How Infertility Changed My Definition of Manhood

male infertility masculinity

Can a man be a man, feel like a “real” man, when his wife can’t have a baby?

My definition of manhood was deeply tested when my wife and I struggled with infertility for six years.

My image of masculinity came first and foremost from my dad.

When I was 13, I spent Saturdays working with my dad on his construction site. He built the houses; I stacked lumber, organized materials, and swept up debris off the plywood floors. He said that we were a team. The sawdust that filled my nostrils was the sweet, organic aroma of hard work. It was the scent of me and Dad. I respected him and his colleagues—how they worked hard, and in silence.                            

My father often told me: “Work hard, keep your head down, and speak when you have something important to say.” His advice was the marriage of Dutch immigrant work ethic and male stoicism. It was the advice of a survivor.

Throughout much of my early life, I heeded my father’s advice to speak only when I had something important to say. I kept my head down and spoke only after careful rehearsal.

However, the part I still had to learn was about acknowledging and voicing my own pain and disappointment when unexpected challenges arose.

My dad taught me a great deal about building things and physical and mental strength, but I had to learn on my own how to navigate my emotional life. To prevent painful and shocking difficulties like infertility from breaking me down. To be open to my feelings, not only so that I could live a positive life but also so I could be there for others, like my wife Monica.

I now treasure the ability to engage and really listen, to feel others’ pain. I am grateful for the sting—grateful in the sense of what it brings to me as a soul among other souls.

I now treasure the ability to engage and really listen, to feel others’ pain. I am grateful for the sting—grateful in the sense of what it brings to me as a soul among other souls.

It has led me to a deep understanding about myself: Being a man is not about ball-breaking, brute strength. It’s about a different kind of strength: a masculinity that upholds the dignity of others, seeks love earnestly yet gently, and asks questions in order to listen and learn with kindness—questions that usually don’t have quick answers or easy fixes.

Being a man for me became coming to care and learn about the process of conception, of what was happening, or wasn’t happening, or could happen within my wife’s body. That it wasn’t her problem, but our problem. Not her pain, but our pain.

My wife Monica and I did five rounds of IVF. I haven’t forgotten those days and how they shaped us.

We both frequently sipped from that crippling cocktail of jealousy, bitterness, rueful irony, sorrow, and hope.

I haven’t forgotten the countless worries, paranoid and otherwise. The unshakeable fear that everything is so very precarious. How even getting to the replacement stage is not guaranteed for many women, due to factors such as chromosomal abnormalities, degraded embryonic viability, or naturally-elevated levels of pituitary FSH production or…. Being told how we should be grateful that we could get even this far.

And after the replacement? I read about and obsessed over the countless reasons why the cycle could fail: Maybe everything would depend on the “doctor’s avoidance of uterine contractility and a resulting unexpected expulsion.”

Or it might hinge on whether or not the embryos become entangled in cervical mucus.

Or the embryos may just end up misplaced in the uterus due to cervical stenosis.

Or……

Being a man for me became coming to care and learn about the process of conception, of what was happening, or wasn’t happening, or could happen within my wife’s body. That it wasn’t her problem, but our problem. Not her pain, but our pain.

I haven’t forgotten being told that I should “talk to other men in similar circumstances” and the uncertainty of how to do that.

Maybe the hockey locker room?

“Hey Dale (You with the two girls), I noticed you had a great slapshot out there today.”

“Thanks.”

“Um, yeah. Too bad I only shoot blanks.”

 Maybe when I make homemade beer with my friend, one-daughter-and-two-sons-with-one-on-the-way Jason:

“So Jason, speaking of making stuff, we’re trying to make babies. No luck yet.

“No kidding. Trouble getting it up? You gotta lay pipe first, man. Ha ha.”

“Yeah. Never thought of that. Ha ha.”

Because I couldn’t connect with many other men about this, I turned inward. I learned slowly to allow myself to face my own struggle but then also to seek connection and understanding with my wife, our doctors, and others going through similar situations.

I haven’t forgotten holding and being held, listening and saying little. Allowing Monica to process her fears and laments without trite solutions or dismissals. Saying, “I don’t know why this is happening, but I’m here.” Then being listened to and known even more deeply as a result.      

There are fleeting moments that can impact us forever.

I am 13 again, and Dad and I are finishing the final details on a split-level house. The framing has been done, the drywall is in, the plumbing and electrical work in place. We are installing the very last thing: The banister on the main stairway. We tap in the galvanized finishing nails. And then Dad lays his thick hand over top of mine, and I look up at him. “I want you to be the one to pound in the last nail,” he says.

“Really?”

“Yeah. Our life plans often don’t work out. Life has pain and joy. Learn from the first, celebrate the second—those times when your struggle and work result in something beautiful.” I take up the hammer with pride.

As I write these words, our 12-year-old son Zachary is composing a piece of music on the piano. He is calling it, “The Haunted House.” He looks like his mother when she was 12. His fraternal-twin brother Daniel is standing next to the piano and interrupting his brother by pushing on random keys to sabotage the composition. He looks like his father.

Zachary lashes out in anger at his brother for this interruption. Daniel simply smirks. They are both slowly learning to express anger, sadness, and disappointment in healthy ways. And it is safe for them to do so. They are learning this from their mother and their father: To be open to express their feelings, but not to be overwhelmed by them. As their father, I will continue to model and teach these skills as well as pass along what my father taught me.

Every couple months, we make the five-hour drive to visit my parents. Dad, now 91 years old and terminally ill with bone cancer, shakes my hand as firmly as he can muster and looks me in the eye and says something along the lines of: “Those amazing boys of yours! Isn’t life a mystery?”

A mystery, yes. And I will do my best to unravel the mystery of manhood even more for my sons.

I have not forgotten, and I am grateful, for what my dad taught me about being a man, and unexpectedly, what I learned about masculinity from dealing with the vulnerability and uncertainty of infertility. I am proud to share with my children that “real” manhood is multifaceted; lessons can be passed on, and we can also help them create their own definitions.


Tim Antonides
Contributor

Tim Antonides

Tim Antonides is the author of “Rain,” his debut novel about a couple’s journey through IVF. When not writing, he teaches English as a Second Language to Canadian immigrants. Tim lives near Vancouver, British Columbia, with his wife Monica and twin boys, Daniel and Zachary.


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