A man's guide to IVF

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The bright red vinyl couch is the first giveaway that this is no ordinary hospital room. The second is the small portable TV in the corner with a woman groaning while giving head to a man with no pubic hair. I have my little plastic sample jar and a disposable mat to pop on the couch in case of — ahem — spillage.

Welcome to conception IVF style.

I didn't bank on this. If I ever thought about having children at all — and I didn't — I doubt my minds' eye would have included a room decked out like a brothel.

And then there's the issues that I suspect men who conceive naturally never have to consider, such as how long is acceptable to stay in the sperm collection room.

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If I'm too quick, for example, will the woman behind the counter who dispenses the sterile jars and mats think that I'm a premature ejaculator? Alternatively, if I spend too much time, will she think I'm a perv who's decided to make the most of the Medicare-subsidised porn?

But then, this is just one more challenge on the path to IVF. We'd been "trying" for seven months. Under normal circumstances, this isn't long (even though it felt it; conception sex is not what it's cracked up to be), but my wife Kasey had been diagnosed with endometriosis and polycystic ovaries and had been told by her gynaecologist that she would be infertile within a year. As each month passed Kasey's gynaecologist had been giving us ever-sterner, more serious, advice about abandoning the fantasy of natural conception.

I was reluctant at first to sign-up to IVF. Anecdotally, I've been told that this is not uncommon. Men are like oil tankers when it comes to IVF: they take longer to come around to the decision to do IVF than women, but once they get a head of steam, they're harder to stop, even when their partner, exhausted by the rounds of injections, inhalants, and examinations, has decided to cease treatment.

My reluctance about IVF partly came from the uncertainty of its impact on our relationship. You don't get far on the IVF journey before you start hearing horror stories about wild mood swings and even total relationship breakdowns.

Coming home to see Kasey shooting up on the couch everyday with a new concoction of drugs to get control of her cycle, stimulate the growth of eggs and trigger ovulation, and then vomit in the toilet — or sometimes the car — was as difficult to watch as it sounds.

Add to this the concern that IVF is, at its core, a business. Despite brochures bearing photos of happy parents with newborns, the process of baby-making via IVF is as much about delivering profit as it is about delivering dreams.

It also turns a natural process into one that is heavily technologised. While the gender stereotype has it that men like gadgets and all things that go "PING!", there are limits to everything.

IVF is to natural conception what drinking one of those nutritionally engineered diet shakes is to eating food. Sure, they may have the same outcome (or not), but one is pleasurable while the other isn't just unpleasurable, it's the pure negation of pleasure.

And then there was the very real possibility that we wouldn't end up with a baby anyway, just a lot of debt. We've all seen the images of needles delivering sperm directly into the egg, creating the impression that IVF is all about scientific precision. The truth, though, is that IVF is anything but an exact science. Treatment regimes are tailored to the couple, and often the treatment has to be tweaked and re-tweaked over many cycles.

I had the added complication of religion. I'm Catholic. And despite being the kind of Catholic who disagrees with pretty much everything that comes out of the Pope's mouth (doesn't matter which Pope, they're mostly as bad as one another) the claws go deep.

Here I find myself in furious agreement with Tony Abbott: we both think the church has got it wrong when it comes to reproductive technologies. I suspect that this is the first and last time Mr Abbott and I will agree on anything.

Despite these misgivings and reservations, I couldn't not try IVF. And we were lucky. It took one cycle to get pregnant with our daughter Violet. Others aren't so fortunate.

But for many men, even those who aren't lumbered with cultural and religious impediments, IVF remains a taboo subject.

I've heard stories of men refusing to even front up for a fertility test, refusing to provide sperm when they're in the midst of the IVF cycle or forbidding their partners to talk about it with friends and family.

I'm not suggesting that IVF was easy for me. It wasn't. But it was much easier for me than it was for Kasey. If you ever wanted proof that God is a man, just have a look at IVF. Women get turned into a science experiment, while men are under doctor's orders to have a wank.

While it sometimes felt like it, I had to remind myself that I was much more than just a sperm donor in the IVF process. I also needed to be available for Kasey, both emotionally and physically. After all, in the greater scheme of things, many children have been conceived after a bit of awkwardness on a couch.

Christopher Scanlon is a Melbourne writer and co-founder of www.upstart.net.au, a site for emerging journalists.

49 comments

  • "Women get turned into a science experiment, while men are under doctor's orders to have a wank."

    But that's the reproductive process in general, sadly :( Women are told to suck it up, but there's often a process of bending over backwards to accommodate men or cushion the process for them.

    Case in point, last year there was an article on this site about a "Bubs and Beers" night, where antenatal classes for men were held in a pub. The idea was that men found hospital spaces uncomfortable and alienating (well, der. And women just love their hospital appointments?) and that they found it all so much more relaxing over a steak and a beer.

    Nice idea in theory, but I pointed out at the time it seemed a bit like special pleading, or like having a support group for the friends of diabetics, and holding it at the Lindt cafe. Women were told that the hospital thing was just another drawback to be accepted, along with sickness and invasive tests, pain and discomfort, deprivation and self-denial. That's the price of having a baby, apparently. But the men couldn't be expected to sit through an antenatal class in the same hospital, dammit! Or sober! That's just alienating and sooooo unfair.

    Course, I got howled down. Apparently I'm showing a real lack of understanding in my suggestion that men suck up just a bit of what women have to suck up while pregnant. Or show support in ways like saying, "Well, you have to go to classes at the sterile clinic and don't get a beer... maybe it would be OK for me to do the same thing."

    Commenter
    Red Pony
    Date and time
    February 18, 2013, 10:08AM
    • I wish there were "Bubs and Beers" nights when I was in those circumstances. We might have had 10 kids rather than 3 - although the wife might have objected.

      Commenter
      Mike Basil
      Location
      Hobart
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 10:38AM
    • I don’t think you lack understanding but I think you’ve chosen the glass half empty approach. Rather than argue against men drinking with their thinking, why not argue for enhancing the female experience? I don’t see why the two experiences must be relative to the other as they’re so unavoidably different. But I dislike alcohol so I don’t have much sympathy for people who can’t drink, so perhaps I should look at my own glass first.

      Commenter
      Tom
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 11:17AM
    • Speaking to men you get the impression from many that they are considered peripheral to women when it comes to babies. Just a necessary adjunct to be used and ignored as far as possible. Anything that is more inclusive of them would seem to me to be a good idea. After all in this case if it gets more men enthusiastic about helping with baby care that is of great benefit to mothers.

      Commenter
      Bev
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 11:17AM
    • @ Tom and Bev

      I do understand what you mean, and we certainly should find ways of enhancing both the mum and the dad's experience. But do we have to do it in a way where we encourage men to indulge in a luxury that pregnant women are basically not allowed to partake in? Why not do it in an inclusive way that both parents could get involved in, and encourage men to show some solidarity with their partner over the less pleasant elements of pregnancy?

      I know I would be frustrated if I had to take a year off drinking while pregnant, only for my partner to be outright encouraged to go drinking, nominally "in support" of my pregnancy and in preparation for fatherhood. A little consistency so much to ask?

      Unlike you, Tom, I do love a glass of wine and know it won't be easy and fun to completely cut it out for a whole year! Not to mention the sushi, soft cheese, cold chicken, occasional sneaky durry, bike riding etc etc etc. But I would be expected to put up with it, and if I snapped and had a few drinks, I'd be keel-hauled along the lines of poor Chrissie Swan. My issue is that there is a major double standard. It's inevitable and "no big deal" for women to forego any number of things during pregnancy (in fact, it's a personal disgrace if we don't) but we can't ask dads to even do an antenatal class without a beer in their hand?

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 11:46AM
    • What about the times when I have to start work early but my partner doesn’t; should she get up anyway out of sympathy?

      Don’t shoot me for this, but I think women need to take more pleasure in the pregnancy experience. I am very jealous that women get to share that experience with their children and I would swap roles any time (I’m happy with the birthing pain but you can keep that lunar period business, that’s no fun at all). I think society has grown complacent about pregnancy and has forgotten how exceptional it really is. And considering the number of repeat customers, it can’t be all bad.

      Commenter
      Tom
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 12:10PM
    • Um: "poor Chrissie Swan"? No, no, no. She did it to herself by allowing herself to indulge in baby-harming habit, and being a public figure who trades on her currency of being a mum, I think we and she should expect that she is a role model and as such her failings won't be taken so lightly.

      Yes, blokes should suck it up for the sake of solidarity and support, but we baby-vessels have a little bit more responsibility to get it right. And Red Pony, 9 months ain't such a long time in the whole scheme of things. Once you pop out a little person the sacrifices of pregnancy pale in comparison to what you will now give up or go without (sleep being the first great giveaway). I've been either pregnant or breastfeeding for almost 6 years, and although it would be nice for my partner to abstain when I do, there's no point in being all sulky and petulant that as a man, the health and well-being of our offspring isn't dependant on it. (although I do admit to some resentment that my body is ruined while his is untouched by the rigours of childbirth).Tom is right, pregnancy is a miracle and a privilege and it was one of the most beautiful (and hard and challenging but mostly beautiful) but brief moments of my life.

      There's no point bitching that the experience is different for the sexes, after all we weren't created equal, we women get to have the babies! (BTW I'm no Martha Stewart - I'm an educated feminist, as is my husband)

      Commenter
      RF
      Location
      Blue Mountains
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 12:55PM
    • Tom,

      If you had to get up early every day for a year or so to fulfil a common goal of yours and your partner's, and it was something that only you could do, then I would think it wouldn't be nice of her to make a show of luxuriating in bed each day while you got up.

      Of course I won't "shoot" you down but I think you might be idealising pregnancy a bit. For many women it is an extremely trying time both physically and emotionally, and most women I know would LOVE to be in a position of having children without having to go through it. Some will naturally take pleasure in pregnancy, others will see it, quite justifiably, as difficult and unpleasant in a lot of ways. The number of "repeat customers" probably speaks more to the necessity of the process (if you want to have more than one child) than to how enjoyable it is! Anyway, there's already a huge amount of pressure on women to act like they can take it all in their stride and be natural earth-mothers, enjoying every minute of pregnancy and childrearing. I wouldn't want to add to that.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 1:01PM
    • A frustrating article - perhaps not for this section of the age, but nobody talks about the commercial practices of IVF companies and how they exploit patients with procedures not done by their own doctors and the use of single bore needles to save on cost in egg collection. Am still waiting for an in-depth commentary on the whole business - because that is exactly what it is.

      Commenter
      oscarj
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 1:03PM
    • "... there's no point in being all sulky and petulant that as a man, the health and well-being of our offspring isn't dependant on it."

      Emerging research suggests that women find it much easier to cut down/eliminate using alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs when their partners make an effort to do so as well. [Bleeker, A., et al. (2011). The Association Between Maternal and Partner Drug and Alcohol Use During Pregnancy in a Longitudinal Birth Cohort of Australian Families. Presented at APSAD conference, 2011]

      There was a significant association between partner use and the extent to which mothers' use changed during pregnancy. I.e. women had the best chance of stopping when their partners did so as well. So it seems that to some extent, the well-being of your child may be affected by what your partner uses, or doesn't. It's not a matter of being "sulky and petulant", it's a matter of asking for a little consistency to ensure better outcomes for everyone.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      February 18, 2013, 1:33PM

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