Broaching the topic of infertility with any loved one is a difficult prospect. Many times, conversations about helping loved ones struggling with fertility focus on women trying to conceive, to the exclusion of men who want to be fathers.
There are plenty of reasons for this. Infertility in men is still sort of a taboo topic, as it touches on very deep-seated anxieties about masculinity and virility. And even now, the domain of the family — and especially of child-rearing — is too often seen as a “woman’s concern.” The result? Many men may be afraid to reach out about the pain they go through when either they or their partners are infertile.
We spoke to three counselors about how to help a man dealing with infertility, whether it’s your partner, friend or family member. They offered three simple, but important tips to make him feel cared for and help ease the burden:
“Men will often be the main support for their partner, and will ‘suffer in silence,’ never asking for the help and support they need,” says Dr. Nikki Martinez, a tele-health counselor for BetterHelp. As a result, friends and family may not even know that a man is having trouble coping, or even consider that the struggle may be just as hard on him as his partner. “Everyone thinks of and supports the woman, but what about the man? People don't often think of him or reach out to him.”
Just remember that he may not always be forthcoming, so it helps to take initiative — as long as you take care not to pry. Says Dr. Martinez, “As those close to him, we need to take the initiative to let him know we are here if he needs us, or needs to talk. We also can directly ask how they are dealing with it, and how they are coping with being supportive of their partner while dealing with their own disappointments and hurt.”
How will you know how to respond? Focus less on finding the right thing to say and more on asking what he needs, says Erika Labuzan-Lopez, a marriage and family therapist based in Houston, Texas. “Listen to what the man is saying and don't judge their feelings or quickly offer advice about what to do. Just allow them the time to share their feelings. When you don't know what to say, it's ok to admit that. Simply say ‘I'm sorry I don't know what to say to help, but I really want to support you. What do you need from me or what would be helpful?’"
Taking time to be together and engage in some stress-relieving activities can be just what the doctor ordered, especially if you know your friend or partner sometimes turns to unhealthy outlets like alcohol or smoking (both of which can affect fertility, in addition to making the emotional stress worse in the long-term).
“Encouraging your partner to pick up healthy activities can help with coping,” says Dr. Ursula Balthazar, a reproductive endocrinologist at RMA of Texas. “Exercise is a great way of releasing stress. Sign up for a gym class for you and your partner or friend, or play a sport together a few times a week. A relaxing activity can also be very beneficial. Plan a spa day to get a massage, or take a yoga class."
Whether it’s a partner, friend or family member dealing with infertility, chances are you might slip up and say the wrong thing. That’s to be expected, but it’s important to apologize and communicate in good faith, says Labuzan-Lopez. “Acknowledge that you realize you hurt their feelings unintentionally, apologize, and say that you might not always say the right things. Try to understand their point of view and gave an open discussion about why what you said was hurtful.”
Couples who are trying to conceive often deal with a complicated set of problems, from costly and physically taxing medical treatments to the grief that can come when you lose a pregnancy, or when yet another month goes by with nothing but BFNs (“big fat negatives”). Just remember that infertility isn’t just a woman’s problem — not only are 30-40% of fertility problems the result of male factor infertility, but the emotional toll is hard on women and men alike.
If someone you love is struggling to achieve his dreams of becoming a father, don’t be afraid to reach out. While you might not always say the right thing, just the assurance that he has a support system ready to help him when he needs it can make the biggest difference.
What would you add to this list? Let us know by tweeting us @AstroglideTTC!
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