Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I have been trying to have a baby for two years. Both of us have undergone lots of testing but the doctors still don’t know what the problem is. Throughout all of this, dozens of people—mostly friends and family, but also doctors, nurses, lab techs, and others—have come up to me and either offered some kind of advice, asked how my wife is doing, or told me what I need to do to support her. This whole process has been extremely stressful, and both my wife and I are emotionally devastated, but not a single person has asked how I’m doing. I’m getting really angry about being ignored and I’m trying to keep from biting someone’s head off. How should I respond?
A: Just a few decades ago, infertility was considered to be the woman’s “fault.” But today, experts know that it’s more evenly split. About 40% of the time, the cause can be traced to the woman; 40% of the time it’s traced to the man; and the remaining 20% is “unexplained.” Still, because the pregnancy would happen inside the woman’s body, society assumes that women are the only ones affected by infertility. The fact that men experience stress or grief or might be “emotionally devastated” by the shattering of their hopes and dreams rarely occurs to anyone.
I just found an interesting study that illustrates this exact point. Keli Steuber and Andrew High, both assistant professors in communication studies at the University of Iowa, found that women coping with infertility get plenty of well-meaning advice and comforting words from family and friends. But what they truly need is more practical help, such as cooking a meal or connecting the woman to someone else who’s been through the same thing. Steuber and High say that without that kind of support, women may have trouble coping with the stress of infertility, and that could lead to depression.
They specifically identified two groups of people who could be more supportive: husbands and healthcare providers. Because husbands are often uncomfortable talking about infertility, they frequently leave their wives’ emotional needs unmet. Steuber and High suggest that the men become “more active participants in their wives’ infertility treatments by attending appointments, advocating for their spouse, and helping them explore alternatives to pregnancy or other treatment options.”
And healthcare providers “could help women feel better supported by spending additional face time with their patients, phrasing questions in an empathetic manner, and handing out resources tailored to individual needs,” says High.
While this is a fascinating, I was struck by the glaring absence of any investigation into what men are going through and what kind of help they need most. Yes, men and medical providers could be more supportive. But I’d argue that infertility affects men even more than women. Women, after all, get a lot of emotional support. Men get little or none. Focusing exclusively on women’s experience while ignoring men’s and limiting them to the role of support person reinforces the archaic idea that infertility affects only women. That, in turn, makes it nearly impossible for infertility—and the couples who struggle with it—to get the attention they so sorely deserve.
Now, as far as how to respond to people, you need something that answers the question but lets them know that you’ve got feelings of your own. Try something like, “We’re both having a hard time coping with everything, but we’re in it together and supporting each other through it all.” Maybe next time they’ll be a bit less insensitive.