‘What, none?’ There’s nothing quite like the gut-punch of being told by your GP that you have no sperm. None. Zero. Zip. Nada. Niente. Rien. Shit all. OK stop it now... But yeah, not even just a really low sperm but quite literally firing blanks. As a man, wherever you sit on the ‘Alpha male’ scale (I’m probably about a delta...), it’s always going to sting, really sting.
It came after about 6 months of trying for a baby. We decided to get me tested initially a) because it came to light that an operation I had when I was young to lower my testicles could have a detrimental effect on sperm count and b) because, well, you know, it’s easier for men to get checked out than women. I did what needed to be done and late one Friday night when I’d just cracked open a cold Strongbow that slap-in-the-face of a phone call came.
‘Not in the sample they tested but you’ll need to do a follow-up’
Ooooh fan-fucking-dabbydozy, you mean I get to have another yank in a sterile hospital room accompanied by what looks like the kind of porno magazines you find in a park bin or behind the toilet of a boys’ boarding house. At least the first time round there was a weird slightly amusing novelty about it. Second time round knowing what I knew i.e. that’s it unlikely they would find any swimmers... Most depressing wank ever.
They found one sperm. Again I wish I was joking... The fact I couldn’t give my wife a baby completely floored me - starting a family is something we were both so excited to do and I knew Naomi would be an amazing mum. What made this worse was that although the issue was clearly with me and Naomi was perfectly healthy, the focus was suddenly put firmly on her, more specifically her low BMI which meant we didn’t qualify for fertility treatment on the NHS. She’s slim, sure but by no means anorexic - in fact she eats like a horse. Obviously there has to be protocols but we were frustrated that throughout the system, different areas have different rules turning it into a complete post code lottery. My tenacious Naomi worked hard at the gym to gain the necessary pounds even hiring a personal trainer but it was never going to be doable.
No NHS funding coupled with more genetic issues with my one sperm, led to heartbreak and emotional strain but also led us looking to a) get hold of donor sperm and b) look for an appropriate clinic. Being ridiculously good at research, Naomi jumped straight into it. We got a bad vibe from clinics around us, one completely washing their hands of the donor sperm side so we’d have to organise it ourselves and one charging 200 quid just for an initial consultation.
Foreign clinics had always been an option for us but we, as most people would be, were initially put off by the added logistics of organising flights and accommodation. Again Naomi started to do the research but was actually recommended to a clinic in Athens called IVF Serum by a friend of a friend. An email was pinged off and an initial phone consultation booked with the clinic manager, Penny. Naomi was quite taken from the off - Penny put her at ease straight away in the simplest way possible. She asked her how she was. Just that in itself after a year of such negativity was enough to bring an emotionally exhausted Naomi to tears. Penny gave her recommendations and explained the procedure - we would send pictures of ourselves and she would choose a sperm donor based on that. It’s said that I have a bit of a Mediterranean look so picking a Greek sperm donor wouldn’t be a bad start... We then had to be there ready in time for when Naomi next ovulated and they would perform IUI (In Utero Insemination - basically very well timed insertion of sperm).
Having done the appropriate maths, it soon became apparent that the next time Naomi ovulated would be the next Tuesday. It was Thursday. I immediately felt uncomfortable asking for last minute holiday from work, that coupled with general logistics of getting various pets looked after led to Naomi suggesting she just went herself. I won’t lie, it felt weird letting her go by herself but, as often happens with me, practicalities got in the way. Arrangements were made. Flights, Easyjet obvs. Accommodation, the President Hotel near the clinic and with a rooftop swimming pool (very nice too). Done and done.
Waving goodbye to Naomi at Gatwick, it still didn’t feel real. A few days before we’d been in a desperate state but now were going to have an actual opportunity to get pregnant - something which should be taken for granted but for us and so many people it isn’t the case for whatever reason. There were phone updates every day and then the day of the procedure, an excited Naomi confirmed ‘you could see them wiggling around on the screen when they inserted the sperm’. Mad, really mad.
Naomi got home and within a week or so had a feeling it had worked. I’m thinking ‘Come on, it all happened so fast - it can’t have been much more than a punt.’ And then came the pee sticks, the cheap little pregnancy tests that don’t cost a bomb. ‘Does that look like a line?’ ‘Shit me, I think it might be.’ It was. And 42 plus two weeks later after a load of private scans, you know, to check it wasn’t a elaborate practical joke from the gods, we met our beautiful baby boy, Arlo and I fell in love all over again.
We got so lucky with Arlo in so many ways - he is such a beautiful boy and even though he has now thoroughly hit his terrible twos is still an absolute ledge who constantly puts a smile on my face. Our IUI had worked first time which was truly amazing for us but we can’t deny it then led to complacency when we were trying for a sibling for our boy. For the first attempt, we decided to go out together and take Arlo. It was not only a chance to look around the city where he was conceived but to also meet the famous Penny and see the process up close. I must admit I was quite emotional meeting Penny - she had given us hope and ultimately our beautiful boy and for that she got a big hug from me. She picked the sperm donor and had evidently done a good job - she had forgotten Arlo was donored and remarked how much he looked like me. People in general have always said how much Arlo looks like me, even people who knew our situation would say “I know it’s weird, but he really does look like you, Ali”. Not bad, not bad at all...
We had such a lovely time as a family on that trip and it was amazing to see the process up close but ultimately it wasn’t destined to be easy second time round as that round failed and, having got so lucky with Arlo working first time, that gut punch like the one from that doctor’s phonecall reared its ugly head.
It’s was a tough few months as Naomi went out to Athens several times herself to have IUI. Five more months, 5 more gut punches. As well as that life went on. There’s nothing like a lack of sperm meaning your wife is having to travel back and forward to a strange (granted less and less so) city to amplify every little everyday niggle in arelationship that was already strained emotionally and financially. Add in the mix the most beautiful patient one-year boy you could ask for and the cruelty of subjecting him to this raw emotional pain. He was too young to understand it was for the greater good to give him a sibling.
After the fifth failure a tough decision had to be made. IUI wasn’t working out this time so we went for a round of IVF. This put real pressure on us financially not only because the procedure cost more but it also meant a longer stay in Athens. We all went out as a family hiring an apartment nearer the beach for the second part of the stay and making as much of it as possible given the circumstances. It was actually a really good trip between going back and forth to the clinic. Arlo had just started walking and so loved the opportunity to explore a foreign land. The procedures went relatively well but there was one final drama in that Naomi needed to stay one extra day meaning that her flight had to be rebooked. After much refreshing on the EasyJet website a seat came free for her meaning Arlo and I were able to take the original flight home.
Knowing this was one of our final rolls of the dice financially, Naomi made the decision to put two eggs back putting not quite all but most of her eggs in one basket. In an absolute dream scenario both eggs took and once I got over the initial shock from the scan we anxiously planned for two more girls to join us. Twin pregnancy for Naomi was a double-edged sword one moment giving elation at the blessing but then the next moment there was the anxiety of the higher risk birth. This made even the pregnancy a tough emotional rollacoaster but in May last year we finally got to meet our Greek goddesses Paloma and Xanthe. As they turn one this week we realise that actually one would never have been enough as they both fill our world with so much joy.
Of course it’s difficult to open up about male infertility - it is still very much a taboo subject as the stigma of ‘firing blanks’ is not an easy one to get over. Call it ‘male toxicity’ if you like, it’s just another reminder that there’s still a lot of work to be done for men’s mental health as well as mental health in general. Nobody’s saying announce your infertility on Instagram like an attention-seeking pillock but if you’re going through it just look after yourself and your mind. Find someone you can trust to open up to because you can’t put a price on talking this stuff through. You are not a failure as a man, (whatever the fuck that means) you’re just bloody unfortunate.
Why did I choose to change my IG handle to Father to Greeks? Surely that’s a daily reminder of our struggles? I’ll tell you what I told the last person who asked me that: “With or without the name, I have three beautiful reminders who I wouldn’t have without our Greek sperm donor. I choose to celebrate that because despite everything I’ve been through, I feel like the luckiest man in the world.”
You can follow Ali on Instagram showing how donoring is truly a gift.