Fertility is a man’s issue too…

120px-Depressed.svgAfter talking about the way men are so often shoved to one side when it comes to fertility at Fertility Fest yesterday, I was fascinated to find a story from the US on my news feed titled “Ohio man shares wife’s infertility struggle to encourage other couples”

It really sums up everything that is wrong with the way we look at fertility problems.  The article describes how the Ohio man apparently “opened up about his wife’s miscarriage” as if it had nothing to do with him. Reading what the man from Ohio actually wrote, it is clear that he saw himself as being very much a part of the experience and involved in it. It’s the journalist’s take on what he was saying which is the problem – but it is time we put a stop to the idea that fertility is an issue for women and that men are simply standing by ready to offer support.  Robin Hadley’s research shows that men are just as hurt by childlessness as women, and we need to champion the importance of understanding this.

The Fantastic Fertility Fest

I was in Birmingham yesterday for the first ever Fertility Fest which was a truly amazing day. Jessica Hepburn and Gabby Vautier put together the festival and had worked tirelessly to create something which managed to be moving, interesting, emotional, inspiring, uplifting, thought-provoking and exciting all in one day.

It was wonderful to have so many artists who have produced such different work about their experience of fertility problems gathered together under one roof – visual artists, playwrights, photographers, musicians and writers. To have them joined by leading fertility specialists added another context to the discussion and proved to be a fascinating mix.

I chaired the opening session where Jessica was joined by playwright Gareth Farr, whose play The Quiet House, which is about a couple going through IVF, forms a central part of the festival. They spoke about why they’d both wanted to write about their experiences of fertility problems, and about the stigma and taboo which still surrounds infertility and treatment. They set the tone for the day, explaining how the idea for Fertility Fest came about and what they hoped the day would achieve.

I went on to the session about IVF with writer Jo Ind and visual artist Tabitha Moses, where we were joined by Anya Sizer from the London Women’s Clinic. Jo read some passages and a poem she’d written at the time of her fertility problems and treatment, and then Tabitha presented some of her work about fertility – her beautiful embroidered hospital gowns featuring women’s fertility stories and the light-box embryos, pinpricked out using the syringes she used for her IVF. We had a fascinating discussion afterwards about their work, about infertility and treatment, about IVF pregnancy and parenthood and about the compulsion to explore fertility problems through art and writing.

In the afternoon, I was in the session on male fertility with photographer Aaron Deemer, musician and composer Fergus Davidson and fertility expert Professor Allan Pacey. Aaron began by talking about his extraordinary photos of the men’s rooms at fertility clinics, and about his visits to clinics in China and the UK – and explained how the photos have become a way into talking about men and fertility. Fergus gave an incredibly moving talk about his fertility problems and experience of miscarriage, and then played some music he had composed accompanied by pictures. I think most of the audience in the room were in tears by the time he had finished his courageous and honest account, and it made me realise how rare it is to hear a man speaking so openly about the pain of fertility problems and of miscarriage. Aaron and Fergus were joined by Professor Allan Pacey for the discussion afterwards who added a professional view to the debate which gave a forum for a subject so often overlooked. It was great that Dr Robin Hadley, an academic who has researched men’s responses to childlessness, joined us in the audience for the debate.

The final session of the day on the Future of Fertility was started by Amanda Gore from Liminal Space who talked about their most recent project involving the creation of a fictional beauty brand and pop-up shop designed to unlock the facts around egg freezing. Chair Peter Guttridge skilfully led the panel of experts – Professor Geeta Nargund, Professor Jacky Boivin, Dr Gillian Lockwood and Professor Allan Pacey – as they discussed what they felt lay ahead. Egg freezing, synthetic sperm and eggs, a dwindling population and the future of NHS-funded fertility treatment were up for discussion!

The day ended with a production of Gareth Farr’s play The Quiet House. I couldn’t stay for that but am really looking forward to seeing the play in London. There were so many amazing artists and experts, and I just wish I could have attended all the sessions. If you are anywhere near London and haven’t got tickets for Fertility Fest on June 11 – book one right now here before they sell out. It promises to be another truly fascinating day.

A man’s point of view

Do listen to the interview here on BBC Radio 4 with the excellent Robin Hadley about living without children from a male perspective. We hear so much about what this is like for women, but Robin speaks very eloquently and honestly here about how it feels for him.

A word of warning that the section of the programme immediately before Robin is a mother talking about how much she didn’t enjoy having children – the section with Robin starts at about 7.20 into the programme.

Fertility problems affect men too

I heard a man talking about his wife’s fertility problems on the radio the other day. He said he didn’t think men felt the same way about having children as women did – and made it sound as if not being able to start a family would not be any kind of issue for a man.  It made me rather sad as he said it with such confidence – and yet that’s so far from the experience of most men I talk to who are going through fertility tests and treatments.

Fertility problems are women’s issues

All too often, fertility is seen as a woman’s problem, and we’ve seen that a lot recently with all the debate about women “leaving it too late” and needing to have children earlier – but it’s important to remember, especially today on Father’s Day, that men suffer just as much as women do when they can’t have children. In fact, there’s some research from Keele University’s Robin Hadley which suggests that men are just as broody as women, and that involuntary childlessness is more likely to make men feel depressed and angry than women.

Sometimes men do feel the need to disguise their feelings, especially if they think they need to be strong for their partner, but unlike the man I was listening to, I think most men do find fertility problems difficult – and today would be a good day to do something nice for your partner if you’re trying to conceive.

It’s not just women… (for Father’s Day)

When we hear about infertility, all too often the focus is on women whether it’s stories about women leaving it too late, being desperate for babies or wanting to have it all- but amongst the media cliches it’s important not to forget, especially on Father’s Day, that men find infertility difficult too.

We hear far less about the way that men feel about infertility, and it is certainly true that some men do find it harder to talk about their fertility problems than their female counterparts.  However, the stigma of infertility can be just as tough for either sex – and many men want to be fathers just as much as their partners want to be mothers.  There’s some fascinating research by Robin Hadley from Keele University which found that men were just as broody as women, and that involuntary childlessness was more likely to make men feel depressed and angry than women.

There was an interesting article in the Washington Post recently about the male experience of infertility. A number of men talked very frankly and honestly about the difficulties they have encountered, and it’s well worth a read.


Study suggests childless men may be more depressed

I’m really pleased to see that Robin Hadley’s research looking at how men react to childlessness is receiving the attention it deserves.  Robin has been studying how men feel about involuntary childlessness, and his findings suggest that they may feel more depressed and lonely about it than their female counterparts.  It’s a very small study, but is important and should be welcomed – we often assume that men cope far better with childlessness and are able to bury their feelings and get on with life.  Robin’s research shows that this is often far from the case as the men he interviewed felt sad, isolated and depressed.  The only emotion associated with childlessness among women which they did not share was guilt.  The men tended to feel pressure from society and from their own families to have children more acutely, whilst the women felt their own personal desire and biological urges were at the root of their longing for children.

There’s more details about Robin’s research here and a really interesting piece by Robin himself here.  It’s good that men’s attitudes to childlessness are finally being explored, as this has been an area which is all too often overlooked.