Aspiring Dad Posts Photo of Pill Organizer to Address Stigma Around Male Infertility
May 16, 2019
There's been an uptick in conversation around infertility and IVF as more women take to social media to share their stories of trying to get pregnant. Yet, rarely anyone mentions male infertility despite the fact that it's the root cause of fertility struggles for one-third of couples trying to conceive. A couple from Georgia is hoping to start this conversation. Drew and Ashley Juska took to their individual social media accounts recently to send a powerful message to other couples facing similar challenges.
Today, Drew posted a photo of his weekly pill organizer, filled with everything from a men's multivitamin to probiotics, fish oil, zinc, vitamin D, and prescription meds, writing, "Why would a healthy 34 yo need so many pills? While most are vitamins, Ashley and I are starting our IVF journey. For over the past 2 years and after surgery, countless tests, consultations, we decided we’re moving forward with this adventure. Being impacted on the male side, it takes an emotional toll and thoughts of inadequacy and doubt can take hold. It is a topic that is kept in the dark, despite so many couples being impacted, and among men, it’s even harder to talk about. That’s why we are stepping out sharing our story together."
He explained that he and his wife want to help guide anyone in the same boat, noting, "We’ve been blessed with an outpouring of prayers and support, and we want to give back by helping those going through the same challenges. We’re here to talk, answer any questions, and offer ourselves as a resource for anyone that needs it. We thank everyone for their well wishes and excited for this step toward starting a family."
On the precipice of beginning IVF, both Drew and Ashley have reflected not only on their TTC journey but on their lifelong aspirations to become parents.
"I'm first-generation Lithuanian and the last to carry the family name," Drew tells Parents.com. "Other relatives have had other life circumstances, so as far as carrying on the actual bloodline, it fell to me." His family was so enthusiastic about Drew becoming a dad that when he was in high school, he says he would "get letters from relatives overseas asking if I'm married, how the kids are doing!"
Ashley was adopted and grew up learning about her father's fertility issues, explaining that she grew up feeling comfortable discussing these issues. It's also why she was determined to be proactive about her fertility. "When you are a young adult, say in your 20s, the last thing on your mind is 'how fertile am I?'" she tells Parents.com. "But, when you start to hit your late 20s to early 30s, at least for me, I was unmarried, and thinking about my future family."
When Ashley met Drew, she was 28. The couple wed in April 2017 and casually began trying for a baby in July, but by January 2018, after facing 6 months of negative pregnancy tests, Ashley wanted more information.
"We were 32 and 33 years old, so my OB-GYN laughed at me when I asked for a fertility work-up," she says. "She basically said to relax, keep trying, and come back in a year. That was not acceptable to me! Why should it be her decision to see if I have any fertility issues? So, I pushed her a bit and she decided to do some blood tests. Everything on my end came back normal, so she suggested that Drew see a urologist."
After undergoing an ultrasound and semen analysis, the couple's physician at Reproductive Biology Associates in Atlanta determined that Drew had a varicocele, or an enlargement of the veins within the scrotum (similar to varicose veins that can occur in the legs), which can interfere with the necessary temperature control the testicles require to produce good quality sperm. In June 2018, Drew underwent surgery to repair the varicocele.
Yet, 9 months later, despite ongoing blood tests and semen analysis every 3 months, the couple had yet to conceive.
"It was a bit frustrating," Drew admits. "I have been dealing with depression and adult ADHD, which causes anxiety, and when you get burned out on anxiety, it leads to depression. And from the male side, naturally, the premise is, you're a provider, you're a producer, you're a protector. If that instinctual mindset is there, when you can't reproduce, it's easy to think, 'Wow, I'm flawed.' Also, just knowing that it's my fault. Ashley's perfect. She could be with somebody else and start having an amazing family. It weighs heavily on you. And then, it sounds dark, but it's true: At some point, there are some sleepless nights where you're like, 'Maybe I'm not meant to reproduce.'" Learning that he's a carrier for two genetic diseases, including cystic fibrosis, played into these fears, as well.
Ashley notes that not only was Drew "demoralized, [but] sex had turned into a chore, since timing was everything. Even after some normal, married couple arguments, if it was time to baby dance, it was time." Ashley says Drew expressed his feelings of inadequacy to her multiple times. "But all I could do was reassure him that it was OK and would end up working out in the end," she explains.
But she was struggling with the emotional toll, as well. "It was frustrating knowing that Drew had the fertility issue," Ashley shares. "This was supposed to be my fault, the women’s fault, not my uber-masculine husband’s fault. Anger set in a few times. Is he masturbating too much? Wasting what could’ve been a child? Follow that up with resentment: Did I marry the wrong person? Why is this happening to me? Imagine that. I was questioning my perfect marriage because my husband hadn’t given me the one basic human right of passage: motherhood."
As the couple continued to face these heavy emotional questions and medical concerns—like the fact that pregnancies for women who are 35+ are treated as high-risk—Ashley brought up IVF, and the couple agreed to set a deadline. If they had yet to conceive by late spring 2019, they would go that route.
The couple begins ovarian stimulation next month, hopeful that egg retrieval and implantation will soon follow.
In the meantime, the couple made the decision to proactively head to couples therapy to bolster their already excellent communication skills. "We were like, 'Let's start now, and get this conversation going,'" Drew says. "Typically, as guys, we want to have an action plan. So, I've learned to say, 'What can I do to help, to support you?'" He says counseling has also bolstered their sensitivity to one another's feelings and ability to put themselves in one another's shoes.
They also decided to share their journey not only with family and friends but publicly on social media. "I was hesitant at first," Drew says. "I thought it was a private matter and didn't want to share the fact that it was my fault we couldn't have kids. Ashley told me it might help others, and I changed my mind."
Ashley had been following fellow IVFers on Instagram and, by reading their stories, she says she felt inspired to do more. "The majority of those posting had female related issues—PCOS, amenorrhea, low egg reserve—so I thought what a great time to vocalize that men have issues too, and that’s OK!" she says. "I wanted to go public with our IVF journey because of the secretive nature surrounding it. If others felt comfortable posting their sonograms on social media, why can’t I be proud and excited for our journey?"
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On Wednesday, May 8, Ashley shared a photo of birth control pills (which are used prior to ovarian stimulation) on Instagram, explaining, "Never in my 34 years did I think I'd see these little pills again! But I welcome them back! Today is Day 1 of our #IVFJourney. Drew and I have been fairly private about our journey until now. We truly believe that IVF should be celebrated, encouraged, and most importantly, talked about. One in 8 couples will experience infertility. That’s HUGE! And nothing to be ashamed about. So, welcome to our journey!"
The couple's honest posts are already starting a conversation. "I wrote that post and shared it from a plane as we were taking off," Drew explains. "I'm not big on social media, and the number of emails, responses, Instagram posts, direct messages, in an hour-and-half flight was just staggering. When I posted it, I got emotional on the plane, so people next to me were like, 'What the hell is wrong with this guy?' I got emotional again reading the support. This is just something we're dealing with, and we know if we're going through it, others are going through it, so just having that open dialogue and being transparent and saying we feel vulnerable. And it's not something anyone should have to deal with themselves."
Ashley echoes that sentiment, encouraging other couples to share their stories. "Tell everyone—your friends, your family, your co-workers, strangers at the grocery store," she says. "You never know the journey someone’s been on until you talk about it. And that person’s journey may inspire you!"
Discussion could also lead to more, useful information, as she points out, "It wasn’t until Andrew told his family that we learned there was a long line of male infertility issues on the paternal side. Gee, that would’ve been nice to know a long time ago."
As the Juskas continue to share details of their experience—dedicated to being "fully transparent about the good, the bad, and the ugly"—they encourage others facing fertility struggles to reach out to them for support.
"As a result of our initial posts on social media, so many friends and family members have come out of the woodwork telling us, albeit, privately, about their own journeys," Ashley says. "My question to them was always the same: 'Why didn’t you tell anyone about this before?' And the answer was almost always the same. 'I was ashamed.' Drew and I hope to break down that wall."