I hate admitting that I am THAT guy. The guy who writes letters to the editor because something I read bothered me. But sometimes you read something and it just hits you the wrong way. You try and go about your normal business, but it just keeps bothering you. It eats at you and eats at you until you find yourself composing lengthy responses to the author in your head. Sometimes you can distill that frustration into a brief paragraph to let the editor know that maybe this piece didn’t come across the way it was intended.
And then there are things I read where a little paragraph response isn’t going to be sufficient. I ran across one of those things this last week.
I really wanted to like this article. The title alone had my mind going in a bunch of positive directions. “The Hidden Blessing of Infertility”— how could you go wrong? I have often said infertility is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but wouldn’t trade for anything. It has very truly been a vehicle for great blessing in my life— blessings that were hidden from me when we first got the diagnosis.
So I was excited that this piece appeared in a magazine like Christianity Today. Infertility can carry with it such shame and stigma, so I’m always encouraged when I see Christians acknowledging the difficulties it brings and lifting back the veil on that heartache. One of my favorite articles about infertility, one I often refer women to, was in Christianity Today years ago, so I know they are not shy about addressing this topic. I cried when I first read it during the hardest days of our infertility diagnosis and told my husband I wanted to tattoo the whole thing onto my body so I’d always have it with me. It was just the right balance of acknowledging the hard things and the blessings of this difficult struggle from a theological perspective.
But I found Karen Swallow Prior’s piece much harder to read or relate to. First of all, I want to say that I am genuinely happy that infertility hasn’t been a struggle for her. I get that she is not just an anonymous writer, she is an actual person and this is her real story and good for her. I would never want anyone to wrestle with the deep pain I (and many of my infertile sisters) have felt when dealing with dashed dreams of conventional motherhood. I also appreciated the reasoned approach she and her husband took when deciding what infertility treatments they felt ethically comfortable with. I think this is an important step that can get overlooked in the mad dash to create a child by whatever means necessary. We have felt that pressure sitting in the infertility doctor’s office and know it can be hard to opt out of proposed treatments when you’re being told they are your only hope at procreation. So kudos to Prior for explaining their decision making process in a thoughtful and relatable way.
It’s where she goes from there that I find troubling. It’s nice that she’s had opportunities open up for her outside of motherhood that she has found fulfilling. It’s great that she has not felt deep pain and loss over her infertility diagnosis. That is her story and I wouldn’t want her to pretend to have a different one. I’m just concerned that by presenting this story in a place like Christianity Today we are tacitly endorsing the idea that infertility not only CAN come without deep pain and a struggle, but SHOULD come without deep pain and a struggle. If we were only more like Prior— more satisfied and content, more engaged with other people who need us, more at peace, more deeply thrown into work— then we wouldn’t need to feel this pain. It’s great that this is her experience, but it feels incredibly invalidating to see that held up as though it is the way we ALL should experience infertility.
This just isn’t the experience of the women I know. And quite frankly, it isn’t the experience of the women the Bible.
When we got our diagnosis I turned to the Bible for comfort and all of the sudden it seemed like just a giant handbook on infertility struggles. Infertility is something the Bible addresses frequently, especially through the stories of the Old Testament. Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah (along with others) dealt with infertility and it was painful for them. They wrestled with their spouses and with God about why this was true for them. I remember reading through Proverbs during some of our hardest days and running across Proverbs 30: 15-16
The leech has two daughters.
‘Give! Give!’ they cry.
There are three things that are never satisfied,
four that never say, ‘Enough!’:
the grave, the barren womb,
land, which is never satisfied with water,
and fire, which never says, ‘Enough!’
It was validating to me to see that my feelings of dissatisfaction were understandable. It wasn’t a place I wanted to stay, but it was at least reassuring to know maybe God created me this way. Maybe he created the vast majority of barren women with that unsatisfied feeling. And I’m thankful for it.
That unsatisfied feeling kept us pursuing parenthood, which was God’s plan for our family. I remember dealing with great guilt about the grief I felt at our diagnosis. If God was enough for me, shouldn’t I be totally fulfilled outside of motherhood? But I remembered that Adam walked with God in the Garden of Eden, but still he was lonely enough that God created a helper for him. Even in that moment of perfection, the need God himself created in Adam needed to be filled by another human. I believe many barren women (or women in marriages that are barren) can relate to this feeling. We love God. We trust God. We are fully dependent on him. Yet our heart’s break because HE created a desire in us for motherhood and we don’t yet know how he’s going to fulfill it. That unsatisfied, discontent feeling exists for a reason and I believe for many of us, that reason is to propel us towards the great lengths we will need to go to create the family God designed us for.
Without the motivating pain of childlessness, would we have been willing to do the paperwork, fly across an ocean and spend every dime we had (and many we didn’t) to adopt our first child? Without the heartbreak of miscarriage and the lessons it taught, would we have jumped into foster parenting classes and accepted the placement of children with no promises they would be with us longterm? Without the disappointment of infertility, would we have truly understood the blessing of those pregnancies that happened at inconvenient times when we were long past the days of planning and hoping for them? While I firmly believe you need to deal with the pain of your infertility prior to creating a family (no child should come into a home as a bandaid), it is also true that great and unexpected healing has come through my children. The pain and struggle clarified our priorities and readied us for the hard work that was to come.
There ARE hidden blessings of infertility. Beautiful, unexpected, challenging, faith shaking, life altering blessings of infertility. Infertility draws you closer to the Lord as you find yourself crying out in desperation to The One who opens and closes the womb. It makes you question what you’ve always believed (for me, it was the idea that if I just followed the rules, God would bless me with a “normal” life). It opens you up to new ideas about what it means to be a mother or a family. It sensitizes you to the pain and loneliness around you. It is a tool God uses to refine you into the woman he desires for you to be. But outside of Prior’s article, I have just not known that to happen to many women without a great deal of pain and struggle.
Nobody who has wrestled with the pain of infertility would desire another woman go through that any more deeply than she must. I’m thankful Prior hasn’t felt the depth of that struggle and I certainly don’t think she needs to in order for her infertility story to be worth hearing. I just think a major publication needs to evaluate the implications of printing that kind of an infertility story when it may be the exception to the rule. I hate to imagine the women in the depths of pain who felt the message was to suck it up, or the friends of infertile women who passed this along as an “encouragement” that they don’t need to feel the things they are feeling, or the spouses who felt like if they were just doing a better job their partner wouldn’t be struggling so much.
The pain is real to those who feel it. The struggle is deep for those who pursue it to the depths. There is hope and beauty on the other side, but sometimes it takes a dark path to get there. I’m thankful for those hidden blessings, even if they came at a cost.