'My husband's battle to be a dad' - couple share their long journey to parenthood (and how he's now helping others)

When Shaun and Jenna discovered he was infertile, their world turned upside down

Two photos of happy couple smiling at the camera - in one photo they are holding baby ultrasound photographs
(Image credit: Readers supplied)

This feature was originally published in April 2024 in Woman’s Own magazine, which is also owned by Future Publishing.

Faced with a rare condition, Jenna Greenaway’s husband had to battle to become a dad. She tells us her story...

"When trying to start a family, infertility is a frightening prospect. So often, it’s considered to be a ‘woman’s issue’- and with a seemingly endless list of factors affecting women’s reproductive systems from hormones to ovarian cysts, it’s an understandable assumption. But when my husband Shaun and I had trouble conceiving, we discovered that in our case, those assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth.

"I met Shaun, then 26, at policing school in 2008. In the same class, we found ourselves in a tight-knit group of friends, and it wasn’t until we left the following year that we confessed our feelings and started a relationship. Married in 2013, we were in no rush to have children, our free time outside of our police careers taken up with travelling, going to gigs, snowboarding and cycling. I loved being the fun auntie to my sister’s children, happy to just enjoy our newly-married life. But four years on, we finally felt ready to start a family of our own.

"In 2017, it felt like everyone around us was having children. But after months of trying, we still weren’t getting any closer to becoming parents. Almost a year into trying in December 2017, we decided to go to our GP for fertility tests. Shaun already had a sneaking suspicion that our fertility problems were down to him - he’d suffered from mumps just after finishing university in his early 20s, and had heard that it can impact men’s ability to have children. Sure enough, my tests came back clear and after weeks of waiting, in January 2018 Shaun was finally called by his GP receptionist while at work and given a diagnosis of azoospermia. It was only when Shaun got home and started googling azoospermia that the seriousness of the diagnosis dawned on us - he had no sperm whatsoever.

"At first, I was shocked. Azoospermia wasn’t a condition either of us had ever heard of, an issue we didn’t even know was a possibility. Shaun was devastated, and even said he would understand if I wanted to leave him for someone else. I told him to stop being ridiculous, that I loved him, and we’d find a way through. But inside, I was full of questions and worries. I’d watched all my friends and siblings conceive and start their families happily. Why couldn’t we have what they all had?

I’d watched all my friends and siblings conceive and start their families happily. Why couldn’t we have what they all had?

"Still, we didn’t completely lose hope. Shaun’s doctors explained that there were further tests that could be done to determine the cause of his azoospermia, and possibly even increase his sperm production.

"In March 2019, Shaun underwent a varicocele embolisation in an attempt to restrict blood flow to his testes and help him produce sperm. As testes need to be around two degrees cooler than body temperature for sperm production, the hope was that less blood flow to the area would lower the temperature. The procedure involved inserting a coil into his groin to restrict his veins, accessed via an artery in his neck.

"Despite being told the procedure only had a 30% chance of success, we pinned all our hopes on it. After a nervous three-month wait to discover if the embolisation had worked, we got the news we were dreading - it was unsuccessful. In the weeks following, seeing mums pushing their prams in town would make me feel numb. But as tough as it was, I never blamed Shaun or resented him, I just felt incredible sympathy. Hiding each visit to the clinic behind dentist's appointments, he couldn’t bring himself to tell his friends at work. I hated that he felt embarrassed and ashamed.

"Shaun decided to try one last procedure in August 2019, a Microscopic Testicular Sperm Extraction, or MicroTESE. The painful operation involved a urologist examining the inside of Shaun’s testicles under a microscope. Sadly, after two hours under the knife, still no sperm could be found. Even though I was upset, this time, I’d already anticipated the outcome. Shaun and I had discussed using donor sperm to conceive well before he went for the MicroTESE, and it looked like now, that was our only option aside from adoption.

"I offered to use donor eggs instead of my own, to make it more fair on Shaun. From conversations we’d had, I knew that his inability to pass on his genetics was a source of grief and I wanted him to feel as though we were in this together. But Shaun insisted that we should use my healthy eggs with the donor sperm, so that our children would still be genetically related to me.

"The first big step was to choose a suitable sperm donor. We wanted someone with similar traits to both of us, but decided not to find out many details about our potential donor. Beyond his physical features, we didn’t want to have any preconceived ideas about our future children’s personalities. After narrowing down our search to six people we chose a donor, and in December 2019, I underwent the egg retrieval process. Held up by COVID-19 lockdowns, I finally had two healthy embryos implanted into my uterus in May 2020. That July, we discovered the embryo transfer had been a success, I was pregnant. But even though we felt excited, it was too early to shout about my pregnancy from the rooftops.

We discovered the embryo transfer had been a success, I was pregnant. But even though we felt excited, it was too early to shout about my pregnancy from the rooftops.

"At my scan in August, we got to see our two healthy babies growing inside me for the first time. Finally being pregnant after all our heartbreak was surreal. In the meantime, Shaun read self-help books and listened to podcasts to help him better come to terms with his infertility. As my pregnancy progressed, Shaun finally decided to share our journey with those outside our immediate family. Discovering his work friends responded sympathetically, I was relieved, and sensed a weight had been lifted from him.

"As our due date crept up, Shaun worked with the charity Fertility Matters at Work, and started a social media support group called Knackered Knackers to share his experiences. Knowing how isolating an infertility diagnosis can be for men, Shaun didn’t want others like him to have nowhere to turn. Not only did his friends think it was a brilliant idea, but Shaun connected with other men with azoospermia, too.

"In February 2021, our twins Ray and Evelyn were born. After such a long journey, holding our two precious children was a priceless feeling. Immediately, Shaun had the most incredible bond with the babies. Now, the twins are three, and thriving. For us, genetics aren’t important. Shaun was meant to be their dad, and the twins were born to be his children and the bond he has with them makes biology irrelevant. When the twins are older, we’ll be honest about where they came from, and hopefully it will show them just how wanted and loved they are.

Comment from Shaun:

"When I was diagnosed as infertile, my whole world turned upside down. I questioned my identity as a man, and my position as a husband. Who was I if I couldn't provide sperm? I felt alone and went inward for a long time - not just weeks, but months. Over time I came to realise that of course I was still a man, and I found new depths of strength and resilience. I could not have navigated infertility without the sensitive, patient and compassionate support of my wife. I have now leveraged that painful experience and provide support to other men who are experiencing the same."

For support and more information about Shaun’s journey follow him on Instagram @knackered_knackers or visit his website The Male Fertility Coach.

For more advice on how to boost fertility, read our advice on the 10 most Googled questions about getting pregnant, plus what to eat to when you're trying to get pregnant.

Real life features writer