What It's Like for Men to Face the Pain of Infertility

sad couple
iStock.com/jeffbergen

Every spring, along with the flower displays and sunscreen endcaps, come the elaborate baby shower decorations in stores. I cringe when I see the pink and blue waiting for me down the aisle and turn my shopping cart in the opposite direction. 

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Humans have babies year round, so it's odd that stores act like women are barnyard creatures who only give birth during one season. But the real reason I can't bring myself to push past these displays is because they bring back painful memories of the time in my life when I wasn't sure I'd ever have a baby.

I was surprised to learn that my husband feels the same way. The other day I was strolling along the aisle of Target with my husband and our two boys. For once I was more focused on the squabble over who got to hold the box of granola bars we were buying than where we were going. Suddenly my husband grabbed the cart handle. "Let's go this way," he said, inclining his head toward the shoe section. "I don't want to go past the baby stuff."

I had always avoided that section because of how it made me feel, but I never realized he could be dealing with his own lingering feelings from our time fighting the infertility monster.

But, of course, just because they're not the ones undergoing the injections, taking pills, or spending time spread-eagle on an exam table doesn't mean our partners don't struggle with their own complex emotions about infertility.

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One in eight couples has trouble starting a family, which means chances are good that you or one of your close friends will at some point run into trouble getting that second line to show up on a pregnancy test. While some couples who get dealt the infertility card go on to have biological children or become parents via adoption, not all folks fulfill their dream of having someone call them "Mommy" or "Daddy." Regardless of whether your infertility story has a happy ending, the emotions that come with wanting to be a parent and not knowing if it will ever happen don't really ever go away.

My husband and I were part of the lucky group. Four years ago I gave birth to twin boys via the wonders of modern science. Even though our battle with infertility ended well, infertility will always be a part of who I am. But recently I realized infertility is a part of him too.

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In honor of National Infertility Awareness Week, I reached out to men who are or have been part of a couple struggling to have a baby and asked them to share, in their own words, what infertility feels like from their perspective. There are a lot of fantastic resources out there for women on infertility, but men seem to be more hesitant to open up on their experiences. I found four men -- including my own husband -- willing to share their feelings and advice for other wannabe dads. Here's what they had to say:

It's lonely

"Dealing with infertility was, at that point in my marriage, the most helpless I'd ever felt as a husband to my wife," says a man we'll call A.B.

A.B. and his wife struggled with five and a half years of infertility before becoming pregnant, only to have both that pregnancy and the one that followed end in miscarriage. Finally in February 2015 they welcomed a child.

"I learned quickly to not say things [to my wife] like 'I understand what you're feeling,' because, as my wife angrily pointed out, I did not actually understand what she was feeling," he shares. "So too with things like 'this will work out eventually' or 'it's going to be okay'; she would be furious and say 'You don't know that.' Basically, I learned that in this area she just wanted to be heard and sometimes, held."

Learning how to communicate with his wife in a way that helped her feel loved was helpful not only during their treatments, but also for coping with the pregnancy losses the couple had. "The only saving grace was that it prepared me in terms of how to support her after the miscarriages happened later," he says.

A.B. stresses how important it is for husbands to have their own support system, someone besides their wife whom they can talk to about what they're going through. ”All in all, it's just a sh*tty, horrible thing to endure, and I'd strongly suggest that men going through it find some supportive family and friends to vent to, because it's a very lonely thing to do on your own."

Feeling helpless

J.M.W. says the hardest part of going through infertility with his wife was feeling like he wasn't able to do more to help. He and his wife struggled with infertility before ultimately becoming parents through adoption.

"As a guy, we want to fix stuff and you realize very quickly that you can't fix it and you can't make it better," he says. "You also feel like your part in the process is minimal because you just have to make your 'deposit' whereas the woman has to go to all the appointments, get the tests, etc. It's as if you really don't need to be there."

Keeping the faith

His faith in God has been instrumental in helping J.A. not lose hope as he and his wife continue on their quest to have a baby. "Love in your relationship, faith in the whole process of IVF, and faith in God, is the most important thing. Never lose faith in the process, or love for each other," he says. "Be ready for the emotional highs and lows, but never lose faith. Love her, and be ready for the emotions, because they will change. As I write this, we are in the waiting room, waiting to do our frozen transfer, in our second round of IVF."

Mixed emotions

The night of our Target detour, I asked my own husband if he still felt the sting of all those months of uncertainty. Turns out I'm not the only one still struggling to process what we went through. "It's a challenge on many levels, he said. "First, as a man, the concept of manliness largely comes from the ability to father children, so facing the reality that you and your wife may not be able to do this can feel emasculating. Second, as a husband, you want to be able to provide everything your wife desires, so feeling like you cannot provide something that both she and you have literally discussed wanting since you started dating is infuriating."

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And, for any woman who's ever felt a wave of jealousy when a friend posts an ultrasound picture, know your man might be feeling the same way, even if he doesn't say it. "Of course, there is advanced reproductive technology, but this is extremely expensive with no guarantee of success, so it is maddening to watch your friends' wives get pregnant like it's nothing while you are having frank conversations about risking financial stability for a 30 percent chance of having a baby," my husband reveals. "Instead, you remove the fun that should come with trying to make a baby and replace it with stress and guilt over not being able to swoop in and fix everything."

For those going through fertility struggles, know that your man feels the same way you do, even if he doesn't always talk about it. And the next time you find yourself talking to that friend who's TTC with no luck, don't forget to ask her partner how he's handling things too. He may appreciate the question more than you realize.

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