|The date stamp is totally wrong on these|
I’m a lucky lady. My husband and I have been married now for 8 wonderful years. It’s been a fantastic adventure – we’ve travelled all over the place, (most recently checking out the Bahamas and Hilton Head Island) quit our jobs and moved to basically the middle of nowhere following God’s call to work at a small Catholic college, endured deaths in the family, lost jobs and unemployment, and many other joys and sorrows. My hubby and I are a solid team – we sometimes think each other’s thoughts. After 8 years I can see that our marriage is firmly grounded, and I attribute that to the cross we’ve been given in our life together - infertility. In eight years, we have not been blessed with children.
Our infertility is generally not a topic of discussion; I’m not the type to share about it unless I know of someone who’s suffering with it as well. I have a few close friends and family members who know the more intricate details, but that is all. It’s such an intensely personal subject that I prefer to not talk about it for the most part. But I felt God asking me, telling me it was perhaps time to share a bit of my experience with a wider audience. These thoughts are a few things I’ve learned on the journey, which might help a reader or two struggling with sub-fertility or infertility themselves, or those who are watching a loved one struggle with it.
God doesn’t owe me kids.
God doesn’t owe anyone anything, in fact. A person doesn’t build up "credit" with God and then cash it in for what you want, like we do with our credit card points. But I mistakenly went through life thinking so about having kids. If I just live my life according to God’s law, he’ll give me exactly what I want, exactly when I want it. Even the Catechism states it, point blank:
A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift. The “supreme gift of marriage” is a human person. A child may not be considered a piece of property, an idea to which an alleged “right to a child” would lead.” CCC 2378
Children are a gift, not a right. And we don’t follow God because of what we’ll get out of it, we follow Him because of who he is within himself, and because he is our loving creator. Doing things in the way He set out for us contributes greatly to our own happiness and contentment, but it doesn’t by any stretch mean we get what we want exactly when we want it, even if what we want is good and holy. St. Frances de Sales in his book Introduction to the Devout Life says, “We must be patient not only under sickness, but further, we must bear the particular complaint which God sends us; take the place where He wills us to be amongst those with whom He surrounds us, and under the privations He appoints for us, and so on with all other trials.”
A person does not have to undergo every, single medical surgery or technique known to man in order to have children.
Some couples have the drive to do as much as they possibly can (and then some) to have a baby and God bless them, but many, like us, do not have that drive. Infertility is one of the top stressors in life and can lead to many hardships, including broken marriages. Only you and your spouse know your limits, and we reached ours early on. It is, however, important to be sure that you adopt the proper Christian outlook - viewing children as the “greatest good” of marriage (Gaudium et Spes, 50) and, as a priest friend of mine said, be willing to sacrifice to make [having a baby] a reality. But temper this willingness to sacrifice with prudence – know your limits. If treatments start getting in the way of your marriage, contributing undue physical or mental stress for either party or causing severe financial hardship (and even in Canada, many Church-approved treatments are not covered), it might be prudent to stop them. Do what you can within the Church’s guidelines, fix what you can fix, discern with your spouse, maintain a deep prayer life and connection with The Spirit, and after that, it’s up to God.
I’ll probably have to buy my own underwear when I’m old.
This one was a hard one for me to confront. I am from a family with many siblings, and so my assumption was always that when I’m old, my kids would take care of me. When I finally sat down to think about the very real possibility that I might end up in a home surrounded by strangers when I’m old, it upset and frightened me. Of course, after much prayer I realized that God takes care of me now, and will continue to do so – so while I don’t have to worry about it, it just goes to show you that infertility has far-reaching effects on a person’s life.
Mourning is warranted. It doesn’t mean I don’t trust God.
Infertility is a significant, ongoing and deeply rooted loss. It is not just a physical condition; it is also a psychological state, which couples don’t just “get over”. It needs to be mourned. Many women have admitted that they still experience thoughts and feelings related to infertility even many years after they’ve had children. Those thoughts and feelings are deep and lasting, and while the effect they have on a person changes over time, they never, ever fully go away. There’s a beautiful scene in the movie “Julie and Julia” where an older Julia Child receives a letter from her sister, obviously telling her that she’s having a baby, and while she is happy for her sister, Meryl Streep brilliantly portrays the reaction many an infertile woman has experienced – as she dissolves into tears upon reading her sister’s letter.
If you’re suffering with infertility, find out what’s hardest to handle and limit your exposure, if you can. Baby showers are particularly hard for me to attend, so I stopped going to them. I also pray for my married friends and family to have children – and then I am usually not surprised or blindsided when they announce their pregnancies. And even when a pregnancy is announced, I usually have my “moment” of sadness, privately, with my husband. This is all part of mourning for me. Mourning the loss of your fertility is honest and forthright, and no more means a distrust of God or that you lack the virtue of Hope than mourning the loss of your grandmother means you don’t hope she’s in heaven with God.
Infertility affects one in every eight couples – that’s a whopping statistic. Just because a couple doesn’t have children after a few years of marriage, doesn’t always mean they want it to be that way. I’ve had many the little old lady ask me disdainfully when we’re going to “decide” to start our family, tell me that I’m running out of time, or ask me if I’m “practicing up” when I’m with other people’s children. This, my friends, is unhelpful. Unhelpful and painful.
Unsolicited advice is also (usually) not helpful.
I used to take much of the unsolicited advice to heart – being bothered by and stressing about the diet restrictions suggested by strangers, or taking their advice to try to “just relax”. The suggestions ranged from common sense advice, like caffeine and alcohol shouldn’t be consumed in large quantities if a gal is looking to conceive (although there are plenty of drug addicts and alcoholics that have children), to the downright bizarre, like eat more “womb fruits” or drink elderberry tea. I’m not saying that these suggestions don’t ever work, maybe they have for your sister’s cousin’s niece, but many of the women who struggle with infertility don’t need your advice, they need your love and support – regardless of what they eat or drink or how they live their lives. If they want advice, they will ask for it. These days when this happens to me, I smile and say thank you, knowing they mean well.
“Spouses to whom God has not granted children can nevertheless have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms. Their marriage can radiate a fruitfulness of charity of hospitality, and of sacrifice.” CCC 1654
And finally, being ‘open to life’ can also mean being open to the life God wants for you.
I’ve taken a few different natural family planning classes, but consistently I hear the phrase “be open to life”. It’s usually said to encourage couples to generously accept new life by having an honest openness to God in regards to their fertility, instead of limiting their family size from the very beginning and viewing new life as burdensome, instead of the gift it is. My husband and I always thought we would have as many children as God wanted us to have, but I had no idea that might mean none. Zero is a number – and it’s the number that God has chosen for us at this moment. And while we wait (not-so) patiently, in expectation of His call to us, for us, being open to life means accepting and loving the life He has laid out for us. There are as many different callings as there are people in the world. The Church requires married couples, not just religious, to minister to people in every walk of life. Special callings to the missionary lifestyle or, in our case, a husband-and-wife Dean of Students at a Catholic Liberal Arts college sometimes require couples without children. I knew one couple when I was a kid, who dedicated their lives to teaching natural family planning, not just to other couples, but also to those who eventually became instructors (my parents were some of those instructors). Hundreds of couples have learned NFP and with it, the depth and beauty of the Church’s teaching, due to that couple’s faithfulness and diligence in following God’s Will for them.
“God in his providence has two ways of blessing marriages: one by giving them children; and the other, sometimes, because he loves them so much, by not giving them children. I don’t know which is the better blessing. In any event, let one accept his own.” ~Bl. Josemaria Escriva
Let each accept his own cross. If you are suffering with infertility, remember you are not alone. I found solace in a small group of friends who had similar experiences and a group of Catholic Bloggers who write about their infertility and treatments. Some have had children, some are still waiting, but reading about their experiences helped me through some harder times. We all have our crosses and I am certain that every one of us has felt the sting of having life turn in a difficult direction we hadn’t anticipated. Infertility is our cross. Some days I lovingly embrace it, and not so much others. But what keeps me sane is the underlying contentment in knowing that I am right where I am supposed to be…and cruising to the Bahamas helps quite a bit too.