I start with a silly introductory story to a serious subject. I’m not given to discussing my penis and the performance of it’s internal accessories. Most of us aren’t.
Please be warned this talks very honestly about fertility and infertility. I don't want to cause you upset.
My dad says I was hard fought for. That means (ugh) in the bedroom. I nearly wasn’t was. But I am.
For some deeply pessimistic reason, taking into account my dad’s history, I was already expecting to have tricky sperms. So when I got diagnosed with varicocele* in my twenties and the Doc suggested I check my sperm count, I assumed the worst. I wasn’t that bothered. It wasn’t terribly prescient.
*Varicocele are basically varicose veins in your balls. They’re common. They can make your balls hotter. Sperm hate heat.
I’d been with Emmalou since my 23rd birthday. Children and even marriage held no interest for us throughout our twenties. We were too busy careering, travelling & getting up at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon because WE COULD.
Her best mate once handed me her new baby to hold. I refused. This did not go down well. Which is fair. I saw an edge of brown moistness on it’s nappy. “Your baby is dirty, so no thanks”. I was not super comfy with babies, or parenting. Or manners, it seems.
I remember that first thunderbolt of broodiness. I was 31. One of my bosses, someone I didn’t like at all, brought her new baby in to show the team. I shuffled towards the pair, practicing my least disinterested “oooooo, how cute” so I wouldn’t get it in the neck when she returned to work. Instead, I melted. Tears welled up in my eyes. I felt very very strange.
I felt elated, sad, empty. I wanted kids. My partner didn’t, yet. Tricky one that…
A few years later we got married and the constant questions from relative strangers about when we were going to have kids intensified. This pissed me right off. It’s an incredibly invasive question. What if we couldn’t?…
…What if…we couldn’t?…
Emmalou and I, skirting around the fact that maybe (shudder), maybe we might want to drop sprogs one day, decided that I should get tested.
Off to the Wank Bank I went.
It was a knackered red standalone hospital building in a grubby corner of South East London. I’m not (again, you may have noticed) embarrassed by much. Yet I slunk in, looking over my shoulder before I entered, to be greeted by a middle aged woman packing her things into her handbag. “We’re closing in 10 minutes. Can you pop one out that quick?” she shouted across the entrance hall.
I had doubts. New doubts that only surfaced as I inspected the matted carpet and peeling paint of the NHS Masturbation Centre. But a Man Challenge cannot be rebuffed.
“Yea, no problem“ I shrugged, in my best bored teenager way.
She handed me a tiny key on a huge wooden paddle. “People nick them you see”. WHY???? To break in and have a sexy tumescent NHS wank in their favourite place??? Sheesh.
I noted her instructions through of fog of blushes and began following the sticky (I’m not making this up) yellow taped line to the only open door on a corridor of blank closed doors. My god, I thought, there are lines of strangers like me, trying to squeeze one out before the 15:55 deadline.
That deadline was fast approaching, and I was not feeling sexy. At all.
I entered the room, or ‘cell’ as I’d more accurately define it. Handily it had a pile of curly pornographic magazines on a little coffee table. That was the only furniture. I didn’t fancy touching them. I poked one with the key paddle. It was stuck together. I lurched backwards. I’d do this the old fashioned way: imagination.
Then I noted le piece de resistance. A huge curtainless window. (To be fair, I completely understood why they’d removed the curtains). This imposing slab, higher than me, dropped to knee-level. It gave an unbroken view of the room and my body, apart from my feet and ankles, from THE HOSPITAL WARDS DIRECTLY OPPOSITE. Just 5 metres away I could see old folk on drips, and nurses passing. One caught my eye, bored. It did not feel bored.
So I knuckled down to my task, huddled close into the least visually accessible corner. I was wanking under pressure, in a room where strangers could see my rear half; a room that was sticky and about as sexy as being trampled to death by stampeding porcupines.
My next problem, as I tried to stir up favoured memories of languid nights with my wife, was that I’d been given a thin plastic sample pot, like one ones you wee into.
If you are familiar with how penises work, they tend to standing up around the time you produce sperm. So anything, err, exiting them, goes…up. If you put a tube over, it is facing downwards, Gravity causes the exiting ‘matter’ to flow downwards. This seems fairly logical to me.
This conundrum explained the carpets, and if you got it really wrong, the sticky corridors. I felt sick.
So, at the moment of, err, production, if you were a nurse in a large SE London mega-hospital on a 5th floor ward, you may have seen a dark haired white man hunched into a corner of an empty room. His body language, if you had not by now instinctively turned away in horror, was all frantic stress and concentration.
It was not a moment of transcendent ecstasy. No. I’m not entirely sure how I managed.
Yet I had my prize!! Triumph! My god I've done some hard stuff in my life. This was a moment for pride!
I was late. There were encouraging shouts and knocks on doors to the inmates. Men emerged. I waited. This doesn’t apply to everyone, I’m not judging, but I’m not at all keen on another man seeing my spunk. Or that I’m carrying a fresh vessel of it. I think that’s a fairly normal reaction.
I cupped The Item in my warm hands as instructed, and headed down the endless sticky corridors to the little wall hatches, to begin it’s journey into Results. I put mine in, with my letter. As I withdrew my hand from my hatch, a gloved hand opened the other side, looked into my eyes and smiled. I jumped. One last minor humiliation. They took my Little Gift and I left, shaken but triumphant.
I’d never thought it would bother me, waiting.
It did. I became angry, short tempered, anxious. I realised that I cared. I cared a lot. I cared more about whether I had the ability than whether I could have kids or not. This was a pre-emption, in case we did, yet now I was terrified of being a ‘lesser man’. What bollocks (pun intended).
I’m sufficiently progressive and educated, I thought, not to subscribe to definitions of masculinity, manhood, whatever, by my ability to sire. Yet here I was, fucking terrified at not making the grade. I was almost more annoyed at myself for my backwards thinking, than the wait.
Two weeks passed slowly. Especially slowly for Emmalou. I was a git.
The test results came and I was fine. “What does fine mean?” I asked. “Oh, you’re normal. Normal count, normal motility. Fine.” said the disembodied voice who’d done this 10,000 times already that day and would be doing 20,000 more before the day was out.
An intense sense of relief overcame me, and I forgot about it for many years...
In early 2012 Emmalou I began trying for kids. This means having sex under a different kid of pressure. Will we, won’t we conceive? Are we doing it enough? Do you do a handstand afterwards? Do I?! Did you have a hot bath last night? Arggh.
You think trying for kids is going to be oodles of hot sex, all the time. I couldn’t wait! But it is WEIRD. “Come on love, hop on. I know you’re knackered and have that conference call with LA soon, but we’ve another to do before the week is out” is different from champagne & chiffon Caribbean island nights under the stars.
To our shock, we got pregnant quickly. We were convinced it would take years. Sorry.
I hate saying that it was easy, because I knew then and I know now, even more intensely, how lucky we are to have had that luck. I am forever grateful. I still say sorry, when the subject (very irregularly) comes up.
I wanted to lull you in with an amusing anecdote. I admit it. We’re at the serious bit. Trying to have kids is serious stuff. Painful. Horrifying. Joyous. Life changing. We don’t talk about it much, least of all men.
It is a last taboo. It shouldn’t be.
Emmalou and I know so many couples who can’t conceive or went through hell to get there. Who conceived and lost babies, again and again. Who went through years of IVF that nearly bankrupted them, destroyed her body and pushed them together and apart until you don’t know who or what you are anymore.
Your life was centered on this one aim, so now what?
Some of us never feel the need to have kids. I thought I never would. Then I had to. A thirty-something psychological trip wire went off in my head.
Men are often seen as being indifferent to kids. That women are the broody ones and that we “have our wicked way”. A transient reward for giving her what she wants. Then, we are stuck with the little blighters. We better make the most of it and be half-decent dads.
This narrative denies men’s pain and longing, as well as women's.
I, and I believe most men, don’t see it that way. Whatever kind of dad I am, or wanted to be, I’m trying my best. I hope I’m an equal partner in this, though I’ll never catch up on that huge birth & pain bit. Obviously.
What hurts instead is seeing friends, so many friends, not be able to get there. It seems so unfair. So arbitrary. And of course it is. They did nothing wrong. There is no ‘deserves it more’.
It’s just luck shining or shitting on you.
Fuck me raising kids is hard. I’m loathe to talk about all the positive stuff, in case you’re reading and you couldn’t. Of course there are huge positives. If we couldn’t have had kids, it would have hurt us intensely.
Why on earth are you reading this on a jacket website?
FRAHM is here to help us be less sad about the toughest events in our lives, not just sell stuff. I want to feel like I can help, not just make things.
Having a miscarriage or going through the horror of IVF is something I’ve never experienced first hand, but this must push many to the edge, or over it, into despair and depression.
My point? I’m saying I care. I’m saying that we, other men, women, so many of us, care and have gone through this, or can try to empathise. You're not alone.
Don’t bottle it up. Make sure you and your partner can recover from this. TALK. Just because you're man, doesn't mean you're not upset/sad/inconsolable/depressed too.
If you’re trying and it isn’t working, when do you stop? This is of course personal and I’m sure incredibly difficult. Especially as there are two people involved. You may not agree. It is incredible tough on a relationship, watching someone go through pain, wanting them to stop, or not wanting to stop. Guilt. Resentment. It’s real and totally understandable.
When? The second round of hormonally devastating IVF? When you have to remortage? After the second miscarriage? The fifth? I can’t imagine the pain of these losses and then the terror of maybe losing another one, but trying not to be stressed in case it makes things worse. I don’t know how you/they do it.
I admire you so much.
I know friends who tried and couldn’t, whom it crushed but they recovered and now enjoy the fruits of their freedom, lack of tantrums & crushing fatigue! But still, there is always pain. That’s natural. It can’t be buried or denied.
I know friends who tried and tried and tried, and eventually did. That scarred them forever though. It would.
I know gay friends who adopted, other couples who foster, others who found a surrogate. Others people who never wanted kids and aborted. No judgement.
Then there are the single men who want kids but haven’t found someone, or their partner died.
Or you wanting kids and they don’t? what does that mean for your relationship? It can men who do and women that don't, too.
All these scenarios are real and lived my billions. So many different stories, unique to each of us. If you have a story, it is unique, but much of it shared. You have to tell someone.
All I had to do was wank into an upside down tube on a sticky carpet in front of an open window. I got off very very lightly.
Men: Talk about your fertility, lack of it, disinterest in wanting to become a father, whatever. It’s all valid. There’s no ‘right’.
Let’s agree that we’re not going to ask couples when they’re going to have kids.
Let’s agree to talk about it, with the right people, without judgement.
Good luck & much love to you.