“If I had been given good information earlier, I could have tackled some of my fertility issues and that may have prevented my divorce and anxiety.” These are the words of a man who has experienced the stress and emotional exhaustion that dealing with infertility can cause. Are you experiencing similar feelings? Even now, it is often overlooked that the inability to conceive can be just as traumatic for you as it can be for your partner.
Lack of awareness of male infertility, and the reluctance of men to talk about it, could mean that couples are missing the opportunity to have children. For Fertility Week Bourn Hall is highlighting the need for men to have access to more information about male infertility and safe environments to talk about their feelings.
Independent fertility counsellor Jackie Stewart comments: “The infertility journey can have many hurdles, this may include failed cycles of IVF and unfortunately in some cases miscarriage. It’s normal for these events to feel devastating and men often are left feeling a sense of grief. People may ask only after the woman and not think to acknowledge that her partner has also suffered a loss. Grieving because of a miscarriage is not a sign of weakness of character. The loss suffered is very real and it is natural to have feelings of having lost a child.
“Men and women may have different coping mechanisms. It can be helpful to seek some support from a professional counsellor to work through the sense of loss that is felt between partners, so that they can work towards infertility resolution.”
“I didn’t feel able to then tell her that the whole thing was killing me. I just dealt with it in a silent way, with my emotions sometimes coming out when I was on my own in the car on the way to work. It became all-consuming and seemed as though everything around me was ‘baby-related’, and when someone made jokes about people ‘firing blanks’ I felt like throwing something at them.”
In a survey by De Montfort University, researchers asked 41 men how infertility affected their lives. 93% said it had a negative impact on their well-being and self-esteem. The same themes kept coming up: men felt depressed, lonely, anxious about a future without children–even suicidal. Yet nearly 40% of them had not sought support.
The research revealed the common feelings that men experienced:
- Embarrassment – the thought of producing a sample for semen analysis can be off-putting
- Guilt – where a male factor is diagnosed and the women has to have invasive treatment, the male partner often experiences a sense of personal responsibility). Unfortunately, men can feel like a failure, which increases the guilt and often adds another layer of suffering. It’s nobody ‘fault’, infertility is of course a medical condition, however self-blame is very common.
- Shame – there is an expectation by society that men will be able to father a child, and the realisation that this is not going to happen without assistance can knock the self-esteem and stop men confiding in others.
- Powerlessness – many men say they don’t know how to support their partners and feel the need to be strong and bottle up their own feelings when the partner is going through so much.
“My nature isn’t to worry about what people think, but I just couldn’t bring myself to open up about it with anyone. I am not going to lie, it really took its toll on me and my close friends could see that I had changed.”
At work too, where allowances are made it is more often for women going through treatment as they will require time off for appointments, but there is often not the same understanding for men. Best practice needs to be open to all as feelings of grief or extreme stress can be all consuming and a cause of distraction for both partners.
Recently, there has been more media attention on mental health, specifically male mental health, and charities such as CALM have risen to the forefront. It is clear there is a strong movement for inclusivity regarding male mental health, awareness of the impact of male infertility is the next step.
Low sperm count can be overcome
There is a real concern that embarrassment and an unwillingness to talk about male infertility is preventing some men becoming biological fathers. Unlike eggs, sperm are being made all the time so there are things that can be done to improve fertility.
For example, one of the most common causes of male infertility is a varicocele: veins in the scrotum sometimes grow too big and tangle, which can make the testicle heat up and impair sperm function. This can often be fixed with surgery.
Although a diagnosis of a low sperm count can be shattering it is just the starting point for the fertility journey, and even where there is zero sperm in the ejaculate, viable sperm can still be found in many cases.
Fertility treatments such as surgical sperm retrieval with IVF can enable men with low or zero sperm count to become biological fathers.
This is why getting good information, so you understand your options, is so important.
A game of two halves
Mr Oliver Wiseman, urologist and male infertility specialist at Bourn Hall, explains what a semen analysis reveals, how to improve poor sperm quality, and the treatment options that are available in this post.
He says: “A semen test is the starting point . Many issues with poor sperm quality or quantity can be resolved naturally or by surgery and/or medication, increasing your chances of becoming a dad.”