“I CRIED a lot. I couldn’t function, and I needed help to make even the most basic of decisions, so I was signed off work with stress,” the Revd Elis Matthews remembers. For the first half of 2012, he found himself under a cloud of depression. He and his wife, Sheila, had been trying for children for a year, but two simple tests revealed that he had azoospermia: he didn’t produce sperm.
Mr Matthews says that it took cognitive behavioural therapy, the love of family and friends, and a supportive work environment to help him “recover who I was”, while also coming to terms with a “big fact about myself”. This process threw up unsettling questions. Did Jesus’s promise of life in all its fullness apply to him as an infertile man?
The pain suffered by men who find themselves unable to have children is only now being recognised, emerging from behind easy assumptions that infertility is a “women’s issue”, and that men don’t long for children as women do. While there are many reasons why someone does not have children — and, for some people, it is a liberating choice — for others it is not.
One or both partners may have low fertility or some other health issue that makes biological parenthood impossible. Or the barrier to a traditional nuclear family may be sexuality or singleness. Those who are childless against their will may find themselves on a bewildering and lonely journey akin to a bereavement that, without careful support, can corrode their relationship(s) or mental health.
The Church can help, by providing sensitive support, or hinder, by focusing on families to the extent that childless people feel somehow lesser. Yet the eventual resolution to this grief can be life-affirming and surprising.
FERTILITY NETWORK UK says that, in about one third to a half of all cases of infertility, the problem will be male-related. An Israeli study from 2017 suggests that sperm counts in Western nations have halved in the past 40 years.
Low sperm counts and poor sperm quality are linked to lifestyle factors; and yet there is little research into male infertility or its psychological impact. Age is only one factor: one man interviewed for this piece and his wife are both in their twenties.
Often, infertility is unexplained. It is not an easy subject to talk about: feelings of shame, inadequacy, failure, and guilt may abound, especially if the reason for difficulty conceiving are linked to the man. In a culture that sees virility as a test of masculinity, how masculine is the man with fertility issues?
For the broadcaster Sheridan Voysey and his wife, Merryn, ten years of trying for a family revealed he had a low sperm count, and she had polycystic-ovary syndrome: a treatable cause of infertility. He recalls: “I felt guilty, because I was the cause that Merryn couldn’t have what she wanted.” They were supported by their home group in Australia, and by the leadership of their Baptist church.
When they were recommended to try ICSI, a form of specialist IVF, a doctor in their church spent time discussing its ethical implications with him, which Mr Voysey found more helpful than advice from other Christians who said that either all — or no — fertility treatments were permissible.
Mr Voysey and his wife opted to try ICSI on a limited scale, fertilising only as many eggs as the number of embryos that they felt comfortable implanting.
They found it a gruelling process. After special diets, healing prayer, numerous rounds of ICSI, plus a year of assessment for adoption, they decided to draw a line. “Neither of us felt comfortable using donor sperm; so, after ten years, there wasn’t any stone left unturned for us,” he says.
He remembers the day: on Christmas Eve 2010, Mrs Voysey took a phone call telling her that her pregnancy test result had been a false positive. They packed their bags and made the 13-hour drive back home rather than stay with family for Christmas.
Mr Voysey believes that any couple struggling to conceive needs to agree when to draw the line and move on, to avoid a permanent limbo. He values the fact that, to safeguard their marriage, they both decided at the outset that it was more important than the pursuit of a pregnancy.
He recommends that churches offer men access to confidential support. Their “moving on” included a fresh start in a new country, and a new chapter in both their professional lives. They relocated to the UK for Mrs Voysey to take a job at the University of Oxfor, which meant that Mr Voysey left behind his broadcasting career in Australia.
He poured his experiences of loss into a book, Resurrection Year: Turning broken dreams into new beginnings, which was published in 2013. He returned to the theme of “life not working out as planned” in a 2019 book, The Making of Us. Nearly fortnightly, he receives letters from readers, including men struggling with infertility, and offers to chat with them on Skype.
THIS stage on the infertility journey “we would call redemption, where the thing that’s been most painful for you becomes a place of healing for other people”, says the Revd Dave Lowrie, who runs a church-plant in Crosby, Liverpool, with his wife, Lizzie. Mrs Lowrie suffered six miscarriages, as well as periods of infertility, and he found a measure of healing through learning to talk about their losses.
There has been a ripple effect. Men whom they have heard from often have not spoken to anyone in their church about it, because in “the majority of churches . . . it’s an issue that’s not talked about.”
But, he says: “As you learn to be open with your story, as you learn to connect with other guys, that connection itself becomes quite healing. You become someone who fosters greater connection with other men, and you can create that culture where it is OK to talk about what you’re suffering.”
Some men do not open up because they are trying to be strong for their wives, he says. After one of their first miscarriages, he broke down when he told his vicar, but thought: “The best thing I could offer my wife, Lizzie, was to be all stoic.”
That was not what she needed, however. “Not long after that, she lost it with me, [saying]: ‘Why don’t you care? Why don’t you feel anything?’” Mr Lowrie also found it helpful when their vicar came to their house to offer “a funeral in lieu”.
A turning-point for the Lowries was meeting the Matthewses at Ridley Hall Theological College, Cambridge, a few months after Mr Matthews’s diagnosis. The couples supported each other, and began to see how they could help others in the same situation. They put on events for their college, and, in 2013, launched the blog Saltwater and Honey, about “infertility, miscarriage, childlessness, and faith”.
Entries aimed at men “get a lot of interest”, Mr Lowrie says. The two couples have begun offering support groups for couples with fertility issues. He says that infertility and childlessness are talked about more now than ten years ago. Last year, Lizzie Lowrie published her experiences in a book, Saltwater and Honey.
An annual day-retreat — Rhythm of Hope — was started in 2016, and attracts about 60 couples each year. Mr Lowrie points to another source of support: he and his wife benefited from marriage counselling that specialised in fertility. “The most helpful thing was . . . saying, ‘I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like this is my fault,’ and hearing the other person go, ‘It’s not your fault.’”
Mr Lowrie includes stories about their fertility struggle in sermons, and invites people to mark moments of loss at Darkest Night services and Wave of Light services, where pregnancy- and baby-loss is commemorated with liturgy, prayers, psalms of lament, and the lighting of candles.
He says that he wants to create a culture where people feel able to talk about childlessness and know that their grief is acknowledged, even in the case of “pure infertility”, where there is no single moment of loss.
Preaching about infertility is not straightforward, and there are helpful and unhelpful ways of going about it. Infertility in the Bible is always ascribed to the woman, and always ends in a miraculous birth. But it generally points to a new chapter in the story of the people of God rather than just demonstrating God’s concern for the couple, Mr Lowrie notes.
He pointed to research by the Team Vicar of Eccleston, in St Helens, the Revd Sonya Doragh, who wrote about infertility for her dissertation at theological college. Mrs Doragh, who was left infertile after being raped twice at 17, found in her research a shift from the Old Testament’s portrayal of family, with identity and inheritance bound up in the land and genealogy, to a New Testament understanding whereby “adoption becomes the way we belong in the Kingdom . . . through God’s will and mercy,” which she found “so wonderfully freeing”.
THE leader of Emmanuel City Centre church (ECC), in Bristol, Ed Shaw, develops this further. Figures such as Jesus and St Paul got Mr Shaw thinking in terms of a cultivating a spiritual legacy. He enthuses: “Jesus is single and childless. . . The Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53 is [noted as] not having descendants.
“When Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch, what’s he studying? Isaiah 53; and the Ethiopian eunuch, who had to confront childlessness, was reading stuff about the saviour Jesus, who was also childless.” Or take St Paul, he says. “His spiritual family tree is extensive — which Christian would be a Christian were it not for the church-planting that Paul and his generation did?”
At ECC, he has mentored other Christians (“what I’d call spiritual parenting”), and oversees the children’s work. “I might not have my shade of hair, or whatever it is, going down through a family tree, but there will be people who are like me in future generations, for good and for ill.” This possibility is open to anyone, not just someone childless, he observes.
WHILE the Roman Catholic Church takes an absolute line against IVF and sperm or egg donation, the Church of England states that IVF is permissible (and that research may be carried out on embryos not developed beyond the UK legal limit of 14 days). Sperm or egg donation, it believes, is a matter of individual conscience. Evangelical theologians espouse a range of views.
Not all men are childless through infertility. Mr Shaw, an LLM, is celibate, and describes himself as same-sex attracted. He founded Living Out with two other men in 2013, to support same-sex attracted Christians, and believes that he has found childlessness easier to bear because he did not expect to father biological children.
Dr Krish Kandiah
He has 13 godchildren and five nephews and nieces, and says that not being the parent means there is a less complicated dynamic between him and the child than the child might have with its parents.
Tom (not his real name), a clinical psychologist in London, has similarly tried to fill his life with children, but found it not as straightforward as he hoped. He has four godchildren, five nephews and nieces, and other friends’ children in whose lives he and his husband decided to play an important part.
This “attends to the desire to nurture”, he says, and he finds that being a godparent gives him “a remit to be involved in quite a definite way”. It has proved hard to carry out, however, because the children are geographically scattered, and he and his husband work full-time.
During lockdown, he has found that uncles or godfathers are not at the front of the queue for video calls if children have limited screen-time. He has concluded that his expectations about child care need to be more formalised.
Before they married, Tom and his partner discussed options for having a family, when gay friends adopted. They decided against surrogacy on ethical grounds, and concluded that adopting children who had been in care could prove too emotionally challenging.
Tom, who has a faith but does not attend church regularly, explains: “The idea of creating a child for two men to look after — I’m probably . . . still not quite happy enough with that; I’m OK with two men looking after a child who’d otherwise be in a care home or in foster homes.” He ascribes these views to his Christian upbringing.
AS TOM suggests, one route for childless couples wanting a family is adoption. But they must be realistic about the challenges, says Dr Krish Kandiah, chairman the Government’s adoption and special guardianship leadership board, and founder of the adoption and fostering charity Home for Good.
Mr Kandiah, who has three biological children, one adopted daughter, and two long-term foster children, said that there was every reason to believe that adoption could fulfil men’s need to nurture young lives.
He warns, however, that, while couples who have endured the sadnesses of infertility might benefit from pastoral care, adoption has to prioritise the needs of the children. “Sometimes, people who are coming to adoption through infertility want what they haven’t been able to have. They want the baby that looks like them but has no strings and no ongoing challenges.
“The children who are waiting to be adopted tend to be older, often in sibling groups, many of them have special needs, many from black and minority-ethnic backgrounds. Seventy per cent of the children in care have experienced neglect or abuse.”
He has seen incidents where children “didn’t meet the standards or the hopes of adoptive parents, and they’ve been sent back into care”. He also said that childless couples should not feel especially pressured to reduce the numbers of children waiting for adoption. “It’s all our responsibility to adopt all of the children who are waiting.”
Gerald, aged 64, who is childless through circumstance, has not adopted, but sees himself as uncle to all sorts of children. A caretaker at a secondary school, he married his first wife at 30, but the relationship ended without children.
When he met his second wife, Deborah, she already had two sons, and he hoped that he “could have children that way”. But, he says, the boys’ father turned them against Deborah and him. When she died suddenly, 15 years ago, contact with them ended. “I fell into a deep depression,” he remembers. What has helped is volunteering as a first-aider to one of the children’s groups at the New Wine conference for the past eight or so years, where, he explains, “I’m able to be like an uncle.”
He says that the same is true at the after-school first-aid and woodwork clubs that he runs at school. He also helps to train the children’s groups in St John Ambulance.
It was hard, though, when his younger brother recently became a grandfather. “It comes back again. You think, ‘I’m not a dad; but, equally, I’ll never be a granddad, either.’”
JEFF GOLDING, a third-year student at Ridley Hall, hopes that men in Gerald’s position will find support on offer in their church in future. He is preparing his dissertation on the effects of infertility on men, with a view to developing a framework that can be used in parishes.
Diagnosed with cancer at ten, Mr Golding was told at 18 that he was infertile. At 28, he heard that his chances had improved slightly. After four years of trying, Mr Golding’s wife, Kim, managed to conceive by ICSI, and then, to the astonishment of doctors, conceived a second time naturally.
And what of the Matthewses? The move to Cambridge meant a year-long pause in their fertility journey. (The NHS tends to offer fertility treatment to those who have lived at their address for more than a year.) This gave Mr and Mrs Matthews time to think and pray.
They got to the point where using donor sperm was “a door we were willing to push”. His reasoning was that he would have been able to be a father to any child that his wife had had from a previous relationship. He also made peace with the prospect of never having children. On the second attempt, Mrs Matthews became pregnant by donor sperm, and gave birth to a son in 2015.
Has bonding with his son felt like bonding with a step-child?
“No. I know exactly when he was conceived, I was there; and I was there when he was born.” Mr Matthews refers to his son’s biological father as “his” donor, and feels grateful towards him. Meeting the donor would be “a new adventure”.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority requires any donor to be willing to be contacted when the child reaches 18. “Our child knows his story,” Mr Matthews says. Donor-conceived children “absolutely know . . . they were wanted.”
Reflecting on their story, he says: “The good bit isn’t that we’ve had a son through fertility treatment; the good bit is that we’ve become part of a community where we can tell these stories and support other people.”
Mr Matthews, like the other men interviewed, admits that he still sometimes longs for a biological child. Fertility treatment takes time and effort, and, when the often painful decision is taken no longer to pursue a child, there may need to be time to grieve over the disappointments accrued along the way.
Yet, in many of those interviewed, a resolve to help others has emerged: to foster an environment in which people can voice their sadness and feel part of a close family, and to nurture other people’s children in ways that biological parents may not be able to.
Retreat Day for Couples Facing Infertility (rhythmofhope.co.uk)