The Horror-Comedy of Infertility
By Philip Cottraux
I met Lori on Twitter when her book on infertility randomly showed up in my feed. She’s asked me to contribute some thoughts for her Father’s Day blog. Because as you may know, women talk all about this stuff but we men are notorious for staying hush-hush about it. Or as she said in her blog dedicated to me, “acting like it doesn’t bother us.”
So trying to break my usual act, here’s our story, such as it is.
My wife (Beth) and I met online. She was a young widow. Well, sort of. Her fiancé had died tragically a few months before their wedding. It was four years before she was ready to date again. I’m originally from Atlanta, and she is a North Carolina native.
We were both 26 when we got married. We were so excited about having kids, we already had four baby names picked out! Two boys, two girls. I’m an only child, so I couldn’t wait to have a big family to make up for my lonely childhood. I’m also the last Cottraux. So if I never have kids, my family name is going extinct forever. Maybe I should be placed on the endangered species list?
Beth is the youngest of four, but she was still as enthusiastic as I was! We didn’t wait too long, maybe less than a year. People had already started asking if we were trying. Back then, we would answer by looking at each other and giggling like idiots.
When talking about infertility, I usually start by asking “You know what the worst part is?” Then after explaining the worst part, I’ll follow up with “But you know what the worst worst part is?” Before long, I’ve described everything we’ve gone through for the past eight years, and all of it is the “worst part.”
I had a common condition among men called a varicocele, an enlarged vein in my…nether-regions…that can cause low sperm count. The doctor told us to keep trying for a year, and if we still hadn’t conceived, I might need to think about surgery.
The following year got very awkward as people started asking why we didn’t have kids yet. We were still trying to keep hush-hush about my condition, so we would just give a generic shrug and say “Who knows? Maybe soon!”
A funny thing I observed was that people automatically assume that the husband doesn’t want kids. As time kept passing, my mom would tell me that women from our church gossip circle were wondering “I wonder why Philip doesn’t want any kids? Poor Beth. She’s probably begging!” As if I’m Daffy Duck trying to shoot the approaching stork out of the sky with a shotgun and rigging the house with booby traps.
The doctor determined I needed surgery. I found out that my grandfather had had the same condition and had the operation before my mother was born. Over the phone, he told me to prepare for my balls to swell up as big as golf balls. I thought, nah. He had his surgery back in the olden days, when they bopped people on the head with a mallet for anesthetic and used rusty bone saws. Turns out he was right.
I tend to be curious by nature, which did me no favors. The night before the operation, I was glued to YouTube watching videos of “varicole-ectomies” that involved a “laparoscopic ligations along the spermatic chord.” Or something. Not exactly what I needed to see, since I’m a bit squeamish.
“They’re going to do that to me? No! Don’t cut it! Don’t…ack, he cut it! I can feel it already!”
Early the following afternoon, I was wheeled into the OR. They put the mask on me, I looked up at the anesthetic dripping through the IV bag…and then next thing I know, I was waking up in an upright position, feeling like I’d been hit by a truck. Beth was worried to death since I hadn’t eaten all day. As I opened my eyes, groaning “Wha…happened…?” the first thing I saw was an apple being shoved into my face to my wife’s voice saying “Eat this apple! Hurry!” I thought I’d died during surgery and gone to apple heaven. It didn’t matter, because they had forgotten to administer the proper amount of anti-nausea medication, so as soon as my mangled body was wheeled to the car I barfed it all back up.
But, at least it was over. A week-long recovery, and a follow-up sperm count, and I was good. Ready for action. Locked and loaded. Look out, Beth, cause I’m about to put a baby in you! After about two years of trying, we’re going to make it now! The first time we tried was like playing with a loaded gun.
And…it still didn’t happen. Weeks passed. They turned into months, which turned into more years.
About 3-4 years into our marriage, the people (most of whom still didn’t know about my surgery) asking about when we were having kids reached a fever pitch. Then it sort of waned. Obviously, my parents know. But all the family/friends/coworkers/church members started asking less and less. Now, they act weird around us, like walking on eggshells. Do we have an incurable disease now, or something?
Doctors have determined that since my surgery, Beth must be the reason we can’t get pregnant. But unfortunately, that’s as far as we’ve gotten. We were very fortunate that the insurance covered my operation; but they refuse to touch testing, artificial insemination, or IVF. These things can cost a fortune (and I’ve contacted my company’s benefits department begging on bended knee for help), so we’re stuck for now
As a result, Beth has sought natural treatments. Over the years, this has gotten ridiculous. Everything from slathering castor oil on her stomach, to acupuncture and getting her tailbone cracked by the chiropractor, to doing weird nightly belly massage rituals, to a medicine cabinet filled with dandelion extract and whatever else miracle cure for infertility she can find on the internet. You can’t make this stuff up. And as of yet, none of it has worked.
The only people who ask anymore are random acquaintances. For example, the dental hygienist when I’m getting my teeth cleaned. Or a fired coworker I run into that I haven’t seen since the wedding. I call it the “dreaded question” now. It’s almost like they’re flirting with you. Their eyes get big, they bat their eyelashes, then give you a sneaky smile. It’s like they’re prodding for some kind of major secret. Then, in a low voice so no one will hear, they whisper, “So? Have you guys…talked about…maybe…just maybe…starting a family???”
Instead of beating around the bush, now I just croak “Infertile.” It’s amazing how fast their demeanor changes to wide-eyed horror. “Oh! I’m so sorry! I shouldn’t have asked! Oh, I’m such a horrible person! Please forgive me!” I have to reassure them that it’s okay while they beat themselves up. Then it’s time for an awkward subject-change!
Anyway, as you can imagine, it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly is the “worst part” of all this. It could be how I feel like we’ve let so many people down that were excited about us having kids. It could be the horrible combination of guilt-jealousy-trying-to-be-happy-for other couples that announce they’re expecting. It could be how fast time is flying by, and how hopeless it makes you feel as the years sift through your fingers, like grains of sand. Or how you picture what your kids are going to look like, and fantasize about pushing them in backyard tire swings and holding their hands while they ride a bike for the first time or take them to their first day of school and read them bedtime stories. The fantasies that are ripped away from you every day by cold hard reality.
Or the fear that you might be slowly turning into your crazy aunt who never had kids. You know the who I’m talking about; we all have one. The one who sends out Christmas cards every year with pictures of her bichon-frises sitting in Santa’s lap.
But instead of focusing on what hurts the most, let me describe what helps the most; meeting other people such as Lori who have been through this and knows exactly how we feel. Especially if they can put a humorous spin on what has otherwise been life’s most crushing disappointment.
Philip Cottraux is a Pentecostal Christian Blogger, Bible Teacher, Writer for Jesus and Husband. http://www.depthsofpentecost.com/
**Update: A new doctor recently diagnosed Philip’s wife, Beth, with a thyroid issue and they are optimistic. .
**Please continue reading for more Father’s Day / Male-oriented posts… And if you’d like to get more laughs at infertility’s expense, please subscribe to my newsletter and check-out my books @ http://laughingisconceivable.com