I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a while, and I was scared to do so. See, the thing is, I’m angry and grieving. And I don’t want my words to be driven by those emotions because I’m afraid of the way they will be perceived. I’m often afraid of what others will think when I discuss my infertility and especially when I try to talk about its connection to religion. But, I feel that it’s time to say the things that I’ve always been afraid to say. It’s time for real talk.
I often keep my emotions locked down on the subject of my infertility, only allowing the true weight of them to settle in when I’m alone and when I feel safe. Safe from well-meaning but hurtful words. Safe from people who misunderstand my grief or who refuse to acknowledge that my grief is real. I try to protect others from my pain. It took a long time for me to understand some people’s reactions to my infertility. Many are kind and honestly try to understand. Some break out the “miracle baby” stories. You know, those stories of a friend of a friend of a friend who tried to conceive for years, and then finds out she’s pregnant when she’s fifty years old. Or that couple who tried for so long, adopted, and then found out they were pregnant. These people think their stories are comforting. They’re not. Then, there are others who don’t want to hear; it makes them uncomfortable. Some, when revealing to me that they are pregnant,even become angry at me as if I am trying to diminish their joy. I’m not. In her book, Rocking the Life Unexpected, Jody Day writes,
Whether we realize it or not we humans, to a greater or lesser degree, feel each other’s emotions–the mirror neurons in our brain fire when we see someone experiencing an emotion so that we feel the same. And so when others trot out miracle baby stories to our face, what they are doing is using those stories as an unconscious shield to stop us feeling our pain so they can stop feeling what it triggers in them–their ungrieved losses.
Although this passage has helped me to begin coming to terms with what other people feel (I wish they would honestly try to do the same for all of us who are living with infertility), it hasn’t made it easier to come to terms with what I feel and believe.
I grew up in church. Every Sunday and Wednesday, we were there. I participated in bible drills, GAs, ACTEENS, sunday school, youth group, vacation bible school, and choir. It was part of who I was. I met my husband at church. And I continued to go to church and to believe all of the things I read and was taught for a long time.
When my husband and I first realized that it would be difficult to conceive, I did what I knew best. I prayed and believed in God, his goodness, and what the scriptures said. I clung to them. If I believed enough, then it would happen, right?
And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord. Luke 1:45
For the LORD God is our sun and our shield. He gives us grace and glory. The LORD will withhold no good thing from those who do what is right. Psalm 84:11
He gives the childless woman a family, making her a happy mother. Praise the LORD! Psalm 113:9
Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward. Psalm 127:3
And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God. Luke 1:36-37 (The Bible is full of “miracle baby” stories)
For over ten years, I tried fertility drugs, IUI, hormone therapy and endured invasive fertility testing and multiple surgeries. I called the clinic and reported every period and every missed cycle of ovulation. I waited every month for the pregnancy test to reveal that all of it had been worth it. And I was crushed every month when instead it revealed that I had failed (that’s what it felt like, anyway: a personal failure confirmed in the language of the doctors and in the church). All the while I prayed and believed. But, I also began to question myself and my worthiness. If children are blessings and rewards from God, what did I do wrong? If everything happens in “God’s timing,” how long would I have to wait? I heard so many platitudes in church, some who believed that God had told them I would have children (he never told me). Some would say things like, “God only gives you what you can handle,” or “that which doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.” I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, “Can’t you see I’m not handling it! And I’m clearly as strong as a person can be.” I was told to pray and believe for healing. I tried. I believed. It didn’t work.
After finally concluding all of the fertility treatments, I had to have a hysterectomy at the age of 33. Me, an educated and intelligent woman. A woman who has been happily married to her best friend for almost fifteen years. A woman who put herself through school and worked hard for every achievement. A woman who has taken care of her niece and nephew since she was 13. A woman who cheered at their games, helped with homework, nursed them when they both had chicken pox, who rocked them to sleep, taught them to ride bikes, made sure their science fair projects were completed, read to them, and loved them unconditionally. I was a woman who believed. It didn’t make sense. Why? Why me?
After the hysterectomy, I knew adoption wasn’t possible, so I began the journey of trying to accept being childless. I worked through my grief and anger, I joined a support group, and I began to feel better, stronger. Sure, I still had days and circumstances that would trigger my emotions, but I was dealing. I avoided baby showers when I needed to and tried to keep myself safe and happy. I did things that I always wanted to do. I began making new plans and trying to build new dreams. After trying to have a baby for over a decade, it was hard work. But, I felt as if I was making progress.
Recently, however, a young woman close to me found out that she’s pregnant. And it has brought up every violent emotion and every question I had tried to put behind me. She just turned eighteen. The father isn’t in the picture and is much older than her. I have no doubt she will love her baby, and I hope that they both have bright happy futures. But, she is not ready for a baby. She hasn’t even had a chance to live her life and figure out who she is or wants in life. And the people around me and her keep saying things that have made me confront once again my own beliefs. I hear Christian people say, “God isn’t surprised about this baby.” “This baby is blessing.” “God wants her to keep the baby.” And it goes on and on. If I’m entirely honest, I’m not angry at the people or her, and certainly not at the baby. I’m angry at God and at the church. And I wonder, why? Then, I feel guilty and don’t like myself much.
I understand the physical aspects of my infertility. And I understand the emotional aspects, the loss, the grief. The part I can’t understand and can’t deal with is my faith or the lack thereof. It was my infertility (among other great losses) that made me begin questioning my faith and the goodness of God. And that made me feel blasphemous and a tad crazy. Part of the problem, the way I see it, is with words. When the bible and the church and society refer to mothers as blessed and children as rewards and blessings, then the logical conclusion and insinuation is that the childless woman is cursed and punished. She begins wondering what she did wrong. When people say that things happen in God’s timing or (as many of my once-infertile, Christian friends often put it) if you keep believing and trusting, then the wait is worth it, these people are also implying to the childless woman( for whom things will not work out) that God has forgotten about her. Or that she isn’t worth it. And when people say of the teenage mother that God has a plan and God wanted this baby with this mother, then they are also saying that God did not want me to have a baby. Words hurt, my friends. Even those you don’t say. Especially when you say them to someone who feels that God has left them.
In the end, I don’t know the answers. I don’t know why so many children are born into homes and families where they are neglected, unwanted, or abused while so many couples capable of loving and raising children are denied the opportunity. I also don’t know what I believe anymore. I want to believe in God and that the world is a good place. But, I don’t have much evidence right now. The closest I have come to understanding what I believe (for now) can be found in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow:
“So, God just leaves? ” John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate. “Abandons us? You’re on your own, apes. Good luck!”
“No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.”
“Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,” Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. “Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your father knowing it.”
“But the sparrow still falls.” (401)