As uncivilized as women think men are, we actually follow rigorous etiquette–about some things. We don’t “saddle up” to the stall next to another Y-chromosomer unless absolutely necessary, we don’t “kiss and tell” (unless it is really raunchy), and we definitely don’t share weakness. To make an infraction on these rules, especially the last, would be grounds for instant and irrevocable man-card loss.
I share this as my identity plays an unstable tug-of-war between the closest sports bar and an infinitely deep pit of emasculation. What has brought me to this brink of endangered manliness? Infertility.
All the societal norms are at play here: It is the woman’s role to bear a child, the first line of fault is with the female, you guys just aren’t doing it right. Nowhere in this is there an insinuation that it could be the “man-tackle” that is at fault. Too far outside the norms to even consider as a possibility, right? My wife, Candace, has certainly heard and absolutely felt the sheer weight of all these societal preconceptions.
In reality, though, before we found out that she had the preconditions for uterine cancer, we were in that ephemeral world of “unknown diagnosis” for infertility. It could have been me, it could have been her; whatever it was wasn’t in an infertility 101 textbook.
I had my “swimmers” tested, she had her “swimming pool” and eggs tested—no red flags there. The swimmers swam, albeit there were a few less million than the doctor would have liked. The follicles seemed to be appearing normally and did their follicle “thing” when they should. So, we decided that the next step would be to start barraging her body with fertility meds. What was I, the other half of the equation, left to do? Watch. So frustrating!
I sat on the couch and stabbed myself with a needle to show her that it could be done. I let her impale my stomach with a needle for practice (and probably a bit of retribution), and then supervised her perform her own first sub-Q shot. Bam, success! Points for the man card!I was tested only once; my wife, on several occasions. During examinations, I saw her be probed and prodded and poked. They weren’t checking out my junk. Maybe I had things tied in a knot, maybe all my sperm were freeloading gamers, maybe they had a lack of commitment. (Honestly though, I wouldn’t have known what tests to ask for. All I knew to be concerned about was sperm numbers, motility, and morphology. Since my test showed that I was okay on those fronts, no one seemed to be concerned that there could be something else of mine worth testing to explain our undiagnosed fertility issues.
Of course, I was not envious of all the attention she was getting; rather, I wanted to alleviate her stress. Beyond being conditioned to follow the “man-rules,” I am also a fixer. Watching her wince as her soon-to-be-friend Mr. Ultrasound went in for yet another look, I wanted to take her place. (For everyone’s sake, it’s probably best not to consider how that would have been realized. The emotion motivating the thought is the point.)
At home, I gave her countless shots—all of her subcutaneous (sub-Q) and intra-muscular (IM) shots. As a fixer, I was going to handle whatever I could so that I was participating as centrally as possible.
At one point, I needed to leave town for work. I started training her for this. This was something else I could fix! My focus narrowed from “making a baby” to “getting her ready to give herself a sub-Q shot.” I sat on the couch and stabbed myself with a needle to show her that it could be done. I let her impale my stomach with a needle for practice (and probably a bit of retribution), and then supervised her perform her own first sub-Q shot. Bam, success! Points for the man card!
We operated like this for a while. Although I couldn’t bear the full burden of not getting pregnant, I was determined to be responsible for her medications. That was my job and I relished it.
Then it would happen; the failure. Our latest IVF process would be a devastating loss and I would be back to feeling like I couldn’t fix anything. I couldn’t console, I couldn’t reverse, I couldn’t resolve. I felt truly useless. As the number of our failures mounted, six over the course of three years, so did my feelings of incompetence.
Each loss seemed to hit my wife harder. Each time we got our hopes up, it was so tough to find out that it didn’t work. Our path to parenthood seemed a bit longer. The likelihood of “fixing it” seemed further and further away and my chance to act as a man and lead my family seemed more out of reach.
I couldn’t console, I couldn’t reverse, I couldn’t resolve. I felt truly useless. As the number of our failures mounted, six in all over the course of three years, so did my feelings of incompetence.I still tried to be “the rock,” though. Through all of this, I tried to be the main point of comfort and strength in our family’s life, despite uncertainly about our jobs and finances. Often, we didn’t know how our employers would feel about all the appointments and time off. We weren’t sure how we would be able to afford the three ultrasounds in one weekend checking for ovulation. We had no clue how we could reconcile our retrieval costs.
Through it all though, I didn’t let myself feel doubt or fear—or hope and happiness. I couldn’t isolate and ignore the bad without doing the same to any potential good news. I emotionally circumcised myself. It was safer. I couldn’t control the chaotic world of infertility that swirled around me, so I hit the “mute” button on my emotions. My reasoning was that this would help me facilitate Candace’s recovery from the losses and be ready to throw my hat back into the ring as soon as she was.
Eventually, we stopped trying the traditional IVF route, but thanks to the blessings we have received through surrogacy, I became a father. And fatherhood has helped me break down a lot of the protective layers I had built inside myself to get through the infertility battle.
As I continue to develop as a father, and as we struggle to pursue a second surrogacy, I hope to breach that quintessential aspect of being a man—never admitting to weakness. Infertility can take a hard toll physically, emotionally, and psychologically–most definitely on the woman trying to get pregnant, but on her partner, too. I can still be strong for Candace, but openness to her struggle and acknowledging my own brings us closer together. That doesn’t make me less of a man. That makes me more human.
Chris Wohl, along with his wife Candace, writes about their experiences with infertility, adoption, surrogacy, and parenting-after-infertility on their blog, Our Misconception. He has gone to Capitol Hill to advocate for family-building policies for RESOLVE Advocacy Day and works with Candace’s local RESOLVE support group on co-ed and male-centered topics.
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