Monday 1 January 2007

If at first you don't conceive...

My wife and I have a story. It’s a common one unfortunately, infertility.

Normally it falls upon the fairer sex to discuss it, but I have a big mouth, and I don’t really need to be asked twice.

It’s two years since my wife and I decided to start a family. Where the decision came from I have no idea, but once we both said it aloud there was absolutely no doubt that this was right. In fact, we wondered why we hadn’t thought of it before.

We dove straight in, eager and naïve. Thanks to the combined educations furnished by the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers, we had no idea just how naïve we really were. Once we’d established that we couldn’t actually get pregnant by watching English television channels or by holding hands outside the newsagents, we soon worked out what would work and what wouldn’t.

The early months were great fun; the honeymoon period of trying to conceive is every man’s dream. Dragged by the belt buckle into the bedroom at every opportunity and pounced upon by a fine specimen of womanhood. The disappointments each time we failed were sharp, but the desire and the excitement carried us forward easily into each following month.

Two months became six, which became nine, which became twelve. Something wasn’t quite right. We started absorbing more information from books and websites, using ovulation prediction kits, and charting body temperature. We applied potential solutions to unknown problems. We called in the big guns and headed for our GP.

The first steps were to be the least invasive ones, which meant I was in the spotlight.

Bear in mind that a man’s role in trying to conceive is basic at best. It includes nothing more than fundamental caveman activity. Climb on board, grunt a little, send her into rapturous ecstasy, deposit man milk, and roll over snoring. Actually, the snoring is optional and the rapturous ecstasy is, well, a long shot.

A man’s role in trying to conceive in combination with fertility testing and examination is a whole other beast. A bizarre, often comical, and anxiety-fuelled beast over which you have absolutely no control. You do stupid things, say stupid things, and without beating around the bush, you have to, in fact, beat around the bush. Right into a little pot.

I became so flustered on the morning I had to first speak to the doctor about providing a sample for a semen analysis I forgot how to dress myself. I sat in front of him with one black and one brown shoe on, he certainly wasn’t holding out much hope in my ability to procreate if I was struggling with coordinating footwear. We both coughed every time we used words like ‘semen’, ‘sperm’, or ‘sample’, but I managed to get the general idea, and left.

What was to follow was just ridiculous. Thankfully in matching shoes this time, but red as a beetroot and sinking fast into humiliation, I stood outside the locked office door with my own semen in my pocket.

After what seemed to be no less than six weeks waiting for it to open, it eventually did and I was beckoned inside. I handed the nurse the fruit of my loins in a plastic pot and answered her list of questions in the calmest post-self-pleasuring voice I could manage.

We waited two weeks for the results of the tests, I took them home and hit the internet for an interpretation. My motility score was dreadful. Not just poor or having some room for improvement, but more like a pair of Nokias had been super glued to my testicles. They were that zapped.

I pushed back my keyboard, put my elbows on the desk, and for the first time in years, I cried.

My wife could have finished me off that night, with the wrong word or look, or with any hint of blame in her voice, but there was none. She squeezed my hand tightly, reassured me, and we arranged a second test.

I repeated my duty, brave soul that I am. I was still mortified when I delivered the product of yet another solo sex act into the hands of a stranger, but any shame was instantly forgotten when two weeks later the results were back showing a huge improvement. The first test had been an off day, my swimmers were back. The focus turned to my wife.

We waited months for a specialist appointment, who told us to just go home and keep trying. So we did, every way possible. Each month we tried something different, sex daily, sex every second day, or saved up sex. Sex while suffering with a cold or flu is romantic kryptonite. More months passed and with life now on pause, we went back to the specialist on our knees.

They offered to monitor her menstrual cycle, where we learned that she’s an egg producing superstar, firing out big juicy follicles as regular as clockwork.

Importantly, I learned where you should not sit, and definitely not look, when your wife is in stirrups and a doctor is inserting camera equipment that would be the envy of RTE, inside her.

Indeed, I learned many things I never imagined I could.

I know my vitamins and supplements, I can tell what will have your sperm pulling handbrake turns. I know when a cervix is in the mood to slip into something a little more comfortable, or has a headache. I recognise enough about the ideal consistency of cervical fluid to never want to break an egg again, and with an ultrasound, I can identify a ripe follicle faster than I could a tomato in Tesco.

It’s possible I may already be a qualified gynecologist in fourteen Eastern European countries.

With us both having the all clear, and more months passing us by, the only option left was for my wife to have a laparoscopy. She would go under general anesthetic and through small incisions they would check her ovaries and uterus, and making sure her fallopian tubes had no blockages. We wanted it over and done with, wanted answers, but my wife was terrified.

I can honestly say watching her being taken into surgery in tears was the lowest moment of these two years. We had started out normal, light hearted and giddy with excitement. We only wanted normal things, happy things, and here we were a million miles away from anything resembling normal or happy. My wife was putting herself though hell for that normal.

I was helpless, or more accurately, useless.

The dust settled, and after all the embarrassment, the intrusion on our personal lives, and all the physical discomforts, we had a diagnosis.

We have “unexplained sub-fertility”, a diagnosis, but not an answer. The advice, go home and keep trying. The next step is hopefully a shot at intrauterine insemination before the summer. Meaning more stirrups, more cameras, and more orgasms in a pot.

I’d love being a dad, I think I could be a good one. I love to laugh, I’m employable, and reasonably intelligent most of the time. The kid would have to learn how to arrange their own footwear mind you, but overall I wouldn’t be bad.

Some days I hate having to watch other fathers with their children, purely through jealousy. There are days I feel humiliated and useless when I see boys half my age managing to do what I can’t. I wonder what do they have in them that I don’t? It’s illogical, silly and unbecoming, but two years of failure will give you those days.

So here we are, two years on from a naïve evening on the couch where we came to the biggest decision we’ve ever made. We are nowhere closer to the ‘normal’ we laughed about in bed; statistically we are further away than ever. We don’t discuss names, childcare options, or how many children we should have, now we just hope we get one chance.

A chance to see a positive test, to hear the delightful sound of my wife vomiting her guts up daily, to feel the excitement of a pregnancy, to not have an empty house. A chance to be normal.

All of it is uncertain now, except for one thing. If we don’t get the chance, I know my wife will still be squeezing my hand.

I’ll be squeezing right back.

'If at first you don't conceive...' was originally published by the Irish Times on 11th March, 2009. Subscription required for articles more than 1 year old.

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