Take a moment to scroll through the contacts on your phone or your friends on Facebook. One in six of them is struggling with infertility. The affected women have most likely reached out to family, close friends, support groups, or online communities. They ask for the help they need, and often get it on behalf of themselves and their partners.
But men don’t always handle infertility well. Regardless of the underlying cause, the inability to conceive naturally can be extremely painful. The resulting feelings of inadequacy, shame, and isolation can change how a man acts towards those closest to him. But Jon Waldman wants to change that.
In Swimming Aimlessly, Waldman shares his family’s infertility story, a years-long, crazy expensive, physically and emotionally exhausting ride. He also speaks with other couples, doctors, and fertility experts, providing not only the latest science, but more intimate advice about the ups and downs of trying to conceive, keeping the partnership healthy, and dealing with the inevitable losses that come—even when the journey ends in a baby.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: What I Thought I Knew
The first reference I ever heard to infertility was a term most kids today don’t even know: test tube baby.
It was sometime in the late 1980s, and I can’t remember exactly where I heard the term first—probably on the playground, or listening in while my parents watched the news. I was only ten, so I couldn’t conceive (pardon the pun) of what it meant, but the slightly terrifying vision of a fetus literally sitting inside a vial immediately penetrated my psyche. I can still conjure it today.
Of course, for years it didn’t occur to me to learn what it actually meant. I had more important things to worry about in high school—primarily, whether I was ever going to find a girlfriend. Social awkwardness aside, I had no real inkling of what dating, love, or relationships were, aside from watching cousins bring different partners around to family dinners until one day they were married.
But I did know that there were couples who had babies, and others who didn’t. One of the latter was my mother’s cousin and her husband, who lived in Montreal. Though I was plenty curious as a child, I simply didn’t ask about it. It never occurred to me that she couldn’t.
In fact, it wasn’t until my wife and I started having trouble conceiving that I got a true education in how difficult having a child actually is. When we were married in 2007, I joked with my friends that I finally had a “five-year plan”—buy a house, move to full-time work, write a couple of books, go skydiving, perform a stand-up comedy act and, once I got some of that fun stuff out of the way, have a kid or two. A couple of the items on that list happened (though I still haven’t had any fun with a parachute), but not the kids. On our wedding day, neither of us could have imagine the complicated road that awaited us.
And as it turns out, our experience wasn’t unique.
Meet Karen Jeffries, a teacher in the New York area. While she recalls learning the basics of sex and reproduction in school, she didn’t get her true education until she attempted to start having kids.
“Even when I started trying to get pregnant at twenty-nine years old, I didn’t really know how you got pregnant,” Jeffries says. “I mean, I knew the penis in the vagina and eggs and sperm, but I didn’t know that there were only a couple of days of the month that you could get pregnant; I didn’t know about the ovulation. I’m sure I was taught it, but I didn’t think about it. So for our first five or six months of trying, we were having unprotected sex and I wasn’t getting my period every month, so every month I thought I was pregnant. I kept taking pregnancy tests and they came back negative. I was like, ‘I don’t understand what’s happening.’?”
Jeffries attributes this to incomplete sex ed. In school she was taught that unprotected sex plus no period equals pregnancy. Now, she is hopeful that the conversation around sex and (in)fertility can expand.
“It should be talked about more in general health conversation,” she says. “I wish I knew I was infertile. It would’ve changed things. When I met my husband and we knew we were going to be married, I would’ve said something like, ‘I know you’re the one, you know I’m the one, but I have this issue. If we want to speed it up, we might want to figure out what’s going on.’ We would’ve planned things better, but it wasn’t something that was talked about.”
Jeffries’s experience now is affecting how she interacts with the next generation, specifically in her own family. While the New York State curriculum covers puberty in grade five and sex ed runs in junior high, she has started talking to her daughters even earlier. “I talk about it with my two girls. When they talk about having kids, I’ll tell them, ‘if you want, and if you can,’?” she explains. “I know that sounds so negative, but I don’t want them to have this thing ingrained in their head where you have to grow up, get married, and have kids; I tell them if you want to have kids, and I plant the seeds of if you can. I don’t want to be doomsday, but I struggled, and as your mother I will help you. For me, that was part of the heartbreak when I was infertile. My whole life had been devoted to children, whether it was babysitting or going into education and teaching kids for the past ten years. Everything had been on a mission for children. Being realistic with kids, telling them that yes, you might get pregnant, but you also might not, is okay. It doesn’t make you less of a man or woman. I think that part is okay too.”
My own path was quite similar to Jeffries’s. Growing up in a Jewish community and attending religious schools, there were some consistent themes in the messaging. After all, word one in the Torah (Bible) was to be fruitful and multiply.
While my overall interest in girls and women never wavered, it was a different moment that made me realize I wanted children of my own someday. When I was in high school, a new cousin was born, the first of the next generation. Watching her grow up, and being active in her life, awakened an instinct in me. I can still remember sitting with her in my parents’ basement as she was learning to read and challenging her with my Beckett magazines, pushing her to go beyond the first reader books. I like to think I had a bit of influence on her life.
As more babies came along, I became the very involved cousin. The same happened with friends of ours who had kids first; my wife and I became unofficial aunt and uncle very quickly. Yes, there were a couple of miscarriages along the way, but those were speed bumps more than roadblocks—all of those folks ended up having kids successfully, sometimes very soon afterward.
Our story, however, wasn’t going to be the same, as we learned after our first miscarriage.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 What I Thought I Knew 5
Chapter 2 Miscarriage of Justice 9
Chapter 3 Defining Infertility 17
Chapter 4 Starting a Journey 23
Chapter 5 Frozen in Time 29
Chapter 6 What Causes Male Infertility 35
Chapter 7 Debating Male Infertility Claims 49
Chapter 8 When Advice Doesn't Help 53
Chapter 9 Everything's Little with Sperm Tests 59
Chapter 10 Sex and Drugs 65
Chapter 11 The Comedy of Infertility 71
Chapter 12 Standing Strong in Marriage 77
Chapter 13 Problem Solvers 83
Chapter 14 Men, Mental Health, and Infertility 89
Chapter 15 Avoid Being a Fertility Fool 99
Chapter 16 The Religious View 103
Chapter 17 Remember the Grandparents 109
Chapter 18 Not-so-Happy Father's Day 115
Chapter 19 Our Furry Children 119
Chapter 20 Adoption and Other Options 127
Chapter 21 Coping with Childlessness 137
Chapter 22 Speaking Out 141
Chapter 23 The Effects of Pop Culture 147
Chapter 24 Dad Eyes 155
Chapter 25 Seeking Kinship (aka Dude, Where's My Infertile Tribe?) 159
Chapter 26 I-U-AYE 169
Chapter 27 The Complete Idiots Guide to 1VF 175
Chapter 28 The Road You Travel for Fertility 179
Chapter 29 The Second Miscarriage and Secondary Infertility 189
Chapter 30 It Doesn't Go Away 195