|Photo courtesy of Monica Wiesblott.|
It Sang With Yearning and Sadness
Myth: "I'm a man. I don't need to get checked!"
(male factor infertility)
I'm guilty of perpetuating an infertility myth, so please allow me to attempt to clear my conscience. I'll admit that when my wife suggested I have a sperm test, I figured I'd do it to make her happy, but everyone knew it was her issue. She had a long history of cysts on her ovaries and she'd even had a laparoscopy in an effort to clear up the issue. Of course it was her issue, right? After all - me strong man. Me make baby.
About a year into our four year battle with infertility, I discovered that I needed to talk to someone about what was going on, except there really wasn't anyone to talk to. What man talks to another man about sperm count? So I poured the story out onto my computer screen to reap the cathartic benefits of simply having it off my shoulders. By the end of the story, I looked up and realized it had turned into something resembling a manuscript. Below, I give to you the first chapter, wherein we received the results of my sperm test, and thus addressing the myth that "I'm a man, I don't need to get checked."
Written by: Michael Barr (author, Swimming in Circles)Dr. Granderson drew a circle. This was no run-of-the-mill sphere. It was compass quality. Clearly, he’d done this before.
“Okay, imagine this is the egg,” he said.
If he draws a penis, I’m going to giggle like a little girl.
Flanked by a reproduction antique roll-top desk that was compulsively organized with brochures and writing tablets, Granderson sat no more than a couple feet across from the puffy pink-and-white striped couch in which we were currently submerged. He slid his specs up his nose with a middle finger and clicked his mechanical pencil twice with a determination that suggested he was just getting warmed up.
“Now, these are sperm,” he said.
Methodically, Granderson sketched three rugby ball objects with tails. One boasted a terrifically large head, another resembled a typical pin-head, and the last appeared to possess a perfectly proportioned oval with a flawless squiggly little accessory.
Why do I already hate that last one?
He fixated on us, eyes slightly above the frame of his glasses, and paused.
Kiersten shifted nervously on the couch.
Granderson had a kind, concerned face and a gentle demeanor, and struck me as a lifelong glass-half-full kind of guy. His expression reminded me of a man facing a challenge he’d seen before and rather enjoyed—like when my Dad used to look at the stalled engine of my 1976 Toyota Corolla, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. Lips pursed, half smiling, half frowning—kind of a pleasurable grimace.
“Imagine that the sperm are boats and they’re docking… they’re docking at the egg,” he said.
Is my wife wearing her “I’m with stupid” shirt again?
“They need to be the perfect size to dock—to get inside,” he continued. “The one with the larger head is too big; the one with the smaller head is too tiny. Only the perfectly shaped one can gain entry to the egg.”
Oh, God—I’ve got big-headed sperm, don’t I? What if they’re the little-headed ones? What the hell does that mean?
The art lesson continued, Granderson’s pencil furiously scribbling vertical lines and circular orbits.
“Some sperm are slow, some swim in random directions, and others don’t move much at all,” he posited, pencil mimicking the narrative. He lashed several lines violently across the paper, towards our imaginary dock. “Then there are sperm that are strong swimmers—these are the ones we want.” The pencil tapped intently on his masterpiece for emphasis, like a woodpecker high on crack.
I’ve got big-headed, slow-swimming idiot sperm, don’t I? Just say it. Oh, God I need water. No, I need a drink. A strong drink.
“Now, Michael—bear with me. There’s good news and there’s not-so-good news.”
Where’s the waitress? Makers Mark and rocks, please—pronto.
“Let’s talk about sperm count.”
More Makers, less rocks…
“You’re at about 23 million sperm per millimeter…”
23 mil? It’s a deep drive to right field, he goes back, a waaaay back…
“…and a normal sperm count is anywhere between 20 million and about 150 million per millimeter.”
Foul ball. That can’t be the good news.
“So we’re doing just fine there.”
“Your sperm movement, what we call motility, could be better. You see, sperm must be able to rapidly navigate through the cervical mucous in order to reach the egg.”
Is it absolutely necessary to say mucous? Can’t we just call it ‘stuff’?
“Your sperm have a low rate of rapid movement and some sperm do not navigate well.”
“Can you be a little more specific?” I asked. “What do you mean, they don’t navigate well?”
“Well, many swim aimlessly or in circles.”
I caught Kiersten glancing at me. She knew we were going to the brewery after this. She had to know.
“Now, your sperm morphology…” continued Granderson.
Oh, for the love of God… morpho-what?
“…could be better as well. You demonstrate a low percentage of normal sperm shape and structure.”
I dare you to pick up that pencil and draw me a picture. I double dog dare you.
Kiersten started asking questions. I think they were something along the lines of ‘Could we ever get pregnant on our own?’ and ‘Can his sperm be improved?’ and ‘Is my husband a pathetic, feeble little cretin and do you have any handsome virile sons you could introduce me to?’ But frankly, I couldn’t even hear… Their conversation had been reduced to inaudible static, as if the frequency on my radio dial was fading out of range and I had my foot flooring the gas.
The room felt like it was slowly shrinking around me.
I stood to take off my coat and realized I was not on solid ground. As if experiencing a sudden drop in blood pressure, I was hazy. Cotton mouth. Visibly sweating. A pulse so fast, I could feel the vein in my neck throb like an unwelcome kick drum under my skin. I couldn’t even stomach the triple-tall-with-room Americano I had arrived with… a tragic waste of our last legal high.
I sat down and tried to look as casual as possible although I didn’t know if I was about to puke, pass out, or both. Nonchalantly stroking the four o’clock stubble on my chin with my left hand, I tried to look as if I was curiously following their conversation, but in reality I was trying to stave off what could only be some kind of anxiety attack.
I tried to go to a happy place in my spiraling skull. A place where Imperial IPA is refilled by the waitress as if it were table water and double gin martinis are served complimentary with every entrée. I was brought back by a squeeze on the knee and a disapproving glare suggesting I needed to be more attentive to the current conversation.
Ok…deep breaths. Calm down… calm the hell down.
I was obsessively rubbing my damp hands on my thighs, rocking back and forth slightly, but noticeably.
This is your ticket to annual Vegas trips, to keeping up with your golf game, to turning the playroom into your own personal game room. You’ve never really wanted a screaming, puking, crapping, drooling, keeping-me-up-at-night, preempting-the-ballgame-for-Teletubbies-and-the-freaking-Wiggles, stealing-my-wife’s-boobs, snot-nosed brat, did you?
I looked up to see Kiersten’s hopeful face.
I couldn’t deny that I wanted this. If not for us, at least for her. God, I love her.
“Uh…Granderson? I missed the last couple seconds…Could you go over our options again?”
As he started to reiterate the unseemly choices we faced, I couldn’t help but wonder:
How the hell did I get here?
Visit his blog: Swimming in Circles
|Photo courtesy of Monica Wiesblott.|
"I Tried Nesting" (detail)
apricot branches, decomposed plants, hot glue, dryer lint,
artists hair, dead grass eggshells and pebbles
Myth #2: Men are immune to the emotional struggles of infertility.
(non infertile perspective)
You can see it in her eyes, though she doesn’t know it’s there. It’s not desperation or sadness. It’s not anger, or resentment, or loss. It’s all those things, really. There’s a touch of hope and happiness, but just enough to curl her lips up into a smile, save for the tiny corners of her mouth. That’s the telling part; the part of her that’s afraid to be optimistic because years of single pink lines and cramping aches and locked-door breakdowns are just too much for her to let go and be completely free. If you know what you’re looking for, you’ll see it when she’s holding a friend’s baby, when a coworker announces her pregnancy, or as you navigate through store aisles of bulging bellies and squealing newborns. Years of dashed hopes can do a lot of damage to a fragile heart.
Nine years ago, when we started on this journey toward conception, I didn’t know what to expect. I can’t imagine anyone really does. Now that we’re in the throes of IVF treatment, I still hardly do. Admittedly, I’m not the one who researched the options, and I’m not the one undergoing the treatments. Until recently, my only involvement was an uncomfortable visit to a white-walled lab where I was led to a room and instructed “make sure the cap is tightly sealed when you’re done.”
I wish it was me. I don’t know how to express how much I yearn to fix this. I could deal with being the problem, and I could deal with the decisions that would stem from that. What I find hardest to deal with is that look and not being able to do anything about it. It’s an image burned into my mind, and over time it’s changed me. It’s made me realize that I need to try harder to understand, but that I never truly will. As a man, I probably can’t. To the extent that I can, I try to.
Sometimes I wonder if she thinks I’m numb to it all. My demeanor is stoic about subjects more important than technology or chocolate, to be certain. I laugh and joke a lot, but when the discussion of infertility surfaces, I shut down. It’s not because I don’t want to talk (I rarely know what I should say) and it’s not that I don’t want to be supportive (I’m part of this too, right?). It’s the fact that I’m a man, her husband, and when there’s a problem that I can’t solve, it makes me angry. It makes me want to yell and hit things and throw something across the room. It probably sounds childish--I know it does--but I’m not apt to cry in most situations and being sad doesn’t come naturally to me. I know I can’t help by putting my fist through a wall, so I sit in silence and wish the problem away. I don’t know that my reaction is inherently masculine, but I know it’s genuine to me.
Call it a generalization but my belief is that men, in general, are grossly unaware of infertility. We may struggle with it first hand, or we may have close friends who share their stories with us, but the truth is we live in a society where sex becomes a goal in your teens and pregnancy is the enemy. This is, of course, uncannily discrepant to the millions of us for whom infertility stands in the way of starting or completing our families.
I want to offer one thing, a man’s view to a world too unaware: men share and experience infertility, and it’s not as taboo a subject as we’ve made it to be. I’m fortunate to have men in my life who genuinely care about our struggle. Their support is invaluable, and my hope is that we can continue to inspire other men to this foundational role.
To those of you, men and women alike, who are fighting infertility: as a man, while I may not not fully understand, please know that I want to; I vow to cheer for your victories, to feel your losses the best I can, and to love you for your journey.
Written by: Travis (husband to the Editor :o)
Written by: Travis (husband to the Editor :o)
Learn more about Infertility at Resolve's website: