Content warning: Infertility, miscarriage, anxiety, mental health, bushfire & climate. Also some four letter words.
More info: This article is part of a series about my experience with IVF/Infertility as a man. All the articles can be found here along with a note about feedback.
Usually I write about compilers/languages etc, and so I’ve created a new part of my website for real life posts like this one. Feel free to head on back to the normal content if this isn’t your jam.
Since you’re still here I’d like to talk about infertility, miscarriage and such. Most articles are about women and infertility. In fact anything to do with reproduction tends to be about motherhood, birth etc, and when it’s about general parenting it’s often written with words like "Mum" rather than "Parent". There’s two things I hope I can achieve by writing posts like this one.
We can improve equality by talking about parenthood or fatherhood in addition to motherhood. If you don’t know what I mean consider a female CEO who is a mother. People ask "How does she find the time to be a mum and a CEO?" But male CEOs who are fathers escape this question. Talking about fatherhood and parenthood is one way we can make people’s expectation of gender roles more equal.
By talking specifically about fatherhood, men’s health, infertility & men etc, maybe other men in similar situations can feel less alone.
I’m going to be writing in heteronormative terms. That’s what I experience and can talk about with any level of authority. I apologise for not being even more inclusive.
When we first saw our family doctor when we were unable to conceive after some months, she referred us both for tests. The initial tests looked like there was something "not right" with my sperm. One of the three tests ran was not within the nominal parameters. So until we knew otherwise that was our assumption. I don’t really remember how I felt about this, other than being annoyed that I may have to give up both caffeine and alcohol to "help". (Yes, these are minor compared to the whole journey, this was my thoughts at the very beginning.)
I do remember meeting some friends (all male) for lunch and telling them, Of course they all took it in their stride, it wasn’t happening to them, and didn’t say much. At the time I remember feeling a bit foolish for mentioning at, what’s it got to do with my friends after all, it doesn’t affect them. It felt a bit awkward and the conversation switched back to video games or something. Looking back on it, I was looking for support and didn’t find it in those friends, I also understand that it’s hard to know how to give support.
We were referred to a fertility specialist at an IVF clinic and she looked at the same tests, she thinks that it’s probably not sperm, the test is only slightly abnormal and doesn’t really point to a problem. However, all of Liz’s tests/data looks okay too. Our infertility is "unexplained infertility", this means that our likelihood of conceiving naturally is lower than typical, but we don’t know why. Yes we were having sex "correctly", our doctor checked (they ask you how, you don’t have to show them), yes this is a joke that I’m equally amused by and tired of. We don’t know if it’s a egg thing, a sperm thing, something to do with how they combine, something to do with how the blastocyst develops?
When you’re a couple undergoing IVF for unexplained infertility the (would be) mother is the patient. The appointments are her appointments, under her name. That makes sense for hospital visits like taking the eggs out of her ovaries or hormone medications she has to take. It’s this way because that’s how medicare, insurance and such is all set up. That’s not okay (in my opinion) when it’s a consultation appointment,
(Sorry I don’t know what happens when there are donors or surrogates, maybe that’s a different situation and this doesn’t apply.)
Having a family is something my partner and I do together, and yet our doctor (technically my partner’s doctor) praises me for coming to the appointments, and my wife and I joke about how I should be in the room when she becomes pregnant.
I wish things were normalised for men so that both partners were equally involved. Even by making the appointments under the mother’s name, it’s easy to fall into the assumption that the father is less involved and merely "supporting your partner in". I sometimes catch myself thinking "Oh, I have to go to her appointment" with the tone of one resenting a family obligation, I consciously tell myself that we’re going to our appointment, and I wish I could do more, like take on some of the side effects of the unpleasant hormones or post-surgery pain. And I’m not the first Dad to wish he could take on some of the pain/work of childbirth.
When things don’t go so well, or even when they do but it’s just hard work it’s natural to take on some stress, some fatigue and even grief. I’m assuming that my wife and I have taken on equal stress / mental fatigue. There’ve been moments when each of us haven’t handled it well (to my wife’s credit she also had hormones on top of that).
When I’ve handled my stress poorly it’s been followed up by feelings of guilt.
"It’s not my body having large hormone doses, why am I the one not to control my emotions?"
"It’s not me that wants children this badly, why am I the first to burst into tears at a loss?" (It’s true, my wife wanted children more than I did.)
"Why can’t I be the strong one? I’m a man."
Yeah, you guessed it. I wouldn’t call it toxic masculinity, but it is definitely an unreasonable idea of masculinity that I (and everyone else) had grown up with. There’s absolutely nothing about gender/sex that says men can’t feel and express emotions.
I still feel this way sometimes, I have to talk my way out of it (or ask for help).
Recently my friend commented that he saw a big muscle-man working in a cafe. He noticed that the man had a tattoo, it said "boys don’t cry", the word "don’t" was crossed out.
Before our son was born I was given a pamphlet and other flyers about being a dad, maybe even a book. They were my "dadding" books/papers, because it was specifically written for Dads. I honestly couldn’t think of the correct word, I’m going to blame the new parenthood sleep depravation but I don’t think the time-line supports that excuse. Anyway, what I meant was "parenting" (or I suppose "fathering"), how to be a parent, how to do it intentionally and really lean in to the role.
There are some things I do think of as specifically dadding and not just parenting: things that all parents do but dads do them a bit different. The textbook way to wash baby’s hair is to hold them in one hand, with their head supported by your thumb while your fingers curl around their torso. Their bum, tummy and back are all in the water while their shoulders are out. With your other hand use a cloth/cup to wet their hair, then shampoo it. It’s okay, except my son always felt unbalanced in my hand.
The dadding way is to hold them upside down (their body is in a towel to keep warm) and dunk their hair (not head) into the water. They love it and they’re balanced along your forearm. Plus by being able to drunk their hair rather than run water from a cup or cloth over it it’s much easier to wash out the shampoo.
The dadding pamphlets don’t talk about how to wash hair like this, or how other stuff like this. So what do the dadding pamphlets actually say? I remember one emphasised how important it is to be present/involved. With a bunch of statistics about stuff like "Kids who have a dad in their life get better grades". These are good reasons to be in your kids' life, I’m aware that people have unplanned pregnancies, but when it’s planned why would you not be in their life anyway?! Why do you need a pamphlet to guilt you into being involved with your family?! I don’t know what I wanted to find in such pamphlets, and there probably was some good/useful stuff, I just don’t remember it five years later as I write this.
I’ve got one more gripe from those early months. Our local council organised some classes for us, with general advice like vaccine schedules, when to start solids and stuff like that. They suggested all of us new parents could swap details and form a group. I call it a parents group, some of the other members call it a "mothers group", begin discussions online with "Do any of you other mums have advice for…". I don’t mind replying to such posts ore reminding people that it’s a parents group, but it’d be nice if I didn’t have to and if I wasn’t the only dad.
Other than my disability I’m seldom in a minority group and I’m aware that I’m complaining about the kinds of things that other minority and underrepresented groups face, including women in tech. However if we can be better at saying "parents group" then maybe more dads will want to join. The more dads that join such groups and talk about dadding (or remember the word parenting), then the more dads will be able to talk about parenting, want to be involved and will feel more comfortable taking parental leave from work. The more that happens the less people will ask the female CEO how she manages work and family (without also asking the male CEO the same).
Now that our son and his friends are older I think there are more involved dads. I speak with other dads when we arrange a play for our kids or they take a class together, It’s become easier to make other dad-friends, and they seem equally involved as the mums. This was what I was looking for in those early months, dad-friends with which to discuss how to wash hair and the best lullaby (Iron Man by Black Sabbath (seriously, it works)).
This is why
All this is why I’m writing this blog. I want other men, in a similar position to me to have one extra tiny resource. I’m not an expert in any of this stuff, I’m not a fertility specialist, a obstetrician or psychologist. So I don’t think this blog’s value is going to be all that high. But hopefully by talking about this stuff, adding one tiny extra voice, there’s more conversation about this and men in a similar situation can feel not-alone. Because in 2019 (next article coming soon) that’s what I needed, and didn’t have.