Swimming Aimlessly: Men and Infertility with guest Jon Waldman

Welcome to The Egg Whisperer Show with special guest, Jon Waldman. He is a Winnipeg-based writer talking to us about his recent book, Swimming Aimlessly. In 2009, Jon and his wife Elana embarked on a six-year journey through infertility, which concluded in July 2015 with the birth of their daughter Kaia.

Dr. Aimee: What is Swimming Aimlessly about?

Jon Waldman: Swimming Aimlessly is, simply put, the struggle that men go through as they are dealing with infertility, be it male factor, female factor, or a combination thereof. When I was going through our fertility struggle, I found that there weren’t a lot of outlets specifically for men for me to approach. As I started to get involved in Fertility Matters, then known as The Infertility Awareness Association of Canada, I started to look at opportunities to increase the conversation for men.

Thankfully, now, through the efforts of multiple people, there are more outlets than ever between podcasts, Facebook groups, and other avenues. But at the time, I felt that I needed to do something. I went through a couple of different channels and got to the book process. The book not only talks about some of my family’s story and the struggles that I went through, but also speaks with a number of patients across the globe, speaks with experts in the field, and I tried to make it as much of an all-purpose guide to how men struggle to cope with infertility as I could.

Swimming Aimlessly by Jon Waldman

Dr. Aimee: I think that’s so important. I know you speak about how men tend to stay quiet about infertility. Why is it so hard for men to talk about it?

Jon Waldman: I think there are two main factors. First of all, men are by nature quiet when it comes to things that are outside of comfort areas of discussion, things that are more pedestrian like sports or home improvement, things like that.

The other factor is that we are also positioned to be the rock in the relationship. Women obviously go through things very differently than men do, and they go arguably more than men do, on a physical level as well as the emotional level. Because of that, we’re expected to be the rock, we’re expected to shut down everything and just be there. What that leads to, though, is that we don’t deal with what we are struggling with, so the mental health issues, the relationship issues that we go through, the struggles that we have with friends and with family.

When you have all that and you combine that with the already existing conditions where men don’t talk at the best of times, you’re left with virtually a Molotov cocktail of danger that men go through when dealing with infertility.

Dr. Aimee: Those are all great points. In your own story, you share that you used a pseudonym when you were interviewed. I’m curious what that pseudonym is. In your experience, when you were able to share your journey publicly, including on the radio?

Jon Waldman: The pseudonym that I used was Greg. It was just a very simple name. I wanted to keep something as far away from my identity as possible without going to anything that would make me sound really bizarre.

When I started to talk, it was extremely difficult. I pull no punches with it. It took me a long time to talk even to my wife, but she was the first person I spoke to as I was trying to get through things because, as so many couples do, there were issues that started to pop up. From there, I just took a small path. I started to talk to friends and family. Then I started to talk in the support group that we were in.

Photo by Fringer Cat on Unsplash

As I started to talk in the support group, the organizer said, “Would you be willing to do a couple of radio interviews?” I said, “Sure. Why not,” because I had already done a few through my jobs, through some of the book promos that I was doing at the time. I didn’t know how quickly it was going to be that I was going to be doing one, because about two weeks after I said I’d do one, they said, “Okay. We have one lined up for you.”

It was nerve-racking, to say the least. To really be going into that frame where I had been before, but in a much more personal light, it was extremely hard to do, but I just had to do it.

Dr. Aimee: I’m glad you did. In your book, you also talk about the miscarriage that you and your wife experienced. I’m sorry that you had that experience. You talk about how the attention needs to turn to care, both for your partner and for yourself. I know that men experience a lot of pain when a partner is diagnosed with a pregnancy that ends in a miscarriage, but it’s not something that gets talked about a lot.

What can you share about the male experience of miscarriage for our listeners?

Jon Waldman: Because we went through two miscarriages, there were two very different ways that I dealt with it. The first one, honestly, I just froze. With that sort of somber tone in our doctor’s voice, we already knew that there were complications. We went in for an exam and he said that we had lost the pregnancy. I honestly was not ready for that.

At that point, we were already struggling to conceive in the first place. It had been eight or nine months until we were able to have a success, and then to have that eight or nine weeks into the pregnancy, I literally could not do anything else but stand beside my wife and hold her hand. My memory just completely blanks out after that, it almost feels post-traumatic to have gone through that. The last memory I have after that is sitting in our car and saying, “What are we going to do next?”

The unfortunate thing for me was that I was new to a job, I was less than a week into a new job. I felt like I couldn’t tell my boss, “Hey, this is what happened,” so I really did not do a good job of dealing with it. I think that’s more common for men. Especially on the first time around, you don’t know how to react. Even if you had struggles, even if your first conception is through ART, then you’re still thinking, “What do we do next?” There is no road map to say what exactly you should do.

Jon and his wife, Elana.

The second time around, because this was a try for a second child, in some ways it was a little bit more manageable. I also found that I was more physically upset, and I cried a lot more the second time around, because I had already gone through this process of letting my emotions out and describing what I was going through, so it made it easier to be more there in that sense.

This was now a different situation where we had gone back for a second IVF and everything seemed to have been going properly. Then to have it fail was a much different scenario. As a result, the reaction was much different.

Just in general, I think guys are like stars or what have you, in that everybody is unique and everybody reacts a little bit differently. Some guys will resort to anger, some guys result to immediate sadness, or go through the various grieving stages either quicker or slower than others. I think that’s one of the things that has to be talked about is how men do cope a little bit differently than women do, how we will sometimes just shut down immediately and put everything onto our partners.

Let’s face it, when you’re a female and you have a miscarriage, you have both the emotional side and the physical side. Men don’t have the physical side, so we’re a little more scrambling in our mentality. We’re also by nature problem solvers, for the most part, so we start to cycle through what are the next steps, and we do that almost immediately to try to get a little bit of normalcy going on in our brains as well.

Dr. Aimee: What helped you get through the pain and the loss and those feelings that you had?

Jon Waldman: Honestly, there wasn’t a lot that helped me the first time around, because I was so fixated on doing everything that I could for my wife. I was already dealing with mental health issues from an earlier age, and this definitely triggered a lot more emotions and a lot more feelings of depression and anxiety, of shortcomings, than it was the second time.

I think that what ultimately helped me was when we go back for consultations and we start to look at what the options are and you can start to road map it a little bit. Unfortunately, because there are so many methods and you hear the not-so-helpful advice of, “You got pregnant once, you can get pregnant again,” that puts it a little bit further behind. Okay, we can get pregnant. It’s staying pregnant that’s the issue.

It’s the same thing for so many people that I’ve spoken to. When you go through something for the first time, you don’t know how to react. Often, you don’t ever really get over it. It took me so long because it was only the start of what ended up being a five to six year journey.

Once we had our daughter, everything felt a lot better, but it still resonated. You still have those trigger moments where you think back to that first failed pregnancy or you think back to what might have been a chemical pregnancy, or anything like that. You start to second guess a lot of things and you start to look internally and see, “What did I not do right? What could I have done differently?” All that kind of stuff.

Unfortunately, for a lot of people, not just men in general, you obviously don’t play the external blame game, but you play the internal blame game a lot. That’s something that is never healthy. I think it’s something that a lot of people don’t address enough. I think that’s one of the things that isn’t done enough, that immediate support that is made available through the medical community.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

When we were going through processes here, one of the things we had to do as part of ART was we had to speak with a local counselor who specialized in couples who are dealing with approaching IVF, etcetera. Really, what there needs to be is there needs to be that point where somebody, as soon as they have that failed pregnancy, there has to be that resource available to them right away, that there is a therapist ready, that there is a counselor ready, or that someone can at least start to direct you to the outlets. We didn’t know about the Infertility Awareness Association, we didn’t know there were any Facebook groups available or anything like that. I think that’s something that really needs to be focused on by the medical community.

Dr. Aimee: You’ve shared a lot about your experiences. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you experienced navigating the world of infertility and what surprised you, from your perspective?

Jon Waldman: The first thing that surprised me is how common it is. Looking in Canada at the statistics being 1 in 6 couples or individuals who are struggling to conceive for a year plus. That was certainly something that opened my eyes a lot.

What also opened my eyes is how your relationships are affected. At first, you sort of think to have a miscarriage is fairly common, it’s 25% of the population has had at least one miscarriage. But when you start to try to have those conversations, or you hear the ‘oopsies,’ or you hear the, “It just took me and my husband one time and then we were pregnant,” and you see the frustration, you feel the agony that starts to build up inside you of I just want to shut the rest of the world up and duck away, don’t invite me to baby showers, to first birthdays, or anything like that.

Fortunately, guys don’t have to deal with as many of those events as women do, but it still hurts. I think that’s one of the factors is that guys do hurt when somebody in the office announces that they’re pregnant. It hits guys who are going through infertility just as much as women. It really hit me pretty hard, because you feel like you’re starting to see baby bumps all around you, or you’re seeing the Babies R’ Us flyers popping up all over the place, and things like that. You become so much more aware of everything that can be and will be baby or family related. Even something as simple as, for me, celebrating Hannukah, for other people celebrating Christmas, or whatever the case may be, all those family-oriented holidays become that much tougher to be part of.

I’ve had friends that had babies before us, because we weren’t at the point where we were starting to try, but they were at their second child while we were going through our infertility struggle. I mourned that I wasn’t able to be there more for my friends or for the families that had already been calling us Uncle Jonny, etcetera. I feel like that was time lost, but I learned that with my true friends the time is made up one way or another. You might miss the video where their kid walks for the first time, but eventually you go to a couple soccer games or you spend more time with them on weekends and things like that, when you feel like you are ready to.

You learn very quickly who those true friends are, whether it’s friends, family, or new people that you meet through your infertility struggles. I think that is the biggest outcome, certainly for couples, but I think for men as well.

Dr. Aimee: You also write about the importance of keeping your sense of humor and levity, which is something that I loved about your book.

I try my hardest to also keep things light, even though fertility obviously is a really serious topic. What have you discovered about humor and infertility, and do you have any stories to share?

Jon Waldman: I think that the first thing that you learn very quickly is that any sort of censor you have goes right out the window, because if things like ejaculation, like Basal thermometers, like sex, like all those kinds of things start to become part of your dialogue, it blends into your humor.

I think the term that I use is you go from the ABC TGIF to Comedy Central in a moment’s notice. It’s true. I think that people who have gone through infertility, because you’ve gone through this traumatic experience, anybody will tell you that laughter is the best medicine, and the best way to deal with infertility is to be able to not necessarily laugh at your situation but to be able to keep a dialogue that has those sides to it.

The most amazing thing to me was not just in my house, but as I saw on a couple of Reddit forums, for whatever reason, women gravitated towards the pregnant style shows. I just couldn’t fathom it, but then you start to see that you’re looking at it and you’re laughing at it in a way, it becomes almost as much of a dose of humor as a sitcom does.

In speaking with some of the people that I did — Karen Jefferies, for example, who runs the Hilariously Infertile social and has done a book as well, and a couple of the TV writers that I’ve spoken with — everybody says that the best way for us to deal with these traumatic things is to be able to laugh about it and to be able to bring out that humor. I told myself that at some point I want to be able to do a stand-up routine out of this whole thing. COVID hasn’t allowed me to do that during the book launch, but it will happen at some point or another.

I think even when you’re going out with couples who are going through the same thing, you have the sort of usual mundane conversation, but then you get into the humor of it. I retold the story of the lights out moment when I was doing the swim up test, I’ve had people that have had all sorts of maladies that you can’t but laugh at. I think it’s in those shared experiences and really being able to laugh at something the same way that you would if somebody was let go from their job or if somebody in university had a bad exam or something. Eventually, you do get to laugh at it. I think just with infertility you laugh a little bit quicker, especially if you can get into those group situations where you can talk with other people who are in similar situations that you are.

Dr. Aimee: That’s great. What advice do you have for handling the stress that infertility can bring to a marriage?

Jon Waldman: I think the most important thing, and it’s easy to say and so hard to do, but it is to talk. It took me too long to do it, but as soon as I did it, I started to feel better. It was gutting to actually go through it. I was bawling like a baby. It’s my family’s genes, we’re criers from the start.

But I think that most men are afraid to cry in front of their spouses and afraid to cry in front of the people that mean the most to them, but you have to be ready to do that, you have to be able to do that. If it takes going and speaking to a third party first, speaking either to a counselor individually or as a couple. And I do recommend both avenues. I found it helpful to have my own session and then to have our sessions as a couple. I think that there is a lot of benefit to that and to getting to that preparatory stage where you can start to talk to other people.

I think the most important thing is to discuss, because the last thing that you want to do is for anybody to feel like they don’t have a voice or have a say. This is still a 50/50 partnership between a husband and wife, or whatever the couple may be. Ultimately, not one person can decide it. The last thing that you want is for anybody to feel grudgingly about it later.

I had a confidant who came to me and said, “We’re not sure what to do about our issue, because my wife doesn’t want to go through IVF.” Honestly, if she doesn’t want to go through it, you don’t go through it. You can go through adoption, you can go through surrogacy, you can try IUI and other procedures, so there are different ways to go about it, depending on what your comfort level is.

If both of you aren’t expressing your concerns, and if both of you aren’t expressing what your limits are, there is a lot that’s lost and there starts to be a mistrust. I think that really if anything is going to get accomplished that you just have to speak up, as hard as it is to do.

Jon and his daughter Kaia

Dr. Aimee: Thank you for that. You and your wife eventually conceived, and you have your daughter Kaia. Congratulations.

Jon Waldman: Yes. Thank you.

Dr. Aimee: What would you share with those people who are hoping to grow their family and have experienced infertility?

Jon Waldman: I think the number one thing that people have to know is that it comes down to what you’re willing to do, and be comfortable with what you’re willing to do. The example that I just gave of the couple that didn’t want to IVF, they can explore things like adoption. We explored adoption ourselves when we were going through the process. We ultimately decided it wasn’t for us. While it could be something in the end that we would do, it wasn’t something that we were ready to do from the start, because we wanted to try a couple of the ART routes first.

Ultimately, you have to know what your goal is, what you’re willing to sacrifice — emotionally, financially, relationship-wise — what you’ll put your bodies through, and that can be applicable for both men and women. The stereotype that I learned very easily was that men don’t like to be examined, so therefore there hasn’t been a lot of research into male factor infertility. Which is completely absurd, because everybody I spoke to said, “If it means that I am going to be able to have a kid, you can do whatever you need.”

Ultimately, you have to be able to put everything you have, everything that you want to do, and everything that you’re willing to do into it. If there is something that you don’t want to do, don’t feel the pressure to do it. There are alternate routes more than ever for ways you can go about it.

Dr. Aimee: That’s great. Now that you’ve shared your story with the world, you’ve written this book, so many people have learned from you, what does that feel like for you?

Jon Waldman: I don’t think it has even sunk in really. We’re having this conversation in the middle of February, and the book has started to come out, obviously people like yourself have read it, but it hasn’t been on bookshelves yet. It will be on March 30th.

The blastocyst that eventually became Jon’s daughter, Kaia

I think that to me it’s all the progression. It’s what I wanted to do. When I started to do my interviews, I knew that it was going to lead to eventually doing a national interview. When I started doing national interviews, I knew there was enough of a voice where I would be able to do things.

Ultimately, I wanted the book to be my end goal, along with the speaking opportunities, the opportunities to speak to so many people around it. The route that I took was going through TEDx. It’s something that I honestly would encourage for anybody that is pursuing any book, whether you’re doing it on infertility, whether you’re doing it on relationships, etcetera, see if you can do a TED Talk.

It was the most frustrating experience of my life, because I am an off-the-cuff speaker by nature. I go on media and I’m asked about facts about the Jets or facts about whatever the subject matter may be, and I can do that without any hesitation. But to go through the TED process where you’re scripted, where you’re building a PowerPoint, where you’re building in all of these assists, and doing it within a 10 to 15 minute window of time, you’re really putting yourself under the gun and saying, “Can I actually do this?”

Ultimately, the answer was I could. TED gave me the footing to know that, yes, I could go on and rattle on not just for the couple thousand words that it was as part of my TED Talk, but to be able to do it for the 65,000 words that is my book. It also improved my standing in the community, it opened the door for a couple more interviews, like Huffington Post, to go internationally, and then to slowly build up to that next level.

Everybody talks about how they progress in their careers, they start at the bottom and they move quickly up one way or another. This is what it is for me, it’s the progression that I couldn’t be happier about.

It’s scary as all heck, because there are certain stories in the book that I know are going to get more attention than others, but that’s the nature of it. I had to be open, I had to be honest, and I had to tell my story and I had to tell my family’s story, and to share the experiences that other people have had. Honestly, without the interviews that I did, the book would not be where it is.

I was lucky our male factor was limited to having low motility in my sperm. It’s still livable, but it was still something that I improved. The tales that people told me really shaped the book. I can’t thank everybody enough who participated in the book in one way or another, because it gave me the opportunity to do what I wanted to do, to tell a full story. I think that’s one of the most intimidating things is that I can’t just talk about my experience, I have to talk about the full experience of what infertility is and as many of the different routes as possible.

Dr. Aimee: You’re also a spokesperson for Fertility Matters Canada. What is their mission and what work do you do with them?

Jon Waldman at TedX Winnipeg. Photo by Ian McCausland

Jon Waldman: Fertility Matters Canada looks to provide support, awareness, and to act on behalf of their membership, both patients and professionals, in getting movements done. One of the big things in Canada, everybody loves to talk about the healthcare system in Canada that healthcare is free. Guess what isn’t free? IVF. You’re still paying the five-figures that you are in the states and in other areas. So, there is a lot of advocacy that happens.

I’ve worked in a number of different functions with FMC. I was a member of the board of directors for a couple of years. I was a spokesman first, and will always be a spokesperson for the cause, because it is something that is near and dear to my heart, both in the conversations around fertility specifically, but also in discussions about mental health, for example.

I let them know that mental health is the focus for me. The counselors that are part of that movement are obviously important to me. Mental health is where I fit in, and to be able to speak as a representative of FMC as part of Movember was fantastic. I really feel like the reason why I’ve kept doing it is because every time I talk, someone talks back to me, someone comes back to me with their story or their friend’s story.

That’s the case with everybody at FMC. There are so many stories to be told and there are so many conversations to be had that they need to be on an ongoing basis. I find that the more awareness there is, be it through fertility clinics, be it through counselors, be it through simple conversations on Facebook, that everybody grows.

It’s the same thing that is done across the world, we can talk about RESOLVE in the states, Fertility Network in the UK, South Africa, Australia, every country has a resource available. If there isn’t one where you are, I highly recommend doing some research and finding those spaces, because there are so many resources. If you look at what FMC does, we’re Canada-focused but there are conversations that can happen outside of Canada as well.

Dr. Aimee: Yes. Where can we find your book?

Jon Waldman: I’m going to be honest. This is a trying time for the book industry. Not just from the publishing standpoint, where my book was originally supposed to come out November 2020 and now is coming out in March 2021 because of COVID delays, but with the various delays and with the shutdowns that have happened, local bookstores are suffering, and many have closed. If you don’t have a local bookstore, go to my local bookstore, McNally Robinson, and you can order there.

I’m never going to say don’t order from Amazon, or don’t order from Barnes and Noble online, or don’t order from Chapters Indigo, but at the root, try to find it at your bookstore first and go through there. I’m going to be listing as many of the places as possible through my social media accounts. If you have any trouble, you can definitely go to SimonandSchuster.com to learn more about where it’s available in your area or order it directly from the publisher.

Dr. Aimee: Great. Thank you. I want to do a quick male fertility round. Are you ready for this?

Jon Waldman: Absolutely.

Dr. Aimee: Let’s do it. Okay. Phone, front or back pocket?

Jon Waldman: The urban legend is that back pockets it can have some effects, but often you’re predisposed to a condition, so put it in your back pocket or put it in your coat pocket to be a little bit extra safe given that there are frequencies that can do damage in other areas.

Dr. Aimee: Tightie-whities, yes or no?

Jon Waldman: It depends on how quickly you want to boil up. The first time that I ever heard that one was on King of the Hill, of all places. I personally go briefs and most men I know go briefs. If it’s prolonged times that you’re doing it, if you’re wearing them during the day and at night, that’s probably not the best for many reasons. I would say I just go briefs and let the boys roam free.

Dr. Aimee: Love it. Distance biking, good or bad?

Jon Waldman: Distance biking can be very good in the sense that it gives you that ultimate stress relief. I say this as somebody who has done 45-minute to two-hour bikes at a time. But make sure that you’re properly equipping yourself. It’s the same thing as if you were going out to play baseball. Wear a cup or wear padded shorts. Thankfully, there are so many great communities where you can find things for biking comfortably. The banana seats don’t have to be the final spot where you’re resting.

Dr. Aimee: Sauna, jump in or pass?

Jon Waldman: The schvitz, as my community calls it. It is good in short spurts, only a couple of minutes. The feeling of getting that sweat out and getting that little bit of a detox feeling is great, but don’t cook.

Dr. Aimee: Love it. Protective cup, do or don’t?

Jon Waldman: Do. Always do. I learned that the hard way after taking a couple of shots in road hockey where you think you don’t need it, but it hurts like hell. Leaving aside fertility and everything like that, there is no reason to never wear a cup whenever you’re doing some sort of athletic pursuit.

Dr. Aimee: Thank you, Jon, for coming on and talking to us about Swimming Aimlessly: One Man’s Journey through Infertility and What We Can All Learn from It. We appreciate you so much for bringing awareness to such an important topic.

Jon Waldman: Thank you very much. Thank you for giving me the platform to share it. I look forward to future conversations.

Dr. Aimee: Thank you, Jon.

Jon Waldman: Thank you.

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Fertility Doctor, Reproductive Endocrinologist, Egg Whisperer: www.eggwhisperer.com