Living with infertility is isolating.
Family and friends, despite their best intentions, don’t understand what you’re going through. Hearing things such as, “If you just relax, it will happen” or, "Have you tried getting drunk first?”. There are no emojis that can illustrate how these words only make you feel more alone.
Where you may not think of the isolation, however, is with your partner.
Generally speaking, men and women have been conditioned to react differently to stressful situations. Taking the kitchen sink as an example: as a man, if I'm on cleanup, I'll leave the dishes to soak. My wife? She's washing them by hand, carefully stacking them after drying them—or neatly loading them into a dishwasher.
So it's not surprising that men and women react differently when infertility becomes an issue in a relationship. And just like those dishes soaking, I plunged underwater, keeping my feelings of sadness and despair submerged.
For a long time.
All told, I was open about my feelings for maybe 14 months out of the six year infertility journey that my wife and I went on before we had our daughter in 2015. I'll save you the quick math: that's less than 20% of the time.
To give you a window into how a male feels during infertility, let’s look first at the thought process of men—using myself as the example– think as they go through struggles.
When it comes to guys of a certain age, the topics of conversation among our friends go into a few select buckets– sports and entertainment, home repair, jobs/finance and the things our kids do. If you come up short in any of these areas, you’ll instantly feel left out.
It certainly was the case for me when my buddies would start talking about their kids – the milestones I longed for: their first swim class, playing catch. My mind often wondered how my offspring would react if I brought them into the press box to watch a hockey game. But it seemed like such a distant dream.
So while I was internalizing that side of the isolation, I assumed I was doing the right thing at home. I was listening to my wife. I was there for her. But because I was suffering silently, it affected us together. Shutting my feelings down to support my wife was only accomplishing so much, and actually hurting our efforts. Yes, I was hurting and feeling inadequate – but rather than open up, I went silent. This only grew the feelings of both of us being isolated.
My opening up came partly when we joined Fertility Matters Canada (then known as the Infertility Awareness Association of Canada). It was rare for guys to attend the local support group, and at first I was hesitant to come with my wife; but I went, and it was the best decision I ever made.
As we began to talk about our infertility journey together among other struggling to find their path to filling their family, I felt less like I was on an island and now had a community around me. It gave me strength in the moment and it carried forward— to an extent. Even amongst the newfound community, I was still feeling reserved, and amid the tribulations of daily life, I sunk back into a shell.
It took a big step to get me to truly open up – speaking in media. As I had a history of public relations, I was asked to do a local radio segment on behalf of my support group. I did so anonymously the first time around, but felt so much more comfortable in my own skin afterward.
Speaking in this forum was emotional and I felt vulnerable; but I also felt inspired. As I got reactions from various places, I felt I was finally properly talking about my story. I began talking with my wife more, and prepping for what ended up being a cross-country journey to bring home our daughter.
This is what worked for me, but every male is different – some will talk openly, some will want as much anonymity as possible, and thankfully there are outlets such as ivf.ca and dontcookyourballs.com that provide this confidentiality.
Opening up is crucial. In order for a couple to soldier through the various impacts of infertility, they must do it together. Success comes when both are on board, conversing about options and opportunities. So it’s important to add support where possible, and keep the open ear and eye to the opportunities and watch for the cues that your partner is ready to start opening up.
Ultimately, the best support comes when both are engaged. Being in a positive environment and frame of mind will help you tackle the important infertility journey.