Spending the $50million

I’m sure you’re familiar with that marvelous feeling, after you have bought a lotto ticket but before the draw, where the possibility of winning the $50 million dollars is so real and tangible you can taste it. When you are making lists in your head, spending your winnings, deciding which holidays to go on, which homes to buy, which magnanimous donations you will be making.

I am living the writers equivalent right now.

I have written the stories, entered the competitions and between now and the time the long lists are announced I can indulge in daydreams about winning the prize. In reality, I probably have more chance of winning the lotto than one of the many literary prizes I have entered, but until the lists are announced anything is possible. And what are we as writers, if not able to visualise a future with written-to-order happy endings, specifically designed to meet our own requirements for maximum pleasure?

The literary equivalent of spending of the $50 million prize is dreaming about your story as a physical book. It is seeing your name in print. It is imagining yourself running your hand over the cover, smelling the fleeting new book scent.

It is imaging your acceptance speech, the welcome cramp in your hand signing books for readers, the pride of seeing your novel in the window of a book shop.

It is imaging a future where you can move from saying I am a writer to I am an author.

The disappointment that comes with seeing the list of names on which yours is missing, is real but blessedly brief. Reality quickly crowds back in. You may spend a day or two deflated, dejected, rejected but then you take a deep breath, swallow that lump away and push forward. Pick up that pen again, keep writing, do it all again.

No one ever actually expects to win the $50 million lotto prize. I don’t expect to actually win any of the writing competitions I have entered.

But I can still dream, and until I hear otherwise, I’m spending the fifty million.

When should you say goodbye?

It’s certainly not my favourite thing to do, but every now and then I follow my business mentor’s advice and think about boring things like SEO and search terms. Deep down I’m a writer, and my greatest joy is putting words on a page and sending them out to the world. Worrying about whether those words make it to the right audience or land on the first page of Google isn’t something I tend to worry about, until reminded by my mentor (and my bank balance) that in fact, they are quite important.

Fundraising Mums - comprehensive fundraising ideas for schools and sporting clubs

Digging around in my website’s rear-end sounds like a rather private and uncomfortable activity but what it really involves is me looking at the search terms people have used before winding up on my Fundraising Mums page.

For example, type in ‘how to run a cake stall’ and up pops Fundraising Mums ‘How to Run A Profitable Cake Stall’. Type ‘lessons from fete’ or ‘escape room for kids’ and my articles will pop up.

But sometimes people type in rather more obscure search terms only to be directed to my page. One of my favourite requests is the very specific ‘how much onion on average on a sausage’ which directs you to my Bunnings sausage sizzle article (answer 10kg of onions for 400-600 sausages).

I have been writing for Fundraising Mums since 2015 and I started it on a rather cynical yet optimistic note. I have always been heavily involved in the P&C, fundraising and events at my daughters’ school. I will be at my local primary school for thirteen years as a parent – I figure I should roll my sleeves up and get involved – but if I was going to do the work, I may as well write about it and share what I learned. There are over 10,000 schools in Australia and over 6,500 community sporting clubs. I figured if there was just one person in each school and club who wanted fundraising ideas then I would have a readership.

Like most things though, being a primary school mum is a phase that eventually you pass through and leave. My youngest daughter is now in Year 3, so I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. While that doesn’t necessarily mean I will no longer be involved in fundraising at all, it does seem that a natural end is upon me. One I am seriously considering embracing.

According to a 2009 survey, 95% of the 133 million blogs in existence had not been updated in 120 days – and were considered abandoned. Today, there are over 500 million blogs in existence (five of which belong to me) which if I extrapolated, would mean there are 475 million abandoned blogs littering the virtual highway (three of which belong to me).

I am trying to decide if I should add another to that number?

When is it time to say goodbye to a project that you have nurtured for years? Should it be an economic decision? A question of time? Or is it when you have lost the joy?

woman looking at pig

I don’t think I could completely abandon Fundraising Mums. It’s been my primary project for the last five years, and represents thousands of hours of my time spent researching and writing. I see my stories making their way out into the world, to places I never imagined. Ireland, India and Germany feature in the top 10 countries of FRM readers. I have built relationships with readers and advertisers alike. I am proud of the work I have done.

But over the past year I have been drawn in a different direction – away from the real world into the fictional worlds I have created in my novels. It’s there I want to spend my time.

The closure of schools, cancellation of sports and decimation of the events industry has been reflected in the readership of Fundraising Mums. I fear that by the end of the COVID-19 crisis there will be fewer Australian fundraising businesses than there was at the beginning of 2020. There will be casualties and perhaps Fundraising Mums will be amongst them.

But as long as I write a new story every 120 days then at least it won’t be entirely abandoned.

Just neglected.

 

Weasel Words and Tips for Writers

‘I could see her looking at me, as she readied herself to tell me about my overuse of weasel words in the nicest possible way. I felt my face tighten as I braced myself for the impact of her words.’

Or

‘She looked at me, ready to tell me about my overuse of weasel words. I braced myself for the impact of her words.’

 

Recently I had the good fortune of meeting with Perth writer Louise Allen. I had won a manuscript appraisal as part of the Twitter #authorsforfiries auction, which saw me handing over the first 10,000 words of my novel.

It’s a luxury at the best of times to be able to sit with a fellow writer and talk about nothing but your own writing, but to be handed a mirror to hold up to your work, to identify the flaws, is equally valuable.

 

weasle words

 

Louise made the following comment about the paragraph above:

“you could do away with ‘Isabelle watched’ and go straight to ‘Isabelle’s mother studied the image.’ The reader knows Isabelle’s watching, because it’s in her POV. It removes a step between the reader and the action, and brings the reader into the story more.”

Weasel words are the fodder of the new writer, adding extra words thinking it deepens our writing (it doesn’t) or adding layers that end up removing the readers from the story.

Taking Louise’s sage advice I turned my gaze on another recently finished manuscript, determined to make sure I hadn’t repeated my sins.

Turns out I’m prolific with my use of weasel words. Hundreds of them peppered my novel like a 1980s Pepper Steak. Unfortunately for me, your use of weasel words is a bit like a golf score, you want it to be as low as possible.

I did a search and find on the following phrases and was shocked by the numbers I saw:

51 instances of ‘I looked…’

23 times I wrote ‘I could hear’

93 cases of ‘I could see’ and ‘I saw’

127 instances of ‘I felt’

And a whopping 274 times I used ‘just’.

 

It took a couple of days and some seriously strong coffee but I managed to remove about 80% of all my weasel words. The effect of course is to cut the parachute strings and drop the reader directly into the story.

You can’t remove all instances of these phrases. Sometimes the word is fulfilling an actual function and not just bad writing.

For example:

I felt my face turn pink  = bad

I felt frumpy in comparison = fine

 

I just stared up at him in adoration = bad

Perhaps he’s only now just discovering who he really is = fine

 

I could see that she was uncomfortable = bad

I tried to sit up so I could see him better = fine

 

I saw Adam purse his lips = bad

My face went red as I saw huge boxes of condoms on the table = fine

 

I could hear the smile in his voice = really bad

I could hear the rush of air as the paramedic pushed the needle into her chest = fine

 

I plan to continue writing the same way I always have, letting the words flow through my fingers without censorship. But now I have a weapon in my editing arsenal, and before I even consider hitting send or publish – I will be doing a search and destroy on my weasel words.

How to Pitch Your Book (and Yourself)

Winning a place on the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program as part of the 2020 cohort, gave me a sneak peak over the weekend into some of the more hidden aspects of being a published author.

Granted entry to the Fremantle Press Breakfast, we were flies on the wall as recently published authors gave their pitch to an assembled room of event planners, booksellers, school reps and librarians.

Given that the ASA recommends a rate of $325 for a 60 minute school visit and $350+ for a public appearance, this fee might be the equivalent of selling 100 or more books. It’s clear why authors are keenly interested in pitching their books – and themselves.

These are some of the lessons I took away:

 

Be funny.

There is no better way to get people on your side than to make them laugh. Not only does it tell people you’re comfortable in front of a crowd, it also tells potential bookings that you won’t bore them silly.

If you can’t be funny, be memorable

Sometimes the subject matter of your book means it’s not appropriate to tell gags, but you can still grab people in other ways. Tell highly emotive or personal stories about yourself and how your book came into being. Make them remember you, even if they can’t remember your specific book.

Pitch yourself as well as your book

The most successful pitches were those where I learned more about the author than the book. It’s possible you will have another book next year, but you as the author are still the same. It doesn’t matter how amazing your book is, if you haven’t sold yourself as an interesting speaker.

Talk in themes

If you only have two minutes to grab someone’s attention, you don’t have time to explain the plot in detail. A number of authors took the approach of talking about the book’s themes rather than its plot – ‘it’s a story of love, it’s a story of societal expectation, it’s a story of challenging authority…’.

Go beyond the book

Some of the more established authors took the approach of mentioning the bigger topics they liked to discuss, not tied specifically to their latest book, but perhaps topics they had been researching and involved with over their writing career. The pitch then became a verbal CV of talents and skills, and was particularly aimed at festivals directors who might engage authors to moderate or be involved in panel discussions.

Make your book relevant

Some of the best pitches did not just focus on the book as a finite product, but placed it into the larger context of current affairs such gender diversity, environmental concerns and humanitarian matters. Broadening your book’s appeal by placing it into a larger context would automatically increase the range of events you might be asked to speak at.

Weddings, Parties, Anything

As obvious as it sounds, some of the authors made very clear the range of events they were available to speak at. It certainly highlighted to me that there is more than just school and library talks. Some mentioned business and motivational events, book clubs, running writing or illustrator workshops and more.

Tell a story about your story

Personally, my favourite pitches were those that started with the story behind the story, where the author launched into a personal account of how the idea came about, how the book came to be. I was immediately captured. It’s one thing to say what your book is about, an entirely different thing to explain why it is the way it is.

Locate your book’s audience

One small thing I notice lacking from some pitches, was explaining exactly who the book’s audience was. I could see from the cover it was a children/YA book, but could not tell exactly what age group the book was for. For someone interested in booking a school talk, I imagine this piece of information would be very relevant.

Appeal to writers

Some of the authors specifically pitched to writerly audiences, barely mentioning their books but instead talking about some of the topics they would be happy to discuss at workshops and writing events. Some of these might be researching specific topics, writing for particular audiences or writing in a distinctive style.

Practice practice practice

Two minutes is not a long time, but you can squeeze a lot of information in. Even if you don’t want to be seen reading from notes, it’s wise to compose your spiel and then practice until it sounds unrehearsed.

 

Many thanks to Fremantle Press and the Copyright Agency for including us in this event.

When Good Comes From Bad

The last few months have seen some of the worst bushfires in Australian history, probably world history. Almost 16 million hectares burnt across 7 states and territories. Over 3,500 homes lost. More than 1 billion animals perished.

And 33 lives lost.

In early January, two Aussie authors Emily Gale and Nova Weetman decided to do something about it. They put the call out on Twitter to other writers to donate something for auction, with the money raised going to fundraisers supporting the bushfire effort.

Enter #authorsforfireys

The original goal was modest: to raise $13,000 to support our beloved fireys, but before long it was clear that the twitter auction was going to be much more.

By the close of the auction, more than 1,200 items had been donated included signed books, the chance to named as a character in a book, manuscript appraisals, introductions, author visits to bookclubs, personalised poems, original illustrations, even a handmade rug.

I bid on a number of items, including Tess Wood’s incredible Italian feast for eight people. For much of the week I was the leading bidder. I had already chosen my guests, a mix of new and established Perth-based writers and I could already taste the tiramisu. Sadly, it was not to be, although I could hardly begrudge the winner, especially when they more than doubled my final bid.

There were a few other things I bid on with more success.

Last year I finished a manuscript called Behind Closed Doors that won me a place on the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program and KSP First Edition Retreat. Wise advice from facilitator Laurie Steed suggested I get a sensitivity check on a scene involving one of my characters. I needed to find out if something I wrote would be realistic for a closeted gay man in the 1970s.

The problem being of course, I didn’t know any closeted gay men who were around in the 1970s.

‘Talk to Holden Sheppard,’ he suggested. Not that Holden is closeted or anywhere near old enough to be alive in the 1970s, but he is generous and open and a very good writer.

I had read and loved Holden’s incredible book Invisible Boys, but I didn’t know him, and I’m not the sort to send an unsolicited email asking for help.

Then the #AuthorsForFiries auction happened, and Holden was offering a one hour chat about anything writing related over a cup of coffee. It was like the universe heard what I was saying and delivered it in a neat, hashtagged parcel.

At the very last minute I was outbid by a measly $1. I was devasted.

But then, about an hour after the auction closed, I received a message from Holden. If I was happy to donate my bid to another good cause, he would give me the one hour consult. See what I mean about being generous?

Shannon and Holden Sheppard

With Holden Sheppard, author of Invisible Boys

There was no way I was missing out on being the winning bidder for a manuscript appraisal by Louise Allen, author of the very beautiful The Sisters Song. I even upped my own bid at one point, because it was such a good cause. I had been following Louise’s blog for a number of years and there is no one else I would have wanted to read the first few chapters of my novel set here in Perth just before the start of World War 1 [click here to find out how it all started].

This week we met and sat for two hours, just talking about my book and characters, the real life people whose stories form the basis of the book, and my own journey as I researched.

Anyone who spends much of their lives closeted away writing will know how indulgent it is just to talk about your precious project with another writer. It was instructive and enlightening and has given me much needed motivation to pick the story back up and keep working on it.

Shannon and Louise Allen

With Louise Allen, author of The Sisters Song

The #AuthorsForFireys auction raised more than half a million dollars in less than a week. One nice aspect was that each author or illustrator who offered something for the auction was able to choose the specific cause they wanted their winner to donate to. This meant funds were spread around the country, benefiting local fire volunteers and animal rescue, local charities and greening groups.

The twitter auction also forged connections and relationships between writers across the country, bringing a tightknit community closer, and showing the real power of words.

And I made a couple of friends.

 

Hearing the Voice of the Writer

A million years ago (back at the turn of the century) when I was working as a research assistant at the University of New South Wales, one of my jobs was to write up the project findings into reports.

I was sent with a tape recorder and notebook up the road to the Sydney Children’s Hospital, where I would sit in meetings and observe the way the multi-disciplinary teams worked together. Then I would walk back down the road, spend countless hours transcribing tapes and attempt to make some sense of them.

After I had been there a year or so, my boss pulled me aside.

‘I can hear your voice, Shannon,’ he told me.

As I had been sitting there silently, terrified that I had been pulled into his office, I thought that a strange comment.

‘In your writing,’ he continued clearly seeing the dumb look on my face. ‘I can hear your voice as I read.’

He motioned to the weighty tomes around the office. ‘In academic writing,’ he continued, ‘the writer must not be present in the text. Your voice, however, is strong and comes through in your report. It’s as though you’re sitting next to me, talking.’

Chastened, I went back to my office where I spent the next few years trying to remove myself from my writing.

Some years later, in the throes of new motherhood I decided to take up blogging as a way of capturing the fleeting yet precious moments of parenthood.

After the first few clunky efforts, I quickly found that blogging suited my writing style. I had a clear voice and I was finally allowed to use it.

Meg Rosoff writes:

‘Your writing voice is the deepest possible reflection of who you are. The job of your voice is not to seduce or flatter or make well-shaped sentences. In your voice, your readers should be able to hear the contents of your mind, your heart, your soul.”

A writer’s voice is their literary fingerprint. You should be able to distinguish between Hemingway and Rowling, between Austen and King, not just by the words the chose, but the voice the write with.

My writing goal, is that when you read my words, you hear my voice. When you are hearing words through your ears rather than seeing them with your eyes, you know that the voice is authentic.

Stocktake on Words – 2019

I do my writing in two shifts. I create new worlds and fictional characters during those dark, shadowy hours between 4 and 6.30am, and during the bright, daylight hours between 9am and 3pm I work on my blogs and other non-fiction endeavours.

I even work in different rooms on my different forms of writing – upstairs for fiction, downstairs for non-fiction. It’s as though my writing resides in two separate worlds, and I speak different languages depending on what is showing on the clock.

2019 started slowly for me. My novel set in pre-WW1 Perth had been sitting on the back-burner for a few months, and I couldn’t seem to get past a blockage that was preventing me from picking it up again.

Then a few things happened all at once. Inspiration struck, not once but twice and I felt compelled to start two new projects.

In February I made myself a deal, that if I wrote for 100 days between then and my birthday in August, I would buy myself a Little Street Library. Not only did I write for 100 days, but in the 7 months I managed to write a complete manuscript of 99,900 words, a novel called Behind Closed Doors that sprawls between the 1960s and 1980s. It was the first book I have managed to finished (and believe me, I’ve started a more than a couple), and it won me a place on the Katharine Susannah Pritchard Writers’ Centre First Edition Retreat, as part of the Four Centres Emerging Writers Program.

While I was creating drama upstairs in the wee hours of the morning, during the day I began researching a new project, inspired by my youngest daughter’s recent diagnosis of dyslexia. I would plan my week, dividing my time between this new project, Fundraising Mums and a handful of other small writing projects. Where the start of 2019 had been like the proverbial dried up desert, suddenly I was drowning in ideas and lately there hasn’t been enough hours in the day to get it all done.

So how does 2019 stack up?

Income

The less said about the financial end of things the better. Luckily I don’t need my writing to finance my life, but I do find it essential to enrich it.

Articles and Readers

I had a moderate year writing a handful of articles (19) for WeekendNotes. My huge library of WeekendNotes articles, reaching back to 2010 together with old articles from Hub Garden (all of which still earns a tiny income) reached around 74,500 readers.

For my Fundraising Mums site I researched and published 49 articles and clocked up 126,000 readers from Australia and around the globe. I am proud of the work I did there this year.

I also wrote a dozen or so articles for this site and my parenting blog, Relentless… and yes, I do wonder sometimes if I am stretching myself too thin between all these blogs.

Non-fiction project

I finished 49 stories for my dyslexia project. It’s funny that for both my dyslexia project and Fundraising Mums – the two projects I have spent most of my time working on – I finished the year with 49 articles apiece… is there something about the magical number 50 that I cannot crack?

All up I estimate I wrote around 170,000 words this year. This is significantly less than the quarter million words I wrote in 2017, but the majority of my work has been for books not blogs, and I feel like the writing I have done this year has more heft, and more potential.

This leaves me feeling excited for 2020. I am about a third of the way through a re-draft of Behind Closed Doors, which I am working on steadily (but slowly) in the mornings before I head downstairs. Editing and redrafting is not nearly as much fun as writing.

I am also feeling very positive about my other project, and hope that 2020 brings with it some exciting news…

 

 

Why writing a first draft is like having a baby

Writing the first draft of a novel is a bit like having a baby. Hidden from view, the most amazing creation is being formed inside of you, and then one day, a small slimy, mass emerges – and you instantly fall in love with it.

Who doesn’t love a beautiful pink, chubby, smiling baby? Even though your baby doesn’t quite look like that yet, you also know babies grow. You have faith in your baby, and can already imagine what it will look like in your head.

So you assume that everyone else will love your wrinkly, red newborn, which cries incessantly and smells strange – because that’s not what you see. You are already looking at your baby with the benefit of birth hormones and nitrous oxide. You know it is the most beautiful baby in the world and everyone will agree with you.

In short, you are deluded.

Writing a first draft, I have discovered, is a bit like that. Growing a book inside you is like being pregnant. So much is going on inside your head that it can begin to take over your entire life, you live and breathe it, think about it during the day, dream about it at night. But it’s all going on inside you – so no one can really understand what’s happening, or appreciate the magnitude of what is taking place.

Then one day you announce you have written a book. Plop.

Some friends will immediately ask to read it. They’re either ignorant of all of the slime and blood still covering your creation, or they just love books (or you) so much, they want to read it, even if it means having the literary equivalent of meconium dribbling onto their laps and never being able to get the smell of sour milk (and poorly formed, clichéd characters) out of their noses.

You can give your stinky newborn book to your best friend or sister or partner or mum to read, but beyond this circle, it’s best to at least wash and dress the baby book before passing it on to the next visitor. After all, you’d like your visitor to come back again and not slink away in embarrassment, wiping vomit from their shoulder, never to look you in the eye again.

And while you may be convinced your book will grow up to be as handsome as Orlando Bloom, this does not give you permission to thrust your infant novel, still in nappies, at the nearest publisher demanding they agree ‘how good (looking) it is.’

And so as writers we must allow our newborn books to grow, to develop. We must wait for them to move through the stages at their own pace, and never be impatient for them to run before they can walk, or indeed, before they can even crawl.

Personally, I am hoping it won’t take 18 years for my freshly delivered, still mewling newborn book to develop to the stage where it’s ready to take on its own life, but I am fascinated to see what happens from here, and how it will grow and change.

paper-1100254_1280

100 Days of Writing

Almost six months ago I made myself a deal. Wanting an incentive to sit and write every day, I promised myself that if I wrote for 100 days between that day – the 18th of February – and my birthday, which falls mid-August, I would let myself get a Little Street Library.

I love Little Street Libraries. I keep my eyes peeled for them when I am driving around. I have seen them at churches and in laneways, outside shops and homes. My favourite is one that looks like a small red phonebooth, brimming with books and stories. I wanted my own, partly as a way of recycling books I no longer needed, and partly as a source of new reading. I didn’t even know where I would put it, I just wanted one.

I had no goal with regard to how much I would write, just the simple act of climbing out of bed at 4am or 5am or even 6am, regardless of how much light was in the sky, or how cold my legs were under my robe, and sitting at my desk and placing my fingers on the keys.

I started strongly, writing almost every day for the rest of February, and was thrilled when I had put almost 10,000 words on paper in only ten days. This was a new story, and it flowed easily. I had reached my halfway point of 50 days by the start of May, and with it a count of over 46,000 words.

Today, on August 1st, a fortnight before the deadline, I ticked off my 100th day of writing. It’s been harder to write during the winter months. It’s just harder to get out of bed. And as I have neared the end of my novel, the story has slowed down, and uncertainty of how to find closure has decelerated my speed of writing.

But I now have a first draft – an enormous first draft at 93,000 words – that is 99% complete. And in theory, I have earned myself a Little Street Library.

Except about three months ago, as we were driving past my neighbour’s house, I could see her painting a beautiful, hand made little library that she had fixed to her front wall. My heart sank. Later that afternoon I walked to her house, carrying the two big bags of books I had been saving for when I got my own Street Library. There was only a matter of metres between our houses, and even I with my deep love of books, could not justify two Little Street Libraries right next to each other.

It turns out it didn’t matter. The reward for my writing, was the story itself. It spans three decades from the 1960s to 1980s and is full of both my childhood memories growing up in Perth, stories I had heard, and research gleaned from the internet. It is rich with history, from the Meckering quake to the change to the metric system. The old Coles cafeteria in the city makes an appearance, as do the swans at Perth airport.

I don’t know if the story will ever be more than just 500 pages of a Word document on my laptop. I hope so. But even though I probably will never get my own Little Street Library, I feel so proud today of my 100 days of writing. I think I might buy myself a cupcake!

Opportunity Lost

October 15th is the International Day of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance. In honour of all the mums and dads out there with heavy hearts tomorrow and every day, I am publishing two pieces, written a while ago now, but always relevant.

They’re neither short reads nor easy reads. I wrote them with loved ones in mind.

Opportunity Lost: Men’s experience of miscarriage and loss

By Shannon Meyerkort

‘As soon as you see that little line on the pregnancy test, you already have hopes and expectations and are planning for the future… but a miscarriage? It’s almost like an opportunity lost.  Especially from a man’s perspective – you see that vision of the future disappearing and there is nothing you can do about it.’

Over the course of 2010, Seb’s* wife was pregnant with three different babies and she miscarried all three. This story however, is not just about her. Fathers are often the invisible party in the pregnancy process.  Flick through the pages of one of the many glossy pregnancy and parenting magazines available, and the absence of men is striking.  After all, it takes two to make a baby. Despite this, men’s role in baby-making after their initial contribution has traditionally been very restricted, and despite changing expectations in today’s society, their involvement is often still limited.

CHANGING EXPECTATIONS

‘Historically, reproduction has been within the domain of women,’ explains Belinda Jennings, a Clinical Midwife Consultant at Perth’s King Edward Memorial Hospital. ‘Midwife means “with women”, so it’s always been that birthing is women’s business.’ Yet this is changing, especially in high-income countries such as Australia, says Jennings. As the gap between men and women is closing with regard to work/life balance and parenting, we are finding that their roles are becoming more integrated.

As a result of this shift, there is now a new wave of emotional men who are more involved – or expected to be involved – with their children. ‘Men have become more emotionally mature,’ says Jennings.  ‘It’s only one generation ago that whole platoons of men were being wiped out in a war, and they had a very different approach [to parenting].  A lot has been happening on the men’s front in the last 50 years.’

The constrained version of masculinity that we are familiar with today arose out of the colonial expansion in Britain and the US, explains David Buchbinder, Professor of Masculinity Studies at Curtin University. ‘Emotional impassivity became a way of dominating and controlling, whether the family or business’. Buchbinder believes this stoicism still influences many men of the current generation, predominantly through their fathers and grandfathers and how they have been raised.

Belinda Jennings agrees, and believes that the clash between these older style ideals – and the new expectations of their wives and partners – is why the current generation of fathers struggle with how to react to grief and loss. ‘The protector – the strong, stoic man – is not the predominant expectation in our culture anymore, and I think that’s where they get confused.  There is this expectation from the generation prior that they would be strong and silent, yet I think modern society is expecting the new age, sensitive guy to be emotively overt.’

THE DADS’ STORIES

Seb and his wife Jess*, both 37, never intended on only having one child.  But after a relatively tough pregnancy and first year with Josh*, now four, they decided to wait at least two years before trying again for another child. Jess quickly fell pregnant, but by about six weeks she had realised something was wrong and she lost the baby shortly after. ‘After the third miscarriage, it was a sign to start going down the IVF path’, Seb admits.

Each miscarriage presented its own difficulties, physically and emotionally for both Seb and his wife.  Physically Jess had the worst of it. She had a chemically induced termination where prostaglandin is used to make the uterus contract and expel the fetus; a D&C (dilatation and curettage), a surgical procedure where the fetus is removed under anaesthetic; and a ‘natural’ miscarriage, where the body naturally expels the fetus.  None were easy.

There was little Seb could do to help. ‘There was nothing I could do at home’, says Seb. ‘It’s one of those things that you feel a bit on the outside, you don’t get to experience the highs and lows of it, but you have to be as sympathetic as possible.  But unless the experience is happening to you, you can’t ever put your feet in that person’s shoes’.

Peter (34) agrees with this sentiment. His second child was diagnosed with anencephaly at 13 weeks gestation. This is a congenital condition involving malformation or absence of the brain.  Although they could have continued with the pregnancy, the prognosis for the child was early death, even if it were born alive.  Peter and his wife Abbie, 35, made the difficult decision to terminate the pregnancy.

Like Seb, Peter often felt secondary to the process. ‘I can understand that a man wouldn’t have the physical connection’, says Peter. ‘I think a lot of people just think that guys will just soldier on,’ Peter says. ‘But this day and age I think we’ve changed… and I do think men get a bit gypped.  Not during the process because we have to take care of the person who is holding the baby physically, but afterwards – psychologically…’

TAKING SECOND PLACE

Both men agree that the focus is – and should be – on the woman, but it is short-sighted not to see that the husband can also be badly affected. ‘You learn that the IVF process is not about the guy and nor should it be,’ says Seb. ‘But you feel extra to the process, effectively removed from any involvement in the pregnancy.  I did everything I could to support Jess but you very much get pushed back a lot of the time.’

The helplessness men experience in these situations is understandable.  Once a miscarriage has started, there is nothing that can be done to prevent it.  Medical intervention might hasten or modify the process, but the end result is inevitable. And while the physical burden of the miscarriage must be borne by the woman, the man is left with little to do. ‘I’m always trying to solve problems,’ Seb explains. ‘It’s a standard male thing.  I think “what can I do to make this right and how can I fix it?” But this is something you can’t fix.  You feel pretty helpless.’

This desire to fix things and ‘do’ things is a common reaction for men following the death of a loved one, writes Ben Golden, a psychotherapist and author on men’s grief. In times past, men would have been responsible for building the coffin or digging the grave, but with  modern funerals left to ‘death professionals’, this leaves men with nothing to do following a death.

Peter agrees that he found the process of losing his baby difficult. The unfamiliar path of losing a child meant that he felt lost and unsure of what to do next. ‘When my Dad died, I was the one who just got on with it, made sure everything was done right, and then I could grieve.  But this time, even from the start, I didn’t know what to do.’

I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT

There are many services available to help grieving parents. ‘The social worker gave us numbers of people in our area if we wanted to talk, and there was a support group for it [anencephaly]’, Peter recalls.  Ultimately however, he decided not to seek out any formal counselling or support services.  Instead he found that friends and family readily approached him offering support and their own stories. ‘The amount of work people who have come up to me and said “we lost our first”. It did help.’ Peter and his wife were quite open about their loss, regularly sending updates to close friends and family members about what ended up being a week-long journey from diagnosis to termination.

This contrasts with Seb and Jess’ decision to keep their miscarriages incredibly private.  Even their parents do not know the full extent of their loss. ‘I found it hard, not talking about it,’ Seb admits, ‘because it’s a pretty emotional thing to go through. Even from a male’s perspective, I’m a terrible communicator at the best of times so I didn’t speak about it. But it’s something you spend a lot of time thinking about in the background, thinking about what could have been.’

Seb did not even talk much about the miscarriages with his wife, preferring to focus on physical healing. ‘We didn’t really talk too much,’ he recalls, ‘we focussed a lot more on Jess getting better because it was quite a painful and unenjoyable experience to go through.’

There were many reasons why Seb did not speak more about his experience.  He is the first to admit he is a very private person and not comfortable with speaking publicly about emotive topics.  He was raised by parents who, while loving, are not overly demonstrative or emotionally open. He also lacks a close male friend with whom he could comfortably share his sad news. ‘We chose not to tell people,’ Seb explains.  ‘It’s a taboo subject.’

Ultimately it was an almost random encounter at work that provided the one opportunity for Seb to talk with another man about his experience.  A generic question about children led to the discussion of age gaps between offspring. Seb then frankly admitted that Jess had experienced multiple miscarriages.  The other man was quick to admit that his wife had just experienced her first miscarriage. ‘I found it – not quite liberating,’ says Seb, ‘but a weight off my chest.  A problem shared is a problem halved.’

Sharing his pain was a healing experience for Seb, and the other man obviously felt the same. Some weeks later he sent Seb an email which concluded ‘whilst from a business and networking point of view it was really great to meet you, I really personally appreciated you being so open with me and sharing your personal experiences that will really help me and my wife.’

Although neither Seb nor Peter sought any formal support, there are a number of services available to those in need of professional counselling.  Many of these services are free and anonymous such as MensLine Australia, one of the many offered by Crisis Support Services.  According to Ann Beck, the Relationship Manager of Men’s Services, between July 2010 and June 2011, MensLine received over 230 calls from men seeking assistance following the loss of a child. Perhaps tellingly, the vast majority of calls were from men needing guidance on how to support their partners through a difficult time. Less than 10% of calls were from men seeking personal counselling for themselves following a miscarriage or death of a child.

BEING A ROCK

Men are frequently expected to be strong in these situations, as Elizabeth Levang, a human development psychologist in the field of grief and loss explains, men are supposed to be a rock. There is a widespread expectation that they will manage their partner’s grief, protect their family from further harm and fix what has happened. Perth obstetrician Dr Melissa O’Neill agrees that this is frequently what happens in the event of a miscarriage or stillbirth.  In her office, when delivering sad news to expectant families she finds ‘dads are forced into a role, and that is to be very supportive of their partner. Their job is to say “it’s ok”.  They’re sad but it’s not the right situation for them to give into their grief. Maybe because I’m a woman they feel they have not got permission to fall apart, but dads are very stoic and that’s it.’

However, this self-control may be out-dated says Belinda Jennings. ‘I think that’s one of the things that has changed in the last generation or so.  I’m not saying men were less sad 30 or 40 years ago, I just think they didn’t have the permission to show their emotions.’  Today’s dads not only have permission, they are expected to be able to express how they are feeling.

David Buchbinder agrees.  ‘Whether men are able to express grief openly would depend, I believe, in the first instance on generational and class differences.  Younger males, particularly of an educated middle class, have learned to allow their feelings, including grief, more public exposure than their fathers or grandfathers might have.’ Similarly, one of the major shifts in masculinity in the closing decades of the twentieth century, explains Buchbinder, was the greater involvement of men in parenting, and as a result, a greater expression of emotion and attachment towards children.

THE DECLINING BIRTH (AND DEATH) RATE

Belinda Jennings explains that these significant behavioural transformations have been occurring at the same time as a steadily declining rate of infant mortality. In the past, pregnancy loss was a very common event with up to one in every two pregnancies lost before birth, and one in three children dying before the age of one.  Today however, with declining fertility, pregnancy itself is a much less common event, making pregnancy loss even scarcer. In fact, as the Australian Institute of Family Studies report, the fertility rate in Australia has been at a historical low over the past decade, with the average woman giving birth to only 1.9 children in 2009, compared to 3.5 in 1980.  Yet while there have been enormous developments in medical care which prevents much infant mortality, that same medical prowess also means that we are more aware of pregnancies and what can go wrong.  Despite the fact that miscarriage may be less common than a century ago, the ABS estimates that 30% of all conceptions end in miscarriage, meaning that of the 500,000 conceptions in 1997, 150,000 of them ended in miscarriage, and another 2,000 in stillbirth.

MEN CRY TOO

Guilt is not just a female emotion. When men are unable fix things, the guilt they experience can be overwhelming. At the same time if they don’t express sufficient emotion they can be made to feel guilty about being heartless. Peter explains ‘I sometimes feel guilty that I don’t think about it more.  I don’t know whether I should sit down and dwell on it, or is it enough that I just think about it quickly and then get on with it?’

There is no prescription for how a man should respond to the loss of a child. There is no prescribed period for mourning a lost opportunity. What Peter did not realise though, was that he was mourning his child every day. ‘We are planning on buying a lemon tree, to remind us of the baby.  I have – in the shower – a lemon body wash, but there was only a little bit left in the container and I haven’t touched it since. I don’t know why, it’s one of those things, but I think about the baby when I look at the lemon body wash in the shower.’

STAYING TOGETHER

Belinda Jennings believes there is no evidence to suggest that the relationships of couples experiencing grief break down any more often than ordinary couples. Perhaps some of that has to do with the couple-based therapy offered by a range of services including King Edward Memorial Hospital. ‘I think my one piece of advice would be to stay on the same path,’ says Jennings.  This means you can walk alongside each other, without having to share the same footsteps, says Jennings, so despite the different involvement of men and women, their overall experience is shared.

Sharing is perhaps the closest thing to a solution the dads can offer. Seb admits in the course of the interview he has spoken more about miscarriage than he has to Jess. ‘But the thing is it’s not discussed, it’s not talked about, it’s not shared,’ Seb says. ‘It’s not something to be celebrated but I guess it’s a fact of life for a lot of people.’

These stories are as profound as they are commonplace.  Miscarriage and pregnancy loss does not affect just the mother, and there will always be more than one side to each story. There may be no shortcut out of the grief, but by allowing these stories to be shared, we acknowledge men’s experience and role in the process. And this is one opportunity we should not miss.

*names have been changed

FURTHER READING

  • Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing by Ben Golden (Golden Healing Publishing, $13.95)
  • Manhood by Steve Biddulph (Random House, $14.95)
  • When Men Grieve: Why Men Grieve Differently and How You Can Help by Elizabeth Levang (Fairview Press, $14.95)

USEFUL CONTACTS

  •  Mensline.org.au 1300 789 978 A national telephone support, information and referral service for men with family and relationship concerns