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Infertility

Men's experiences of fertility treatment

Here we discuss men’s experiences of treatment, including their reactions to their partner’s treatment.

Men who were told that the problem was due to poor sperm quality sometimes felt guilty, at least at first. Brian discovered that he was the cause of their infertility after a previous doctor had misread the results.

 

Brian had been told there was no problem with his sperm and felt it was a "kick in the teeth"...

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Age at interview: 33
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 32
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I went to the doctor’s and he said, ‘Oh we’ve got your sperm test results back’ and he said, ‘They’re all fine, so many million whatever. No problem at all. We’ll wait and see what comes back for [wife].’ And I found out when we went to the private hospital afterwards that these two or three tests I’d had, he totally misread the counts on the, and it had been, the majority of the problem had been me all the time. Which was horrible because [wife] had been through so many other horrible tests. And for a woman it’s much, much worse than it is for a man, obviously. You know. She actually had a test done which gave her a horrible womb infection. She was in so much pain. I felt so guilty for that afterwards. And again blaming myself for it.
 
And what was it like when you actually heard that there was a problem with your sperm?
 
Complete kick in the teeth I think. You know, it’s, it’s as I said before you’re born into thinking, you know, you’re here on this earth to do what you do and you have children and you pass on your name. You pass on your bloodline and all that rubbish really. But it’s just that because it’s, it’s, no one ever says to you, but it might not happen. And when someone says to you, ‘Actually because of your sperm count and whatever you’ve got you’ve got a 3% chance of actually having natural, a natural birth. What do you think? You know you think, well you know, I thought wonderful, great. It’s not going to happen. We’re not going to have kids it’s the first thing I thought was [wife] wants kids. It’s a big thing she wants and I know she loves me but should we then be together. I started thinking, you know, should, should we split up. Should I make her not love me anymore so she can be with someone and have children. I think anyone would do. That’s a bit drastic, I know sounds a bit dramatic.
 
 

Martin discovered that his sperm quality contributed to their fertility problems. It took a while...

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Age at interview: 41
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 35
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So a bit scary for people that rely on that and in fact you can’t rely on that, so there clearly was a problem with me. So we came terms with that and [wife]’s feelings. I think it took me a while just to be so relaxed about talking about it as I am these days. There is a perception, I use the word perception, a perception out there of how you think people will respond to you. You know, your peers, the lads down the pub, everyone that you know. So are they are going to look at you. Do you feel less of a man. How does that affect you and it took me a while just to get it into perspective. And I thought no it is not my fault, I have not done anything, you know, I suppose it was through having mumps as a child. There’s no physiological reason. There is no genetic reason. So they are a little bit baffled as what causes the problem. 
 
But, so I thought no I am not going to be ashamed about this, I am not going to deny it, I’m not going to be embarrassed when I talk about it, you know, because I have got no reason to be, and you know, if I had any other kind of condition, people wouldn’t sort of condemn me or look at me in a different way, so why should I be any different about this? So I chose to be very upfront, I think to some people’s shock. You know, I was so upfront, even down to the case that the guys would sometimes used to just make a joke about it. And even today people come out with the most ridiculous comments, totally innocently and I fire back something really quick, you know [laughs]. And you can see the horror.
 

Walter found out that he was infertile in a particularly abrupt way. His trousers were still around his ankles when the doctor delivered the news that he had testicular atrophy and he wasn’t producing any sperm. “So it was a kind of a bit of a body blow to hear that.” He came to terms with this news and he and his wife decided to have children with donor sperm, but it was an “emotional rollercoaster”. His children are now grown up and although he has had a very happy family life with his two donor-conceived children, he said that his infertility was something that “never finishes”.
 

Walter reflected on the lasting impact of his infertility. Like “other life events” he carries it...

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Age at interview: 63
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 35
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I think it didn’t, it did finish in the sense that it, I had come through the, whatever that bit of turmoil whatever it was, but I think it’s also something that never finishes. That one can continue to have reflections about the children that we didn’t have. And that we can carry those feelings of sadness and loss to this day, about the children we didn’t have and without feeling that that’s in any way a something that one should be ashamed of or embarrassed about. And can hold together with the feelings of enormous love and reward for the children we did have. And so, I think that for many times, yes, I’ve wondered, what the children would have been like if they had been my genetic children, mine and [wife]’s genetic children together. I’ve had some moments of wonder and imagination of trying to conceive, imagine that. But I don’t feel – not of continuous grief or agony but it, its, I suppose it’s akin to some sort of other life events, or courses down which, things didn’t happen. But this was I suppose, quite a big thing that didn’t happen. And so one does still carry that. And, you know, I think, as I say I carry it to this day.


Mike had an illness in his youth that left him infertile, and he was fairly relaxed about needing donated sperm to conceive a family. He said that, “The concept of having a healthy, strong thoroughly checked out sperm baby…. wasn’t going to be an issue”.

Men sometimes had to have more active treatment – George, for example had to have a sperm aspiration operation with a general anaesthetic.

 

George described what it was like to go in for a sperm aspiration operation. He was very worried...

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Age at interview: 54
Sex: Male
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Since last time round about October, we went in for what they call sperm aspiration. They cut the testicle, not two of them, just the biggest one. And they hopefully get a sperm. Unfortunately in my case they had to remove some tissue. I was really very worried about the operation, because you have these flying thoughts, because I go through a general anaesthetic, whereas my wife [wife], she it was a local anaesthetic for her egg extraction. But I was a general anaesthetic. But there is all these flying thoughts, I might not wake up after the anaesthetic. And it was quite a worry beforehand. I was really quite worried. In fact I even said to my wife, “I might do a runner, you know.”
 
But they managed, and then you’ve got to wait until you come round to see how the whole thing went. And that’s a worry as well, because you think, well I don’t know if they’ll find anything, or if they have found anything. And if they don’t find anything, how am I going to feel, you know, if they don’t find any sperm at all. 
 
In my case, they got enough to make what they call three straws and so they froze them in sort of the deep freeze until [wife] was ready for her treatment to make eggs so they could make embryos. So that was quite a worry.
 
So tell me what the operation was like. Going in and having the operation?
 
I, beforehand it was the biggest worry, because being a man it’s a very difficult thing to talk about, because you’ve nobody to talk to, and if you do talk to somebody about it, you usually get jokes back, you know. So that is quite stressful, thinking, well will I come round for the anaesthetic or not come round from anaesthetic or what happens if they don’t find anything, you know?
 
But the operation itself. I thought it would be much more painful than it was because they tell you to bring in really tight Speedo trunks and I think it is just to keep your testicles quite tight, because you have to be off for about three or four days after the operation in case there is any fluid built up. But I found it was okay. That was not too bad at all. 
 

Whatever the cause of their infertility, men (and women) often feel that they experience infertility from the side-lines. Nearly all of the treatment happens to the woman.
 

Naomi described how difficult she felt it was for her husband to watch her go through all the...

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Age at interview: 35
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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It’s not very dignified is it? I think it is very difficult, and specially I think when it’s a male factor problem, it is difficult to watch what your partner has to go through. As I say with us we were wrong in thinking this. When actually, you know, potentially there was nothing wrong with me. As we found afterwards there was something wrong with me, but it must have been difficult for him to see, you know, that I had to go through all these drugs, and all these injections, and all these traumas. So, yes, I think that is quite difficult. 
 
And then there’s the feeling that, you know, their part in it [laughs]. Off in the loos with a magazine it is not exactly glamorous is it? 
 
And I think with a donor its probably even more so. Because when we first had, when we were over in [city] and we went out there expecting just to be donor eggs and then we were told at our first consultation there were potentially some problems with the partners sperm that they really recommended we either had donor eggs and used my husband’s sperm, but had a lot of further testing, which was very expensive, wasn’t guaranteed to work, or that we went for donor sperm, we were very quick to make the decision to go for donor sperm, because we had already been down the adoption route, but I remember him standing there and saying to me, he just couldn’t believe how superfluous he was going to the whole baby making process, because he didn’t even get to go off with a magazine and a pot, you know, someone else did that bit.
 

Although treatment wasn’t happening to them, being on the sidelines of treatment, or a bystander, could be distressing for men, who sometimes felt embarrassed and guilty that they had such a small role to play. Brian said, “She had this horrible test done and…. all I’ve ever done is read a nice magazine and sat in a room, and that’s horrible”. 

Maggie felt her laparascopy was hard on her husband. He was side-lined and felt powerless. “I’m very lucky, my husband would do anything he could to make me happy. But this was one thing that would make me happy, he couldn’t do. And that was very very difficult for him”.

Men sometimes said they were worried about the effect of treatments on their wife’s long-term health. Oliver was scared when his wife had to go “under the knife” but did not want his alarm to show. Brian said the egg collection was horrible because he felt that he was at “fault”.

Tim, who on the whole described himself as very stoical about their infertility and treatment, found it distressing to sit in on the egg collection procedure.

 

Tim found it distressing to watch his wife’s egg collection.

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Age at interview: 41
Sex: Male
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Again it is in a way distressing, because although they are anaesthetised there is still a lot of murmuring and I think they do feel the pain when they are in there. But although they don’t remember it afterwards. It is more of a Rohypnol type thing that they get, rather than a complete anaesthetic. It is only in effect really a local. So it is quite distressing to see someone in the pain, but nothing you can do about it, because you know it is only going to carry on until they have got all the eggs out, or as many as they can, so… But other than that I mean its… well emotionally as well it is hard, because you know it comes round whether there is an egg in it or not, and you are sort of sitting there waiting because you want as many as possible, because that means you have got a better chance of as many as decent embryos, enough to freeze and so on and so forth. 

 

Martin said it was hard to be a bystander, especially once they started donor treatment.

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Age at interview: 41
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 35
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I battled with my own emotional elements for the want of a family and the disappointment and everything else. But also, looking after [wife], I see her go through so, so much hard emotion of the types she has been through and the ups and the downs. I want to make that right and I can’t, and that gets me more. When the cycle fails I can almost deal with the failure easier than I can deal with what’s coming. The upset that I know how she is hurting, and she’s feeling. That absolutely is horrible place to me. And I just want to put it right.
 
 Sometimes you feel like a bit of a bystander as well, because physically your partner’s going through everything. They’re the ones on the operating table having eggs collected and embryos put in, having the drug protocols, they are the focus of all the treatment. And sometimes, you are almost like a spectator and you feel a bit outside of it. And the medical profession doesn’t help, because they always refer, they don’t talk to you as a couple. You will be sat in the waiting room and they will say, “You can go in now.” And they’ll talk to wife, and I just follow. Rather than recognising both of us and saying, “Would you both like to come through?” Never do they do that, they almost forget you’re there. You’re shoved off to the side, you are shoved out here and you have a very secondary role. All the way through.
 
When you start donor. I needn’t have even gone. I didn’t even have to go to [country] I wasn’t even needed for that bit. So there is a risk that you can feel totally irrelevant. I can be really aware of that and try to make sure I don’t feel, and [wife]’s been great, she absolutely made me involved in everything. And I mean it’s very important now she is pregnant that I’m involved right down to going to midwife appointments with her, the midwife thinks I’ve lost the plot. They don’t normally see the husbands coming along. But I want to be involved. I want to be part of it at every stage. I have been up until now. And I am going to continue to be, you know, whether it’s a midwife appointment or a NCT class or whatever. I will be involved in that. Because if I’m not there’s a risk I could start to feel alienated. And [wife] is going to give birth to these babies. She is involved, they are growing inside her. My role is actually, this could happen without me being involved. So I have got to make myself involved. And I am sure as soon as they are born and the bond forms. Well the bond is there now actually. You know, I see them as people. But you know, and since I actively have a role to play I am sure that will get easier in time. But there is certainly a risk, in IVF, let alone donor, you don’t have any of the physical elements. 
 
 

Carol felt that men were overlooked and often feel like a “spare part”, although they expected to...

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Age at interview: 39
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 27
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I feel very strongly that the men are overlooked. If in fact the cause of the fertility problem is male factor. Obviously that is covered and they are treated more as a patient, but the problem that I see is that if it is the female problem or a joint problem as all of the treatment revolves around the woman apart from giving the sperm donation. All the attention of the unit, from the doctors and the nurses revolves particularly around the female patient. And I feel very often the guys must feel like a spare part and they are the ones that are trying to be strong and support their woman through their hormonal ups and down and I just would like them to get a bit more of a look in in terms of support as well. Definitely they must at times, feel that they would love to cry but they are not encouraged to do so. They have got to be the strong one to lean on.


Oliver said his wife would have been happy to adopt, but that he had been the one pushing for IVF treatment, which was difficult because it was his wife who had to go through it. Their treatment had been successful and they had a daughter, but he felt his wife would have been cross with him if it hadn’t worked out.
 

Oliver said that he had pushed for them to try IVF before they went for adoption.

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Age at interview: 39
Sex: Male
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[Wife] would possibly have stopped before me. I pushed it a bit more, and I mean she will say that she probably would have gone for adoption I pushed for IVF, I really did want to have our own child. And how that would have been had we not got a child I don’t know. It would have been difficult. But obviously now we’re very happy, but it would have been very interesting to see how we’d have coped. I think we would have been okay. Again, she would have been a bit cross with me about it, to say the least, she would have said, wasted years. But, I think you have to give it the opportunity.
 
Why is it important to do that?
 
I’d always wanted my own child. And I think that if we had the opportunity to do it we should give it a try. And now seven cycles is a lot. I think, as I say, we would have stopped when our eggs ran out, at that point. So we had probably one more attempt, so it would have been five attempts which is a lot. And if we’d have not had so many eggs, I don’t know if we’d have tried so much. I think we’d have probably stopped at three. Maybe four. She was, I think three was about [wife]’s limit. She was ready for it. She could do a fourth and she only kept going because we had the eggs. And after that I think we would have stopped. 
 

Men were sometimes unsure what they could do to support their partners, and did not always know whether they had got it right. Brian said that he thought maybe he should have encouraged his wife to talk more about how she was feeling, but she was a stoic and tended to keep things to herself. James said that he very much hoped that his wife thought he had been supportive but since she tended to “suffer quietly” and did not put pressure on him, he was not sure.
 

James felt helpless watching his wife go through treatment but tried to support her as much as he...

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Age at interview: 47
Sex: Male
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The helplessness I think is one of the key things, because you really don’t, you don’t feel the emotional side of it, in terms of what the hormonal side of it. You are not, your body is not changing 360 degrees in 30 days and going through, you know, a lot of rough patches and it is not having to cope with all the injections and that kind of stuff. And in that, you know, just, I think, I think I was fortunate because [wife] didn’t put a lot of pressure on me to, to understand, but she suffers quietly, and so sometimes one can never quite know. Like I don’t know quite, you know, fully what she was thinking and whether she felt I was fully supportive or not fully supportive. That sounds like we weren’t talking, but we were talking a lot. But I think, yes, however, much you talk there is always going to be that element of doubt. And I just felt that, it is purely really helpless, not knowing what one can do to help, except just be there really. And there is quite a lot of trips you can’t help, and I think those are probably the worst. You know, when you can’t take time off or you can’t go on every single trip down to the hospital. So there was a lot of those. The worst bit about the ICSI was where it was as well, you know, and listening to her when she came back and she had been sitting on her own with pregnant ladies all over the place, and as you know was depressing. But I think, what she appreciated most was just being, me being there and listening and talking. Yes, you know, and I suppose just doing the simple things in life, which is talking, eating together, eating together, you know, round a table, rather than without watching TV and things like that, you know, and that is one of the best places to talk, I think, if you have got something to talk about.


Men sometimes got involved by helping with the injections (see ‘IVF & ICSI’) although one man said that this was far from easy since his wife was, “Like a premiership footballer” when it came to pain tolerance. 

Oliver said that the most important role he could perform was sharing as much as possible. He also mentioned that it was “amazing” to attend the transfer. Mike felt his role was to give as much support as he could, “It is not my sperm but everything else is me”. Brian felt he was, “Being the optimist I think, and a shoulder to cry on.“

Men also said they did research on the condition and clinics, and helped by hiding their own concerns, staying calm, attending appointments, listening to what the doctors were saying and helping to explain what was happening to other people. Sandra said that her husband fielded calls from friends and family when things went wrong and she couldn’t talk to them. Oliver said he would sometimes have a “quiet word” when friends were asking too many questions.

 

Oliver had a quiet word with some friends when they were “pushing it”, asking about how their...

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Age at interview: 39
Sex: Male
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We’d talk about it to some friends, but it has to be on your terms, and people can’t ask you and say, “Oh,” because, you know, people are interested and I think people are trying to be helpful. There were a couple of people who would keep pushing it, even though I would have a quiet word and say, “Please don’t say anything. Please.” But they would keep pushing it, and that would be really upsetting. 
 
And I mean that’s a great thing for people to be aware of actually is to try and, it’s a great thing that the man can do in the relationship is to let people know that we don’t, or we do want to talk about it, some people are very open, but just to make it clear. Because people don’t understand, they want to be involved. And it’s like well, yes, this is really tough. So you’re not there all the time, you know, the friends aren’t there all the time, whereas you two are living in that relationship and its only you know how you’re feeling how you’re feeling at that time.
 

Lulu and George both pointed out that the man can make some contribution by looking after his own health, giving up smoking, cutting down on drinking and maybe taking dietary supplements.

The importance of support was seconded by several of the women' Sarah said her husband, “Tries to keep upbeat to try and drag me along a bit”. Naomi said the support that her husband had given her throughout their treatment was the most important bit. 

See also ‘Men and coping’.

​Last reviewed July 2017.

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