When Father’s Day Never Comes
by Sandra Glahn
Men like Jim Lawson are glad to have the third Sunday in June behind them, because every year when Father’s Day rolls around, they feel more acutely the pain of their infertility. And though these brothers may feel alone, they have plenty of company. About one in six couples of childbearing age are unable to conceive after one year of unprotected relations. And while many perceive infertility as “a woman’s problem,” actually men and women share the diagnosis about equally.
Male infertility has a wide range of causes, including low sperm production, misshapen or listless sperm, illness, injury, and chronic health problems such as diabetes—among other factors. And because it is associated with such a private part of his life, infertility often takes a toll on the male patient’s sense of manhood.
Further adding to his stress, friends may joke with, “You must be having fun trying.” But in actuality fifty-six percent of couples experiencing infertility report a decrease in the frequency of their sexual relationship, with 42% of infertile men actually reporting a decrease in sexual satisfaction. The violated privacy, the poking and prodding, the love by the calendar—all of these typically have a negative effect on the couple’s love life.
So, how can we support our guy friends experiencing the spiritual, emotional, financial, ethical crisis of infertility?
Recognize that spouses grieve differently. One sociologist observed that, in general, “Wives saw their husbands as callous and unaffected by infertility while husbands saw their wives as ‘overreacting’ and unable to put things in perspective. While wives felt their husbands were unwilling to talk about infertility, some husbands wondered what there was to talk about.” In another study, half of the infertile women said their infertility was the hardest thing they had ever experienced, but only fifteen percent of their husbands said the same thing.
Nevertheless, one researcher reported that men typically had the same response to infertility as did their wives. The difference was that the men’s feelings occurred three years after their wives experienced those same emotions.
With these dynamics in play, couples can feel “out of synch” for years. Because infertility happens during the childbearing time of a couple’s lives, it is often the first real grief that husband and wife experience as a couple. And they can be astounded at how polarized they feel. In the biblical story of Hannah found in 1 Samuel 1, consider how differently Hannah and Elkanah dealt with their experience. When she wept and refused to eat, he took her grief personally, asking, “Am I not better to you than ten sons?” (1:8).
Most women report that their greatest sense of loss comes from the actual inability to have a child, but the men report that their greatest pain comes from the loss of their partner’s happiness. In rating their own ability to “cope” with infertility on a scale of 1–10, most men averaged a 6. But they rated their wives with an average of 3. Know that all of this is normal.
Recognize that talking is therapy only for some. Avoid assuming that “I don’t want to talk about it,” means “I’m dealing with it poorly.” For some men, relief comes through watching a game, going camping, refinishing furniture—anything but a high word count.
Be patient. Infertility involves a normal grief process. And although the loss is intangible, it’s real. Feelings may include denial, withdrawal, mourning, bargaining, depression, anger, isolation, and even resolution. Unfortunately, infertility is a grief cycle within a grief cycle: the monthly cycle of hope and despair interrupts the greater grief process, often leaving couples wondering if the pain will ever stop. Recognizing that all of this is a normal response that takes a long time will help you suffer-long with those who ache.
Refrain from recommending a doctor or the option of adoption unless they ask. Suggesting a doctor without being asked can sound like, “Your physician must be incompetent.” Or worse, “Can’t you even handle getting a physician?” Also, recommending adoption before the couple is ready can invalidate some of their many griefs, such as the loss of the ability to produce a child as the result of their love, loss of the dream of a biological legacy, and loss of the intimate pregnancy and birth experiences. Adoption emerges as an appealing option for most couples only after they have worked through these losses that this option does not resolve.
Avoid passing along myths. Along with holding your tongue about “having fun,” never use the r-word—“relax.” “Just relax and it’ll happen” sounds like “If you would handle this differently, you would not be in pain.” These hurt rather than help.
Agree that children are a blessing. Often people with children downplay their own blessings in an effort to keep infertile people from feeling badly, but the words may have the opposite effect. “Borrow my kids and you won’t want any,” can make infertile couples wonder, “Why did God give children to people who don’t appreciate the gift they have?” A better response is, “I’m sorry for your pain. I cherish my children and cannot imagine life without them.” Never assume that couples want children only because they have idealized what it’s like to be parents.
Read up and speak up. Become familiar with the myths and facts about infertility, and speak out on behalf of others so they don’t have to defend themselves. If you hear someone saying “Just relax” or “Bet you’re having fun trying” or “My husband just looks at me and conceives,” gently intervene to redirect the conversation.
The apostle Paul wrote, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). And he gave brilliant advice for dealing with those who hurt: “Weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Those who pray and weep communicate by their silent presence, “It’s safe to be yourself with me. I’m here to help bear the burden.”
Ph.D. candidate Sandra Glahn teaches at Dallas Theological Seminary, where she serves as editor-in-chief of Kindred Spirit magazine. Her eighteen books include When Empty Arms Become a Heavy Burden (Kregel) and The Infertility Companion (Zondervan/Christian Medical Association).