In our confessional culture there is one thing that is rarely spoken about – male infertility.
Almost 8 million couples in America alone suffer from infertility. In an estimated third of all infertile couples the problem will lie with the man, but if you surf the net and visit forums you’d be forgiven for thinking that infertility was a female only medical condition. Thousands of women are writing about the problems but almost no men. Fertility is so tied up with our ideas of masculinity and virility that most men refuse to talk about infertility for the shame and embarrassment it will engender.
Male infertility is one of the last great taboos. And I can understand why. When my wife and I were struggling to make a baby I also found it hard to vocalize my feelings. My failure at fatherhood ate away at my very being and made me feel less of a man. Friends later told me that my body was physically hunched from the emotional weight of my baby wait. I didn’t want to talk about it to anyone and certainly not mates. I would walk past children playing in the park and I’d feel my heart breaking into tiny pieces. Consumed by Buggaboo envy I’d see couples pushing their baby strollers and want to punch them in the face. I would oscillate wildly between anger and depression. After learning a friend of ours was pregnant I didn’t leave my bedroom for two days.
Last month a close friend of ours announced that they were about to have a baby. Later that night over a few glasses of wine the husband admitted they had gone through IVF 5 times. And furthermore his sperm was at fault. Only now that a baby was on the way did he feel he could open up about their ordeal. During the whole traumatic journey he had spoken to no one. He said he felt too full of shame and guilt.
I know how he felt. I am ashamed to admit that when my wife and I both had our fertility tests I sat in the doctor’s room waiting for the results silently praying that my sperm would not be judged to be ineffective and that instead it would be my wife’s eggs at fault.
I know of another couple where the wife told everyone the problems was with her eggs, when in fact it was her husband’s low sperm count, to shield him from the embarrassment. It’s telling that while female celebrities have spoken openly about their struggles to conceive I can’t think of one male celebrity that has admitted to a low sperm count. Like Chlamydia, men with infertility problems are everywhere. Lost and isolated blokes who would rather chew off their own arms than discuss the number, motility and quality of their sperm.
One of the consequences of this male silence is that, despite men and women being equally responsible, infertility is still seen primarily as a woman’s problem and most of the research and resources is focused on them.
I urge men to speak out and be open about their infertility struggles. I realise now that there is no shame associated with it. Being a father and being man is not defined by the potency of our white stuff.
I hope my novel will give more men the strength to speak out. And also for women going through IVF to realise that despite their partner’s outward appearance of strength and detachment, there is a man next to them who is just as emotionally invested as they are.
I am at work, when suddenly I come over all strange. I feel dizzy. The room starts to spin. My guts ache and I have to grip the desk to compose myself. Sadness has run headfirst into my stomach. It isn’t the depth of the story I am editing, about a little girl who loses her pet frog, that brings tears to my eyes, it’s the thoughts that rush up from my subconscious. Will I ever watch this show with a child of my own? Will I ever actually be a dad?
I rush to the Gents, sit on the pan and let the tears come.
Great big watery tears. Buckets of them.
I never cry. I can’t even remember the last time I cried.
I cry for me. I cry for Nyla. I cry for us. I cry for my useless sperm. And then I start crying because I am crying. I am a man with dodgy sperm and I cry.
What kind of man am I? I bet my dad wouldn’t cry. I am not a man at all.
Once I start I can’t stop. At first I try to hold it in. But I think its best to just let it all flow. Holding it in will only make it worse, like diarrhea, it’s best to just let it all come out. And anyway no one can see me.
I don’t just cry tears, I physically sob. It is embarrassing. I hope to God no one can hear me.
Then after what must have been a good ten minutes, it stops. I wipe away my tears. I feel drained. But in a strange way I feel good. Cleansed.
For a long time I just I sit pondering my existence. If you can’t father a baby what is life for?
It’s a big question and not best suited for a men’s toilet cubicle on the third floor of a seventies office block in West London. So I look around me and wonder instead what compels men to draw knobs on lavatory walls.
I am not a man like other men. I am infertile. All I can think about is my semen lost at sea.
I don’t want to go to work. I don’t know if I have the strength to battle the commute. I don’t have a cold but I feel worse than if I had the worst possible man flu. I have “not-fertile enough-to-be-a-man” flu. I wish I could phone work and announce that I had picked up a bad dose of infertility and that there was no way I would be able to do my job today. But I look fine. There are no immediate clues to infertility. From the outside, you can’t see the damage within. Like the banks in the financial meltdown, you have no idea how badly things aren’t working the way they are meant to.
The doctor shoves what looks like a rather large vibrator up a place where no man except her boyfriend should be allowed to go. Fuckin’ hell. I have to admit I wasn’t really expecting that.
My first reaction is to turn away and study the certificates on the wall.
‘Darling what are you doing?’ asks Nyla.
‘I just want to check that this man has the qualifications to do that to you’ I say.
He then moves the instrument around inside here while looking at her ovaries on a black and white TV screen. You know the NHS is in trouble when they can’t even fork out for a colour TV.
Maybe it has always been there. Lurking in the back of my mind. Maybe they are thoughts I have carried around since childhood. Maybe it’s the result of genetic imprinting. I don’t know. What I do know is that more and more it’s all I think about. It has became an obsession. I’ve tried to push it the back of my mind. Tried telling myself men shouldn’t think like this, but then I see kids playing in a park or walk past a school and my urges come to the forefront. Its instinctual, a deep down primal urge.
There’s a hole in my life – I’ve tried filling it with sex and drugs and electronic dance music. With TV and movies and football and beer. But that hole is the size of a small child.
I want to be called a daddy. I want to have a purpose. I want to give life meaning.
For years, my sperm were not put to work. They spent their days slobbing on a couch, reading the papers, watching the footie, drinking beer, and playing computer games. Only getting excited with one night stands who insisted on catching them in rubber. My sperm were not gainfully employed. They were sperm on benefits. Now, when they do finally have a job, they seem reluctant to take the opportunity gifted to them.
Nyla is now doing daily temperature readings. She is employing all her power point skills to plot graphs and pie charts. Last week, after dinner, she did a 10 minute fertility presentation using her charts to project our chances of success. She told me about her “fertile window”. She told me that within the average menstrual cycle there are six days when a woman can fall pregnant. Five days before ovulation and the day of ovulation itself. She told me that by taking her basal temperature readings and regularly checking her cervical mucus she could tell when this is.
‘So,’ she concluded ‘when my mucus is creamy and slightly stretchy we have to fuck. And when it is the consistency of egg white we need to fuck like crazy.’
Egg whites made me think of meringues.
We have a definite target. And there is an action plan. Devised by Nyla, it consists of ‘lets have sex when I tell you to.’ Today is one of those meringue days.
It should be erotic but somehow it isn’t. I’m starting to feel like a performing monkey.
It’s sex night. I’m going to get some hot action. It’s sex night and my woman is at home ready and waiting. It’s sex night and I’m not looking forward to it one little bit.
I am dreading it. I’ve got a horrible tense knot in my stomach. I know what I’ve got to do and I am worried. The pressure to perform is immense.
Sex is not fun anymore. It’s serious.
I’ve always defined my masculinity in terms of sex.
Always needed it.
Sometimes got it.
Always enjoyed it.
Until now. Not now that we are trying to make a baby. Not now that I am trying to become a dad.
GENERAL FACTS ABOUT INFERTILITY
Infertility refers to the biological inability of a person to contribute to conception.
Both women and men can be infertile.
Doctors specializing in infertility, consider a couple to be infertile if they experience any of the below:
1. the couple has not conceived after 12 months of contraceptive-free intercourse if the female is under the age of 34
2. the couple has not conceived after 6 months of contraceptive-free intercourse if the female is over the age of 35 (declining egg quality of females over the age of 35 account for this age-based discrepancy)
3. the female is incapable of carrying a pregnancy to term.
Worldwide, it is estimated that one in seven couples (approximately 14%) have problems conceiving.
This statistic is broadly the same for every country and seems to have no relevance to a country’s status.
84% of couples who have regular sexual intercourse (that is, every 2 to 3 days) and who do not use contraception will get pregnant within a year.
92% of couples who are trying to get pregnant do so within 2 years.
Infertility is fairly evenly spread across the sexes.
For instance, in the UK, in people going forward for IVF, roughly half of fertility problems with a diagnosed cause are due to problems with the man, and about half due to problems with the woman. However, about one in five cases (20%) the infertility has no clear diagnosed cause.
Many more couples are turning to acupuncture to cure infertility problems and help them make a baby.
What is acupuncture and how does it work?
Acupuncture is an ancient medical practice that originated in China over 2000 years ago.
In acupuncture, sterilized needles that are thin and hollow in shape are placed at specific points (sometimes referred to as acupuncture points) in the body in order to realign the body’s natural forces. The needles are then twisted or vibrated (it is not as painful as it sounds!) so as to rebalance the body and to decrease feelings of pain, disease and other illness.
Acupuncture works by restoring energy flow to the body. Chinese medical practitioners believe there are 20 distinct energy pathways that travel throughout the body. When one of these energy pathways becomes blocked, disease, illness or pain occurs.
By placing needles at specific points, the blockage is minimized, restoring health. There are over 2 000 such points in the body.
Western medicine now recognizes the benefits of acupuncture. Studies have shown that acupuncture causes the release of hormones, such as endorphins, which cause the body to relax and therefore heal.These hormones can also increase blood flow, enabling antibodies to attack viruses and infections in the body.
Acupuncture and Infertility – Men
Male infertility can also benefit from acupuncture. Acupuncture can be very effective at treating sperm health problems such as a low sperm count. Studies have shown that acupuncture can increase the amount and quality of a man’s sperm.
Acupuncture also be used to cure erectile dysfunctions.
Acupuncture and Infertility – Women
Many women choose acupuncture infertility treatment either on its own or in conjunction with assisted reproduction procedures, such as IVF.
There is a growing amount of anecdotal evidence that acupuncture can be effective in treating infertility in women. Whilst not enough medical research has been done, some scientific studies have also proved the effectiveness of acupuncture for infertility.
A 2004 study conducted by the Reproductive Medicine and Fertility Center in Colorado found that 51% of women who underwent both IVF and acupuncture treatment at the same time became pregnant, while only 36% of those who only underwent IVF did. The latter group also had higher rates of miscarriage stillbirth (20%) compared to those women who had received acupuncture (8%).
Acupuncture seems to work best when a functional problem is the cause of infertility, specifically when endometriosis, ovulatory problems or hormonal imbalances are the cause for not getting pregnant.
On the other hand, acupuncture has not been proven to be effective when structural problems, such as an improperly formed epididymis or a blocked fallopian tube, are the cause of infertility.