"I think I just need to relax," I told my ob/gyn after my annual examination. "We're putting in long hours with our youth group, I work full-time, and my husband just finished seminary." I had believed the myth that the cure for infertility is relaxing.
"How long have you been trying?" he asked.
"About 18 months." He rolled closer and spoke gently, "No. Perhaps it's time to 'stop relaxing.' We can try a few simple procedures; the pace is up to you."
I did not know then that I had already met the textbook definition of infertility: the inability to conceive or carry to term after one year of unprotected intercourse. (Some patients say it's also the chance to determine mood by a thermometer, hear every home remedy imaginable, and endure bankruptcy in injectable form.)
Since I cringed at the idea of joining the one in six Americans of childbearing age with fertility problems—people I considered "obsessed with getting pregnant"—I left his office and stayed away for another 18 months. "If God wants us to have kids," we told ourselves, "He'll make it happen."
When we returned to the doctor, we began a journey which would take us through three years of no conceptions followed by eight early pregnancy losses and then three failed adoptions in our quest for a child.
God's grace and some information drove us forward. First, we learned that infertility is usually a symptom that something is physically wrong. Perhaps there's a thyroid problem or an infection. In 95 percent of cases, doctors find a diagnosable medical problem. Second, we learned that for those entering medical treatment, about 65 percent go on to give birth; for those avoiding treatment, the number drops drastically. Medicine and faith do not have to be mutually exclusive.
So we started the process of Love Life by Calendar Rule (which brought about as much joy as a mopping floors). A few times we had to "get together," then rush to the doctor's office to learn whether our bodily fluids were "hostile" to each other. We turned into pincushions, stuck with daily injections either to help me conceive or keep a pregnancy going. And we fought with our insurer, who lumped our heartbreak in the same category with tummy tucks.
The emotional toll astonished us. "The depression and anxiety experienced by infertile women are equivalent to that in women suffering from a terminal illness," says Alice Domar, Ph.D., director of the Behavioral Medicine Program for Infertility at New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston. Why? We're not talking about a new living room set here. We're talking about a child—a child who might make daisy chains, throw her arms around us, even throw up on us. It's not that we were "stuck on genetics," as some accused. Proverbs 30 told us this drive, this longing, was normal. God included the "barren womb" in His description of four things which are never satisfied.
I always hesitate to tell our "sad story" because I don't like to engage in what I call the Suffering Olympics—going for the gold in competing over who's hurt the most. Many people have endured much worse. Yet during that decade (which ended—thank God!—in the miracle of a successful adoption) the Lord taught us these and a few other things that helped us:
Infertility involves a normal grief process. The loss is intangible, but it is real. First there's denial. One woman insisted, "I'm not infertile; I'm just having trouble getting pregnant!" Other responses include crying, bargaining, depression, anger, isolation, and resolution. Look at Hannah (1 Samuel 1); she exhibited almost all of these.
Unfortunately, infertility is a grief cycle within a grief cycle: the monthly cycle of hope and despair interrupts the greater grief process, often leaving couples wondering if they will ever stop hurting.
Spouses grieve differently. Because infertility occurs during the childbearing years, it's often the first major loss husbands and wives experience as a couple. It can be a shock to discover they grieve differently. Many researchers have concluded that gender-based differences significantly complicate the crisis. One sociologist observed that, in general, "Wives saw their husbands as callous and unaffected by infertility while husbands saw their wives as 'overreacting' and unable to put things in perspective. While wives felt their husbands were unwilling to talk about infertility, some husbands wondered what there was to talk about." In another study, half of the infertile women said their infertility was the hardest thing they had ever experienced; only fifteen percent of their husbands said the same thing.
Yet it's not always she who feels more pain; in some marriages, he does. And infertility is not a "woman's problem." Its causes are about evenly split between the genders.
One solution to the emotional disparity is for both partners or the one feeling more emotional pain to connect with a support group or find an Internet buddy. Some psychologists estimate that even happily married couples should expect only about 25 percent of their support to come from their spouses. The rest must come from family, church, friends and support groups.
Remember: children are a gift, not the gift. When people quote verses about children being blessings from God, it's easy to feel you're being punished. Of the thousands of infertility patients we have talked with, I've met only one person who told me she's never wondered whether God was punishing her (She was an atheist.) Children are among God's many blessings, but they are not the only blessing.
Read up and speak up. As believers, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. So we must manage them well. Christian ethics here require thought and investigation. Will the clinic show respect for your convictions? (Most will.) If you do high-tech treatments, will you limit the number of potential embryos to those you are willing to carry to term? Take responsibility for your treatment.
Let God strengthen you. This is most important. Keep asking yourself, "Do I believe God is good?" and "Will I trust Him?" Resist the temptation to cry out, "My stupid body!" knowing God made you fearfully and wonderfully in love, mysterious as His reasons may be. When Job hurt, he fell on his face and worshipped. Worship your Creator in your pain. He cherishes you.
This article first appeared in HomeLife.
For more information on infertility:
Drawing on Glahn’s decade-long struggle with infertility treatment and Cutrer’s medical expertise, these books explore the spiritual, marital, emotional, medical, and ethic issues surrounding infertility. The authors bring their unique male/female, doctor/patient, and clinical/theological combination of perspectives.