On Male Fertility and the Mental Health Conundrum
What is meant to make you feel better might actually be ruining your relationship
I always thought by this point, I’d be up to my knees in index cards with sight words written on the front. Fatherhood was high up on the priority list of to-dos, but I wanted things to be right. The situation didn’t have to be perfect. However, I wanted my first time as a father to be with a woman who was the Allonzo Trier to my Mitchell Robinson.
We talked about kids and eventually starting a family at great lengths. I was confident and comfortable talking to her about it because it seemed that we could get through anything. We both agreed that we didn’t want to wait too long. We were on the same page for the most part and that’s all it ever takes right? But before we could even get started on making kids the old-fashioned way, life happened to us in a way only she was prepared for.
Cysts are apparently common and statistically more asymptomatic than not. What I didn’t know was that ovarian cysts can rupture, hemorrhage, and even cause painful torsions (or twisting) in the reproductive organs. What became a huge worry was discovering that cysts can sometimes be malignant. I wound up going down a rabbit hole of 20 tabs open one night, trying to get educated. To make this portion of our experience brief, creating life the “regular” way was going to be quite the mountain.
I was hurting over a baby that wasn’t even close to being real.
Full disclosure here: at first, I did blame her. The other part of me had to be honest and realistic though. Although, men can have children well into their 70s that doesn’t mean it goes without a hitch. Mentally, I got bogged down with scenarios about what our journey toward parenthood would look like if we stayed together and kept trying. There was only one other person who could help make sense of what felt like nonsense.
“Mijo, give that girl a second chance. You might have issues too, you never know.”
Damn. The truth hurts.
Once I had the conversation with my mother, I was even more convinced about having my reproductive plumbing checked. As I sat in the office of a fertility specialist, I chided myself for waiting so long. The worst case scenarios were at the forefront of my thoughts. More importantly, I forgave her, acknowledging that those projections onto her were based on my own fear.
We don’t talk about male fertility. When I say “we”, I’m referring to men. Culturally, virility is directly connected to the presence of little versions of you. I come from a big family on both sides. For years, I had to side-step questions about when I was adding to the brood of children. “What’s the problem?” was asked as normally as “So, how is work?”. I hated it, particularly in this season. Anxiously waiting for the results. I knew that this appointment was going to be the cause of more questions.
How was I going to explain to this woman — or any woman — that I have low motility? How could I explain to the woman I’d gotten so angry at that I too have an issue that accounts for nearly 20% of all infertility cases? In plain English, my sperm count is average for my age group. The problem is the sperm cells move slow.
I was diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety disorder a few years ago. During my consult, the doctor asked about the medications I was prescribed. Since the initial diagnosis, I’ve been on an assortment of prescriptions. Last year, I finally settled on a medication that works. Panic attacks are at a minimum. I can usually tell when a depressive episode is approaching. Incorporating healthy coping mechanisms are employed rather than detaching.
What I didn’t know…or what I never thought to ask is how the medication (and previous cocktails) would affect reproductive abilities. I didn’t ask about sexual side effects because I’d never heard a man discuss infertility as a problem that existed. I was alone in knowing how to deal with this and how to mentally accept what the new reality is.
A medicine that was designed to fix one problem had become the catalyst to another. All the insecurities I’d previously worked through were now transferred to the pressing fact that the one remaining dream I have might not come true. Or at the very least, it would come with nudging and prodding.
So what was the solution?
I’ve consulted with the fertility specialist as well as my therapist. Medically, I’m doing what’s been recommended in order to fix low motility. Mentally, the therapist is helping to change my language about fertility. Yes, it’s going to be hard. It might turn out to be expensive. But becoming a father the way I want is not impossible. These type of issues are not uncommon. And it’s not a stain on me.
The negative opinions and insight that people throw at women, I repeated to myself over and over. Honestly, re-writing the script in my head is way more nerve-wracking than shooting off into a cup. Men have been silenced into shame for generations, with our brothers being the worst intimidators. I don’t think I would have even bothered writing this had I not seen other men starting the conversation . Talking about it and hearing stories about how guys have remained optimistic has been invaluable.
There are many factors that play a part in fertility. For me, it was not being aware and up-to-date on the effects of medication that I needed to survive normally. I’ve since stopped taking that medication and have started the treatment of putting my swimmers through what I call training camp. The most noticeable change is that I don’t rebound from panic attacks as quickly. However, I know what the goal is. And remembering my why is what makes this all worth it.
People go through all types of struggle when it comes to conceiving. The process in and of itself can put you on an emotional rollercoaster. But what I hope for any men going through this is that you advocate early for what you put in your body. Not every medication accommodates the long-term goal of starting a family. Fortunately, in my life, there’s enough time left to pivot to a plan that ensures a good quality of mental health and ability to have children the normal way. Knowing what the goal is makes all of the hard, uncomfortable stuff now worth it.