No one walks away from their wedding day thinking that infertility will be part of their lives. Most men think that becoming a parent is easy and are more concerned with being ready when that day comes. Before my wife and I got married, we both knew that having children would be difficult, but I didn’t understand what infertility would mean to me until we actually said 'I Do.'
My wife and I have struggled to have children since the day we were married, but the reality of infertility sunk in slowly and with a lot of heartbreak. I could lie to you and tell you that I’ve fully made peace with our reality, but like many things in life, emotionally difficult experiences such as infertility never fully abate from our psyche.
A couple’s fertility is always made up of two parts—the man and the woman’s reproductive systems. Aside from who to treat, it doesn’t matter what part of the whole is infertile when the reality is the couple, as one unit, is infertile. It’s helpful to think of fertility this way, and likewise infertility as a shared mutual burden. It’s tempting to write infertility off as a woman’s burden, especially when infertility is a result of a female factor. But the truth is, regardless of whether or not infertility is due to a male or female factor, infertility can often cause deep emotional suffering among men.
Helplessness and emasculation are the two primary feelings that I experience as a man, struggling with infertility. Research and my experience working with couples as a therapist tells me that I’m not alone in this kind of experience. The truth is, men, no matter what part of the whole they play, commonly suffer from negative emotions when dealing with infertility.
One of the most difficult experiences, for both my wife and I, was when people would try to offer us advice. “It’ll work next time,” they encouraged. “Maybe this is just God’s will,” they said. “If you just stop trying, it’ll happen,” they advised. While the first two expressions have truth to them, all this encouragement did was make me feel that none of them understood. In their desire to be helpful they violated rule one of helping a friend through tragedy: never take away their pain, just sit with it with them. It’s this rule, however, that is most difficult for me to keep.
I routinely feel helpless because I cannot take away my wife’s pain. It is drilled into men’s minds that we are to protect our loved ones. We have to be willing to jump in front of train for them, no questions asked. However, I’ve now encountered a train which I cannot save my wife from. Instead, I can only sit next to her as the train hits us both.
While my wife tried to assure me that there was nothing I could do to help remedy the situation, I continued to struggle with the fact that I cannot solve this equation. How then did I ever come to any resolution about my feelings with our infertility? The answer was found in accepting that this burden can’t be lifted by me alone. Faith and leaning on the advice of those I trust outside our marriage helped to lift the burden of responsibility and ease my feeling of helplessness.
There are times where I still feel like less of a man because of our infertility. Part of this has to do with the adolescent fantasy that if only I tried harder, I could change the reality we faced. The other part is wrapped up in what I call the ‘Disney effect,’ where couples forget that marriage is hard and that happily ever after only happens with twists and turns. Underneath all of this was the deep fear that I had failed as a man by not providing some supernatural solution for my wife. The best thing she ever did for me was to give me the space I needed to wrestle with what it means to be a man.
Men are taught that weakness is a kind of emasculation, and what could be weaker than being unable to have a child? You can’t even do the most basic of human tasks: reproduce. But, is that really the definition of manhood? In my view, manhood is realized in commitment to the other and in bearing your own weakness, and the weakness of others, with courage. Still, there will always be that gnawing temptation to believe that I’m less of a man.
As a therapist I encourage the idea of seeing your spouse as a helpmate, but when coping with infertility, sometimes seeking to always lean on your partner can be counterproductive. An important part of being married is knowing when to give your spouse the space they need to deal with emotions that have nothing to do with you.
Meanwhile, infertility did not stop our life from happening. During this time, we have gained a loving dog, a pet fish, we’ve taken a trip to France and England, both of us have advanced in our careers, and we have found new meaning in the words ‘for better or for worse.’ My wife and I have turned our struggle with infertility into an opportunity for growth and our love has flourished with a deeper understanding of her experience with infertility and mine.
Photo Credit: Britt Rene