‘I couldn’t tell anyone I was struggling with my fertility because I felt like less of a man’

Tony Suckling, 41, and his wife got married back in 2012, and spent the first few years ” as most young couples do: enjoying life, the nicer things in life, concentrating on careers”. Around 2015 they decided to settle in and have children, which they both really wanted. “But nothing happened,” Tony, who lives in St John’s Wood said.

As his wife was in her early 40s, they knew it could be more difficult to conceive. ” I went to have a very basic test at the doctors, which said my sperm levels were a little bit low. I changed diets – I ate healthily anyway, not really into junk food and stuff – but they said that would sort it out.”

Six months later, when Tony went back to the doctor for more tests, the results were the same, and they were still struggling to conceive. He started a new exercise regime, which was “the next thing on the list”, but his sperm count still remained low. Over a year into their attempts to have a baby, Tony’s doctor turned to him and said: “I think you’re going to have to go down the route of IVF” – “which was absolutely gutting,” Tony said.

“As a guy, you feel completely emasculated, your masculinity is completely gone. You can’t provide for your wife the way you should be able to. So, yeah, it killed me emotionally.

“It just felt like you’re not a man anymore, because you can’t produce a child.”

READ MORE: ‘I felt helpless as a new dad with no support or advice, so I set up a social group to help other London dads’

Tony said that his fertility struggles made him feel 'completely emasculated' and 'killed [him] emotionally'
Tony said that his fertility struggles made him feel ‘completely emasculated’ and ‘killed [him] emotionally’

‘IVF was a complete roller coaster of ups and downs’

In 2017, Tony and his wife began looking for IVF clinics. They weren’t eligible for treatment on the NHS, so they sought out the best private clinic they could and began the first round of IVF.

“Y ou just go into it completely blind, you don’t know anything,” Tony said. “We didn’t talk to anybody about it, it was a very personal thing so we just kept it all in.

“We went through the whole cycle, which was a complete roller coaster of ups and downs, injections – which I hated – and all that, and unfortunately it failed. We lost two embryos in the first round.

“It’s just a complete heartache, really. We hadn’t told anybody, very closed, and spending time together after that was just absolutely heartbreaking.”

Tony added that he felt like the IVF clinic “was basically focused completely on my wife, they didn’t look at me at all”, which he found really upsetting. Little did they know at the time that Tony had fertility problems that went further than his low sperm count, which he found out later were critical in their efforts to conceive a child.

We had to save a load of money again to go for the second time around,” Tony said. “Emotionally, mentally, everything else, we had to regroup ourselves. That took six to nine months to get everything together again.

“It’s been a horrendous amount of money: it’s not just the IVF but all of the associated pills, injections, we tried acupuncture, Reiki – you get to a point where you will do anything to have a child.

“Every single minute of your life is about trying to have a child.”

'Every single minute of your life is about trying to have a child', Tony said
‘Every single minute of your life is about trying to have a child’, Tony said

After being assured that they were good to go for another round of IVF, about a week into the process Tony’s wife spoke to someone at the clinic who suggested Tony speaks to a urologist and a dietitian. Urologists are experts in anything to do with the urinary tract, but they also deal with the male reproductive system and male infertility, and diet can have an impact on sperm quality.

The urologist told Tony that he had a very high level of DNA fragmentation – “it basically falls apart before it gets there” – which was a huge breakthrough as the integrity of genetic material in sperm is crucial for both successful fertilisation and normal embryo development. DNA fragmentation can lead to IVF failure and miscarriage.

Tony and his wife continued with the second round of IVF, as they’d already started it “and it just made sense.”

But unfortunately, at that point, we lost another two embryos,” Tony said. “They were implanted, we were told: ‘Don’t worry, you’ll come out with a baby in nine months’, but no, we lost it again. It was very hard to go through the pain and heartbreak of losing another two embryos.”

In 2018, Tony’s wife fell pregnant naturally, “completely out of the blue”. They were, obviously, absolutely over the moon, but sadly they lost the pregnancy.

It was like: ‘Is this real?’,” Tony said. “Everything seemed to have worked, all the supplements I was taking seemed to have worked, I’d lost about two stone in weight, on top of the world.

“But unfortunately it led to a miscarriage seven or eight weeks later. That was the biggest low point, because you just thought-, well, your whole world breaks down. You believed everything had finally worked and it hadn’t. That was the biggest low for me.”

By 2019, Tony and his wife decided to look abroad for a new fertility clinic and found an “amazing” clinic in Spain where they began another round of IVF. Tony went over there in February 2020 to “deliver my side of the business”, but then Covid hit and they haven’t been able to go back. There’s an embryo over there waiting for them, which he says is “heart-wrenching”.

We just can’t wait to get out there and see what happens. Crossing our fingers, basically,” he said.

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‘Why are guys not talking about this sort of thing, talking to each other?’

Throughout all of this, Tony had told no-one about how he felt. ” I still hadn’t spoken to any of my friends about it, my family, and I was just keeping it all pent up inside,” he said. “And then I thought: ‘You know what, there are other guys out there who are going to be struggling like me, so I started up my own Instagram page, my own web page, to try and tell other guys that you’re not alone, that there are people out there who will help and support you.

Why are guys not talking about this sort of thing, talking to each other? I didn’t tell my closest friend, who I’ve known for 25, 30 years. I couldn’t even tell him,” Tony added, an emotional lump in his throat.

It struck Tony that this would be the same for thousands of other men, and this realisation led him to Fertility Network – a charity which is actively encouraging men to talk about how fertility issues and IVF affects them emotionally, building up a support network for men going through the same thing. They set up Zoom calls where 60 or 70 men join, some on camera, some just listening, creating a space where people can share stories, ask questions, and support one another.

It really resonated with me, because I’m normally quite a closed person, but when I talk about something that I feel very strongly about I get quite emotional,” Tony said. “All the stuff they were talking about, I thought: This is amazing. Guys don’t talk about these things, especially about something that completely takes away your masculinity.”

Tony is so grateful for the support Fertility Network has given him and others like him that he’s about to embark on the challenge of his life to raise money for the charity: he and three others are going to climb Mount Everest.

Tony didn't feel able to tell his friends and family about his fertility struggles, but Fertility Network helped him connect with other men going through the same thing - now he's climbing Everest for the charity
Tony didn’t feel able to tell his friends and family about his fertility struggles, but Fertility Network helped him connect with other men going through the same thing – now he’s climbing Everest for the charity

‘Let’s climb Everest – go and do something a little bit crazy, raising money for charity’

In March 2022, Tony will set off to Nepal to begin the gruelling trek to Everest base camp, which sits at 5,364 metres above sea level and involves a 12 day trek. The oxygen level at base camp is about 50 per cent of that at sea level, and each day of the trek will see Tony and his team walk for up to 12 hours as they ascend the mountain and acclimatise to the altitude.

When the other guys started talking about climbing Everest, Tony thought: “‘ That’s crazy. I’m not going to do something like that, I’d love to but it’s just too crazy.’

“I’m not an adrenaline junkie or anything like that,” he said.

Then I sat there and I thought, it’s for a really good cause, something that I’m really emotionally attached to. I love when we go for long walks in the country, I love the Lake District, the Cotswolds, and I just thought: let’s do it. Go and do something a little bit crazy, raising money for charity.”

Tony’s been doing lots of training at the gym and in the UK’s peaks to prepare for the trip, including multiple hikes up Wales’ Pen Y Fan – sometimes a few times in a single day – to get his body and mind ready for the challenge.

“It’s going to be a massive, massive challenge for me, but through all of the stuff that I’ve been through in my life in the last few years, it’s just another challenge that I want to do,” he said.

“I’m just really excited, but also really nervous about it.”

To donate to Tony’s fundraiser for his Mount Everest climb, visit his JustGiving page, and follow him @thehopefulfather on Instagram to follow his journey.

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