What It Feels Like To Be A Man Struggling With Infertility

What It Feels Like To Be A Man Struggling With Infertility

Infertility is not a traumatic event but rather a state of being traumatized, so the stages of recovery and grief become a way of life, not a stage of life.
Aaron Gleason
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My wife and I cannot have biological children. Infertility is a private hell unimaginable to those who have not experienced it. In “Unsung Lullabies,” the authors say infertility is comparable to losing a child every month. They claim the trauma experienced by parents who lose a child is emotionally identical to the trauma of not being able to get pregnant.

But there are some horrible differences for parents who cannot conceive or carry to term: The trauma is repeated over and over again. None of the support that accompanies the loss of a child is attached to infertility. The trauma is essentially private. Outside of “Manchester by the Sea” types of situations, shame is not typically associated with the death of a child, while infertility is considered shameful. Infertility is not a traumatic event but rather a state of being traumatized, so the stages of recovery and grief become a way of life, not a stage of life.

There is nothing to bury, nothing to signify and honor the loss because “nothing” has been “lost.” People express their sympathies in horrible ways, such as saying things like “If you trust in God he’ll give you a baby,” or “I wish we were infertile—every time we have sex it seems like we get pregnant,” or my personal favorite, “It’s okay, you can always adopt.”

I Will Never Be a Father

Some significant differences also make infertility distinctly horrible for husbands. Men want to be fathers just as much as women want to be mothers, although we are raised to believe this is not true. Usually boys are taught that women are baby crazy and men seek irresponsibility. But the truth is men were also designed to make and raise children.

Modern men are socialized to believe that they want sex more than they want to have a family, so not having children is seen as a benefit to man’s “freedom.” Women tend to find it easier to begin any grieving process, but especially grieving infertility. Because infertility is presented as a “woman’s” problem, husbands tend to think our primary role is to be there for our wives, so we neglect our very real suffering.

I will never be a father. I will never get to see my son play rugby. I will never get to walk my daughter down the aisle on her wedding day. I will never get a call from my son saying he’s finally met “the one.” I will never see my children be baptized.

I will never watch Star Wars with my son for the first time. I will never see my little girl go to her first day of school. I will never get to protect my daughter from monsters in her closet. I will never get to read The Chronicles of Narnia with my son before bed. I will never get a call from my wife saying she’s going into labor. I will never get to hear my daughter laugh at my jokes. I will never get to take my son fishing. I will never give my children birthday or Christmas presents.

God in his gracious wisdom has replaced these blessings with experiences I never could have imagined. Special things like taking a bathroom break at work so I can lock the door and sit on the disgusting bathroom floor to weep uncontrollably. Or choking back tears as I listen to one of the special-needs kids I work with talk about how their dad overdosed again, while all I can think is “I wish this was my child. I wish his awful parents were dead so I could adopt him.” Or the overwhelming desire to kill myself so my wife could be free of her failure of a husband and find a man who doesn’t have undescended testicles. Thanks, God.

My Identity as a Man Is Tied to Fertility

The truth is that infertility for a husband is essentially about failure. In “Unsung Lullabies,” the authors talk about how universal this feeling is for men. Women can experience these feelings as well, but primarily their sadness is located in a feeling of loss. For men the trauma of infertility is grounded in the inability to get one’s wife pregnant.

This is also true of men who have perfectly functioning reproductive organs and know that the infertility belongs solely to their wives. We all live under the irrational tyranny of this thought: if I were more of a man I could get my wife pregnant. Facts don’t care about our feelings, and our feelings really don’t care about facts. Chronic shame is never based in anything rational. It is the fundamental belief that I am a bad person. And infertility tells a man that he is a bad man.

I am not saying that infertility is worse for men. This is just an explanation of the ways in which it is distinctly awful for men. There are ways in which it is distinctly awful for women. I particularly find that the pro-abortion forces in America cause me almost daily pain. Going through the excellent and important book “Gosnell” was deeply painful.

The case of abortionist Kermit Gosnell should disturb everyone, regardless of their political stance on abortion. But for me the descriptions of these nameless babies drowning in toilets and having their feet cut off—I found myself yelling at God over and over: “Why? Why couldn’t you have given us these children? Why did you abandon them?” I was so bothered I could only move past it by writing this poem.

Song of the Infanticide

Somewhere in the night there sits a spider
Weaving webs into a noose to bind her
But instead it sits upon his shoulder
And it’s tied to the top of Winter’s Soldier[1]
Fruit of the womb the spider has eaten
And to our eyes the children are beaten
But one day we shall see them undefeated
For soon this spider will be unseated
And down his own webs he will follow
Haman’s path to the cup and swallow
The wine of his own pressing
And find it poison to the tasting
On that day the one who suffers
By drinking poison made by others
Will ask the spider for his wine
So that the spider may later dine
In the new world that is to come
Where spider victims shine like the sun
But the spider will look to his web
And find that it has become his bed
There he hangs in eternal restless sleep
And then his murders will begin to peep
Open eyes that have never opened
And hear with ears that never listened
And run with legs that never ran
And swim with arms that never swam
Singing with throats that never sung
“Death itself has been undone!
The spider has not won!
Hung upon the gallows he spun!
The gallows rode by the true son!
By death we can no longer be stung!
For upon our gallows true son has hung!”
Empty arms these children will fill
And quaking hearts they will still
These families made in future land
Against the final evil will stand
A misfit gang of warriors they band
Around the winter soldier hand in hand
A question to the past they broach
As Ragnarok makes its final approach
“Join the spider and die like a roach?
Or let go of your webs and finally come home.”

One of my seminary professors experienced infertility early in his marriage. He and his wife were able to overcome it and now have biological children. Later they also fought and beat cancer together. Once he told me he asked his wife which had been worse, fighting cancer or infertility? I knew what he was going to say before he said it. She said she’d rather fight cancer again. Even though I knew this was right, I looked at him with astonishment and asked quietly, “Do you agree with her?” He simply nodded.

Yet as awful as infertility is, I have come past the sarcasm and the justified anger into gratitude that God has struck my body in this way. My marriage was not prepared for this trauma and we began medicating with addictive behaviors that led us to a very dark place. But through this we have been able to grow up together and become more emotionally healthy.

Even before I found out I couldn’t father children I have always wanted to adopt. I can’t really think of anything more virtuous than adoption. And I still want to, but the struggles of the last half decade have made me wary of jumping into it. My wife and I still have some road to travel before we get there. But I can honestly say that we now have hope, hope tempered with and produced by pain.

[1]    Winter’s Soldier is a name I use for Jesus Christ and the cross interchangeably because it is a reference to the evergreen trees we use to celebrate Christmas. This imagery relies heavily on the mythology of Yggdrasil, which was incorporated into Norse Christianity expanding the violence of the cross from crucifixion to incorporate the idea of a gallows as well.

A.C. Gleason grew up in the Philippines as a child of evangelical missionaries. He is a graduate of Biola University (where he met his wonderful wife) and Talbot Seminary, where he studied philosophy and theology. Currently he works with special-needs students in California public schools.

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