We celebrate Father’s Day in June. Mother’s Day, however, tends to get much more sympathetic support for fertility patients. This is unfair because men suffer, too, but differently and usually on a different timeline than women.
Men waiting to be fathers do not get the care and attention they need and deserve, and not just on Father’s Day. Dr. Bill Petok, a psychologist in Baltimore who has done a lot of work with men and infertility, says men tend to be marginalized in a medical practice1. Men are not the main focus of treatment, even when the fertility obstacle is a male factor. Many men even contribute to their “invisibility” by using coping styles that keep them on the periphery-denial, distancing, suppressing feelings.
At Fertility Centers of Illinois, we strive to include male partners in every step of the fertility process. We understand that their wives may be the more informed spouse and she is certainly likely to be more worried than he is. We know that the husband may be wondering why they are there at all. Is his wife just impatient? Men tend to be less concerned and more optimistic that things will work out on their own. He may even be guilty of telling his wife to “just relax”.
The initial consult with a physician at Fertility Centers of Illinois is a pivotal experience for a couple who is wishing for a family and a lot happens during this appointment-history taken, records reviewed beforehand, and questions addressed as the physician lays out a plan for the next steps to move to a diagnosis. Men tend to ask about numbers-from how many people does the doctor see who are like them to what are the rates of success for a given treatment. Women tend to ask about the nuts and bolts-when are appointments offered, how will it affect their work schedule, and how long will all of this take. It is always critical to address both partners. This is a couple, but it is made up of two individuals who probably have different mindsets and expectations.
Just as important is the follow up meeting with a nurse, who will give more detail about what is to come next if they decide to pursue diagnostics or treatment, and be the point person for the couple to contact. The nurse knows that 85% of the time it will be the wife who will call for clarification or instruction and that relationship with the nurse is central to the comfort level of both wife and her spouse. One patient’s husband told me, “To do well as a fertility patient, the nurse is key. We had the best nurse ever and she responded to my wife’s daily emails really quickly. For me, if my wife was doing ok, then so was I.”
It can be a challenge to communicate with both partners over a process that can go on for months. A typical couple moves through testing, re-consulting, and finally into treatment after what can be a lengthy process. When our staff is meeting or talking to the wife, it is always important to ask, “How is your husband doing? If he has any questions he can call us.” Sometimes, he does call. One husband said, “Getting questions answered in a timely way felt great and I always appreciated that.”
Helping a couple make a baby will always involve sperm, and that is a sensitive area for most men. If feasible, many husbands will choose to produce a sperm sample at home and bring it to the clinic. If it happens at the clinic, men appreciate having a clean, private, and well-equipped space to use. They receive clear directions about how to prepare for a semen analysis or sperm freeze. No one enjoys this part of fertility treatment. Occasionally, a husband will balk at the very idea of masturbating into a cup as an offensive invasion of privacy. It is up to clinical staff to provide the rationale and the support he needs to participate in the treatment plan.
Fertility treatment costs money and that is when we hear the most from husbands. They tend to try and take on the burden of the insurance/finances to provide some relief to their wives, who are the ones with most of the appointments. Understanding medical costs and insurance coverage is generally one of the most irritating aspects of the fertility journey. Our business office tries hard to guide patients through the maze of fees, copays, drug benefits, and what they can expect in their bill.
It’s important to remember: men suffer, too. They do it more quietly and privately. They often have little social support beyond their spouse. It is not at all unusual for the fertility experience to put a lot of strain on a relationship. Husbands complain that they have “lost their wives” to the grind of trying to have a baby. Wives feel misunderstood. We have mental health professionals on staff to help patients manage the stress and resolve conflict. Even one or two meetings can make a big difference in how the individual patient or couple handles this challenging experience and how they communicate. We recommend local support groups for couples that are offered by RESOLVE.
This Father’s Day, we wish the best to all the Dads-in-Waiting. May their waits be short and their longings for a family be fulfilled.