My wife and I never expected to be faced with difficulties when it came to trying to get pregnant. Let’s be honest – who really does enter this time in their life with automatic scepticism? Ironically, years before we started properly trying, we were holidaying in Sydney, when my wife quite anxiously proclaimed that she was late with her period. With trepidation, we bought a pregnancy test and were overwhelmingly relieved when it came back negative! Little did we know that we would end up giving anything in this world, to see a positive indication on that little test. The irony is poignant.
But it just wasn’t the right time. We certainly had no idea what we were in for in the years to come...
Whilst still feeling defeated by our inability to conceive naturally, we had an almost flippant approach toward IVF treatment, with complete trust in the system, procedures and science behind it. In fact, when it came time to go through the process, we spent considerable time trying to manifest a strategic plan should we have twins....or even quads!
We never devised a plan for ourselves, should it not work at all.
It turns out that our journey was going to be anything but smooth sailing. We didn’t know it yet, but we were about to embark on a 6 year long, harrowing journey through 10 failed rounds, that would test every aspect of us as people, as a couple and of course, our mental and emotional resilience. We had to cope with and manage feelings, emotions and thoughts that we didn’t know even existed.
That first round of IVF turned very quickly from exhilarating anticipation and heartfelt excitement, to harrowing fear, a numbing sadness and feelings of hopelessness. We felt an overwhelming vulnerability take over.
We were meant to be walking out of our first 6-week scan, over the moon and taking out a small loan to fund the epic nursery and toys we would buy for our expected bundle of joy. Instead, despite all the signs of “normal” pregnancy, we were met with the grainy greyscale scan image of an empty sack. No baby. No heartbeat. Nothing.
We were shattered, instantly consumed with a sadness that is hard to articulate into words. We were not meant to be sitting in emergency waiting for a D&C, but suddenly, there we were. We were pinching ourselves, trying to escape what felt like the most harrowing and crippling nightmare.
The raw truth of potential complications with IVF suddenly hit us like a truck. The confidence and bravado we once displayed toward its success, quickly manifested into vulnerability, intense anxieties and worry about our chances. It wasn’t as fool proof as we had presumed. We already started pondering on the worst imaginable outcomes, as often the human mind does. Whizzing down that slippery slope of hypotheticals and worry about things that had yet to eventuate.
What on earth is going on???
An Unforgiving Reality Of Non-Finite Grief.
Infertility can make even the most confident, strong and determined among us, feel completely inadequate, broken and hopeless. The presumptuous forecast of hope and desire toward family life, is quickly and forcefully shattered by reality. Us humans are not the best at falling pregnant. There are so many factors that have a part to play, and people who do fall pregnant naturally, seemingly just have the right ingredients by pure chance. So, it is not the fault of those who don’t have the right ingredients. And there are a LOT of us. Perhaps this is unknown to the general masses, and therefore a natural response to people needing fertility treatment is one of the unfamiliar, resulting in misunderstandings or presumption.
People said an array of things. Comments like “You will be okay, just try again”, “Maybe it’s not meant to be right now”, “Stop stressing, that’s the key”, “You just have to be at one with your body”, “Mate, wear boxers...let them be free!”.
For those around us, it would have been difficult to know what to say, if anything. But these comments didn’t, and couldn’t help, because they were essentially generic by default. That is not the fault of those commenting – they were coming from the best of intentions, support and love. They also don’t have experience to go by. And that is completely understandable. But above all, these comments didn’t provide the answers we so desperately needed. And it was impossible to provide relief and solace in amongst the turmoil and chaos. There is no ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to infertility. People’s experiences, situations and circumstances around their IVF or infertility journey are far from black and white. They are as unique as the people are individuals, and everything seemingly happens in the grey area.
As A Guy...
Our first meeting with an IVF Doctor was met with nerves and trepidation. One thing that I noticed from the word go, was that our Doctor didn’t even look me in the eyes or address me when we were all talking. Not once. That first experience was disheartening for me. Is this the way it is going to be? I was met with such arrogance that it floored me. Did our doctor view me as meat and potatoes only?! After all, we were a couple, and this was affecting both of us. Something I thought would be inherently understood and conveyed by practitioners in this field.
I felt hopeless and somewhat invisible. I felt like I was malfunctioning – even though it might not be about me. But what if it was? What was wrong with me? Is it all me? Is it all my wife? What if we are not compatible? This should be straightforward, and I should be able to do this. Why can’t I? How do I support my wife through all of this? How could I be so powerless? How do I get through this and stay in control, and do we have any control at all? What does control even look like???
These and MANY more questions flooded my head and consumed my thoughts, my life, and emotional resilience. Throughout the entire journey, I remember noticing how little support there was around for the men going through IVF journeys. Not to say there isn’t dedicated help, but even a group where we just all sat and chatted, would have been invaluable. Not a group where you must make something, or where you have to write thoughts and feelings down or do exercises. No. Just a group of guys in similar positions…talking. Nothing else...
Essentially, it could be fair to say that the focus is not on the guy when considering fertility treatments and journeys. For obvious reasons, focus, energy, medical consideration, procedural direction and approach, is directed toward the female. A exception to this is where it may be identified that the male in the equation presents with issues pertaining to sperm count and / or quality.
But what about the emotional toll and impact on mental health for guys? What if we feel like our needs, emotions and feelings come a distant second place to everything else? What does all this then mean for us?
I believe it means that we start talking. We start listening to our emotions, our inner thoughts. We start to embrace vulnerabilities and (contrary to the ‘norm’) start to ‘soften-up’. By that I mean lose the stoic facade of bravado and emotionless mechanics and seek understanding, reason and listen carefully to raw emotions. We be present, engaged and focus on our own individual circumstances and journeys, rather than be impacted or influenced by how we ‘think’ others believe we should act or feel. People, groups, places and forums can all provide opportunity for us guys to share and talk. Talk about our happiness, our sadness, what has worked, what has failed, highs and lows, or just chat in a safe, confidential and nurturing environment.
This all sounds wonderful....but how can this be facilitated and start to be supported?
By creating meaningful, collaborative and dedicated support structures (for example, men’s groups) where guys can talk with likeminded others who are living their own experiences with infertility and IVF journeys.
By seeking counselling from those who have lived experience, to share and unpack what would be an overflowing and congested mind of despair and uncertainty, and start to build resources, capabilities and a sense of hope for a brighter future.
Take care of yourself and those you love.
Written by Simon Bartz, Elevate Counselling (2023).