Infertility and the Church Today

blackall.infertility

“And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb” (Gen. 30:22)

Like many issues in the church today, the struggle of infertility is both inwardly devastating and invisible from the outside. As an infertile woman, I watched my whole life take a sharp turn, from hard work, success, and hope, to failure, depression and despair. Without warning or foreboding, I found myself in the darkest valley of my life, and I felt completely alone.

The non-denominational churches I attended were happy places; growing families, children running amok, smiling people living busy productive lives. I had been among them, until I found myself unable to transition to the next stage; unable to bear a child. This pain was intensified by multiple miscarriages, during the same time that the women in my small group were successfully conceiving and giving birth. I have many memories of being unable to hold back the tears during worship, as I looked out at the sea of babies and pregnant mothers, and escaped to the bathroom to cry.

Satan comes to steal, kill and destroy, and he is especially successful at planting lies when our hearts are made vulnerable by suffering. Our church friends did not know how to respond to our situation. Some suggested we needed to surrender more, others to stress less. I was asked to plan and attend baby showers by women who knew our story but apparently didn’t understand it. Mother’s day was celebrated without (in most cases) an acknowledgement of those who still long to be a mother, and I stopped going to church on that day. I went to work for a Christian company with a strong subculture of family. They joked about their fertility and large families. Their Bible studies highlighted verses on children being a reward of the Lord, without any nuanced comment on when that blessing doesn’t come. There were a few Christian friends who simply cared and try to share my feelings even if they couldn’t really understand. But mostly I found myself walking this valley alone, except for my husband, who of course felt it in a different way. “Why is God allowing this?” “Am I more sinful, less spiritual?” I felt shame, abandonment, despair. At one point I asked God to end my life because the pain was so unbearable. I felt that God didn’t hear my heartfelt prayer, and core doubts about His love and goodness were planted in my heart.

In time I got counseling, found others who shared my story, and adopted my beautiful children. I found healing, and in the loneliness of my life’s darkest valley I experienced God’s presence and intervention powerfully. I was broken apart and remade, and all of this fell within His purpose. I know now that when no one else could understand, He did, and these experiences have shaped me to fulfill God’s destiny for my life. But where was the church in my story? Infertility and miscarriage are common: the National Survey of Family Growth states that the prevalence of infertility is 7-30%, depending on age. The incidence of miscarriage in pregnancies up to 20 weeks is 8-20% I have met and ministered to many Christian women with infertility and pregnancy loss and no one has listed their church as a strong spiritual or emotional resource. In most cases their strongest supportive relationship has come to them randomly, and not through a church connection at all. In addition, infertility causes serious mental health issues; women with infertility have a much higher incidence of depression and anxiety The Scriptures spend a disproportionate amount of time on this women’s issue, perhaps because barrenness is so fundamentally destructive to a woman’s creative calling and sense of purpose. It causes deep spiritual struggle which may not resolve in a healthy way, causing a woman to despair of God’s love and good purpose and turn away in bitterness.

Greater ministry to women with infertility and pregnancy loss is needed in the church today. I recognize the challenge of this endeavor. Because of the inept response of many people on this sensitive issue, women with infertility stop talking about it. We look the same as everyone else, so it is hard to know who is struggling. American culture highly values privacy, and people are rightly reluctant to ask intrusive questions, though some are not reluctant enough! Pastors and ministry leaders need specialized training on this issue, alerting them to the prevalence of infertility and pregnancy loss, and the right way to approach it. Women who have walked this journey and feel comfortable should be asked to lead regular church sponsored support groups. The opportunity to meet other women in one’s church who struggle and to hear their stories is immensely healing, and those relationships should not be left to chance. Special speakers and seminars should be offered. Infertile women should be remembered on Mother’s day, and women in leadership must use sensitivity when inviting ladies to organize a baby shower or children’s event. A childless woman may seem like a perfect candidate to recruit for children’s Sunday school, but that ministry may cause her a lot of pain.

In the midst of our busy, happy lives, let us remember the hurting ones, the ones who feel forgotten. In each Biblical story of a barren couple, God intervened with mercy and showed that He did hear them, that He had always heard. As the body of Christ we should do the same.

References

Infertility and impaired fecundity in the United States, 1982-2010: data from the National Survey of Family Growth.

Chandra A, Copen CE, Stephen EH

Natl Health Stat Report. 2013 Aug;

2 Incidence of early loss of pregnancy.
Wilcox AJ, Weinberg CR, O’Connor JF, Baird DD, Schlatterer JP, Canfield RE, Armstrong EG, Nisula BC
N Engl J Med. 1988;319(4):189.

3 Prevalence of depressive and anxiety disorders in an assisted reproductive technique clinic.
Chen TH, Chang SP, Tsai CF, Juang KD

Hum Reprod. 2004;19(10):2313

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Crossroads II

crossroads
I title this post as a sequel to the first one published almost 2 years ago. Then our trip to China still loomed before us, full of uncertainty and expectation. I feel like we’ve done a 360 degree loop since then and want to catch the story up. I recorded in my China post how we returned from our trip more united than we’d ever been on a location in central China, impressed by the local workers there, and ready to commit a year of our lives to the ministry they were doing.

And then the small voice of longing, the persistent whisper that can be ignored but not silenced, began again in my heart. A daughter. I really wanted a daughter, and I didn’t want to go to China without one. I imagined the insensitive comments: “Couldn’t you have your own children?” The pity, and even the shame, exacerbated by a different cultural environment. I couldn’t fix my infertility, but I could face these things with a full heart, and a full family. I asked Bob if we could start another adoption first, and he agreed, though later regretted he didn’t ask me to choose one or the other. Last year was a year of chafing, waiting for a process we (shouldn’t have) expected to move quickly and instead filled with delays and false leads. Bob stuck in a job he didn’t like waiting for China. The timeline was stretching too long for him, and he made it clear at some point if we weren’t going to do this we were going to give it up and start a practice here in America. In The Wildness of God I told the story of Noel and how God spoke to me and brought her to us in March of this year. He brought her at the last possible moment, as I had told Bob if we didn’t hear anything by March 31st I would agree to move and settle somewhere in the U.S.

But here we are- hopeful to finalize her adoption this year, and China is still an option. I feel more surrendered about going overseas than ever before. I hold it with an open palm. Now almost 40, I have lost much of the romantic idealism, the thrill of adventure for adventure’s sake, that I had in my 20’s and early 30’s. I know this will be hard. Our children will face new risks and deprivations. Our marriage will face new tensions. It will cost a lot to move overseas; financially, emotionally, relationally. There are times I have asked myself if I still want to go. My daily vision is as myopic as ever- the fruitless daily quest for adequate sleep, my mind consumed with disaster prevention, conflict mediation, responsive parenting and the meeting of a thousand little needs every day. When we started the adoption I stopped studying Chinese as much. My tutor moved back to China. I had been skyping our contact there, but this also ceased when we got baby Noel. I feel disconnected- China feels a world away. I’m also guarding my emotions, because I recognize Bob’s right to say no to this. I honestly don’t want to go unless he does too, because I need for us both to be fully on board, fully committed. Our marriage is pretty egalitarian, but I feel compelled to let him take the lead this time. I need for him to, because then I will know his feelings are real. Sometimes I control too much with the strength of my enthusiasm.

During this time of limbo I’ve realized some important lessons. I don’t need to move overseas to realize my spiritual potential. Nothing has shaken or rebuilt me like my experience of infertility and pregnancy loss. I doubt that any cross cultural challenge can compare to that. I have so many opportunities here to help, minister, love, more than I have time or energy for. If we stayed in the U.S. God would use me, and those opportunities would continue. Openness, not location is what matters. I needed to really learn this, to let go of that deep seated belief that I would always be inadequate without a missionary experience.
Bob says he wants to move forward soon, and is contacting our agency here. He is doing seminary training which he hopes to use there. He is discussing timelines. He wants to commit to one year, with the option of staying much longer if the right opportunities open up.
I’m not getting excited yet. We will have to raise thousands of dollars in monthly support. Another test if this is what we’re meant to do. Guarded heart.
Yet hopeful. I just called the library and reserved those Mandarin cds again. We’ll see our contacts when they’re in the U.S. That long held dream of living and working for His kingdom in another culture hadn’t died, just gone dormant to survive life’s storms. Like waiting for the spring, we watch and see what will burst forth.