As a thirty-two-year old who has been married for almost four years and who also has no children, I can assure you that I am no stranger to questions and comments from family, friends, and acquaintances about my and my husband’s lack of offspring. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “So, when are you going to have kids?”; “If you don’t have a kid soon, you’re gonna be fifty by the time it graduates high school!”; “You know, you can’t put this off forever…”; and the list goes on and on. And while I find this line of questioning and commentary a bit intrusive, I don’t really think too much about it, and I don’t let it bother me because my lack of children up to this point is purely by choice. I know that if or when we decide to start a family, we should be able to without any problems. However, that is not the case for many twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings who have been married for a while but don’t yet have children. There are a lot of couples who want nothing more than to be parents and who are actively trying to have a child but cannot due to infertility, and where I find all of those questions and comments a little annoying, those same questions and comments can be really painful for women who are in the midst of trying to conceive or learning that they cannot carry a child.
Infertility is an issue that affects many couples, and there are several families in our church who have dealt with this and who are still dealing with this. In order to gain more insight on the issues associated with infertility and the way that we, as the church, should interact with those going through this painful process, I talked to four women who graciously agreed to share their stories, struggles, and victories with me. Lana Hamby, Jennifer Cougle, Ashley Taylor, and Betty Sue Wilson have all struggled through infertility, and their stories all begin very similarly, but have all ended very differently. Each of these women and their husbands began trying to conceive shortly after they were married, and each couple eventually realized that bringing a child into the world was not going to come easily for them. Most of them tried medical intervention, but that did not work in each case. For Lana and Jennifer, In Vitro Fertilization, even though it was a long and painful process for each of them, eventually resulted in pregnancy. Lana and her husband have one child thanks to IVF, and Jennifer and her husband have two. However, each one of them experienced tremendous loss along the way, as each had several viable eggs and embryos that did not result in a pregnancy. Ashley and her husband have tried for twelve years to conceive and have never been specifically told by a doctor that they cannot naturally have children. They have experienced one miscarriage but have recently become first-time parents through the adoption process. Betty Sue and her husband tried medical intervention as well as private adoption, but God closed both doors, and they eventually decided to just enjoy the marriage the Lord blessed them with instead of continuing to try to become parents. Their stories are filled with pain and joy and frustration and victory and loss and hope, and each one of them has walked through this struggle and come out of it on the other side, but this was not an easy process for any of them.
What I really wanted to focus on was how those around them, the church in particular, helped them or hurt them along this journey because as fellow believers and sisters in Christ, we should be lifting these women up and encouraging them as much as we can, but, unfortunately, even our best efforts to encourage can often result in hurt feelings and painful reminders of what these women want but cannot have. A common theme in all of their stories was the importance of the encouragement they received from a small close circle of friends while they were in the midst of their journeys. Each of these women confided in several close friends with whom they shared the more intimate details of treatments and plans and failures and losses, and each one of them said that this was a vital outlet for them. However, there wasn’t anywhere for these women to go and plug in to a group of women who were facing or had faced a similar struggle, so they really just had to decide on their own who would be best to tell or not and how much they wanted to share or not. As Lana mentioned, when a couple is struggling with infertility and using medical intervention, there’s a fine line in how much you do and don’t want to share. If you share about an upcoming procedure and then it fails, you have to relive that failure every time someone asks you how it went, but at the same time, you do want people praying for you, so it can be hard to know where to draw that line. Lana said that being able to leave prayer requests at the church, sometimes even anonymously, was really helpful for her and her husband as they went through IVF. God’s people can be a really good source of strength for couples struggling through infertility, if the couple feels comfortable enough to share their burden and journey.
Unfortunately, the church can also be a source of hurt and pain for couples trying to have children without much success, and this is usually completely unintentional. I think Ashley explained this best when she talked to me about her perception of people who are confronted with a friend or acquaintance who is dealing with a traumatic experience. She explained that we, as human beings, really just want to help. We want to say something nice or helpful or hopeful and walk away feeling like we’ve done something to ease the pain and suffering of that person that we care about, but that isn’t always received by the person who is hurting in the way that we mean for it to be. Ashley shared from personal experience that being told to “just wait on the Lord,” and that “it will happen when it’s supposed to” really didn’t make her and her husband feel any better as they struggled to have a child. She also talked a lot about their miscarriage and how many people came to her after with stories about women who had had many miscarriages but eventually had several children, and while this was coming from the best possible place in the minds of the people sharing these stories, it wasn’t what she needed or wanted to hear at that time. She needed to grieve, and she needed that to be ok. Similarly, several of the women talked about how their friends handled them with “kid gloves” when it came to baby showers and pregnancy announcements. Being left out of such events was also hard because it was just another reminder that everyone else had a baby but they didn’t. I know that may seem counterintuitive, but as Lana said, just because she couldn’t have a baby didn’t mean that she couldn’t be happy for others and celebrate new life with them. Jennifer said the worst part was that people always felt the need to say something, but what she really needed was just for people to “listen and love.” She explained, “Sometimes when you are in the thick of a hard time, you just need people to listen. I definitely learned to be a better listener during that time and understand [now] that just because someone wants me to listen, they do not want me to offer suggestions of fixing [their problem].”
Mother’s Day was and sometimes still is another hard part about infertility that each of these women faced and dealt with in different ways. Lana found joy in going to church on that day and immersing herself in her preschool Sunday school class and singing in the choir. Betty Sue said that going to church on Mother’s Day was always very hard for her because it was a reminder that she would never be a mother even though she wanted so badly to be one, but she went anyway, and she did the best she could to just smile and be happy for those who were moms. Jennifer and her husband always celebrated the fact that she was a mother to two very sweet dogs, and they made the day about doing a couples’ activity. She also says she stayed far away from social media on that day, especially, so that she wouldn’t have to put herself through the torture of looking at all of the pictures of mothers and their children. Ashley and her husband usually planned to be out of town on a vacation that weekend.
As you can see, the struggles with infertility and the way that women deal with them are as different as the women, themselves. There is no clear equation for how to help a woman or a couple dealing with infertility, and there is also no right or wrong way to act or react if you are a woman going through infertility. As people who likely interact, maybe even on a daily basis, with women who may be dealing with infertility, we really need to be more careful about what we say, even if we are saying it with the best of intentions. I know that I could take a lesson from Jennifer in many areas of my life and just listen instead of always having to offer an answer or a solution. If you aren’t sure why a young couple doesn’t have children, don’t ask them. In this situation, it’s better to let a woman approach you and share with you, and if she does, just let her share. Ask her what she needs or wants from you.
If you are a woman who is struggling through infertility, know that you are not alone. Any of these four women would be glad to hold your hand through this time and to offer advice, a shoulder, or just an ear. Find someone you can confide in and share with, and only share as much as you are comfortable sharing. It is ok to feel however you are feeling, and it is ok to voice that to your confidants and to the Lord. There’s no recipe or game plan for how to proceed through infertility, and you just have to do what the Lord leads you to do. Betty Sue left me with some wonderful parting words of wisdom, and it’s exactly what I want to leave all of you with: “God is sovereign, and I had to trust in His sovereignty. He knows what is best for our lives and is in complete control. We may not understand His ways, but His ways are best.”