This is a guest blog by Sheridan Voysey for Gateway Women. Sheridan and his wife are childless not by choice. You can read more about him at the bottom of this article or www.sheridanvoysey.com Thank you so much Sheridan - I really appreciate you taking the time to share your experience with us. Hugs, Jody x
As Sheridan Voysey writes:
Not long ago I took part in a segment for a television breakfast show. As the cameraman and I drove to the filming location, he told me a story.
“Last night some mates and I were in the pub,” he said, “and the conversation turned to depression. It turns out some of them have been on antidepressants. We could never have had that conversation ten years ago. We’d have been afraid of looking weak.”
The cameraman and I agreed progress had been made on men being able to talk about their problems without fear or shame. But I had a hunch there was one topic still too taboo to discuss.
“What about low sperm count?” I said. “Could you and your pub mates talk about that?” He thought for a moment, then said:
“No. If anything, we’d brag about the opposite being true.”
His words were telling. While research suggests that childlessness can affect a man’s mental health, self-esteem, relationships, career, and finances, with masculinity in our culture tied so closely to siring children, and infertility viewed so often as a ‘women’s issue’, it’s a topic men can only joke about or stay silent over—leaving the childless man alone in the shadows. Especially on Father’s Day.
A Personal Story
I found this out personally. For ten years my wife Merryn and I tried to start a family. Our journey in pursuit of this dream included special diets, fertility-boosting supplements, healing prayer, chiropractic sessions (I have no idea why), as well as numerous rounds of IVF, 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 it never materialised. Exhausted from a decade in the infertility wilderness, we brought that dream 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.
I shudder when I recall the isolation of that journey. I didn’t want to talk about our infertility—it was too large and dark a topic, one I wanted to ignore rather than face, and I couldn’t think of who I could open up to anyway who’d have any idea what I was going through. In addition, no one asked me how I felt about being childless (according to research, the man’s experience is often overlooked during fertility treatment). And yet my feelings were deep and complex.
For me, those feelings included guilt. As I watched my wife’s bottom lip quiver when the infertility diagnosis was first given, or watched her face contort in pain as the needle went in to extract the eggs for the IVF round, or as I held her sobbing many nights when her hopes were again dashed, I felt the fact that I was the biological reason she couldn’t have what she wanted. I didn’t choose this, of course. I wasn’t to blame. But I still felt responsible for her pain.
And then there was sadness. While I’ve never been as emotionally driven to have children as other men I know, I felt the loss when I saw fathers play with their giggling daughters, or as I watched families celebrate the birthday of their teenage son, or as I saw proud fathers walk their veiled daughters down the aisle. While Merryn and I have been able to grieve well and move on, there are still moments when this sadness can resurface. Maybe a little more so as I get older.
A Quest for New Identity and Purpose
Since every dream promises a new identity, every broken dream can bring with it a broken sense of self. When infertility robs you of being a ‘father’ what else can you become? These questions become pertinent for childless men on Father’s Day—the day they’re reminded of what they cannot have or be.
Identity has become a significant topic for me. After our long wilderness walk, Merryn needed a consolation prize. When one came in the form of a job offer at the University of Oxford, we made the move from Sydney—an exciting move but one that came at a cost. Having established myself as a ‘writer, speaker and broadcaster’ in Australia, these career roles didn’t readily resume when I arrived in the United Kingdom. Unable to become a father, it now felt like my career identities might be lost too. I began to feel adrift.
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One clever clogs may have graduated from an 800 year-old university in a 360 year-old theatre with a ceremony conducted in Latin this weekend. I’m not exactly sure what they said, but they assure me I’m now married to a Doctor of Philosophy in Primary Health Care. And how was your weekend? 🙂 #Oxford #oxforduniversity #proudhusband
While Merryn and I didn’t get the happy ending we wished, we did get to see our wilderness wanderings recycled into something good. Prompted by a friend, in 2013 I wrote a book about our experience called Resurrection Year: Turning Broken Dreams into New Beginnings
When hundreds of readers told me they too were confused about their identity and purpose, I spent another four years on a follow-up book, The Making of Us: Who We Can Become When Life Doesn’t Go As Planned, just released.
These books and countless conversations led to some new convictions. Here are two of them:
1. We need a bigger sense of self
Our western tendency to define ourselves by our jobs or parenting status ultimately truncates who we are. I may not be a father, but I am a husband, son, uncle, citizen, child of God, an Australian-Brit, and a friend—identities that can be forgotten, or at least diminished, when one focuses hard on becoming a parent. In addition, I am a lover of Dim Sum, dark chocolate, art galleries and soul & funk (particularly tracks released between 1982-1988, go figure). I am fairly creative, on my good days quite compassionate, and I’m a damn good listener. When I see myself solely as a ‘writer, speaker and broadcaster’ I miss these important aspects of who I am.
I—we—need a bigger sense of self. Navigated well, childlessness and other identity-challenging events can help us find this.
2. Adversity can release our best gifts into the world
The artist Degas suffered retina disease for the last fifty years of his life, switching from paint to pastel because the chalk lines were easier to see. When surgery left Matisse immobile, he turned to collage, directing assistants to attach coloured pieces of paper to a larger sheet on the wall. What followed in both cases was a creative breakthrough: Degas’ Blue Dancers, Matisse’s The Snail and other masterpieces. By adapting to their trial, beauty emerged from their adversity.
The concept holds true for other trials and talents. Once Merryn and I shared our pain publicly we found ourselves helping many start again after their own broken dreams. See how Jody has done the same, bringing Gateway Women into being. Marrying your trial with your talent can bring something beautiful into the world.
My Dream for Father’s Day
Is it just me, or has Mother’s Day changed in recent years? When it rolls around now I see as many Facebook posts empathising with non-mothers as I do those celebrating mums’ breakfast-in-bed. My perception may be limited, but I don’t see the same recognition of the non-father on Father’s Day yet. While I don’t want the day to be hijacked (let fathers be celebrated!), this lack of acknowledgement seems to me a sign of what my cameraman friend reflected—that infertility is still a taboo topic for men and society to discuss, leaving the childless man alone in the shadows. Maybe in another decade we’ll be able to discuss low sperm count over a pint as easily as we now do depression. One hopes so.
Until then, my dream and prayer for the non-father this Father’s Day is that they would see it as a prompt to rediscover who they already are—sons, brothers, friends, and more—while catching a glimpse of how this wilderness they’ve experienced, married with their gifts, could lead to profound new purpose and service.
Sheridan Voysey is a writer, speaker, broadcaster, and regular presenter of Pause for Thought on BBC Radio 2’s Zoe Ball Breakfast Show. His latest book is The Making of Us: Who We Can Become When Life Doesn’t Go as Planned which follows Resurrection Year: Turning Broken Dreams into New Beginnings, a chronicle of his and his wife’s journey to start again after childlessness. Find out more about him at www.sheridanvoysey.com
Days like father’s day or mother’s day are tough to get through for anyone who always wanted to be a parent. Even as a woman I still feel excluded & unseen by society because I’m childless. I too experienced the loss of self & identity as well as the loss of parenthood. And as if the 8 rounds of ICSI, 3 early miscarriages & juggling a stressful career weren’t tough enough, my mum died & my partner walked out a week after her funeral. We had a male infertility problem. He was clearly depressed & I was encouraging him to go to counselling so he could talk to someone about it, but he found it hard to talk to someone else about it, he felt even more confused, so in the end he just removed himself from our life & started a completely new one. I loved him & wanted to work through it together, whatever the outcome of our fertility journey. 12 years on I still miss him & the life we had together & as father’s day approaches I wonder if he ever dealt with the grief & loss that he was trying to run from. I congratulate you both for surviving a tough journey, for doing so together & for speaking out about your experience, it can only encourage others to do the same. I’m still looking to refind my place in the world & although I haven’t managed to find love again, I have more good days than bad & for the first time in years I am daring to think of a future.