Why I prayed for my testicles

When vicar Matt Woodcock was told that his sperm count was too low, he felt that part of his masculinity had been stolen

Asking a roomful of people to pray for my testicles was a turning point in our journey towards having children. In the dark days of our childlessness and IVF treatment, my wife, Anna, and I began to seek every intercession we could lay our hands on. Then there were the prayers who actually did lay on hands. Although thankfully not directly on the affected area.

To use its wonderful medical term, I have oligozoospermia. It means I have a ridiculously low sperm count. I am a jaffa seedless. We produce fewer than 15m sperm per millilitre of semen. It is believed to affect about 9% of men in the UK.

According to the National Fertility Association, the average man produces anything between 40m to 300m sperm per millilitre of semen. I am therefore, in this respect at least, a way below average man. Way, way below.

When I eventually plucked up the courage to get tested, my doctor told me over the phone that they had found only 37 in the semen sample.

Thirty seven million thats not too bad is it? I asked.

He replied: No, Mr Woodcock, literally 37.

In the space of that conversation, I felt Id had a vital piece of my masculinity and one of the great gifts of manhood ripped from me. I was bereft. The testicles that I believed were occupied by an army of supercharged Michael Phelpses, primed and ready to create babies when the time came, actually housed a pathetic handful of inebriated Eric the Eels.

I felt God had dealt me a cruel blow. That he had somehow diminished me as a man. My prayers became increasingly angry, confrontational and self-pitying. Why me, Lord? was a question I often asked.

Of course, up to that point, our struggles to conceive were not my fault. Consumed by a kind of proud man syndrome, I insisted that it must be an issue with Annas internal workings. Only after her various tests and proddings came up clear, did I eventually agree to give a sample. Thirty-seven poor swimming sperm would not get the job done.

I masked my despair pretty well. I made light of it, joked my way through. At one particularly lively birthday bash, I even took to the stage to spontaneously rap about my condition. There was pain behind those unrepeatable rhymes, though.

Low sperm counts are becoming far more common now. In the past 30 years, the quality and number of sperm has declined among UK men. Drinkers, smokers and stress-heads are said to be at greater risk. As someone who indulges in a glass of red, sucked in the fumes of countless Regal Kingsize until my mid-20s, and lives permanently on his nerves, I am a prime candidate. Or maybe I was just born this way. Who knows? The sad fact is that for such a common medical issue, too few men want to admit it, talk about it or even believe it could be affecting them. They suffer in quiet desperation.

Matt Woodcock and his wife, Anna
One of the reasons for opening up my diaries in my new book, Becoming Reverend, was to seek to lift this veil of embarrassed secrecy. I reckoned that if I overshared the key moments of our IVF journey and living in a spermless marriage then perhaps other blokes would have the balls (albeit malfunctioning ones) to unburden themselves.

Let me be clear from the outset: IVF treatment is far more hideous for women. There are the drugs they have to inject, the yo-yoing emotions, the number of times their legs have to be attached to stirrups while medics examine and extract and insert things. It is our wives and partners who feel the pain most acutely when the treatment doesnt work, not to mention the intense worry when it does. My wife noticed every tummy bubble, gurgle and burp, hoping against hope that it was the sound of a new life stirring in her womb.

As men, I think our suffering takes on a different hue. IVF stripped away my ingrained sense of male pride and dignity. It left me exposed, afraid and utterly dependent. I observed all manner of men when I attended my fertility clinic. But we all had the same pale, haunted look as we waited for our names to be called to the dreaded sperm donation room. I still wince at the memory of going in there for the first time with my plastic pot.

Once the deed was done, I was instructed to wait in the corridor until a nurse came to collect the pot. Its vital you keep the contents warm, though, Mr Woodcock, they added. So I stood mannequin-like for what felt like days, smiling nervously at the passers-by, praying my semen-filled receptacle was getting enough heat stuffed down the front of my jeans.

Embarrassing, humiliating, and yet, for us, after three rounds of IVF, absolutely worth it. To hear the words, You are pregnant! To witness the two flashing heartbeats on the screen at our first scan. And then to finally hold, nine months later, two lives we had created. They were indescribable, life-transforming, miraculous moments. Whether it was a spiritual or purely medical miracle I cant say with any certainty. Thats the point of faith, I suppose its a mystery. It was probably a bit of both. All those prayers, all that medical skill, for me, combined to create Esther and Heidi.

I often wonder about the consequences of the IVF not working. Im sure our marriage would have survived, flourished even. Wed have gathered ourselves, got on with it, and sought the next adventure. But our lives would always have had a space where children were meant to be.

As for my male identity, in a profound way, IVF taught me a new way of being. Out of my weakness I found a renewed strength. My masculinity was not somehow restored when Anna got pregnant. I didnt break out into a chest-beating roar when the twins were born. It was actually the stripping away of some of my selfish pride, the fresh reliance on my faith in the face of hopeless despair, and the willingness to share those hurting places with the people I love and trust. That shapes my masculinity now.

Its six years now since Esther and Heidi were born and the dog collar went round my neck. In that time, I have occasionally been called upon to minister to couples struggling with infertility. It has helped I hope that I can relate to their pain. I can empathise with their situation. My prayers for them are born out of real and at times bitter experience. That said, Im also acutely aware that our IVF success may add to the confusion and frustration of those couples Im supporting who remain childless. Why does God not bless us with a miracle? is a question I have been asked. Its maddening that I dont have an easy answer to it. I dont believe one exists. I passionately believe God comforts us in our times of greatest distress but why he intervenes sometimes and not at others remains baffling to me.

One of the great joys of becoming a priest has been the opportunity to encourage the blokes in my flock to open up a bit about such things as infertility. Not in a holding-hands-in-a-candlelit-circle-while-meditating-to-whale-music kind of way. That wouldnt work in the centre of Hull. Instead, I run a mens group where we laugh and share and banter about the stuff that matters and hurts. And I offer prayer, even when things seem lost and hopeless. In fact, especially then.

Becoming Reverend: A Diary by Matt Woodcock is published by Church House Publishing, 9.99

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/dec/24/matt-woodcock-vicar-low-sperm-count-fertility-ivf-masculinity

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