Experiencing IVF, impending parenthood and baby loss is something we most often hear about from the woman’s perspective. But the roller-coaster of emotions than comes with any of these these paths is something also keenly felt – but not often told – by a man too. However, a new film directed by husband and wife Josh Appignanesi and Devorah Baum sets out to change that: The New Man
Detailing their own personal story from the difficulties of conception to
childbirth, and the crushing pain of baby loss, The New Man centers on the fears and complications that often arise in the journey into new parenthood very much from the male perspective, often focusing on Josh’s journey; from anxiety and an impending existential crisis surrounding his impending role of as father to him being confronted with a much more real crisis of baby loss.
To mark the film’s release, I’m therefore honoured to be in conversation with Josh today to reflect on what it’s like to experience impending parenthood, IVF and baby loss as a man.
We often hear about the women’s sacrifice and pain during many rounds of IVF – can you share about your agony from your point of view?
I think from the male perspective with IVF you’re cast in a ‘support’ role, which gives some clarity I suppose, but what’s difficult I think with this role and indeed with the whole of pregnancy for men is at some level you feel it’s not happening to you, but to someone else. And actually IVF is happening to you too, not in the same way, but it’s still an emotional rollercoaster. And the idealisation is men are supposed to be somewhat passionless and rock-like rather than feeling they’re undergoing radical change themselves.
I think I was quite angry frustrated and upset that this was happening to us — but there’s no male archetype for those feelings so instead you find yourself doing these very male things of looking at science, trying to get everything organised, and being quite controlling which isn’t always that helpful. And the idea of ‘support’ is the idea of ‘helping the woman with her difficult feelings’, but since her feelings are completely new to you, and you’re actually having your own feelings too, that’s much harder than it sounds, and there’s no real roadmap.
And when the pregnancy finally happened, what were the immediate thoughts going through your head?
Total delight, because we’d been told it might never be possible. For myself but mostly for my wife who I’ve never seen so relieved or happy. We just couldn’t believe it, after hating ourselves so much for failing to conceive. It was amazing.
After that first flurry of excitement, what were some of the anxieties that came home to roost for you?
Of course my next thought was ‘uh-oh, we’re actually going to have to do this now.’ And it was going to be twins. So after years of trying, suddenly to shift to that was quite scary. And I think everything I say above about IVF applies in some sense to pregnancy, to how men are supposed to handle pregnancy and radical change in your life.
Men are supposed to be ‘the rock’ as if nothing’s happening to them, no change is happening to them. But of course they’re also undergoing huge changes. Not physically, there’s no physical evidence of change, which is deceptive, because in every other way your life is going to be very different. We men are allowed to hide behind the technology and the logistics, which is what I did, it’s what men frequently do, and thank god we have that escape route!
But I did find it quite hard to be emotionally present, especially when it got hard, and I think the lack of clear roadmaps or models for a more open admission of male emotion around this stuff could really help. Which I guess is partly why we made the film. We discovered we were recording things that no-one ever talks about or depicts, yet turn out to be incredibly common experiences
And when you found out about the complications and loss, what was going through your head then?
It’s really hard to talk about that. It was just this visceral feeling like being stamped on or kicked.
Can you talk a little about how you dealt with all the feelings and the incredibly mixed emotions you must have been experiencing?
Smoking, drinking, avoiding people, avoiding my wife. I wasn’t well behaved. I was a mess, totally confused, we both just melted down. Sometimes we were there for each other, other times too wrapped up in ourselves. We try to depict some of that in the film. The NHS did give us a psychotherapist who was there for some key moments and I was very grateful for that, it helped a lot.
It seems that people tend to naturally focus their attention on the mother in this time – did you find this painful? Whose shoulder did you lean on?
I had a lot of help from friends too actually, very kind. The truth is though that this experience was so private and incomprehensible to other people that you’re kind of alone basically. Also – I’m normally very talkative and articulate but my language just fled, my tongue dried up, I just could hardly talk about it.
What do you think needs to happen to ensure that men who experience baby loss are better supported by those around them?
There’s something called “disenfranchised grief”, which is when you feel less entitled to grieve than other people. Like if you lose a stepfather, you might feel it’s not “your” loss as much as say a “full” child’s loss, and so you’re kind of blocked or ‘outside’ in your mourning. I think there’s that complexity to a stillbirth because if the child has never really left the mother’s body, it’s somehow not ‘yours’ in quite the same way, your connection appears to be less immediate, your role is cast as one of support rather than full parenting.
Whatever the truth of that, these are feelings that you’re left with and they’re quite isolating and make getting through it, the mourning process, difficult. I wasn’t fully aware of these feelings til I spoke to a therapist at Cruse which is a great free service for people who have lost someone. I would recommend them or another bereavement therapist, this really helped me. The other way we worked through it was making this film itself, which forced us to confront this very difficult time we’d rather not think about, especially during the editing process. Very hard but ultimately I think we grew through it and had to look at ourselves and form a narrative about this dreadful time.
Anything else you would like to add?
We’re living in a time of radical political uncertainty in which we’re being offered this very retrograde macho image of masculinity in political leadership, this kind of swaggering, violent, macho overconfident image, I find it really depressing. I guess one of the things we’re trying to do with the film is offer an antidote to that. A more complex image of a man’s life where, sure, he can sometimes act out that way but underneath it’s because of actually quite confused, impotent, frustrated, lost feelings.
One of the problems with being a man is this idea that men ‘know what to do’, they’re the man with a plan, they’re breadwinners, they’re tough, they’re a rock. Men feel they have to live up to that. These political leaders claim to offer us that certainty in very uncertain times. It’s seductive to us all but it’s empty because actually nobody_knows what to do, nobody is a rock, everybody is undergoing big changes all the time, outside in the economy, inside in our changing lives.
Until men can admit that, admit how hard that is, admit the emotions that go with it instead of violently pushing them aside, we’re in trouble. Hopefully our film is a small way to address some of those things in a way that makes people laugh and understand.
***The New Man is showing at every Picturehouse cinema in the UK for one night on 24th January.Download at iTunes here and Amazon here and connect on Twitter and Facebook.***