Am I Less of a Man?
I thought my self-image was unshakable. But then the test results came in.
As told by Greg, age 30
I thought my self-image was unshakable. I thought I could handle anything. After all, I was a man's man. A tackle-football, monster-truck, built-Ford-tough type of guy. But then the test results came in.
The phone rang, and I answered it with my usual "Hey, this is Greg."
The nurse from our infertility clinic was on the other end of the line. "Hello, Mr. Smith, this is Jean," she said. "I have the test results for you and your wife."
"Oh, uh, okay." I swallowed. "What's the scoop?"
"Everything looks fine for Claire, but your numbers are, well" — she paused — "quite low."
I felt my stomach twist. "Low? What do you mean by low?"
"Your sperm count came in at three million per milliliter. Normal is between twenty and one hundred and fifty million."
Three? Only three million? "But, but," I sputtered. "Are you sure? Maybe there's been a mistake."
"We're very careful with these tests, Mr. Smith."
"Have you been sick with a high fever in the last few months? Or perhaps you've been in a hot tub."
"Uh, no." My grip tightened on the receiver. Slowly I lowered myself to the chair near the phone. "So"—my voice wavered—"what do we do now?"
"Well, we can test you again in a couple of weeks, if you'd like. Other than that, the doctor will be happy to discuss options at your next appointment. You're coming in with Claire on Monday, aren't you?"
"Sure, I guess so." I barely muttered the words. Three million. Only three. The number pounded through my head. I was okay when I thought it was something with my wife that was keeping us from having children. But this, this was different. I was the one with the problem. It was my sperm that were lacking, my fault we weren't able to conceive.
I hung up the phone quietly.
"Who was that, honey?" my wife called from the other room.
"What did they want?" Claire walked into the room and tossed the towel she was folding onto the kitchen counter.
For a moment I didn't answer.
She looked at me and raised one eyebrow, just like she always does when she thinks I'm acting strangely.
I rubbed my hand over the counter top and glanced away. "The test results are in."
"Low sperm count," I mumbled, too quietly for her to hear.
"Low sperm count," I said again, just a little louder.
"Oh. Did they say anything about my tests?"
"Yours are all okay."
"So now we know what the problem is." Her eyes caught and held mine. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Absolutely not, I thought. But I only shook my head, turned, and went into the garage. "Got some work to do," I called behind me. "I'm going to Sam's Hardware." A trip to Sam's was just what I needed to gather my thoughts. If I could hold a few wrenches, try out a couple of power tools, I'd feel fine again.
So I took my trip to the hardware store. I strolled around the tool aisles. I even bought a new table saw. And slowly the implications of those disturbing test results receded to the back of my mind — until Claire and I attended a party at a friend's house a few weeks later.
We were casually chatting with friends. Claire was on the couch with a group of women and I was standing by the TV when I overheard what she was saying.
"Greg's got a low sperm count," I heard her say.
Maybe it was my imagination, but the room seemed to fall silent. Quickly I looked around, hoping the other guys hadn't heard. But my best friend, Jerry, patted me on the shoulder and gave me a sympathetic look. "Hey, that's too bad, man. Sorry to hear it."
"What's up?" Adam walked over with a Pepsi in his hand.
Jerry turned to him. "Greg's got a low sperm count."
I felt myself shrinking.
Adam took a swig of his soda and made some remark that I'd rather not repeat.
I tried to fake a chuckle, but it seemed to get stuck behind my tonsils and came out like a choking cough. I cleared my throat and turned toward Jerry, hoping to change the subject before it got any worse. "So how's the job going?" I asked. "Heard you were up for a promotion."
Jerry dropped his hand from my shoulder. He seemed nervous. "Job's going great. I'm looking at getting that raise and promotion any day now."
"Bet Margaret's glad to hear that."
"Yeah, she's pretty excited about having a few extra dollars every month."
The conversation stayed on Jerry's job for a few more minutes before we turned to everyone's picks for the upcoming Super Bowl. I breathed a sigh of relief. Football was a safe topic. Talking about quarterbacks and pass plays kept the conversation from turning back to more personal issues. Still, for the rest of the evening, I pasted on my fake smile while becoming more and more angry with Claire for sharing our private information.
On the way home from the party, my anger boiled over. "What were you thinking, Claire?" I said through gritted teeth.
My wife glanced at me with a confused look on her face. "What are you talking about?"
I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel and glared at her before turning my eyes back to the road. "Oh, come on, you know what I mean. Telling everybody about my sperm count! Don't you think that is a little private?"
"What's the big deal? Ann asked me if we'd found out what was wrong, and I told her."
"You didn't need to mention my low sperm count." I couldn't believe she didn't think it was a big deal.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Claire looked somewhat amused. "If we'd found out I had problems with my ovaries or had a blocked fallopian tube, you wouldn't have any objection to my telling Ann about that."
"What is different about it?"
I slammed my hand against the steering wheel. "Look, my sperm count is private. I don't want you telling anyone about it. No one. Especially our friends."
"Okay, then, what am I supposed to say when someone asks? Lie?"
"I don't know. I don't care. Just don't talk about my sperm count!"
Claire shook her head and turned toward the side window. "All right, all right, I didn't know you were so sensitive about it."
I stared out into the rainy night. The only sound was the sloshing of the windshield wipers. I didn't really know why I'd reacted so severely. Of course, I was a little embarrassed. But Claire was right. If it had been her problem, I wouldn't have thought twice about telling friends the test results. But I felt differently about it when it was my problem. How could she not understand that? How could she not understand that a low sperm count was something that hit a man hard, something you just didn't share in a group?
Now that the sperm issue was out there, I did what I figured any real man would do — I ignored it. Oh, I swallowed a few extra vitamins, took cooler showers, and stayed away from the hot tub, but other than that I simply refused to think about it. But my friend Jerry changed my mind.
I hadn't seen him since the party, so I thought I'd stop by and surprise him at work. But I was the one in for a surprise.
I opened the glass door and stepped up to the receptionist's desk. "Hi, I'm here to see Jerry."
The woman glanced up at me and frowned. "Jerry doesn't work here anymore."
I stepped back. "What? Of course he does."
She shook her head. "Jerry was laid off two months ago."
Two months ago? That would be a month before the party. Surely if Jerry had lost his job he would have told me. Something strange was going on, and I needed to find out what it was. I mumbled "thanks" to the receptionist and hurried out to my car.
I finally tracked Jerry down that night in his garage. He was lying beneath the chassis of his 1967 Mustang. "Hey, Jerry!" I called.
He slid out from under the car. "Greg! Good to see you, man. I didn't hear you come in. What's up?"
I crossed my arms. "I don't know, buddy. Why don't you tell me?"
Jerry wiped his hands on his overalls, then stood up. "What do you mean?"
"I stopped by your work today."
An awkward silence fell between us. Jerry turned away to finish cleaning his hands on a rag. He refused to look at me. "Guess you know then."
"They told me you were laid off two months ago."
"So what was all that talk at the party about a promotion?"
He shrugged and turned back to me. "I just couldn't bring myself to tell you guys that I didn't have a job."
"Does Margaret know?"
Jerry twisted the rag in his hand. "No."
"I leave every morning and come back in the evening, same as I've always done. Only instead of going to a job, I'm looking for one."
"You're kidding me."
"I wish I were."
He looked like a dejected puppy. I draped an arm around his shoulders. "Gosh, man, you should have told me. I could have tried to help, or at least prayed for you."
"What? And have you guys think I'm a loser? No thanks."
"Come on, Jerry. You are not a loser because you've lost your job. Our self-worth is found in God, anyway, not in our job. You know that as well as I do."
"Yeah, I guess I do."
"Hey, I hope you find something real soon. And remember to let your friends know the next time something important happens in your life, huh?"
Jerry's eyes locked with mine. "Yeah, like you told us about your sperm count being low."
"Well, that's different," I mumbled.
We stood there for a moment without speaking. "Look, I gotta go. I'll stop by tomorrow and see how the job hunt's coming."
As I drove away, Jerry's words haunted me. I had to admit the truth. The low sperm count made me feel less of a man, just like his job loss made him feel. And while those reactions may be perfectly natural, they showed how we were finding at least part of our identity in something besides our relationship with Christ.
For the next several months I considered what it meant to be a man in God's sight. I thought about how Jesus proved himself through obedience to God. I also thought about the great price that Christ paid for me on the cross. I thought about how a man should be measured by the greatness of his faith, not by his sperm count. But it wasn't until I stumbled on the words of Isaiah 56:3 5 that I really began to understand that my identity doesn't come from my ability to procreate, but from the God who made me the man that I am: "Let not any eunuch complain, I am only a dry tree.' For this is what the Lord says: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant — to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off' " (Isaiah 56:3 5).
If God didn't think less of me because I had fewer sperm than other guys, what right did I have to think less of myself?
These days I find that I'm much more at peace with my condition. While I still don't want my wife talking about my sperm count at parties, I find that I can accept the fact that our fertility problems lie with me. It's God who makes me who I am, and by his grace I am content with that — no matter what the numbers read.
From Empty Womb, Aching Heart, published by Bethany House Publishers. Copyright © 2001, Marlo Schalesky. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.