Infertility feels like a rollercoaster you can’t get off, increases anxiety, and decreases joy, according to research by Drs. Esmée Hanna and Brendan Gough.
With infertility affecting 1 in 6 couples, the journey to parenthood is not always straightforward and difficulty achieving conception can be distressing. How men experience the context of infertility (either due to male or female issues) is often less visible in society, although new projects aiming to make films around male infertility are seeking to change this, such as The Crossing. It is important that we know how men experience infertility so that both men and women can be better supported.
Previous research indicated that men were ‘less concerned’ about infertility than women, but our research found that infertility was described as an emotional, traumatic and distressing experience for men. We conducted a pair of studies exploring men’s online discussions on a men-only infertility forum in the UK (Study 1: here or here; Study 2: here or here). The research identified key themes from forum posts relating to men’s help-seeking and emotions shared. Here we summarise the key points from the research and its relevance for men.
Infertility brought ‘highs and lows’ for couples, with depression and sadness as the low points and optimism and hope as the highs. Contributors to the forum described the experience of infertility, diagnosis and treatment as a ‘rollercoaster’ which you could not get off. This ‘rollercoaster’ was portrayed as ruling men’s lives, putting the future on hold, generating much frustration and sorrow; feelings of being ‘left behind’ were exacerbated when friends were having children. Reproduction and childbearing is still often seen as a ‘rite of passage’ within adulthood and an important milestone in social life.
Men said the distress infertility caused lasted longer than the ability to get pregnant. They discussed how nervous they were when conception did occur, as they felt things might ‘go wrong’ and that the enjoyment of pregnancy and the impending arrival of a baby had been diminished by the struggle that they and their partners had endured to reach that point.
The online forum offered some men a useful and safe space for the men to share some of their emotions around infertility and being able to ‘talk’ online with other men who were also going through infertility seemed to be the main draw for men to post on the site. They used the forum to ask for help or advice from others who ‘understood’. Men did not conform to gendered norms around not expressing emotions, but the language used was more typical of the way men might express such feelings (e.g. discussing ‘stress’ and ‘getting things off their chests’). Men used the forum to seek help from other men, and were often open about their requests for help, though sometimes some reassurance that it was ok for men to share and ask for help was needed. This might show that traditional norms around masculinity can sometimes be present in the background, even if men are pushing against such stereotypes in their talk and practices more generally.
In sum, online forums can provide a ‘safe space’ for men to ‘talk’ with others who understand the experience of infertility, so could be something that men are directed to if they are in a couple where infertility has been diagnosed. Not everyone can access the internet, so forums should not be seen as the only solution for providing men with support for infertility, but starting conversations around where men could get support can be useful for encouraging people to understand that men may need support in the first place.
Esmée Hanna is a sociologist and qualitative researcher. She works as a Research Assistant in the Centre for Men’s Health at Leeds Beckett University. Her research interests converge around families, fatherhood and men’s emotional wellbeing. Esmée blogs here and is on twitter @DrEsmee
Brendan Gough is a critical social psychologist and qualitative researcher interested in men and masculinities. Now based at Leeds Beckett University. He has published many papers on gender identities and relations, mostly in the context of health, lifestyles and wellbeing.