When I was asked by The AFA to author a blog in recognition of National Men’s Health Month I immediately thought what a wonderful idea – to reach out, during this month that promotes male physical and mental health, to men who are experiencing within their marriages the pain and stress of infertility (male, female, or unexplained), and the coincident challenges of medical treatment and consideration of possible alternative family building scenarios such as adoption or donor conception. This is an area that has touched me personally (I am an adoptive dad) and to which I have also devoted much of my professional work. I got excited, then the Catch-22 hit me: In this particular arena and on this particular website, The American Fertility Association, how many men are actually going to log in and read this (if you are a male reading this, congratulations!)?
This quandary leads me to the topic at hand, that is the reticence and emotional disconnect that it seems many men experience when it comes to pursuing parenthood, particularly when the path to parenthood gets mired in fertility issues and the hard decisions about alternative family building. It is a disconnect that is foreign to me personally. My adopted daughter is near 17 years old now and I still relish our relationship and our moments together (well, most of the time), and I remember clearly those painful years of infertility that my wife and I experienced, and my personal yearning for fatherhood. Is my emotional connection, as a male of the species, with children, family, and parenthood so odd and out of step? I think not. I see and know many loving and very devoted fathers out there. Even a few stay-at-home dads… by choice!
Yet, the anecdotal evidence when it comes to men’s engagement in the process of family building around infertility issues, treatment, and consideration of alternative family building avenues is that most men willingly take the passenger seat, both emotionally and practically, allowing (“supporting”) their female partners to lead the way toward family. It is our experience within The AFA: Recently I had the opportunity to take part in an informal discussion on this topic with other AFA mental health professionals who specialize in working with couples who are experiencing infertility and are considering alternative family building options. Our collective professional experience has been that men are generally resistant, or at best take a laizze faire approach, to opening themselves up to the possibility of adoption or donor conception. But good partners and husbands that they are, they go along “for her”.
True, this is anecdotal information, but for the sake of this blog I will make the assumption that this description of the male emotional and relational reaction, or should I say non-reaction, to compromised fertility and struggles in achieving parenthood fits a significant number of men. …and I wonder aloud here: Are these the same guys who, a few years later, are the devoted diaper changing, bottle warming, nose wiping, soccer dads? Why do some of us have a hard time connecting to our “inner dad” until that little one is placed in our lap and the euphoria and responsibility of caring for a new little human being snaps us out of our stupor, and away from our blackberrys - or maybe not even then? We are physically different from women. Are our hearts wired differently as well? Is it that black and white?
I wonder if thousands of years of being the hunter, provider, and protector has divorced us emotionally from the possibility of being the nurturer too, or of even wanting to be the nurturer? I wonder if some of us men need to take a page from the woman’s movement, which over the decades has allowed women to see beyond being the baby-maker, homemaker, and soccer mom - to open themselves up to their full human possibilities and experience as colleagues, creators, lawyers, writers, and business leaders. I wonder if some very human part of us males, the part that might yearn for fatherhood and for that special connection with an infant, with our child, has similarly been forced underground by centuries of social norms and expectations, to the point that we can’t tell it’s there, or, if we can tell we won’t allow it for ourselves because, well, we’re a guy.
My gut tells me it’s there in all of us men, the nurturer, the inner daddy. I wonder, if you could allow yourself that part of your humanness, if you would dare let yourself feel it and acknowledge it, if you could include father in your definition of the successful fully actualized male - would you speak up a little more in the counseling room? Would you be not just upset for your wife, but angry at this infertility monster because of what it is denying you? Would you ask more questions about adoption, about donor families? I wonder if you would cry. Would you fight desperately, together with your partner, to make, to have, to get a child in your life somehow? Would you maybe even want to be a stay-at-home dad?
And I wonder, are any men reading this? If ao, you are invited next Thursday June 17th to an AFA phone group “For Men Only: The Male Journey to Family”, facilitated by myself, to continue this discussion and to encourage your complete engagement in the quest for parenthood. See the AFA web site for further details. I would welcome you participation, if you are out there…
Bob Bamman LCSW is a veteran of the infertility experience and an adoptive parent, as well as an active professional member of The American Fertility Association.