On our podcast Baby Steps, we’ve highlighted fertility and the many different diverse paths people take to pursue parenthood. Now, we’re bringing those stories to our blog. Today, Joseph, a 35-year-old man from New York, shares his story about male infertility and how it has impacted his road to becoming a parent.
When I was a small child, I had surgery twice for undescended testicles. I don’t remember a ton from that experience, but I do remember sitting in the doctor’s office after the procedure. The doctor told me I should get a sperm count when I was older.
Although that was always somewhere in the back of my mind, I didn’t act on it. After all, life happened — I was a normal, active young man going through college, starting a career, moving to exciting places around the world, and meeting the woman who became my wife. My life was going great, and I was enjoying every moment of it.
Everything changed in 2019. My wife and I decided that we wanted to have kids, so it was time to think about how we were going to build our family. Remembering my doctor’s suggestion as a child, we decided it might be smart to check in and make sure everything was okay. At that first visit, the doctor assured us that there was likely nothing to worry about. But, to be on the safe side, they referred me to a urologist. The conversation at the urologist went very similarly — a test wasn’t really necessary, but they’d do a sperm count just to be thorough.
When the results came back, the results were very clear: I was producing zero sperm. I was in complete shock. What did that mean for us in terms of our future family? Was it even an option for us to try to have a biological child? It’s hard to recall the flood of emotions I felt in the ensuing hours, days, weeks, and months. I clearly remember thinking “devastation” was the word that best summed up the feeling — this rosy and optimistic future that had just been crushed like an empty soda can in the span of minutes. The moment when I had to deliver the news to my wife that evening is a moment I’ll never forget. Articulating for the first time out loud the ramifications of what the doctor told me — his flowchart diagrams and all — was the first time the full situation really started sinking in.
For our own educational benefit but also as a coping mechanism, we both dove into research to figure out what our options were. After some exploration, I spoke with my physician and was able to start taking Clomid to stimulate my fertility. Every two months, I went back to the doctor to get my testosterone levels checked to see how I was responding. And from a medical progress perspective so far, it’s gone well — my testosterone levels are up.
But in one of those visits, we got another piece of news: I have a chromosomal abnormality called Robertsonian translocation. That threw another wrench into our plans — even if my sperm count was normal, it would require some sort of assisted reproductive technology for my wife to potentially become pregnant.
This led me down a dangerous rabbit hole of “what ifs.” What if I got a sperm count when I was 18, how differently would I have lived life knowing this? What if my wife wouldn’t want to marry someone knowing they had a fertility issue? What if my parents had made different medical decisions for me when I was young, could this have been prevented?
And beyond the “what ifs,” there have been a lot of additional emotional ups and downs throughout the whole process. My wife felt guilty for not being at that initial appointment with me, so she came to all subsequent appointments with me, keeping her composure and asking all of the questions we rehearsed in the car in case I forgot. Guilt was — and is — a common emotion for both partners to feel during this process. For me, I feel guilty that I am, at worst, the reason my wife may not get pregnant and, at best, won’t have a “conventional” pregnancy. Neither of us cause the other party to feel guilty, and we’ve spoken aloud about it, but in a situation where we have no control, guilt is a thing we can assign.
Fortunately, despite the setbacks, we were able to move forward with our plans for in vitro fertilization (IVF). We spoke with several different fertility clinics to find out what our options were, and eventually settled on one in New York.
We did our first IVF round in February. They were able to retrieve 30 eggs from my wife; from that, 10 fertilized. We have one that is viable for transfer, and we’re weighing our options with some of the other embryos. Because my wife is 100% healthy and there are no fertility issues on her end, our clinic had us optimistic throughout the entire retrieval process. We were assured the egg count would be high, which gave us an idea of the fertilization number. What we weren’t prepared for was the drop off to one viable embryo. The few people we shared this with assured us it was great news, and we knew one was a whole heck of a lot better than none. But going from 30 to 1 was a tough mental jump to make, especially after the weeks of shots, hormone medicine, and driving hundreds of miles every other day to the clinic — all while balancing full-time jobs.
We’ve been fortunate to have some savings to help us pursue parenthood, but fertility benefits have been very much on both of our minds. As we think about our careers and where those will take us in the future, both of us have been looking at companies who offer their employees fertility benefits. For us, fertility benefits could be life-changing, giving us more options and more financial freedom to make the choices that are right for us. We’ve been very fortunate throughout this process to find a great clinic and doctors who are able to support us, but getting started was an incredibly isolating experience. Neither of us were quite sure where to go for information, and it’s such a personal topic that you don’t necessarily want to bring it up in casual conversation.
I recently realized that there had to be other people experiencing this, so I decided to start sharing my story so others know they aren’t alone. One of my first steps was signing up to be a panelist at a summit to discuss infertility from the male perspective — my first opportunity to share my story on the public stage. Although this event was postponed because of COVID-19, I’m excited to put myself out there at some point, as scary as it sounds. As my wife and I pursue an embryo transfer, we have decided to keep that timeframe to ourselves and share less with our close circle as it regards to the transfer. There is so much at stake with our one embryo, that we want to process however this plays out just between us at least in the beginning.
I realize the importance of sharing though as I have noticed when I tell my story, other people have started sharing their stories with me. It’s been the most cathartic thing. Even people who I have known for years — but had never discussed fertility concerns with — have started telling me about their experiences. One of my best friends from college experienced issues with male fertility and now has had two babies using IVF. A good friend and local business owner in my community found out we have similar stories, and now we’re connecting about it on a weekly basis. The community I’m finding has been incredible.
Dealing with infertility truly takes a village. I’m grateful for the support I’ve had so far through my clinic and community. But it doesn’t have to be such a challenge to deal with. My hope is that, as we break the stigma of talking about infertility and it becomes standard practice for fertility benefits to be offered by employers, no one will have to navigate this on their own.
A few of my favorite resources
“How to make love to a plastic cup” This book is written by a comedian going through infertility, so it’s light-hearted but still filled with helpful information.
“Unsung Lullabies” This book, filled with stories about infertility, packs a pretty emotional punch.
Infertile AF podcast