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Not Just Women: Childlessness Cuts Men Up Too (BBC News Video)

Cover picture by Brent, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Childlessness isn’t just a ‘female’ thing. It cuts a man up too. 

I and other men know. We’ve felt each cut.

Thanks to new research conducted by Leeds Beckett University and Fertility Network UK this often ignored side of the infertility story is starting to be recognised. Their study has found that infertility can affect a man’s mental health, self-esteem, relationships, sex life, masculinity, even his career and finances. And given childlessness is often seen as a ‘women’s issue’, men are often ignored during the treatment process or in follow up support. Men are one-half of the fertility equation yet are often relegated to the sidelines.

This week I was on BBC Breakfast, BBC News Channel and Channel 5 News talking about my personal experience of childlessness. Here’s what I shared on BBC’s Afternoon Live. I’ve included some backstory below, plus some additional thoughts.

Our Story

Sheridan and Merryn Voysey by Mark Harrison Me and Merryn. Picture by Mark Harrison (used with permission)

For ten years my wife Merryn and I dreamed of starting a family. Our journey in pursuit of that dream included special diets, courses of fertility-boosting supplements, healing prayer, even chiropractic sessions (you’ll try anything). The journey included numerous rounds of costly IVF treatment, and a year of assessment as potential adoptive parents followed by an agonising two-year wait for our hoped-for adoptive child.

We pursued our dream with all the energy we had. But the dream never eventuated.

Exhausted from a decade in the infertility wilderness, we brought our dream of a baby to an end on Christmas Day 2010 after doctors had told us, just days before, that our final IVF round had been successful. They’d been wrong.

From a Guy’s Perspective

Since then, Merryn and I have been able to grieve and move on with our lives. But while the wound has healed there will always be a scar. Having written a book about Merryn’s and my experience and sharing that story publically, I’ve come to hear many men’s stories privately too. While we may not share as openly as our other halves can, here’s what childlessness can feel like from our perspective.

Sadness

an empty swingPhoto by Raúl Nájera on Unsplash

We can feel sadness as we watch a father tickling his giggling daughter, as we watch a family celebrate the birthday of their teenage son, or as we see a proud father walk his veiled daughter down the aisle. In these moments we hear a voice that says, ‘You’ll never have that,’ followed by a jolting sense of injustice. ‘It’s just not fair,’ the voice says, ‘when we tried so hard to have a child.’

Some guys are OK going without children. Others have wanted to be dads all their lives. The desire for children isn’t just a female drive. As one man said to me, ‘I’ll never see a little face look up at me and say “Daddy”.’

Threatened Masculinity

I regularly have men confidentially email me or pull me aside at conferences to share feelings they rarely share with others. ‘I can’t talk about this to my friends,’ one guy said. ‘Having low sperm count is hardly conversation for my pub mates.’ Our culture still equates masculinity with siring a child and for many men this threatened masculinity is the most difficult aspect of infertility. Childlessness can bring isolation from others and a sense of shame.

Feelings of Guilt

Man at a shoreline looking at the waterPhoto by Jean-Pierre Brungs on Unsplash

This was a big one for me. Try watching your wife’s bottom lip quiver as the doctor delivers the results of those first fertility tests. Watch her face contort in pain as the needle extracting the eggs for your first IVF round goes in. Watch as she waits in hope for the results of the blood test. Watch as time and again that hope falls to the floor. Watch all this and know that (in my case) you’re the cause of all this—the reason she can’t have what she desperately wants. You didn’t choose this. You’re not to blame. But you still feel the reason for her pain.

The lost opportunity of fatherhood. Threatened masculinity. Guilt and shame. Yes, childlessness can cut a man up.

Moving On

Over six years have passed since my wife and I brought our quest for a child to an end. We’re in a different place now—we’ve started life again. And our story is helping others who need their own new beginning after a broken dream. But please know that childlessness isn’t just a ‘female’ thing. It cuts a man up too.

In more ways than I’ve mentioned and in more ways than you may know.

Thankfully word about that is now getting out.

More

Fertility Network UK has helpful resources

Watch the Journey Through Broken Dreams documentary 

Our story of starting again is told in the memoir Resurrection Year: Turning Broken Dreams into New Beginnings

Please Share

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  • SO good Sheridan. Thanks for leading in this area and showing men they can be vulnerable too.

  • Rachel Giles

    Great to read this, so refreshing to hear the male perspective. I think one reason why childlessness has been seen primarily as a women’s issue is because much of society views it as a woman’s purpose to have children. The pain of being involuntarily childless is made worse for both genders, however, by societal expectations and a fixed idea of what family is. I believe much of the challenge when coming to terms with it is saying ‘I’m still a woman/man if I dont have kids; I can still be fruitful.’ We need to explore how to help people do this.

    • Yes, Rachel, yes. Our identities need to be grounded in something broader and deeper than child rearing, and fruitfulness in life can take so many forms. I’m hoping my next book project will help speak to this.

  • Christopher Baker

    Thanks for your honesty Sheridan. It’s refreshing to hear a man speak so accurately about the pain of childlessness from a blokes perspective. We did have the joy of adopting a child, but for 11 years we struggled. All our friends were having children, they were being blessed by God with a child, but why weren’t we? What had we done wrong, what sins had we committed that meant God would not allow us to have a child of our own? The worst part for me was being told the news of a pregnancy by people. Because they didn’t want to hurt my wife with the news they told me instead. So I was the one ending up causing pain to my wife. In those situations I often felt resentment to those couples who had joyous news to share because of the pain they were causing unintentionally.

    Even though we adopted, as you said in your blog Sheridan, the scars are still there. Scars from ‘Words from God’ that people had for us saying child was on the way. When it didn’t happen there was no apology from those who had given the word. Obviously we did not have enough faith to believe that it would happen. As you can probably tell I still have some hang-ups!

    I’ve been working with young people in churches, in schools, on the streets for over 30 years now. One of the key things that young people need is people who are real. People who will say how things are, who don’t always put forward the positive view but sometimes talk honestly about things that have gone wrong or have been negative. Failing medicals to get into the RAF. Broken engagements. Being unable to father a child. Having a mental breakdown etc. But from their talk about how God worked to bring restoration and healing through the help and support of others, friends, family, God’s people etc.

    This is the first time I’ve ever responded publicly on a blog. Forgive me if I’ve rambled, but the way you put things over Sheridan, is refreshing and helpful. I always look forward to what you have to say/write. Thank you.

  • Adding this for Chris who had troubles posting (and whose comment was important to share):

    Thank you for your honesty Sheridan. It’s refreshing to hear a man speak so accurately about the pain of childlessness from a blokes perspective. We did have the joy of adopting a child, but for 11 years we struggled. All our friends were having children, they were being blessed by God with a child, but why weren’t we? What had we done wrong, what sins had we committed that meant God would not allow us to have a child of our own? The worst part for me was being told the news of a pregnancy by people. Because they didn’t want to hurt my wife with the news they told me instead. So I was the one ending up causing pain to my wife. In those situations I often felt resentment to those couples who had joyous news to share because of the pain they were causing unintentionally.

    Even though we adopted, as you said in your blog Sheridan, the scars are still there. Scars from ‘Words from God’ that people had for us saying child was on the way. When it didn’t happen there was no apology from those who had given the word. Obviously we did not have enough faith to believe that it would happen. As you can probably tell I still have some hang-ups!

    I’ve been working with young people in churches, in schools, on the streets for over 30 years now. One of the key things that young people need is people who are real. People who will say how things are, who don’t always put forward the positive view but sometimes talk honestly about things that have gone wrong or have been negative. Failing medicals to get into the RAF. Broken engagements. Being unable to father a child. Having a mental breakdown etc. But from there talk about how God worked to bring restoration and healing through the help and support of others, friends, family, God’s people etc.

    This is the first time I’ve ever responded publicly on a blog. Forgive me if I’ve rambled, but the way you put things over Sheridan, is refreshing and helpful. I always look forward to what you have to say/write. Thank you.

    • I resonate so much with what you’ve shared Chris. And having received hundreds of emails from Resurrection Year readers I can say you aren’t alone in these feelings and experiences. The awkward conversations with friends announcing their pregnancy, the failed ‘prophecies’… What encourages me about your message is that, after all this, you’re still working with youth, investing your life into theirs, and no doubt being as real with them about life’s incongruities as you’ve been here. You must be a brilliant youth worker!

      Thanks for sharing here mate. Thanks too for the encouragement.