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Health & Fitness Support groups help men deal with loneliness and stigma of infertility

Lori and Vince Londini pose for a photograph in their home in London, Ont., on Saturday, April 20.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Vince Londini and his wife, Lori, had been trying for a baby for a couple of years before he offered to go for fertility testing. Knowing it was an easier procedure for men, he was tested first. But he didn’t expect the results he got: He had no sperm.

"I never thought this would happen to me," he says. "I didn't have any idea how to process what it meant."

More than anything, he felt tremendous guilt. “We entered into this relationship under the promise that we were going to have kids,” he says. “My inability to deliver on that promise felt like a really big burden.” He told his wife that he’d understand if she wanted to leave him. She told him to shut up.

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Later, they learned she too had a fertility problem: blocked Fallopian tubes. “It kind of felt like it levelled the playing field,” Londini admits. “It felt like we were more in this together than we had been before.” In the end, the couple decided to use donor sperm and in vitro fertilization (IVF), and they now have three children, aged 14, 12 and eight.

Londini, who runs a support group in London, Ont., for people who have used or are considering using donor sperm, remembers the isolation of infertility. “Guys have this very jocular, competitive interaction with their peers, so admitting that you can’t do something like procreate is a sign of weakness.”

Tim Matson recalls a similar loneliness. He and his wife, who had unexplained infertility, ended up enduring four years of treatment, including seven rounds of intrauterine insemination, in St. John’s, Nfld., where they live, and then four IVF transfers, in North Carolina, close to where his family lives. (Newfoundland has no clinics that provide IVF.) The couple now have an eight-month-old son.

He recalls finding infertility a difficult subject to broach. “It’s not something you bring up over a game of pool,” Matson says. When he needed time off to do IVF in the United States, he told his employer, a school, only that he had a “medical thing” to deal with. He didn’t confide to a single fellow teacher. He didn’t reveal anything to a group of close friends until they pushed to know why he and his wife were away in North Carolina – and that wasn’t until the couple were years into their struggle. “In retrospect, I feel foolish,” he says. But he’s still not sure what should have been said.

He wishes he’d had someone to talk to about the specifics of the experience – someone who understood what it was like to have to schedule sexual encounters with your wife or watch as she injected herself time after time with fertility drugs. He wanted to be there to support her, but he needed support too: Having a child had been a lifelong dream for him, and he worried what would happen if he never became a dad.

Londini and Matson are two of about a half-dozen men who recently formed a volunteer committee through Fertility Matters Canada, an infertility support group, to set up more support networks geared specifically to men. They just launched both open and closed Facebook groups. They hope to create spaces where guys can give each other the heads-up about what to expect during treatment, help interpret each other’s test results and gripe among themselves without worrying about hurting their partners’ feelings.

It’s not only that there aren’t many resources for men – there aren’t – but many men are reticent to reach out for support, says Young Kim, a social worker who counsels infertility patients at the London Health Sciences Centre’s fertility clinic. Even if they do eventually get individual counselling, he says, it’s usually only at the suggestion of their female partner.

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Vince and Lori Londini decorate Easter eggs with their daughters (from left): Kayla (8), Hannah (12) and Abigail (14), in their home in London, Ont., on Saturday, April 20.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The hesitation might be because so many infertility treatments are performed on women’s bodies and so men feel that they don’t have the right to speak up, Kim says. But it might also have to do with feelings of guilt and shame. “I try to remind them it’s a medical condition,” he says, “that they never asked for this.”

When David Howe learned in 1992 that he had an extremely low sperm count and poor motility, he was in shock. He and his wife had a hard time discussing it. They considered sperm donation and adoption but didn’t actively pursue either. “I was stuck, and she didn’t know how to get me to move on,” he says. “That’s probably where a support group might have been helpful.” The marriage ended two and a half years after the diagnosis, and within a short time she’d remarried and had a child with her new husband.

Howe never had kids. “I think I would have enjoyed being a dad,” he says. “There was a low-key sadness to be involved with other people’s children.” His new partner didn’t really want kids, so it wasn’t an issue between them; he left Toronto to live with her in Munich. “It isn’t the end of the world,” he says, looking back.

Scott LeBoldus and his wife didn’t end up having kids either, despite trying for six years. The couple from British Columbia had eight pregnancies and eight pregnancy losses. After the fourth miscarriage, he says, he didn’t want to continue, but his wife, who had unexplained infertility, did not want to stop. “I couldn’t deal with losses any more,” he says. “I shut down emotionally.” After they separated, LeBoldus went into therapy. “I wish I’d been forced into it at the beginning of the process,” he says. “Nobody is taking care of your mental health.”

“It’s important for men to talk this out,” Londini says. Maybe not all men are talkers, but they need to have a place where they can discuss their feelings and come to grips with infertility. He hopes the online forums will help.

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