“Zero percent” she said.
I felt my jaw drop and sat down on the wall at the edge of the playground of the school where I teach. We’d been trying for a family for two years at that point. I’d had a semen analysis six months earlier, and although one of the measures was low, the doctor assured me all was a ok.
Things were most definitely not ok now.
I’ve learned a lot about sperm now. There are three key questions: are there enough of them? Do they move? And are they formed correctly? For me—there were enough of them, they moved, but they were all formed oddly.
Zero percent normal forms.
After my initial reaction, my thought was: It’s all my fault. We don’t have children because of me. (Of course as it turned out the situation was more complex—my wife has a low egg count—meaning the chances of us conceiving naturally were really low—on receiving that call though, we had no idea). But that thought was just the beginning. In the back of my mind there was a whisper, a coalescing of consciousness going on. I could feel the train of thought forming, and once it started, could not be stopped.
It settled around something like: I am less of a man because I cannot father children.
The train of thought became a juggernaut as all sorts of ridiculous references popped into my mind. I remembered reading Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ where the main character is given the choice of being castrated or losing his foot. His thought process is given a voice as he says he’s not really a man until he has fathered children. Or in The Godfather where Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone says “a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man”—so what if you don’t have a family of your own?
This train of thought derailed my sense of masculinity, my sense of who I was. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I didn’t have casual sex through my twenties. I took care of my wife. I earned a good living. I was maintained good relationships with my family. I was a good man. I was principled. How could this happen?
Of course, this is the simplified thinking-on-rails that only happens in response to unexpected and difficult circumstances. But there wasn’t anything that I could actually do about this situation directly. It forced me to rethink my roles as a man, father, family member, and husband.
I had spent my life rebelling against the conventional definition of masculinity: strong, provider, emotionally silent (distant, immature?), sexually powerful, dominant. This was probably because there was a definite hierarchy when I was at school: being good at sport meant you rose to the top; being short, round and bad sport meant I sank. Even cleverness was no differentiator because I went to a grammar school.
As I got older, I told myself I was more enlightened: I am a nice guy, I listen, I’m aware. I became more comfortable in the company of women rather than what I perceived as the hyper-competitive, overly-physical interactions in which every man I met seemed to indulge.
Receiving the news about my fertility brought all this to the surface. I realised there was no freedom in rebellion. I was still defining my sense of masculinity and my self in terms of that strong, sexual archetype. This was, in a sense, liberating. I could create whatever version of masculinity I wanted.
Of course that was (and is) more challenging because I’m responsible. There’s no deferring to the past. I’m discovering that all I have is the moment-by-moment, day-to-day, experience. Just when I thought I had it all figured out, I’m challenged.
It’s mostly my feelings that catch me unawares: I’m walking into work and I see a child’s car seat in the back—and I’m angry. I look at my social network feed and see pregnancy announcements (one set of friends put up a picture of a bun in the oven with them smiling next to it) and rage washes over me. Someone asks how long I’ve been married, when I say x number of years (we recently celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary) they innocently ask “so when are you having children?” and I respond with the brutal detailed truth about our journey and I’m taking twisted pleasure in their awkwardness.
The way I’m learning to deal with this whole situation is that it’s not about anything I do in particular. It’s more about how I ride the wave of my emotions and stay present in the moment. I can’t do anything about the past—it’s already gone. Planning for the future isn’t useful either because it hasn’t happened—I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone in a year’s time.
Therefore, all there is, is now.
And yet, all the conversations with the people I know are either about the past, or about the future. I understand they mean well, but they just end up coming across as patronising, condescending, unhelpful or even upsetting. What’s really interesting, is that the conversation is mostly aimed at my wife.
“It must be really hard on her,” “How is she coping,” “Send her my love,”—think of a pointless platitude and I’ve probably heard it. My experience as a man doesn’t get addressed—unless I specifically talk about it. It mostly remains a blind spot.
It’s not true that men can’t talk about this stuff, but the conversations around us don’t help us open up.
Ultimately, it is stupid, annoying and clichéd, but the moment is all there is. The moment is all I have. So I might as well make up (as I go along) what it means to be a man; which really means opening up and sharing my fertility journey.
“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.” Lao Tzu