SALT LAKE CITY — First, a few caveats: I am not a father, or a male.
Despite this, I am married to a man, and together we survived many a childless Father’s Day. Additionally, I work as a therapist with couples experiencing infertility. Therefore, I will do my best to shed some light on infertility experienced by men via my perspective.
I have found, both personally and working with couples through my practice, that infertility grabs at the very essence of a relationship and tears away your future plans.
Undoubtedly men experience all the same feelings anyone dealing with infertility does — inability to plan one's future, difficult decisions about family building, financial strain, feelings of loss, watching friends/family experience parenthood, anger, and even shame.
But just as women experience infertility layered in our inevitable cultural expectations, men have their own version. They are not limited to: “be confident, be strong, don’t cry, be interested in a family, but don’t show emotion if it doesn’t happen.”
Even for men who don’t ascribe to these values, the undercurrent of these messages in our society is palpable.
Couples are keenly aware of the subtle stigma related to being unable to reproduce. It seems men often feel “less of a man” if the couple experiences male-factor infertility. This feeling is not exclusive to men.
If infertility problems aren’t spread evenly between the couple, one person undoubtedly feels “it’s my fault.” That fault can feel heavy for men who perceive that they are standing in the way of their wife’s dream. Men may feel helpless, their inability to “fix” this problem of infertility somehow chipping away at their confidence. The shame they may feel often translates to “something is wrong with you.”
The factor I see most commonly in men is the desire to support their wives rather than being able to show the very real grief and loss they too are experiencing.
Not to mention the awkwardness of providing a sperm sample, then hearing the results. Men may experience a shift in their sex life with their partner. For example, being intimate “because it’s time.” Men and women are often on different timelines in their family building plans. It seems men sometimes take a slower, conservative approach and may feel pressure from their wife to proceed with testing/treatment/adoption.
But the factor I see most commonly in men is the desire to support their wives rather than being able to show the very real grief and loss they are too experiencing. This is a shame, because although there are certainly some feelings inherent to experiencing infertility as a man, many of the core beliefs and experiences are shared between couples. Because who doesn’t need a companion (or two) while riding the roller coaster of infertility?
Whitney Barrell, MSW, LCSW, holds a master's degree in social work from the University of Utah. She is an "infertility survivor" and enjoys working with couples experiencing infertility. Find out more: www.whitneybarrellcounseling.com.