I remember the day I found out we’d had our second miscarriage. My wife was lying on the floor, crying. The loss of life was painful, of course. But knowing that she would need another D&C (dilation & curettage, which clears out the uterus) was soul crushing -- waiting for the hospital to schedule her, the lifelessness in her body while she waited the procedure itself. As I embraced her I remember thinking, “I need to fix this for her.”
Things should have been easy — my wife and I were both perfectly healthy. There was no reason we shouldn’t have been able to have kids. But instead, we got pregnant and suffered a miscarriage. And then we had five more. This led us to see fertility specialists and eventually undergo fertility treatments. Our third (and what we had decided would be our final) IVF cycle was successful. We were blessed with twins: a boy and a girl. It took five years.
I learned a lot about myself during that time. As a man going through infertility, you are a passenger on the shittiest car ride ever. You don’t have any control. Your partner’s body is the conduit in which fertility takes place. Seeing my wife in so much physical and emotional pain made me desperately want to alleviate her burden. But instead, I made the situation about myself.
There’s a cliché that men are always trying to fix the problem. As a man going through infertility, that cliché became the truth.
My first attempt at “fixing” our fertility problem was to start blaming myself. I was convinced the doctors had missed something, that there was something physically wrong with me or my sperm. By thinking of myself as the problem, I thought it would make things easier on my wife; she wouldn’t have time to blame herself. Unfortunately, it made more work for her. My wife would have to stop whatever she was doing (researching doctors or dealing with our insurance) to give me, the person who didn’t have to get a D&C, a pep talk. What a bonehead move. I felt so bad for my wife that I went looking for sympathy from my wife.
Eventually, I got over myself and became a supportive partner. I listened. I became a part of the process. In fact — and here’s where it turned out that I had one more trick up my sleeve to “fix” things — I decided I was going to be a really ACTIVE part of the process. How? By volunteering to masturbate! In my mind, the doctors needed to do more tests to find the problem. So I was going to supply them with the solution: more and more sperm to study and dissect. At all times.
My wife had to give me another pep talk. Well, she probably had to tell me to pull my pants up before we spoke, because I was ready to go at a moment’s notice. Once again, I had tried to help but had only made more work for her. She gently explained to me that the doctors had everything they needed from me, and that the focus was on her body because, well, that’s where the magic happens. Of course, she was right. And though I knew now that doctors didn’t need more of my sperm, I continued to masturbate; I just didn’t make such a big deal of it.
You might be wondering why I kept turning to my wife for support. She was going through the same stuff I was; it was like a snake eating its own tale. But my wife was the only one I could turn to. My friends had no clue. At the time, most of them (male and female) were single, or in relationships but not ready to have kids. They were sympathetic of our problems, but they weren’t equipped to hear about how our IUI didn’t take and didn’t understand the terminology or circumstances of infertility. So instead of talking about my emotional pain, I’d just end up giving a tutorial on fertility treatments; and though I would be impressed with how knowledgeable I had become, I wouldn’t feel an emotional catharsis.
That’s not to say there was nobody who understood. I had a good friend who was going through similar struggles with his wife, but since he lived a state away, we rarely saw each other, and when we did, we would commiserate over drinks like grizzled veterans talking about the war. So that left my wife. And while it was lonely for us as a couple, our bond got stronger. We became a team in our battle against infertility.
After the crying-on-the-floor incident, I was there for my wife in a better way. Instead of thinking of how to fix things, I was there to hold her and cry with her. I was there to grieve and listen. I was there to help her as she’d helped me — to muster up the courage to try again.
And that support didn’t stop once we got pregnant. After what we’d been through, we were constantly nervous about our pregnancy remaining viable. I had to continuously remind myself that there was nothing I could do and to go with the flow of the unknown.
Infertility taught me to just listen. It also taught me to embrace my sadness. That emotion wasn’t something I could hide or push away; it was part of the process and needed to be recognized and given time.
I carry these thoughts with me whenever I talk to anyone going through infertility, man or woman. I never try to give advice or fix it, but instead try to be there to listen and commiserate. That kind of thinking is what led me and my friend Silvija to write a sketch-comedy show about infertility. She was going through the process of infertility with her husband, I was willing to listen, and we started to write stuff down. We didn’t fix anything, but we were able to laugh about what we had been through, and that gave us the show.
Ultimately, coping with infertility was less about dealing as a man or woman, and more about dealing as a person. In fact, while writing this, I read parts of it to my wife, and she said that she felt pretty much the same way during the process (without the constant offers to masturbate). Yes, men and women go through different physical procedures while struggling with infertility, but emotionally the journey is similar. So the more you communicate with your partner, the more helpful it will be. Ah crap, I just gave advice. There I go trying to fix things.
John Murray co-wrote and stars with Silvija Ozols in the comedy show Infertile, running bi-monthly at the UCB Theater in New York City and as part of the 2016 New York Comedy Festival. Follow them on Twitter @NYComedyFest (hashtag: #MakeNYLaugh) and on Facebook at facebook.com/newyorkcomedyfestival. Follow John and Silvija on twitter at @thejohnmurray and @silvijaozols.