“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear” – Mark Twain.
Thank you, my husband, for finding the courage to raise your voice with mine…
I’m Hugh. One half of an infertile couple. The infertile half.
I’m not much of a blogger and not usually one to write much at all really, particularly about anything emotional, but I do enjoy reading and, much to my wife’s chagrin, I like to research everything.
I was therefore surprised to find that, when facing infertility, one aspect, with very meagre coverage, is the male factor. The issue is too often swept under the carpet or left hidden in our trousers. Granted, unless it’s football or enquiring what to drink next, us menfolk aren’t particularly renown for talking. Bearing our soul then, over the Six Nations, to talk about azoospermia, just isn’t the done thing; it’s embarrassing and culturally emasculating. Which is wrong; we need to break taboos and start talking about the male perspective and male infertility.
In the past decade, several studies have found a 50% decline in sperm quality, and it is now recognised that half of all infertility issues are due to male factors. That’s right chaps; we’re often to blame.
And that’s the problem. Blame.
There is a lot of guilt alongside feelings of responsibility, involved in being an infertile man, and yet very few avenues of support. Perhaps society presumes we don’t need much, but what if societal preconceptions are wrong, and what if we do?
Being a man, without functioning sperm, is not something that I like to dwell on, yet it’s a fact of my life. I’m a healthy chap, but seem to have been born with a chromosomal deformity which means I have very low sperm motility and morphology issues too; in simple terms, my swimmers are slow and look odd, which is hopefully no reflection on my outward appearance! But yes, I’m one of those men who are pretty much firing blanks, as the expression goes. And that’s where starting to talk about it becomes difficult; the whole area is charged with derogatory terms like that. A soldier firing blanks isn’t much use, in battle, and the connotation seems to be that neither is a man, of much use, if he is infertile. Of course, that’s rubbish. I am of use and I do have worth; good looking, fast sperm, or not.
As Cuckoo Mama readers will know, we battled through more than two years of brutal and gruelling, multiple cycles of IVF, and the “treatments” weren’t even the start of our shame. Even before IVF began, we had over two years of frustration and repeated, monthly heart break. Saying it was tough doesn’t do it justice. It was undeniably tougher for Caro but, nevertheless, it wasn’t a walk in the park for me either.
I didn’t inject or undergo invasive surgery, but I did all I could, eating fertility foods and taking supplements. I stopped cycling and, as friends were slapping on the aftershave, I got to cover myself in testosterone gel. I stopped drinking. I invested in baggy pants (the U.K. kind, not M.C. Hammer ones, although had I read they might help improve my sperm quality…!) and took cold showers. You name it, I tried it. But what I didn’t properly explore was testing. Of course I had to be tested, numerous times, once we had been referred, but, in the early days, of not conceiving, I was optimistic; everything was fine, it was just taking us a little while longer than our peers. I genuinely didn’t think we had a problem. Until we did and were advised, at one of our early clinic meetings, that our only hope of having a family was to start with ICSI.
What I have discovered, the hard way, is that early investigation is vital, particularly for those with any history of diabetes, undescended testes and hernias. It’s not something which regularly crosses one’s mind but, as a child born with an undescended testis, I should have found that out. And I should have had my sperm tested, long ago. Perhaps I could have frozen enough sperm to get us a positive result in round one of IVF? Or perhaps, if I’d known, we’d have tried for a family sooner, to easier results, when my sperm was functioning just that little bit better? Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
But I didn’t, and infertility became our cross to bear.
Being the man, in an infertile couple, is comparatively easy; fancy sitting in a leather arm chair, in the clinic’s ‘male room’, with a dirty DVD anyone?! Yet, with that ease, comes a constant feeling of powerlessness. Whilst your partner is prodded and tested and goes through so much, physically and mentally, to have your baby, there is little you can do. There’s a real sense of utter hopelessness; I’d vowed to protect my wife and look after her, yet here I was, the sole reason for her pain. Interestingly, male factor infertility is the only time someone else, medically, undergoes treatment in place of the person who has the condition. It was a tough lesson to learn but I had to accept that, in life, we can’t always make everything okay for those we love.
Throughout our IVF, I always felt that I had to be the strong one; the reasonable, logical one. To remain positive, lifting my wife out of the depths of despair, as I watched her steadily decline emotionally, whilst wondering whether our relationship would survive. All while I was hurting too, watching my dreams, and society’s expectation, of fatherhood, slip away, with no real support, because I didn’t know who to ask.
Whilst we were lucky, in the end, and got our miracle, an element of guilt will always remain, tied in with the stigma of machismo, blame and shame surrounding the subject. That’s probably part of the reason this post has been so tough and taken so long to write. I’ve never shared this before, yet however anxiety-inducing it may be, for me to publish this, I know that many infertile men are going through far more anxiety-inducing moments every month and, whilst it isn’t easy to talk, I hope that this post is a small step towards making it easier for someone to do so.
We need to start breaking down the walls of shame, which surround male factor infertility; men need support too, and we need to get tested, early in life, before our sperm becomes more like a semen-esque named whale, than a Michael Phelps! And, my allies, if, like mine, your sperm are irregularly shaped too, know you’re not alone. It’s not easy being an infertile man, but at least we’ve got the Hammer pants!