There are a lot of men (and couples) who have fertility problems. But it’s a Great Unspoken Thing.
In the same way as men’s mental health issues have a certain stigma and silence attached to them, so do men’s fertility issues.
Because men don’t get mentally ill, or have problems producing a baby. It just doesn’t happen to us.
My wife, Davina, and I started trying for a baby in April 2011. It’s a journey that’s still going. And it’s still difficult. And we still have no baby. But I’ve discovered a lot about myself, fertility, and our marriage along the way.
I had my first test in April 2012. This is after a year of trying. We went to the doctor together and he explained the process. No I didn’t submit the sample there and then—I had to produce it at home and get it to the hospital within a certain amount of time.
It turned out that I had enough of them (count), they moved well (motility) but only one percent were formed normally (morphology). The normal level is between two and six percent. My doctor at the time said it only takes one to succeed—and that one percent wasn’t a problem.
Davina had a bunch of other tests up until November 2012 – that turned up nothing. Based on the information we had, it was all OK; the medical professionals we spoke to said to keep trying.
February 2013, I have another test. Again, I have enough of them (count) and they move well (motility).
But zero percent had normal forms.
This was upsetting for me. “It can’t be happening to me!”
I begin to question everything and search for a reason for this—as do the medical professionals. I get asked questions like:
“Do you smoke?”
“Do you drink?”
I start to wonder if it was my diet and general health. Yet by all the basic measures (weight, waist measurement, body fat) I was in good shape. In fact I’m in better shape and health now than I was in my twenties.
What I know now, is that there are a lot of men (and couples) who have fertility problems. But it’s a Great Unspoken Thing. I think it goes to the core of what it means to be a man if you can’t have children.
Now, I’m all for men getting themselves tested to find out the state of their fertility: whatever their age, whatever their relationship status. It’s just expected that we’ll have children easily.
In January 2013, Davina and I made the choice to have IVF. We started researching and found in our area that we weren’t entitled to any NHS treatment. That meant going private and paying a fair amount of money, which we were willing to do. So we began the process, meaning more tests for Davina.
In the meantime, I started taking a supplement attempting to improve my statistics.
Then in March 2013, we found out Davina also had a fertility issue. Apart from the fact it wasn’t “all my fault,” it also meant the chances of us conceiving naturally were small. It also made us think about our family members who didn’t have children. I began to wonder if it was all a genetic jackpot and divinely determined.
When we told our families, they were wonderful. My Dad said he was glad that we had each other, whether we have a family or not. My Mum just said she wanted grandchildren. My Mother-In-Law said we should think about going to church. Well …
We pressed on with the measuring, the timing, the paraphernalia. And Davina went on a physical, emotional, hormonal, and intellectual roller-coaster. It was as much as I could handle to listen and be there. We went through what is often called “The Two-Week Wait” amongst those who have had IVF, and found out that it failed.
It was about this time that my emotional response kicked in: rage, upset, frustration, sadness, settling on indifference with occasional cynicism.
On trips to the clinic, I noticed a book in which people could write words of inspiration, hope or pain. Every time I went, I would read some. I made me feel less isolated. I noticed though that every message was written by a woman. For a woman. Men were undoubtedly going through stuff—I know I was (and am)—but why so silent?
Certain things started to crop up in conversations I had with other people that contributed to my frustration like: 1) You need to stop thinking about it/ relax/ take your mind off it (or some other trite nonsense). 2) I’ve got a friend who was about to have IVF when, just like that, they found out she was pregnant (Just. Go. Away.)
Also, our contemporaries were all getting pregnant and having children. We’d find out in conversation through friends and relatives. And on Facebook. A stream of grinning pregnant pictures. And then the babies. FFS.
Eventually, after talking with friends and family—and consciously letting go—I’ve got to the point where I’ve started to stop taking everything so personally. I’ve realised it’s not that good things happen to good people. And it’s not that bad things happen to bad people.
It’s simply: Things. Just. Happen.
After the first round of IVF failed, I discovered that a lot of people have more than one round. I was still hopeful. Although numbers had moved in the right direction, I was still having a crisis of masculinity. Even before the first round, I kept thinking to myself that it would work. This particular life challenge would be over and I could get on with fatherhood. I’m a man—that’s what I was meant to do. It is my purpose and destiny.
I wanted a valid reason to come into work tired. I wanted to be woken up by a baby’s frustrated cry. I wanted to pass on my genes—all my grandparents lived past 80. Three into their 90s.It’s all about me dammit! I just want life to go my way.
We thought carefully and went for a second IVF round. There was no explanation for an embryo not implanting, but we thought it would be worth another go.
Over July and August 2013, Davina did it all again. I did my bit. We visited the clinic. The injections, breaking, measuring, disposing, checking. And hoping. And getting the news. That it didn’t work. Again.
I remember really really really thinking it would. And finding out it didn’t: Numbness.
We had a follow-up meeting with the head of the clinic. Davina could barely sit in the room. I had set aside feelings to listen as the woman spoke of ‘unexplained fertility’ and ‘difficulties knowing why’ and ‘understanding it must be hard’ and other nice things they’re trained/ expected/ wanting to say.
I then remember being at home and eating a tub of Ben and Jerry’s in about half an hour.
As we started to communicate with those close to us, both Davina and I realized there was only so far we could go by ourselves. Counselling was the next step—recommended to me by Lyndsey (my sister) amongst others. So we did. Davina’s workplace was enlightened enough to offer counselling services, and I took advantage of the free session the clinic offered.
It was useful to be able to examine what I was thinking, how I was feeling and what I was doing. It was less about finding answers and more about asking decent questions to open something up.
I also found limited support on web forums. Fertility Friends and the Infertility Network were two I discovered, and they did make me feel less isolated, however I’ve only posted on there two or three times.
I wrote something describing my situation, requesting a male viewpoint. What I got was “I’m not a man but …” or “My OH hasn’t said anything like that, but I think …”
Now, over the years, I have trained, explored, and challenged myself to open up and communicate effectively. I am able to describe my feelings. I can get to the heart of what’s going on for me quickly.
But there is so much support for women. And so little for men.
IMHO there are certain pressures society puts on men to be a particular way. Of course society puts all sorts of pressures on women and people in general, but the silence is stifling around particular issues surrounding men.
My feelings come in waves: pain, regret, rage … the smallest thing can set me off—seeing a colleague’s car with a baby seat, watching a young family go shopping, or making space on the tube for a woman with a ‘baby on board’ badge.
I’ve learned to ride the waves rather than shove them down.
It’s not about a voice for the voiceless. It’s articulating the inarticulate and emoting the emotionless. Men want to talk. We are capable of communicating. I have male friends who are utterly amazing; the conversation will move seamlessly from an in-depth discussion about Star Wars, to debating the vagaries of the financial system, on to some teasing and ending with us being able to say how much we love each other.
I’m not alone. I build and maintain a brilliant network of family and friends. They know who they are, what to say and how to say it. And even when they don’t, the message gets through. I’m so grateful.
But after discovering the fertility issues with myself and Davina, and then two failed rounds of IVF, we were somewhat bereft.
It made us reflect on what was important to us. We discussed, argued and debated. We discovered that creating a family is important for us. We realized that there is no set form to family. It can be created in many ways: adoption, surrogacy, donor eggs/ sperm to name three. Family means many things and we have energy and love to give.
January 2014 then, we looked into adoption. We attended an information evening, had a call with a social worker and then a visit.
All the way through, I felt a certain trepidation and nervousness amongst the couples. But there seemed to be a greater sense of partnership. In beginning to examine adoption, the differences between men and women were less apparent. With fertility treatment it was much more stark.
Was it resignation on the part of men?
As it happened, we didn’t choose to start the adoption process. They requested we use contraception for two years. This is to protect the children being adopted; many come from an already traumatic background and coming into an adopted family, only to be playing second best to a new baby, would be too much for them.
The request to use contraception and commit to adoption felt like a door slamming on the possibility of conceiving another way.
I also discovered that I had a fixed idea of what it means to be a man. I had to be strong; I had to be a provider; I had to have chiseled features, a lean body, be a rock, unemotional. I was meant to be a father. And I had decided that it was unattainable.
Through this adventure, I’ve realized all I’ve done is rebel against that made-up, inherited, standard of masculinity. It’s informed the way I am: preferring the company of women; finding it hard to be around lots of traditional male-macho-nonsense; feeling I have to stand out in order to get attention; being at home expressing my feelings; hating participating in sport.
If there was nothing to rebel against, perhaps masculinity would be my ongoing creation.
A biology teacher called Sam at the school where I teach told me that women learn about the symptoms of testicular cancer and how to spot it, because men avoid the issue and don’t want to talk. Women nag, they push, make themselves heard, make appointments.
It’s the same situation in men’s fertility as well as in men’s mental health.
Men can communicate. Men want to communicate. But awareness of this needs raising.
Photo: Getty Images