I was in the thick of planning three baby showers for close friends of mine when I broke down. I fell to my knees in an empty sanctuary following a marriage workshop, and sobbed. It occurred to me that I’d never given consideration to the potential hardship of a couple’s fertility journey. I never thought we might struggle to conceive.
Today, nearly twelve years later, I can say that every aspect of a couple’s fertility is a cross – infertility, miscarriage, pregnancy and childbirth, and parenthood. Each carries its unique spiritual fingerprint of grief. Each, too, shares a commonality – that couples who are willing to open themselves in welcoming a child or children must also realize they are opening themselves up to God’s direction for their family.
Sometimes this is God’s “yes” in sync with ours. Often, it means “not yet” or even “no” altogether. Sometimes this yes includes losing a child to miscarriage, stillbirth, or other serious prenatal conditions. The suffering can also extend to raising a child with a rare disease (as in the case of our family), mental illness, learning disabilities.
The Cross of Infertility
It pained me to accept that children were not a given in my marriage, that God could very well be telling Ben and me that we weren’t called to biological parenthood. Though I was raised to understand the blessing and gift of babies, I was not exposed to the darker reality that babies do not simply happen when we want to welcome them into our lives.
The grief of infertility is not limited to the physical pain of progesterone and HCG injections, but mostly to the psychological and emotional rollercoaster of hoping that “this month we’ll conceive” which becomes another crushing blow of “not this time.”
The loss is strange, because you are grieving over a child you will never have, yet the gaping emptiness cannot be denied. It remains a cross for a couple whose longing for children remains unfulfilled.
The Cross of Miscarriage
Another hard truth is that being open to God’s gift of children means we are also, even subconsciously, open to the loss of them. Life and death are equal possibilities.
A friend of mine who suffered recurrent miscarriages said to me, “I feel as if my womb is a tomb.” Early miscarriage, when unknown, may feel distant and vague to a woman, because she never had the chance to see her baby’s face or touch his/her little hands and feet.
The bond between mother and child is fierce and can happen very early in the pregnancy. This is why the grief of miscarriage can seem so mysterious, both to the women who experience them, and to others who don’t quite understand that a child is a child, and losing that child hurts, regardless of gestational age.
The Cross of Pregnancy
God designed women’s bodies to hold and carry another human life. For most of us, pregnancy is uncomfortable, at best, excruciating at worst. We have given ourselves completely – reminiscent of Jesus saying, “This is my Body, given up for you” – yet the daily aches and even serious conditions of pregnancy become onerous.
Spiritually speaking, pregnancy means “creating space for another.” Women who carry their babies in their wombs are witnesses of generosity. In another sense, pregnancy is a mystical form of crucifixion, in that we must die to ourselves in order to give new life to someone else.
The Cross of Motherhood
People smile at baby showers and say, “We’re just praying you’ll have a happy, healthy baby.” But what happens when you don’t? The same well-wishers don’t know what to say, how to act. After my daughter Sarah’s birth, I couldn’t look at cards or gift bags for baby showers that had the “ten little fingers, ten little toes” theme on them. The reason was that Sarah’s fingers and toes were fused at birth.
The outpouring of oneself does not end with pregnancy. It begins at that point but becomes transitional at childbirth (e.g., heightened pain and struggle), then intense with a newborn. Chronic sleep deprivation may contribute to a mother’s experience of postpartum depression, while she’s expected to care for her new baby with smiles and surrender.
In motherhood, we take on a new identity, or rather, a deepened identity. When we give God our fertility and whatever that journey may entail, we are saying with our bodies that we are willing to undergo droughts of infertility. We are willing to undergo death and grief and loss. We are willing to experience physical and emotional pain. We are willing to give up our time, our freedom, our sleep.
We do not always know what our yes to God means in life and in death. But we learn. God is gentle with us as our bodies and minds sift through the ups and downs of navigating the complexities of the shape of motherhood for every woman. We must learn to also be merciful to ourselves and transfer that tenderness to others.