When the 17-minute documentary, The Pause: A Brief Contemplation of Scott’s Infertility starts, we are in medea res, as it were. Our hero, arts agent Scott Burkholder (who is also the co-producer of the film along with filmmaker Richard Yeagley), is sitting in his Fells Point living room with his wife, Jenn Burkholder, and they’re getting some bad news from the doctor. The surgery to salvage Scott’s viable sperm was unsuccessful. They can try again—another surgery (it would be Scott’s third) but the odds are almost entirely against them. They won’t be able to have biological children.
We watch Scott’s face in this moment as he registers this terrible news: comprehension, shock, grief. An optimist by nature, he was really hoping this time would work. Now, he must take “The Pause” of the film’s title and contemplate his future—and his legacy.
I sat down with Scott to discuss the film, which was accepted into The New Yorker’s short documentary series and can now be viewed on its website.
This subject is so personal. What made you decide to do a documentary on your own infertility?
I work in the arts and I recognize that art is powerful because it exposes people to perspectives that they’re not familiar with. I knew there was an important story to be told about male infertility... Initially I wasn’t anticipating that I would be the subject. But ultimately documentary work is successful because of access. And because Richard [Yeagley] and I had a relationship, we knew the access would be a lot easier. Also, early on, I felt an important piece was that I felt really isolated in this experience. And I wasn’t seeing this story represented anywhere, which is why we said, hey this is a story that needs to be told. If it was on me to share the story, ultimately, I was willing to do that.
It’s true. We don’t hear as much about male infertility. It’s usually seen from the woman’s perspective.
I’ll admit when we began our journey toward a family and realized it wasn’t happening, the natural inclination was to say, Hey, Jenn, you need to go see a specialist. And that was probably my own misogyny and a societal misogyny and the way that our patriarchy operates. But I also say media oftentimes do point to the female as the bearer of the burden and the individual that, more often than not, is going through infertility. As I’ve been in the midst of it, I’ve realized that’s definitely not true. It takes two to tango. You can’t make a baby without the functioning male parts, as well. Initially, in our story, Jenn definitely went to the doctor before I did and the doctors are smart people and very promptly said, your husband should be checked out, too.
The film starts with you receiving some bad news. Would the film still have existed if you had gotten good news?
When we started filming, we also didn’t know quite what the narrative was going to be. We didn’t know the result of that surgery. I was still in a place where biological children were a possibility. So we didn’t know if the film would be my journey to biological children or not. After the surgery, we continued to film and, we recognized that much of the narrative we had to share was my own contemplation of infertility. And coming to terms with my own ability to produce biological children.
Jenn pivots immediately. She wants to adopt. You weren’t ready for that conversation yet.
That’s very much the crux of the tension in our relationship. Prior to that surgery, she had already done research into adoption and foster care and we had sat down with a friend who was a foster parent to talk about it. She set that up. At that time, I was not ready for that. I was like, I’m not interested in this. I was just not there yet. Richard captures that in the Christmas scene where we’re decorating the tree and we sit down and have a conversation and I ask her, “What do you want [for Christmas]?” And she says “Well, you know what I want.” And I did. I knew exactly what she wanted. But I wasn’t there. And that’s part of what you see unfold as the film goes on.
For you, there was kind of a double mourning that went on: The loss of your own biological child and a loss of sense of self, right?
Grieving requires an exploration of what you did lose. One of the things that I did, I wrote an obituary for this child that I never had. Along with that, I read A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. And C.S. Lewis talks about losing his wife. You realize there are very few people in your life who actually know you. Who know all of you—your quirks included. And in that knowledge, they’re able to tell you stuff about yourself that you don’t even know. I think a child is like that. At the time, I didn’t know that’s what I’d lost, but as I pondered it and thought through it, I [realized] I’ll never have the experience of seeing someone else play with my genes, someone who has my genetics and experiences life slightly differently and potentially makes different choices but still has a part of me in them. That’s a significant loss. I had to let go of that and move beyond that.
Was sperm donation ever considered?
It’s hard for me because Jenn will inevitably have a very different relationship to that child than I ever could because her genetic makeup would be a part of it. There will be an intimacy that I just cannot experience. That physically is not there, which is part of why we’ve opted to go down the path of adoption.
So you are going to adopt? Even by the end of the film, you weren’t quite ready for that.
We’re looking to do foster care with the intention of adoption...The state mandates that you go through educational classes on becoming what they refer to as resource parents—most of us would refer to them as foster parents. We took the classes through the state/city in October-November of 2019.The next step is what’s called a home study. It’s complicated because we started a significant renovation of our house that was supposed to be a four month project and instead became a 16 month project. [After that,] the intent is to go through the home study and welcome a child into our home.
You’ve had a few virtual screenings, with the desire to do more. And now, of course, The New Yorker exposure. What has it been like talking about this experience?
This whole experience has been therapeutic. These questions force me to confront my thinking and to put to words that emotion. Very personal questions get asked. Whether I like it or not, I’m the face of this. My desire is to allow other couples, particularly men, to not feel as isolated as I did going through this...As I’ve gone through this, I’ve learned a lot about myself and just that value of being vulnerable. I want other people to realize that, just because you can’t biologically produce your own children it doesn’t make you any less of a man or a human. You still have a lot to offer society. Your legacy is not tied to the genetics of a child that you might raise. I need to say that, I need to put that out there. For myself, and I hope for other people.