“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.
Infertility and impaired fecundity in the United States, 1982-2010: data from the National Survey of Family Growth.
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2 Incidence of early loss of pregnancy.
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