Guy Talk: The Silent Fraternity of Non-Paternity
Long before Cathy and I actually started writing this blog, when we first half-jokingly conceived it (get it? J), we decided two things would be for-sure if we ever did do it. First, we agreed that it should be called “Slow Swimmers and Fried Eggs” and second, that I would definitely participate.
We felt this was really important because, if talking about infertility is rare, awkward and treated as a stigma among women, for men it was something even worse. It was basically nonexistent. At least at the time, searches from bookstores to Google basically showed a complete dearth of discussion, communication or honesty for and from the men struggling to have a family.
The reasons for this are, sadly, pretty obvious I think. First, boxed in by the same profoundly evolutionary, not to mention social, archetypes, that can make a woman feel like a failure for being unable to get pregnant, what could make one less of “a man” than being unable to “get the job done?”
It reeks of weakness, failure and, perhaps worst of all, impotence. To face up to, or worse, say publicly (especially to other men) that we can’t make a baby can feel like one of life’s most emasculating (in it’s literally, unmanning sense) admissions.
As if that weren’t enough, for many of us in that position, we feel as profoundly sad, hurt and grieving as any infertile woman when we face the prospect of never being “Dad”, never doing batting practice or camping with the boy scouts or learning to whistle or whatever your mind’s eye saw as those magical rights-of-passage and father-son stuff. These are things almost all of us just assumed would come to us in our turn.
So take a healthy dose of psychologically undercutting your own perception of manhood and add to the conversational mix a broken heart. First, “fellas, I can’t get the job done at home with the Mrs.”, then add to that admitting that a) we have feelings, and b) that those feelings at the moment are largely worry, uncertainty and possibly even tears and heartbreak? Sounds like something every guy wants to volunteer for, right? I mean, I’m a dude. What could be more fun than admitting our failings (in the bedroom no less), and then admitting we’re sad about it? That’s great man stuff right there, an awesome dose of male ego-booster. When’s guys’ night out? Sign me up.
The problem with that, and the reason I’m here, is that all of that is wrong, and I got a great reminder of that from a guy who is, in many ways, much braver, more honest and more self-assured than I, a passing acquaintance who reminded me in a few simple, unselfconscious sentences that those feelings and fears and limiting beliefs are entirely self-imposed.
In a few words, here’s what happened – I was down at the marina the other day and I was chatting with one of the dockhands I know in passing. He mentioned that he saw me there very frequently and I explained that it’s because my best friend and goddaughter live there, and since my wife and I couldn’t have kids, I’m especially close to that crazy two-year old. (Despite everything I mentioned above, after this many years of thinking, and blogging, and accepting our situation, I’m finally more or less ok mentioning out loud that I couldn’t have kids, but it took a long time to get here.)
So, I’m standing on the dock speaking to a young guy, friendly but tough looking; long shaggy hair, greasy baseball cap, tattoos down both arms and motor oil under his fingernails, probably a little more than half my age. On first glance you’d be more likely to think “badass motorcycle mechanic” than “heart of gold”. (Of course those things aren’t mutually exclusive, but we all fall victim to stereotypes sometimes, or forget not to judge a book by its cover.)
You know what he said to me, this ink-covered twenty something with a Marlboro behind his ear? He said, “I’m really sorry man. That sucks. Me too. We’ve been tryin’ and tryin’. Can’t have kids. I love kids so much, man. Really bums me out. So sorry for you.”
He may not turn a phrase like Shakespeare, but his heart? More open and honest and unafraid than mine was for years, even among my closest friends. And that’s what got me thinking about this week’s post. So, for whatever it’s worth, I’d like to offer three clear takeaways for the fellas out there:
- Infertility is utterly democratized. It hits people of all ages, races, backgrounds and social status. You never know who out there might be sharing your experiences or fears.
- The only person who can actually make you feel those emasculating and derisive feelings from sharing or talking about what you’re going through is you. Accept them as normal, understandable and entirely valid, and you completely take away their negative power.
- Consider being open about acknowledging this too-often unspoken condition. You might just find that not only are there other men around you who share what you’re going through and can empathize, encourage or acknowledge your feelings, but you might just help someone else who hasn’t crossed that bridge yet.
After years of blogging and thinking and writing and speaking about being a man and a husband with infertility, I still struggle every day with how to talk to friends, to family, to my parents who pine for grandchildren we will never be able to give them. This young guy loping down the dock toward his smoke break? He showed me just how easy it can be to shed all the things holding you back from talking to, and hearing from, others you can help, and who can help you.
There’s an old saying that trouble shared is trouble halved, and I think it’s true for both sides of the conversation. So leave your egos at the door gentlemen, and give it a try.