The Invisible Man
It may be a man’s world, but not when it comes to infertility. For too long the male experience has been invisible.
Read any article about infertility - chances are it’ll focus on the female’s body and the woman’s experience.
Watch or listen to any segment about infertility on TV or radio - yep, it’ll almost certainly centre on women.
The men’s voices in this narrative have been largely conspicuous by their absence.
Why is this? Is infertility seen as the woman’s problem? After all, it’s the woman who’s turning herself into a human chemistry set and having all and sundry rummaging around in her nether regions during treatment - the bloke has ‘the easy bit’. They ‘just’ have to go and have a wank, job done, right? Are men’s emotional needs seen as less important? Are men uncomfortable talking about this issue? Are we uncomfortable (or disinterested) in listening to men talking about this issue?
Here’s a few suggestions:
It’s not just women who suffer from regressive gender expectations: men are often socialised into the role of “emotional rock” , expected to be ‘the strong one’— and never more so than when a couple is experiencing infertility issues. As psychotherapist Justin Loi observes:
Often, especially regarding fertility, men are reluctant to express their anger and worries to their partner. They rightly know that their female partner has a different role to play in pregnancy (obvious, right?) and often don’t want to look like they’re competing for who has it harder.
Gender stereotypes of ‘masculinity’ are so often associated with ‘virility’ — so the inability to conceive can leave many men feeling emasculated, as fertility blogger ‘Scantility Dad’ describes:
My reproductive system does not work and admitting it is still painful. Of all of the types of shame that I have encountered this may the most difficult to cope with. There is something so final about being infertile.
Being infertile in a fertile world
It takes two people to make a baby, and it affects both partners when that isn’t happening. The deep longing to have a child — and the sense of isolation when you can’t do what seems so natural to everyone els e— affects both partners, as Glenn Barden describes:
My failure at fatherhood ate away at my very being. Friends later told me that my body was physically hunched from the emotional weight of my baby wait. I didn’t want to talk about it to anyone. I would walk past children playing in the park and I’d feel my heart breaking into tiny pieces. I would oscillate wildly between anger and depression. After learning a friend of ours was pregnant, I didn’t leave my bedroom for two days.
Being ignored by fertility professionals
The female partner is the one who’s undergoing the medical procedures, so they naturally become the focus of interactions with clinicians -but often to the extent that men may be ignored altogether, even when they’re in the room. As James D’Souza describes:
Whenever we went to appointments it was very much like I was just there — the conversation wasn’t directed at me.
Which is only further compounded when a couple is suffering from male factor infertility. In no other area of medicine does someone undergo treatment because of someone else’s medical issue, and the patient themselves thereafter almost entirely ignored — but that’s exactly what happens in fertility treatment, as Richard Clothier describes:
My humiliation continued when I was sent to a female gynaecologist. I quickly realised that none of the people I was talking to had an understanding of the emotional impact of my issues, which only made me feel worse and was also pretty emasculating.
Conspiracy of silence
Though there’s been so much positive change towards Fertility Fest’s second big aim -“To improve understanding of the emotional journey of people who struggle or go on a complex journey to conceive”, when it comes to women, the same isn’t true for men — men’s emotional journey and emotional needs are simply ignored
There’s no shortage of online fertility communities for women, where we can take solace from a world that doesn’t understand us, and find support amongst others who can relate to our pain — but men barely get a look in. As James D’Souza describes:
The awareness is terrible and it’s compounded by the fact that there’s no space for us to talk. Guys talking to guys doesn’t happen often. Guys talking to guys about fertility? That really doesn’t happen.
As I sat in the clinic during our first round, I flipped through a book with messages of encouragement inside — but only for women. There was nothing for or by men. So I went online and tried there instead. Still, it was all women and no men. When I posted in forums I even had women reply on behalf of men.
Making the invisible, visible
More and more men are starting to break cover, and step out of the shadows to talk more openly about male infertility — to make the invisible man visible.
At Fertility Fest this year, ‘The Invisible Man’ will feature artists and experts to explore all these issues:
Film-maker Tom Webb will present an extract from his ground-breaking feature length documentary The Easy Bit, in which six men talk candidly to camera about how it really feels to go through fertility treatment as a man.
Theatre-maker Toby Peach will perform an unforgettable sample of his award-winning solo show The Eulogy of Toby Peach about the moment he was told he was going to be infertile, aged 22, after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma:
Singer songwriter Bob Strawbridge will perform work from his latest EP Never Alone which has been inspired by his and his wife’s long fertility struggle — bringing forth a deeply personal collection of songs which tells of six years of lost pregnancies and unsuccessful IVF.
Rapping reverend Elis Matthews will be sharing some spoken word pieces about the lived experience of a man diagnosed with azoospermia, in an attempt to (over)share about the lived experience of male infertility with his own brand of offbeat humour.
The evening’s performance will be followed by a discussion and Q&A with the artists and fertility experts Sheryl Homa, Director of Andrology Solutions and Michael Close, Director of LogixX Pharma, chaired by writer and journalist Sarfraz Manzoor.
The Invisible Man will be taking place on Thursday 25 April 2019 @ 7pm
For more information, performance schedule and to book tickets, visit the Barbican website