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Opinion: Infertility can be utterly devastating for a man – don't allow him to suffer in silence

There can be an emphasis on the woman when talking about infertility, but men hurt deeply too.

Helen Browne

DESPITE THE FACT that one in six couples have difficulty conceiving, infertility is still something with a lot of stigma attached to it. Few people openly discuss their fertility struggles, and many people experience shame. Those who have not been through it themselves generally know very little, and are completely uninformed both about the causes, the treatments, and the appropriate things to say to someone dealing with infertility.

Consequently, most people going through an infertility journey feel emotionally isolated and women and men, often internalise it as a sign that they are somehow ‘damaged’ or ‘flawed.’ The reality, however, is that infertility is usually a medical issue, and while women may understand this intellectually, most still harbor beliefs that they are to blame (which others often encourage by telling them to “just relax,” “be more careful next time” (ie, work less, exercise less, avoid coffee, etc), “think positive.”

The experience of infertility is not easily expressed as a single thing, no few words encapsulate the way it interferes with almost every aspect of our lives and relationships: home, marriage, food, future, friends, family, parents, in-laws. A person can’t just say one word, as they can with illness or bereavement, and have the scale of it be understood.

Infertility can be devastating

Infertility can impact every aspect of a person’s life, affecting self esteem, relationships with others and themselves. As we have discovered from our own personal struggles, and from the many people who come to NISIG (National Infertility Support and Information Group) for support, who attend our meetings and use our telephone support, infertility is a devastating experience that can cause enormous emotional pain for those affected.

Infertility has many causes, and where a cause is known, it lies with the man as often as the woman (40% respectively). Some causes of female infertility include irregular ovulation (the release of eggs), blocked fallopian tubes, abnormalities in the cervix or uterus, endometriosis, PCOS. Causes of male infertility can include low sperm count, poor sperm motility, malformed sperm and blocked sperm ducts. In an estimated 20% of cases, the cause is not clear, or is ‘unexplained’.

What is clear, however, is that on the infertility journey, men and women need all the support they can get.

Men hurt too

Yes… men. There can be an emphasis on the woman when talking about infertility. But for men, a diagnosis of fertility can be equally as devastating. And while women might find it difficult to talk to others about their infertility, especially when faced with friends, sisters and colleagues busy producing babies seemingly in the blink of an eye, men may have even fewer opportunities. But this does not mean they should suffer in silence.

In NISIG, we have been delighted to see men coming along to our support meetings – some have become facilitators of the support meetings in their own right. We have found it to be easier to engage with men when we hold evening meetings, which often spill into a more social setting. In a relaxed atmosphere, over a pint or a cuppa, men often feel comfortable chatting away together, sharing their experiences and finding out that they are not unique.

This is not to say that it is easy, and men need to be aware of coping skills as much as women. A few bits of advice:

  • Importantly, allow yourself to feel your emotions. It’s the 21st century after all, we don’t expect men to bottle up their feelings and their grief anymore. Give yourself permission to feel your feelings, to grieve, to acknowledge your anger, envy, jealousy. These are all natural human responses and you don’t have to feel guilty.
  • Know your answers – people can be unintentionally intrusive, without realising how hurtful this can be. But saying ‘Excuse me, what did you say?’ or ‘I’m sure you didn’t mean to be hurtful’ can have the desired affect. Or use humour, whatever works for you.
  • Take control – do things or be around people that have a positive effect on you. Spend time with your partner, and acknowledge how it is for both of you. Think of how far you may have come together.
  • And please, please, please – seek support. NISIG can offer support through its bi-monthly meetings, telephone support (24/7) and as I mentioned earlier, we are delighted that men avail of both of these options. We can also put you in touch with others who are willing to talk about their experiences on a one to one basis. If this is not for you, remember, the internet is your friend. Use online forums and chat groups to research your information, learn from others and seek support.

NISIG is there for everyone on their infertility journey. For support, advice and information, see www.nisig.com or contact NISIG on nisigireland@gmail.com or 087 7975058 (anytime).

Helen Browne is the cofounder of NISIG. 

Read: Celebrities commended for highlighting their infertility problems

Read: Irish researchers discovering more and more about male infertility

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Helen Browne

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