Let’s start with some ABCs-level basics folks. Anatomically, I am a male and my wife is a female. In that one instance, the stark contrast between us and how we function is clear. In the rest of our mutual existences though, the differences between us – how we feel, how we think, how we live – are not as defined.
In the world of infertility, much of the discussion centers on the female side of the equation, drawing on that anatomical difference. This includes biological considerations but also includes emotions and psychology, all those more nebulous aspects of dealing with infertility. The holistic treatment of her is terrific and necessary since in most cases, she is the one getting poked and prodded and will be responsible for bringing the family building dream to fruition.
This narrow focus removes one very real factor of the family building team—the guy! After going through all that we have over a decade of working to have the family we dreamed of, there are many things that I feel have fallen through the cracks regarding my experiences and needs.
There have been a few occasions when I made my feelings clear to my wife. Sometimes I couldn’t help myself, saying: “Hey! Just because all of this is centered around you doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect me.” But most of the time I would bury how I felt, because I didn’t want my feelings to prevent me from helping her get through our traumatic encounters with infertility.
Whether it is because I did not share my feelings, I did not entertain them, or the depths of my wife’s feelings were too strong, there were many things that we did not talk about related to how infertility was affecting me. Here are a few of the things that I wished my wife knew about my struggle with infertility.
I Do Try To Understand
I have heard “you don’t understand” from my wife on several instances. And, in fact, I don’t literally know what she has experienced, because I have never walked a step in a woman’s shoes (except a few instances in college but that is discussion for another day). This statement has a dual effect though.
First, it devalues my power of empathy. So what if I don’t have a vagina or a uterus or a bajillion hair products. That has nothing to do with my ability to do all that I can to internalize and understand all that she is going through and do everything in my power to walk with her through OUR struggle.
Even though it is not me peeing on a stick, I still have so much hope and heart invested in seeing that second line appear. I am, just as she is, precariously balancing on a razor thin sheet of hope that it will work ‘this time.’
Second, it minimizes how I am impacted by our infertility. Even though it is not me peeing on a stick, I still have so much hope and heart invested in seeing that second line appear. I am, just as she is, precariously balancing on a razor thin sheet of hope that it will work “this time.” I still have this bizarre dichotomy of fears that it will work and I will be a dad again and that it won’t work and I will be totally incapable of rebuilding my decimated hope.
I Worry, Too, That My Dreams Won’t Come True
Most guys do not sit around for hours dreaming about their fairy tale families and wives. But it is a misconception that guys don’t think ever about what “could be.” I definitely have. It was never a protracted event. It was always an ephemeral glimpse into some future where we would be laying on a bed and I put my hand on her pregnant stomach. I would feel that little nudge and roll back over and wonder whether it was a soccer nudge or a karate nudge or a crime fighting bad-ass cop nudge.
Because of the nature of our path—pre-uterine cancer cells resulting in a partial hysterectomy followed by a blessed surrogacy resulting in our daughter—I will never realize that dream. It is gone. And you know what, that hurts. I will never have a memory of that time I dragged my bedraggled self out of bed on my way to the grocery store for some wild craving she had. That scenario has been stolen from my reality.
I Feel Emasculated
My wife has mentioned on several instances that she feels like our infertility has been a direct affront on her sense of herself as a woman. She cannot conceive and, even when she had her angry uterus, they were never able to come to an agreement on pregnancy. I can empathize with this because I have often felt emasculated through this journey. I have a fixer mentality. My wife’s heart is broken and laying on the bathroom floor in a crumpled heap of shattered dreams. I want to fix that. I can readily push my feelings out of the way because my desire to “fix” this is so domineering.
All this comes down to one simple thing: while it is true that our infertility hasn’t impacted me in the same way it has her, it has affected me, and on many different fronts.
The problem though; this cannot be fixed. There is not an infertility section in the home improvement store to pick up what you need. Can you imagine what would be called over the intercom if there was though? This doesn’t even begin to address the feeling that I was “incapable” of producing a pregnancy. My wife and I both had contributions to our infertility so there should be no real finger pointing.
However, there is this super buff, model of male perfection, on my shoulder pointing his muscular little finger at me saying, “If you were better your superman sperm could have powered through any difficulty to make this happen.” There is no basis in reality for that claim but the beauty and horror of our psyche is that we don’t need to be hindered by reality. The result, I question my masculinity (and why there is a little dude on my shoulder). This uncertainty is pervasive and has seeped into every aspect of my life.
I Feel Alone
If you can envision the depth of a typical discussion between men to be a swimming pool, 99% of the time, we don’t dare wade deeper than waters just past our ankles. For most of us “Y”-chromosome types, that just isn’t how we approach problems, relationships with other men, talking. We would much rather build a floating dock over those deeper, mysterious waters of meaningful conversation so we can get to the other side and out of the swimming pool of mutual vulnerability.
That is what sharing a difficult subject in your life with someone else is, right? Making yourself vulnerable, not knowing what they will do when they have that information. Nope. Not for me. Give me a miter saw, some pressure-treated lumber, and some screws and I will make sure that I can get out of there without even getting my feet wet. It’s easier, but it’s isolating.
My wife has told me that she has felt lonely dealing with infertility. Even though she talks with family, friends, a support group, and me, sometimes that’s still not enough.
I CAN definitely relate to feeling a void, especially because I have held it all in.
Ultimately, though, I had to give in, to give up my self-inflicted loneliness, and start talking about it. The staggering emotions that come with infertility and the scars I have for being at this for so long have made me more comfortable with initiating these conversations. It still feels foreign though, I still favor the security of withholding my feelings to the vulnerability of seeking support.
All this comes down to one simple thing: while it is true that our infertility hasn’t impacted me in the same way it has her, it has affected me, and on many different fronts. My soul has been remolded as a result of our infertility journey. It feels like it has been bruised and stretched and put through that weird pasta-making device that comes with every Playdoh set. I have been changed.
Although we went through our infertility journey together, there were definitely times that I felt what I was experiencing was underappreciated. Undoubtedly, my wife’s ability to recognize what I was going through was hampered by my inability to communicate my feelings. This is kind of like asking her to play charades by herself.
Now that this is all out though, I feel like we can finally play our charades game together. I may not be the best at acting like a snow-covered field and she may be guessing that I am a pancake (I suck at charades), but the lines of communication have been opened. All those things that I wish she knew are now uncovered and she can start experiencing my feelings with me.
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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