Struggling to cope: Where is the church in times of infertility?
by Lindsay Mack
Sarah’s laughter is not sitting well with me these days. I imagine sitting across from the Biblical character, Sarah, in the teashop and listening: “After all these years! Abraham and I are finally pregnant! Can you believe it?” She laughs and claps her hands.
I take a deep breath and hug her fiercely trying to tamper down the same old tornado of feelings: envy, surprise, sadness. I manage some small grunting laughter and a weak congratulatory speech but she (thankfully) doesn’t notice.
In my head I tell myself that my behavior is ridiculous. This is Sarah’s moment of joy and I am determined to share it with her. I make a valiant effort but an hour later, after Sarah and I have hugged and parted, I slip into my car and burst into confused tears. Because Sarah is pregnant and I’m not.
My partner and I have been trying to get pregnant for over five years. Underneath the wish for biological children, the blood draws, temperature readings and clinical interrogation about our sex life, there is a storm of emotions that is rarely talked about with others. In our case our inability to conceive squeezes into being these weird feelings of grief, sadness, shame, confusion and envy. The stress of the financial implications of fertility treatment can be paralyzing. We are ratted by the inaccessibility of the dream of parenthood and question our identity. It can be all together overwhelming.
The church strives to walk with people through the ups and downs of life. The Bible reminds us that we are called to cradle the emotionally and physically vulnerable members of our community. Blessed are those who care for those in need (Psalm 41:1). When someone is going through the grief of the death of a close friend or family member, caring people are often quick to call and check in or send a card. Rarely does someone bring a casserole to the house to support a couple coping with their inability to get or stay pregnant.
If my partner and I happen to share about our struggles to get pregnant, folks often steamroll through the anxiousness to hope: “It will happen!” They say optimistically. Or perhaps, “you’ll get pregnant! In God’s time. God has a plan.”
Every person struggling to conceive will probably react uniquely to these well-meaning pats on the arm. In my particular case–and I know others who share this sentiment–those words along with phrases like “just relax” or “stop trying and it will happen” can be more hurtful than helpful. There are moments when I long for Job’s friends who will simply sit next to me in silence in the ash heap for seven days and seven nights without much more than their presence that says, “I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
Supporting the person or couple in infertility treatment might be exactly what we need to do as congregations. Jesus reminds us in the Gospel of John, we are called to “love one another. Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another” (John 13:34). There are particular moments when support is keenly needed. Moments like Mother’s Day, often recognized in our congregations, can be bitter to the person struggling with infertility. In my case, not only do I miss my mother terribly on Mother’s Day but now it is also a hallmark reminder of my body’s inability to conceive a baby.
Tempting as it is to call in sick and curl up under a blanket, this is not always a viable option for me as a pastor. Several years ago, I shared a poem about motherhood and infertility with our church liturgist. She ended up including it in our Mother’s Day liturgy. After the worship, several people told me about their daughters’ or nieces’ struggles to conceive. Later, an elderly childless man at my church quietly handed me one of the carnations they were giving to the mothers. He and his wife knew of our struggles to get pregnant. “Por que se que quieres ser mama, Because I know you want to be a mother,” he gently told me. Although I was still carefully guarding my secret of infertility, that Mother’s Day, I found unexpected healing and solidarity in our congregation.
Learning to cope with the grief of miscarriage, or an inability to conceive a baby can be a tremendous task. But my faith compels me to journey towards the hope of something better. It is a journey of heartache that is easier to navigate surrounded by the love of God incarnate in caring community.
How can we support couples and individuals struggling with infertility?
• Don’t be afraid to support someone. Ask if you can bring that casserole over—perhaps on the day of a treatment or after a negative pregnancy test. And maybe bring some chocolate too.
• From the beginning, if you discover that someone is struggling to get pregnant, ask: “Do you want me to ask you about it?” Sometimes the answer is no, sometimes it is yes.
• Be specific: “Does it help to talk about your treatment?” “Could I offer to pray or light a candle for you on the days you have certain procedures?” and then send a text message when you’ve done it.
• Ask about other things that remind the person that s/he is a talented, interesting person already.
• Although anything to do with kids might be the last place a person struggling with infertility wants to be, don’t assume that just because someone isn’t a parent that s/he doesn’t have valuable insight to share about children’s ministry (or any ministry for that matter).
• Be sensitive around days like Mother’s and Father’s Day. Is there a way to include or honor folks who wish to be parents but aren’t?
• Stay close if someone miscarries.
• Is there a local support group, a particular Stephen’s Minister or counselor people can be referred to?
1. Has your understanding of God changed with the experience of significant life adversity such as a struggle to get or stay pregnant?
2. How has your understanding or experience of God changed when you have (or someone close to you has) experienced significant life adversity such as a struggle to get or stay pregnant?
3. In times that are saturated with messages of parenthood–like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day–how do you care for your spirit? How does your community or congregation care for women and men struggling with issues of fertility? If they don’t, how can you bring a heightened sensitivity of this issue to your church?
Lindsay Mack currently serves as a pastor and ELCA missionary in Mexico City, Mexico where she coordinates the local Young Adults in Global Mission Program with her husband, Omar.
Photos by Elizabeth McBride.