The complicated questions a vasectomy can pose
FROM TODAY’S PARENT, October 2009
Not long after our second daughter was born, my wife, Jen, began leaving vasectomy pamphlets around. This is the way parents sometimes introduce important conversations to teenagers, whose notorious sensitivity prevents things from being discussed more openly. And I can’t claim it was a bad approach, because the end of a man’s reproductive life (and so abruptly!) is a flinchingly uncomfortable moment; it feels like being fired from the only job you were ever really qualified to do. And then there is the thing itself, the idea of a knife at work down there. All that barnyard poetry comes flooding back: the farmer snipping off the tip of the scrotum like he’s scissoring the tip of a cigar. Jay-sus.
But Jen was right. It had to be done. I’m 45 years old. We’re happily married. It’s the responsible thing.
“I’ll start saving up for it right now,” I told her.
“Um, it’s covered by your health insurance, my friend.”
Here in Vancouver, when you think of vasectomy operations one name pops to mind. Neil Pollock is not so much a doctor as a brand. His ads for “virtually painless,” “no needle, no scalpel” amount to a bloodless severing of a man’s more visceral qualms. Seven minutes and you’re done. Up to 25 men move through his clinic a day. Pollock has cut more ribbon than the mayor. There’s even a “premium” option for guys who fancy themselves too busy for the follow-up visits. (You pay a little surcharge for unlimited post-op phone access.) It all seems perfectly packaged for the modern, hyperdecisive guy: get your snip, get back to work, and don’t think about any of this ever again, buster.
Except that when you go to the website, you discover that Pollock also performs circumspection. What if you change your mind? It turns out that “up to seven percent” of men, “within a few years of having the surgery done,” wish they’d never been cut. At which point they’re stuck. Reverse-vasectomies cost about $5,000 and work maybe half the time. But Pollock isn’t talking himself out of business, just suggesting an elegant option, an escape hatch that makes the commitment seem less permanent: Freeze your sperm. A couple of local facilities, unaffiliated with the clinic, will keep it for you in cold storage. While many vasectomy docs don’t even mention the possibility of freezing sperm, Pollock strongly promotes it as a kind of cheap insurance policy. (It’s not that cheap — $500 for five years in the bank. But then, it’s not practical to cut costs by doing it at home, in your own freezer. The cells die, and anyway, you know the spooge is going to end up in someone’s scotch.)
“I’d do it,” Pollock told me during our telephone consultation, when I asked him about freezing sperm. “At your age, you never know.”
At my age — which is also Pollock’s age — terrible, unforeseen things can happen and do, yet a man is still young enough to rewrite a workable script for the second half of his life. I don’t feel particularly young; I frankly can’t see myself ever again touching my toes. But apparently it doesn’t matter if the flesh is weak as long as the swimmers are willing. And there’s no social stigma against embarrassingly old guys siring kids. On the contrary.
“Do not forget,” Pollock’s website points out, “Aristotle Onassis had his last child at 85 years old. David Letterman at 58.”
And so, quite suddenly, what had seemed such a straightforward decision wasn’t.
“It really would be a shame to lose this sperm,” I said to Jen, offhandedly. “Because it’s no ordinary sperm. As soon as we pulled the goalie we conceived — every time. Do you know what the odds of that are? We’re incredibly fertile. You have Fabergé eggs. And my guys are like a billion little Ian Thorpes. Not saving this stuff, it’d be like being blessed with 60/20 vision and giving away your eyes.”
This is called rationalization.
Jen’s expression said, Please get a second opinion.
And here is where a man gets gold-standard advice from his friends, because I guarantee you any guy older than 40 has thought about vasectomies — a lot. What emerged in these discussions was a strong case against saving sperm, at least for couples like us.
One wise friend pointed out the canny salesmanship of that whole insurance-policy metaphor: You may not ever use that sperm, but you want to know that you could. That touches something very deep in the male psyche. There is a German word that captures what a lot of guys feel in midlife: torschlusspanik. Fear of the gates closing. Fear of options evaporating. The option to store sperm exploits those fears quite perfectly.
The middle-aged guy tends to feel that he hasn’t really amounted to what he wanted to amount to — but he could still find his groove, and when he does he’ll want to share the mojo. His sperm, too, will become golden. “They’re playing around with the mythology of what it means to be a man,” my pal said. “And what a time to do it. Because, literally, they’ve got you by the balls.”
Another wise friend came in from another angle with advice that’s hard to refute. “Look, if you’re in a position to use that frozen sperm, it’s because something very bad has happened — in which case, having another baby is probably the last thing that should be on your mind. And anyway, do you really want to be changing diapers at 50? I sure as hell don’t.”
Jen and I were inching so gingerly into this discussion, it was clear, because we both sensed how fraught it was, what power it had to change the ecosystem of a marriage. Freezing sperm surely has something of the same impact that a pre-nuptial agreement does. It’s as if part of you has already disengaged and is surfing the dial for an alternative future, with a different house and a different dog and a different name you call out in bed. Yes, it’s naïve to think it couldn’t happen. But wouldn’t that time and energy be better spent with your partner, right now, digging in?
The next night we peeked in on Madeline. She’d fallen asleep with a yellow helium balloon from a four-year-old friend’s party wrapped around her wrist, suspended two feet above her head like a small, still moon.
We stood there in the doorway just looking at here. “This is far and away the best thing that has happened to us,” I said. “I can see why people just want to keep going.”
“We got two great ones.”
“We got lucky.”
“We should walk away from the table.”
The next morning I called Pollock Clinics and booked the appointment. Would we be freezing sperm? No, I didn’t think so. No.
The receptionist slotted me in for two weeks hence. “Oh, and don’t forget to shave.”
This was an unwelcome little tic amid the bigger issues: You gotta shave the huevos.
All in all we were peace with the decision. Ready to go.
And then something happened.
“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” Jen asked one morning. She’d been having second thoughts. About the frozen sperm? About all of it.
“What if our ship came in tomorrow? What if we won the lottery?”
She was feeling particularly in love with her three-month old girl. They are unbelievably charismatic, babies, you know?
Something was up. It turned out that, at that birthday party, the kids had been exposed to whooping cough. (The boy’s chagrined parents phoned Jen to warn us.) That’s no big deal for vaccinated toddlers, but if a tiny baby contracts it, the mortality rate is one in 200. Lila’s exposure was limited; the odds against serious problems seemed small. But fear doesn’t know from the odds. Fear was now driving.
“What if….” The idea was too terrible to finish.
“We’d try again.”
“I’ll freeze sperm.”
“But … that seems silly when we could get it fresh.”
The clock ticked. Stars were born and died.
“This isn’t going to happen, is it?” I said.
Jen shook her head no.
I called the clinic. You can avoid the cancellation fee if you call 48 hours in advance. We didn’t quite make it.
“Two hundred dollars,” the receptionist said.
I fished out my Visa card.
“I guess this happens a lot, eh, cold feet?”
“No, actually” she said. “Maybe once a month.” The put us among the one-fifth of one percent of couples who flake.
As least I didn’t shave the huevos.