On Father’s Day, give men who want to be dads the space to openly grieve

The morning after the news that our frozen embryo transfer didn’t work and I wasn’t pregnant, I woke up early to an empty bed. The hopeful feeling my husband and I had entered 2022 with was gone. It abruptly ended with a quick phone call from a nurse from our doctor’s office giving us the information. I found my husband quietly standing in the kitchen, tending to our window’s planter. 

We’d been together a decade, married five years, and the idea to keep a tiny garden there had begun randomly and been transformed into a ritual that marked the beginning of summer. Every year, I’d await the day of going to the Union Square New York City market for new things and watching him meticulously add them to the planter.  

There’s no Hallmark card section for “Sorry your embryo didn’t stick.” But it’s a real loss that deserves space to be mourned and supported.

But it was March. That time hadn’t arrived yet, and the planter was lifeless, still holding last year’s remnants — except for one small, pink flower that had been discovered that month. It came out of nowhere, alone yet miraculously thriving in a sea of dead shrubs.  

We’d been long awaiting a transfer with our one genetically normal embryo after four in vitro fertilization cycles. As it approached, the arrival of the surprise flower had become a conduit of hope — a symbol of our patience and persistence. Despite attempts to remain emotionless, all my dreams began to build up into that one blossoming miracle. If nature could do it, why couldn’t I? 

But it didn’t work, because, sometimes, dreams don’t, and the potential child that we had worked so hard to make and believed in so much was gone. 

This was a traumatic experience that affected us deeply and created the kind of grief that Kenneth Doka, a psychologist and grieving expert, calls disenfranchised grief or one that isn’t openly acknowledged or supported. There’s no Hallmark card section for “Sorry your embryo didn’t stick.” But it’s a real loss that deserves space to be mourned and supported.

I’d seen my spouse cry a few times, including at the hospital when we lost our baby when I was 18 weeks pregnant. But in the almost four years since then, through another miscarriage, multiple surgeries and failed treatment cycles, this loss felt different. It was the first time I saw him openly mourn. He took the day off from work to just be sad with me, and he unknowingly shared his grieving process in a way I’d never witnessed before.

Recently, in an interview with The Guardian, John Legend opened up about the loss of his son Jack at 20 weeks due to a pregnancy complication. He spoke of how it strengthened his marriage with his wife, Chrissy Teigen, and revealed that his new album will have songs about his son. “When you lose a pregnancy and have to go through that grief together, it can be really difficult for a family. Hopefully creating music out of it can be healing for me and other people, too,” Legend said. It’s refreshing to see a male celebrity talking about this more openly, but it also shouldn’t be so rare. 

Men are still mostly left out of the conversation when it comes to pregnancy loss, partly because they harbor none of the physical implications but also because they don’t often share feelings in a public forum. 

When I found my husband aggressively emptying the planter — including our flower — which had already begun to wilt, I interrupted him. 

“Why are you doing that?” I asked. 

“I have to,” he said. “To make room for new things to grow.” 

He wouldn’t elaborate, but he didn’t have to. 

Now, in June, the small garden in our city window is officially back and thriving. I watched him, as always, pick the best flowers. There was a purpose behind each placement. He tended to them daily, watering when needed and removing dead things so new ones could blossom.

Pregnancy loss is particularly taxing on hopeful mothers. For me, dealing with Mother’s Day has been hard ever since my mom passed away over the holiday 11 years ago. But facing it as a hopeful mother, 41 now, and grieving loss and fertility issues has been even more agonizing. In moments of desperation, I’ve found myself searching articles online for women like me — those facing the holiday with trepidation or grief. 

However, when I recently decided to look up resources for men facing similar emotions toward Father’s Day, I was (not really) surprised at the lack of options. Several searches turned up nothing except articles on male infertility.

This noticeable absence reminds me how important it is to give all hopeful or grieving fathers more space to mourn openly. That might look like more group support or online therapy resources (Resolve, the national infertility association, has one), more stories being shared — or knowing when not to bring it up at all. 

Going through five fertility treatments and one unsuccessful transfer over the course of a year like we did in 2021 can easily put a strain on any relationship — but similarly to Legend, it strengthened our marriage in many ways.  

It also highlighted the vast differences in how we handle grief. My desire to share overshadowed his more introverted process and a self-imposed duty to be the strong, silent partner. A reaction he is far from alone in having. But it doesn’t make him less worthy of needing the tools to navigate the many invisible difficulties that come with fertility struggles. 

My husband may not express himself by writing beautiful lyrics, but he has other outlets (including his collage art). As Father’s Day approached, I watched him in the quiet moments he thought no one was looking, tending to his window garden with such love. I now know what his TLC represents. 

For me, the day is a reminder that the only gift I want to bestow is the one I haven’t yet been able to give. For him, it’s the quietness of patiently waiting for when he can enjoy the holiday as a dad. He’s already an amazing dog dad to our almost 5-year-old goldendoodle, Chief Brody, and our family of three gives me so much to be grateful for. Still, our desire to keep trying for a human addition hasn’t waned either — no matter how we may have to get there.