(Trigger warning: Infertility)
by Brenda Blackhawk
Lent is often equated with time for reflection on vocation, and March is also Women’s History Month. This year, my spouse and I are determined to get answers about our infertility. Lately, this has been lying heavy on my heart and mind, so I’ve been writing about my journey through a lens of motherhood as a vocation.
As I was writing, I began exploring stories in the Bible related to infertility and motherhood. It may seem a little strange that I haven’t turned to Scripture before now, but I’ll be honest, I’m not great at incorporating scripture into my daily life. Part of that comes from a niggling doubt I always have about the writers’ intentions. They write in a way informed by their context (time, culture, gender), that I often have a hard time finding my experience in the words on the page.
At first glance, I found the stories more problematic than helpful. I had to dig a little to find the root of what I think God wanted me to see. For the record, this is how my faith always confronts me. It makes me work for the answer. But what I find is more meaningful to me.
In exploring infertility in the Bible, I unexpectedly found some comfort. I concluded the previous article to affirm others experiencing infertility; we are not alone.
Scripture does indeed remind us that women have felt this struggle with all the accompanying emotions across time.
One thing that struck me right away in these stories is how the culture mostly valued women for their ability to bear children, especially sons. In Genesis 18, the writer says, “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” This line tells me that Sarah’s identity as a woman is deeply tied to her ability to bear children.
In Luke 1, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, says, “This is what the Lord has done for me when God looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Elizabeth felt shame at her inability to have children because her context demanded that she fulfill that purpose.
Today, women have more freedom over choices they make about their bodies and their lives. But the societal pressure to procreate is still there. The questions are almost always, “When are you going to have kids?” Having children is rewarded with tax breaks. Working-class couples (those of us living paycheck to paycheck) without children, like my spouse and I, are reminded of our inability to conceive each year when we struggle to find $2000 to pay extra taxes. It feels as though we are being punished.
In addition to the societal shame, the range of emotions felt by the “barren” women of the Bible is significant. Hannah felt such deep despair that Eli thought she was drunk while she prayed in the temple (1 Samuel 1). Before going to the temple, “Hannah wept and would not eat,” also devastated her husband. The anguish she feels comes through the words on the page with clarity.
In the case of Rachel, the emotion that resonated with me was her envy. Rachel was married to Jacob, as was her sister, Leah. Leah had many children with Jacob, but Rachel was unable to conceive. Rachel’s reaction is full of desperation: “When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister; and she said to Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I shall die!'” (Genesis 30).
Jealousy is a common emotion when experiencing infertility. It doesn’t feel good in your body, and it is constant work to deal with those feelings. It is also important to work on because the harm can extend to our most precious relationships. Envy is a short jump away from resentment and blame. It would be easy to let those emotions harm familial relationships (like Leah and Rachel), romantic relationships, and even our relationship with God.
As I read these stories, the final thing I noticed is that God is in control. That is a hard one for me to swallow. I am fiercely independent and believe that I shape my destiny. That isn’t to say I don’t regularly express gratitude or ignore God’s presence in my life. I don’t want to believe that fixing something is outside of my control.
Elizabeth was “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Hannah goes even further and promises to give her son to God, saying, “O Lord of hosts, if only you will … give your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a Nazarite until the day of his death” (1 Samuel 1). They could remain faithful to God though their prayers were not immediately answered.
Each of the women in these stories was given children by God. For millions of women in the U.S. alone, asking God will never bring them into the vocation of motherhood. And the Bible doesn’t tell us about all the other “barren” women of the time who never became a mother. That isn’t comforting.
What is comforting is knowing that God is there. God sees us. Sometimes our prayers are answered. Sometimes not. Either way, we are not the ones in control. That doesn’t mean that we don’t use the science of the time, something women in the Bible didn’t have. It doesn’t mean we can’t find other ways to love and influence the lives of precious children. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to find other ways to be happy. But it does mean we can let go a little bit because God sees us. And we are not alone.
Brenda Blackhawk (Ho-Chunk) has been the Congregational Organizer for Racial Justice at the Minneapolis Area Synod for the last three years. She grew up in North Minneapolis and was raised in both the Native American Church and an ELCA congregation, Salem Lutheran Church. Brenda believes that working for justice is an important part of living out the gospel and that direct action is organizing a powerful, community-centered way to go about it. Brenda loves books, food, and karaoke but hates pandemics. She lives in Brooklyn Park, Minn. with her spouse, Chris, and her two perfect dogs, Luna and Loki.