“Do you want a baby or not?” my wife’s gynaecologist asked.
The question was directed at me.
We’d been trying to conceive the old-fashioned way for many months. Even though we’d been told that we would be unlikely to conceive without medical assistance I didn’t want to believe it.
I’d been wavering, trying just one more month. And then another. And then another. Even though my wife had undergone all the fertility tests she needed, I was delaying having a sperm test.
I really wanted to become a father, but I wanted baby-making to be a natural process, rather than a science experiment. Being Catholic and having a thorough schooling in Marxist critiques of how our humanity and nature are being remade through technology didn’t help either.
It took some tough love from my wife’s gynaecologist to make me realise I was focusing on the process at the expense of the outcome. If I wanted a baby I needed to have that fertility test, so our doctor could have all the facts before recommending the right course of action.
It turns out that I’m not alone when it comes to avoiding fertility tests. Online discussion boards on fertility are littered with women trying to work out how to get their male partners to have their fertility tested.
One recent UK study of 22 men experiencing infertility and going through IVF published in the journal, Sociology of Health & Illness found that all had delayed seeking help — even though they all said they desperately wanted children. In one case, the interviewee had left it five years before seeking help.
In some cases, ignorance led men to believe that they didn’t have a problem. The fact that they could produce a semen sample led them to mistakenly believe that they were fertile.
Others simply took it for granted that they didn’t have a problem. Since the capacity to sire children is so strongly entwined with masculinity and male identity, men often simply assume they are fertile.
As one interviewee put it: “It’s such a primitive thing that you just take for granted …. It’s just a basic thing, a kind of given that you can have children …. and it’s spoken about in a real masculine way... In crude ways about getting people pregnant.”
When you take into account that men are notoriously slow to seek medical help for standard complaints and add in the cultural baggage that fertility is linked to male identity, it’s not surprising that men are reluctant to take the first step.
But it’s just one more way in which Standard Operating Masculinity works against men. It’s an especially poor strategy when it comes to fertility. Unlike other health issues that can be managed reasonably well on an individual basis, fertility is a double act and the clock is ticking. Leaving things one year — let alone five — is an eternity when it comes to fertility.
And the reality is that for most men — not all, but most — a fertility test is a walk in the park compared to what women go through. Sure, there’s some awkwardness about “producing a sample”, but typically it’s nothing compared to the invasiveness and pain women have to endure.
If you do end up going down the IVF path, remember that for most men, your job is done in a few minutes. Your partner, meanwhile, is likely to be turned into an experiment in hormonal science as well as being prodded and pushed, and stuck with needles and gloved hands.
Of course, just getting tested guarantees nothing. Even if you have Olympic standard swimmers, vast in number, well-formed and all the motility in the world, you may still not get a baby.
But at least, armed with knowledge, you can make informed decisions. Without it, you’re upholding an outdated and unhelpful ideal of masculinity that achieves nothing. You’re just left with the pain and anguish of never knowing.
With an increasing numbers of Australians delaying parenthood until their 30s and reports of declining sperm counts among men, we badly need to re-write the rules around masculinity, masculine identity and fertility and focus on the real issue: Do you want a baby or not?