Does infertility affect men?


This article addresses the issues of infertility for men and whether and how infertility affects men.

When you look at the man and the woman in any couple there is one thing you can almost guarantee despite the differences in character and personality. Women worry about conception problems first.

There will be things that a woman will identify and struggle with, only for her partner to look at her as if she’s completely lost the plot. She may be feeling down when he is feeling up. She may ask her partner, ‘how are you going?’ expecting an answer about his take on the fertility challenges ahead. He’ll answer: ‘fine’, thinking she’s asking ask him how he’s going at work.

So does infertility affect men? Based on the occasional non-committal answer, no. Based on their seeming lack of interest at all the fertility pamphlets their partner brings home from the clinic, no. But it does … just in different ways.

I wrote “Swimming Upstream : the struggle to conceive” in order to explain how and why. I asked a lot of men and I found that even though there may be reasons that are personal to a man as an individual, there are some common ways in which infertility affects men … it’s just their partners don’t always know how to read the signs. Funnily enough, a lot of women have bought Swimming Upstream so they can understand what’s going on inside their partner’s head … including:

Being a Man

Having children is also a mark of being a man. Many times a prospective father has been slapped on the back for his good work in getting his partner pregnant. Who knows whether he was fuelled up on Scotch for his 30-second shot at manhood? He’s a hero. Sometimes you’ll hear the phrase ‘at least you’re not shooting blanks mate’.

If fathering a child carries such a mantle of being a super stud, logically it would follow that if you can’t father a child, you are less of a man than a guy who can. I interviewed a number of men for Swimming Upstream and they all mentioned that when they got an abnormal sperm test result, it knocked the wind out of their masculine sails. But you don’t even need a bad sperm test to question your manhood. My wife and I fall under the ‘unexplained infertility’ category but still heard the ‘shooting blanks’ or ‘can’t get it up’ comments because my wife wasn’t pregnant. Even though I had a piece of paper from the lab that said I was okay.

Their desire to be a father

Yes, men want children. (More about that in a later article). It’s a social cliché that women have a biological clock that starts ticking when they’re ready to have a baby. They reach their late 20s or 30s and gravitate towards every baby within 50 metres. They look wistfully into the shop windows of babywear stores.

Now while men don’t usually gather in groups admiring tiny cardigans or talk to their friends about the dream to hold their own child, they have a biological clock, however faint the ticking. Ask any first-time father as he is holding his newborn son 30 seconds after he is delivered if he misses his ‘freedom’. The answer will always be no.

You can also see it when you hear interviews with stars of sport, entertainment or business. These men have scaled the heights in their chosen fields and have stood at the top of a world full of challenges. They’ve achieved things that most men dream about, yet you hear time and again that the greatest moment of their life was ‘when my son was born’ or ‘when I delivered my little girl’. They can look past million-dollar deals, last-second clutch plays to win championships or holding an Oscar – and fondly remember their greatest moment as fatherhood.

Supporting their partner

Most men I’ve talked to have said the hardest part about fertility treatment was supporting their partner and seeing them go through emotional, physical and social rollercoasters. They wanted to protect them from it.

This is how it usually happens: when first dealing with the spectre of fertility problems, the man will often try to get on top of it with stony silence or by being positive as a way to support their partner. Now while both may be traditional male role models for dealing with problems, neither one is particularly helpful in working through an issue together with a woman – especially when she is looking to be responded to and comforted or recognised as having valid, genuine emotions and reactions.

The technical term for emotionally withdrawing is alexithymia. We call it ‘being a guy’.

And the fact that men and women communicate in different ways also throws a spanner into the works.

When coping with an issue, men on average don’t talk about it. They prefer to sort it out themselves. This is especially the case with issues that infringe on an intimate part of their life. It’s a case of keeping weaknesses to yourself. Men can go two ways when dealing with something major in their life. They will either force themselves on the situation and take control or move onto something else.

And with fertility, almost all of the hundreds of men I’ve talked to have said the same thing: ‘it’s a personal issue, so I find it hard to talk to anyone.’

Unfortunately, some women interpret their partner’s silence as indifference … which may not be the case at all.

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