On Infertility

What follows is an essay I wrote about two years ago. I've tried here and there to find a home for it since, but to no avail. It is extremely personal, and so it bothered me to not have it out in the world. I still hope that it can someday find a home beyond this blog, which I suppose is what I hope for all of my writing, but this one especially. In the meantime, here you go.

On Infertility

I’m in a busy diner during the lunch rush, waiting for a friend to finish paying. I’m struggling to manage the weight of my infant son’s car seat. He’s not terribly heavy, but the seat is tricky to maneuver in tight spaces.  It’s pouring rain outside, and I’m trying to remember where we parked when the restaurant staff start doting over my son.

To be fair, he’s adorable. We share no biology, something I’ll expand upon in a moment, but suffice it to say that I can take no credit for his incredible cuteness. Let’s be honest, there are some funny looking babies out there - luckily, we were able to dodge that bullet.

For most of my marriage, I wasn’t sure I wanted kids. It wasn’t a tough decision to make as we were usually broke.  If we were going to have kids, it would have to be when we were financially secure enough to swing it; if that never happened, we could take all of that extra money we didn’t have in the first place and do a bunch of traveling. Either way, it seemed we’d be able to find a happy outcome.

But then I got the bug. You hear about this happening to people, but it sounds so trite, like an eleven-year-old-girl back from her first baby-sitting gig. And even though I cried during The Notebook, I still somehow thought I wasn’t given to such emotional frivolity. If we were going to have kids, it wasn’t going to be because I was a total sap.

Turns out I was wrong. All it took was seeing dads and kids at Target and Home Depot, and I was gone. I’d see these tiny people, barely up to their dads’ knees, teetering along, slowly, deliberately. And they were holding hands with Daddy.

I was stricken.


My wife and I soon began trying. This was a revelation for me: despite what you may think, trying-to-conceive-a-baby sex is some of the silliest sex there is. In place of passion, spontaneity, and romance, are pressure, obligation, and a foreboding sense of timing.

It becomes rote, and both of you are aware of how strange that is, and maybe feel guilty about it, but still, the show must go on. And then you try to change it up, and next thing you know, you’ve got blankets spread out on the bathroom floor (which really sounds so very disgusting in retrospect, but isn’t sex kind of gross to begin with?), but the sink is running because it’s cold outside and the pipes are frozen (!) and halfway through you’re both getting splashed in the face with sinkwater, and who can take any of that seriously at all? Not the guy who’s complaining about the cramp in his back, I can promise you that.

As it turned out, all of our trying was in vain, and so eventually I went in for a test. In an interesting twist of medical nomenclature, what could have been dressed up in jargon, couched in all kinds of Greek and Latin prefixes, is instead called by the somewhat undignified moniker of “semen analysis,” probably to avoid giving the mistaken impression that there would be any self-respect happening anywhere in the process.

The office was decorated in dark oak and oriental rugs, something like an alpine hunting lodge.  This overt expression of masculinity struck me as incredibly transparent, rooted in the idea that men in my position might need some sort of testosterone-based reinforcement. But just because I could see through their design choices didn’t mean that I was immune to the inherent discomfort of my situation. I’m a teacher, and I had a colleague covering my classes for me (“I have a doctor’s appointment…”); could I face a room full of high schoolers when this was all over?

A nurse led me back to a small room.  She was older, maternal, in the gruff, all-business way of so many older, maternal women. The room’s main feature was a reclining lounge chair covered in coarse medical paper, but she also made sure to let me know about the fertility-friendly lubricant that wouldn’t mess with my count, the dimmer switch “for mood lighting”, the pornography in the cupboard, and where to put my sample when I was done.

I would have given anything to be trying instead.

A few days later I got a call from another nurse.  She said that volume of the sample I produced looked good, the motility (movement of the sperm within the sample) was also good, but there was a problem.

There was a problem, yet her voice was so detached from the gravity of this news and the effect it was having upon me.  She would, I supposed, have more of these calls to make that afternoon, piled up in the days to come for as long as she cared to imagine.  

But there was a problem.

Conservatively speaking, she explained, there are usually at least fifteen million sperm swimming around in one millileter of ejaculate – occasionally even ten times that number.  Mine had sixteen.

“As in, six more than ten?”

It turns out that’s what sixteen means.

People will tell you that “it only takes one,” and, you know, I saw Look Who’s Talking, I know how it works, but on a line graph with 150 million on the top and zero on the bottom, sixteen is effectively zero.  All those “it only takes one” optimists might as well buy me a Powerball ticket while they’re at it – I’d spend my winnings on reproductive surgery.

I hadn’t expected this news. I was devastated. I walked the dog, shuffling through a gray day in my neighborhood, trying to get my head together. I passed by the gas station, busy with customers, and was aware of how disconnected we all are from the problems of others.

I think I knew that there were options available to me, I just hadn’t expected to need them, and wasn’t sure yet how I felt about them. More troubling than anything was the overwhelming knowledge that I had no idea what I was going to do.

The next day I was in a meeting at work and counted seventeen people in the room. One more than sixteen. My stomach was in my throat. Of course, it was a strange analogy to make, English department to sperm count, but that’s where my head was. At least there weren’t fifteen million, I guess.

The doctors encouraged me to go see a specialist. This proved to be problematic; my wife and I had been operating on a somewhat specific timeline, one that was predicated upon academic and professional responsibilities. We now found ourselves working within a rapidly closing window of time, and the specialist scheduled appointments two months out. After months of charting temperatures and mucus quality, and all that overwrought sex, this was a new level of anxiety I hadn’t anticipated.

And don’t think I can’t hear you, clucking away about the folly of trying to plan something like this down to the letter, how no one can control these sorts of things. I get it, I do, but the way our professional and academic lives were structured, it was going to be really awesome to have a baby during months A, B, and C, and infinitely more difficult to do so during months X, Y, and Z.

I realized that I had even fewer options than before, compounding my disappointment. I felt lost. Any move I made seemed to negate other, plausible-seeming moves. Seeing the specialist meant waiting an indeterminate amount of time for a baby. Not seeing a specialist meant not knowing what the problem was, effectively shutting down the family line. These facts, all of them new and unforeseen, required resolute action, a deliberate strength of purpose that I was decidedly lacking.

My wife, an excellent internet researcher, hit the trying-to-conceive message boards and pregnancy blogs, and the occasional real-deal medical website. We read about a couple who had struggled with infertility, ultimately settling on the mantra “baby in the house.” We took it to mean baby in the house by any means necessary, and hadn’t this been my goal from the beginning? This mantra was so simple, so obvious, we adopted it as our own. I felt very near to having the clarity I’d need to make a decision.

At this point, we also stumbled upon a probable cause for my near-sterility. When I was an infant, I had a hernia. I grew up hearing the story about how I was blue from the legs down, like a Smurf in reverse.  Our working theory, although never confirmed, is that when the doctors went in to fix me up, they may have accidentally snipped this, knotted that, and given me the inspiration for my upcoming children’s book, Daddy’s Tangled Apparatus. I was relieved to have something resembling an explanation, especially one that made so much sense.

Working on this assumption, we decided to pursue a sperm donor. More on this in a moment, but first I’d like to acknowledge that we were, in fact, working on an assumption, a theory, which was, in fact, never confirmed.

I think many people find this to be a reckless decision, like I gave up and quit on myself. Who knows, right? Maybe I could have been untangled, reattached, or otherwise had my fecundity restored. And I don’t want to be cavalier about this at all – it was an incredibly difficult decision to be sure. There was a lot of insecurity and second-guessing.

But my goal was to have a baby in the house, not to cultivate a biological legacy. Allowing that goal to really take primacy over everything else was very liberating, once I got there. Given the choice, I would have preferred not to have any infertility issues, but that preference didn’t seem worth putting my goal on hold indefinitely.

Not only that, but we have a lot of gay friends who are starting families.  Same-sex parents have no choice but to begin with a donor of some sort, and I’m not sure how productive it is for the non-biological parent to lament the lack of shared DNA once the baby arrives. Any self-pity others would foist upon me seemed strictly a function of straight privilege.

We began to research donor agencies so that we could begin to research donors. I was, of course, grateful for the chance to become a father at all, but less so when presented with the opportunity to pay thirty-five dollars for a silhouette of a potential donor’s face in profile.

Even so, there were some humorous moments in the selection process. Despite being a run-of-the-mill white guy, I have been told my entire life that I look Asian. The agency’s computers agreed – we submitted pictures of me in order to produce a list of potential donors whose offspring might resemble something I could create. The first guy on the list was 100% Chinese, the second 100% Vietnamese. Of course.

In the end we picked one whose heritage a little more closely aligned with our own, and after lugging liquid nitrogen tanks around from the garage to the trunk of the car to the doctor’s office, success! When my wife walked into the bedroom with a positive pregnancy test in her hand, it was the happiest moment in my life up to that point, and one I’ll never forget.

During the pregnancy we talked some about how I might react when the baby finally came. His in utero name was New Guy, and I was pretty sure I wouldn’t feel any less connected to him than if he were the fruit of my own loins. Still, we both knew that this was one of those big life things for which you just can’t predict a reaction. Not until you’ve lived it.

I’m happy to report that after a long and difficult labor, my son finally arrived, and when he did, I cried tears of joy like never before. He’s seven weeks old now, and while there are difficult times, reflux-induced sleepless nights, diaper blowouts and moments of self-doubt and insecurity, I have no misgivings whatsoever about my decision. Quite the contrary, the levies of my heart are struggling against levels of love and joy I could never have imagined. He is altogether mine, and I am his daddy, and like parents everywhere, biological or otherwise, the task now falls to me to be the best parent that I can possibly be.

When we were selecting a donor, my plan was to use a donor for the first child so that we could get our family started, and then later on get checked out and possibly repaired. Since my son has arrived, however, I am dead set against that course of action, and hope to use the same donor a next time. Part of this is because this baby is exactly one hundred times cuter than anything I might have produced, but also because I can’t bear to think of him wondering someday if I love him less than his sibling because of biology. What’s more, as much as I hate to think about it, I have to acknowledge the possibility that there could be a stronger connection to a child who shared my biology, and that’s not something I’m willing to risk. I love my son too much.

It’s a taboo topic, to be sure, tied up as it is in notions of masculinity, virility, and manhood, and this upsets me. I have never thought for a second that my low sperm count made me less of a man. I don’t bring it up during casual conversation at cocktail parties (“well, you know we had to use a donor because I can barely make sperm”), mostly because I imagine it would make other people uncomfortable, but a little bit I wish I could. I love my son, and I wouldn’t know him otherwise, and that’s why I’m proud that we chose to use a donor. I look forward to having lots of conversations with him about all the different kinds of families in the world.

But maybe the rest of the world isn’t ready. In the meantime, back at the diner, a member of the staff says “Oh, you’re just so handsome like your daddy.”  And of course I know it’s me, but I still can’t help myself.  I pick up the car seat, smile wryly, and whisper, “Who is your daddy, anyway?”