Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your home, your children like young olive plants around your table (Psalm 128:3).
Ben and I chose this as the Responsorial Psalm for our Nuptial Mass nearly ten years ago. We imagined a fruitful life in every way imaginable, especially when it came to our dream of having a large family. Neither of us grew up in a particularly large family. I only have one younger sibling, a brother, and Ben has two younger siblings. Both of our mothers are only children.
As we planned our wedding day, we discussed how lots of babies would fulfill our hopes of growing our home and expanding the family tree. Ben said, “At least four kids” when asked by Fr. Joe during our FOCUS questionnaire. I was resigned to the number God had planned for us, certain that it couldn’t be fewer than what Ben envisioned.
But, as every faithful Catholic knows, God’s plans are often not what we expect. Yes, they are always greater than our hopes and dreams, but they’re difficult to comprehend, let alone believe, when we are in the midst of such silent pain as infertility.
When people see photos of our family, they don’t realize that the two beautiful girls God has given us weren’t easily brought into being. In other words, after many bouts of appointments with our Creighton Fertility Care Practitioner and NaPRO doctor, I had to undergo several exams – pelvic ultrasounds, blood tests, new medications, more tests, wait several months, more tests and more self-administered shots. The roller-coaster of infertility was excruciating.
But all people see are our smiles. They don’t realize the many months I spent alone, sobbing, not knowing why it was so difficult for us to have children. The longing for more only lingers in my heart as we wait – again – to see what God has planned for us. It’s a struggle to share one’s journey of infertility, especially when one already has children, because the world doesn’t understand that pain. The message we hear is, “You already have two children. Isn’t that enough?”
Infertility is a type of grief over the child who never was. Ben and I mourned, at different times, over a phantom child – a yearning, a vision – rather than losing a child to miscarriage, stillbirth, or other reasons (all of which are equally painful to infertility). When a couple chooses to follow God’s plan for building a family, it is always a way of abdicating self-will in favor of God’s will. This means always remaining open to children, saying yes when God may say no or not yet.
Ben and I have come to see why the Church has such a beautiful vision of fertility and reproduction, because we live it every day. We’ve never used contraception of any kind, and we’ve never pursued artificial means of achieving a pregnancy. Because we’ve allowed God to lead, even and especially when we were ready for another baby and had to wait indefinitely, we grew to profoundly respect God’s designs in creating another human life.
With both of my pregnancies, I was keenly aware of God’s grand and special purpose for our girls. Though I carried them in my womb, I always knew they were God’s children first and foremost. And because I do not conceive children easily or immediately, I also grew in humility to defer to God’s perfect timing rather than my own.
We must realize that, despite the fact that the world either views children as a burden or a commodity, they are neither. They are gifts. Children are not a right of every couple, which is a hard fact to accept. This means we can’t force conception in ways that separate the unitive and procreative act of conjugal love between husband and wife.
Many infertile couples will never speak of their grief, because it’s so private and tough to articulate. We don’t offer this as a point of conversation, because we know it’s awkward and maybe too revealing. Yet infertility is a persistent, prevailing type of chronic grief that is always lingering somewhere in one’s mind and heart. The ache for a child – or more children – that is never fulfilled may be met with cries and pleas of desperation to God.
We tend to ask “why” rather than merely surrender our fertility to God, always with a willing and open heart, always saying, “Yes, Lord. I give you everything. I trust you.” Even if we never have biological children, God may be calling some of us to foster care or adoption. If neither of these happen, perhaps God is calling us to be fruitful in other ways – as spiritual mothers and fathers.
Those who struggle with infertility may experience it once, twice, three times, or more. Some may have one child or more children, or perhaps none at all. But the constant, nagging cross of infertility is knowing that one is barren in some way. When we can all accept that we are barren (figuratively or literally) and that this type of poverty is, in fact, a blessing, perhaps we will begin to view infertility differently. It will not alleviate the pain or compensate for the lack of pattering feet in our homes, but it will give us new hope and a different perspective.
I consider all of the natural talents and spiritual charisms God has given me – writing, speaking, teaching, encouraging, nurturing, and listening – and I realize that these are ways He has called me to be fruitful in the excruciating times of waiting and wondering if another baby will grace our home and family one day.
We are all called to be fruitful vines. It’s impossible to foresee the reasons why God may not bless our lives with children, but we can look to the ways He asks us to give of ourselves and our bodies in a mystical sense that will bear spiritual fruit in the hearts of those we encounter. Continue to say yes to God, and He will bring about immense good from that gift of trust.