Male infertility is involved in approximately 40% of the 2.6 million infertile couples in the U.S.
When I look back on the courtship that led to my marriage, I fast forward through a carousel of emotionally charged moments: the night we met, the night we first slept together (not the same), a postcard she sent me, our first weekend away together, a Ray Charles concert, a birthday party (mine), a birthday party (hers), a Hamptons summer rental, a Sam Cooke album, an Al Green concert, a vacation in Europe where I almost proposed but didn't, the night we actually got engaged and the wedding itself.
Then I pause because that's where this story begins.
From the moment Amy and I got married, friends and relatives would ask: "When are you thinking of starting a family?"
Honestly, I had been focusing so much on the getting married part, I hadn't really thought what was next. Our standard answer was a phrase we had heard other couples say: we were going to wait two years.
As newlyweds we were settling in, opening joint bank accounts, taking exotic holidays, and attending other people's weddings and the occasional baby shower. Our feet were still firmly planted in the non-breeder camp—the kind of people who look horrified if seated near a baby on a plane.
But then one night, almost eighteen months after our wedding, we decided to abandon contraception.
It was scary. It was exciting. I recall thinking that it was kind of kinky.
Nine months later and… nothing. Every time Amy got her period, she broke into tears.
She went to her gynecologist who performed tests that revealed no obvious issues. He then suggested the three of us talk together. I sat in a cramped office off Madison Avenue on New York City's Upper East Side as a cheery bear of a man led us through a repeat of my eighth grade "life sciences" class concluding with the suggestion that I have tests as well.
"It takes two to make a baby," he said. Or one not to make one, I thought.
In New York, everyone always knows someone who knows someone who knows the best. I knew a woman who was engaged to a med student who had studied with the best urologist in New York—"the guy you want to go to."
The "best" turned out to be a young, short, tightly wound man with a pinched face who seemed inordinately pleased with himself but slightly annoyed by me. He told me that I would have to give a sperm sample and then, after his analysis, we would talk further.
As I left his office, his nurse handed me a plastic cup.
"We have a room here," she said, nodding towards what in all aspects appeared to be a men's room.
"Now?" I asked. "I have to do this now? Here?"
"No, of course," she said, "You can take this home. Just bring us the sample within an hour of collecting it."
I chose the home court.
I suppose everyone remembers their first time. I certainly do.
I put on some mood music, dimmed the lights and proceeded to romance myself. Eager to please the laboratory (and myself), I marshaled my forces to climax, and then promptly fumbled the collection. Most of my contribution missed the container.
Imagine how embarrassing it was when I had to ask the urologist's nurse how much was enough and if I could please try again.
The second time was more business-like and successful. A week later, Amy and I descended to a basement office deep in the bowels of New York Hospital. We sat down in the doctor's functional chairs and clutched hands tightly.
What the doctor's office lacked in charm was only matched by his own tactlessness. Is it wrong to call an urologist a dick? Because here's how he began:
"You'll never have children," he began, staring at my results. "Not with sperm like this."
It was as if all the air had been sucked out of the room.
I stepped out of the office and into the bathroom and splashed water on my face. I felt faint. I sat down on the toilet and put my head between my legs.
Did I faint? I don't think so. The doctor claimed I did. Something about my staying in the bathroom for ten minutes while the nurses were knocking before they used a key to open it.
Although, as I reflect back on this moment, maybe—just maybe—the thought of my family line being extinguished overwhelmed me. My grandparents and uncles and aunts were murdered in the Holocaust, and my father survived so that I could be told my sperm was hopeless?
Back in his office, Dr. Blunt, as I came to call him, surmised that a childhood hernia surgery was probably responsible for my condition.
"What your sperm lacks," he said, "is motility." The boys were not swimmers.
Amy didn't understand. Amy is a doer (that's just one of the reasons I fell in love with her). She wanted to know our plan, how we might still succeed.
But Dr. Blunt was finished with us. "What are my options?" I asked. He suggested a sperm donor. We decided to find another doctor.
Male infertility is an embarrassing, awkward topic. I wince even mentioning it.
According to the National Institute of Health, "male infertility is involved in approximately 40% of the 2.6 million infertile married couples in the United States. One-half of these men experience irreversible infertility and cannot father children, and a small number of these cases are caused by a treatable medical condition."
Amy went into action: she contacted all her friends, and her friends contacted their friends. Books were bought and started to pile up by the side of our bed. Just buying them gave us hope.
Dr. Blunt's determination became just one opinion in a sea of information that we needed to master.
Amy was tested further to see if in any way her body was attacking my sperm (it wasn't). For my part, I had to endure the fervent entreaties of well-meaning others. The worst was from my mother, who refused to accept that there was any problem with her perfect son. Her recommendation: that I "try it with some other girls" to see if I couldn't get them pregnant.
That wasn't going to happen.