Being able to impregnate a partner is not only highly valued in our society but also expected, taking a man’s identity one step further to include a father role. So what happens to a man and his masculinity when he faces infertility issues?
By Dr. Ashley Hampton
There are three important factors to consider when thinking about the interplay between masculinity and infertility: (a) the expectations of men as outlined by the hegemonic masculinity model, (b) expectations for men as they grow up as outlined by society and family, and (c) the psychological effects of infertility on men and subsequently on couples.
Many years and many research studies and reviews later, society continues to use the hegemonic masculinity model, which highlights the man as the dominant force in a relationship, needing to find a more submissive mate to fulfill his purposes of becoming the leader of a household. Masculinity is often associated with the idea that the man is the king of his castle, so to speak, and should be the provider for his mate and children. Being able to impregnate a partner is not only highly valued in our society but also expected, taking a man’s identity one step further to include a father role.
We as a society have constructed an ideal life for each individual consisting of growing up, getting a job, getting married, and having children. For approximately 1 in 8 couples (more than 7.3 million Americans), this “ideal” life is not so ideal, according to the Centers for Disease Control. A national organization working with infertility called RESOLVE notes 30% of known infertility causes are related to men. If the man is specifically identified as having the fertility problem (i.e., low sperm count, deformity in anatomy, problems with ejaculation, etc.), there is a significant body of research suggesting this is detrimental to his sense of self and his masculinity. However, there is also a body of research that claims a lack of evidence to support these ideas. Whatever camp you reside in, it is important to recognize that men fail to respond to health concerns or engage in treatment in general. When this notion translates into not wanting to participate in infertility treatments, we, as part of a couple experiencing infertility or as a clinician working with said couple, then have a larger problem.
What happens to those expectations for couples that are experiencing infertility problems? More specifically, what happens to a man that cannot physically produce children? Suddenly, he is no longer a man worthy of society’s ideal life. What becomes of his identity and sense of masculinity?
These questions have been asked and answered in research studies. The answer is predictable, as noted previously by the two separate groups working to solve these questions. Psychologically, a variety of issues present themselves for work in therapy or in discussion between partners. It is important to work as a team, no matter what causes the fertility problems. Avoid blame, shame, and embarrassment. Talk. A LOT. Be open about feelings of sadness, grief, and hope for the future. Remember, you will need to be each other’s strength against society…and your pesky friends and family that will need to be educated regarding why you are having difficulties with fertility and what they should and should not say to you related to having a family or children.
For those of you reading that are clinicians, you may want to consider these factors, although it is not an exhaustive list: men traditionally do not seek medical treatment and therefore may unwillingly declare a desire to not have children to avoid the embarrassment and shame that comes with “I can’t have children;” marital stress between a fertile woman and a man experiencing fertility problems; financial issues related to fertility treatments, if that option is pursued; and the grieving that often happens when a couple realizes they cannot have children easily on their own. For men reading this that are experiencing difficulties, please seek medical treatment to determine the cause of the infertility problems, if possible. The exams and tests required for a man are much less intrusive than those required for a woman. Also, TALK to your partner about your dreams, desires, and wants. Decide what path to pursue as a team.
Society’s “ideal” regarding the perfect family and life is slowly reshaping and redefining itself. We as a group are more accepting of families that include all types of people outside the nuclear family. Adoption is a very viable option. Couples come in a variety of shapes, ages, gender, race, religious/spiritual preference…and the list goes on and on. While society still subscribes to the hegemonic masculinity model, it is important to enforce the vast amount of possibilities with your clients, if you are a clinician. If you are part of a couple of reading this, please realize you are not alone. Many people that look like you are in the same infertility boat, so to speak. If you would like additional resources or more information, please see www.resolve.org, the website of The National Infertility Association. This site outlines procedures for men and women, along with giving many resources and places to receive support.
Good luck in your journey! May you and your partner create the life you desire because you are worth it (instead of society dictating what you will and won’t do).
Dr. Ashley Hampton graduated with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology in 2012 from the University of Memphis after completing an APA-accredited internship with the Federal Bureau of Prisons at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina. She currently works with a severely mental ill population conducting forensic evaluations. Her research interests include infertility and its impact on the family system, aggression and substance use in offenders, and the impact of gender and masculinity in health psychology and correctional psychology.
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