men do not express their feelings as much as women, as they may then be deemed “feminine” (Blazina & Watkins, 2000; Tognoli, 1980). The fathers in the present study, therefore, may have hidden their feelings about the loss, grieving primarily in their cars in order to maintain their sense of masculinity. Expressing these feelings may have felt too “feminine” to them. Their need to maintain their masculinity may have become more intense due to the narcissistic wound caused by a perinatal loss. That is, these men may have felt wounded that they were not able to produce and sustain a live baby, as compared with what a “real man” may have been able to do. To maintain their sense of manliness, they hid their feelings from others, and grieved primarily in their cars. Their lack of emotional awareness, moreover, may have further impeded their ability to talk about the loss.

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