“The English language lacks the words ‘to mourn an absence.’ For the loss of a parent, grandparent, spouse, child or friend we have all manner of words and phrases, some helpful, some not. Still, we are conditioned to say something, even if it is only ‘I am sorry for your loss.’ But for an absence, for someone who was never there at all, we are wordless to capture that particular emptiness. For those who deeply want children and are denied them, those missing babies hover like silent, ephemeral shadows over their lives. Who can describe the feel of a tiny hand that is never held?” – Laura Bush
Last week was National Infertility Awareness Week. For a couple struggling with infertility, every week is infertility awareness week. Still, bringing understanding of this brutal cross that many couples silently carry for years is an important endeavor. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, infertility is a cross I am all to familiar with. Though I would hesitate to describe myself as “infertile” (I prefer the term sub-fertile, since we have conceived), I am certainly not “normal”. We conceived with no problem the first cycle we were married. However, we lost that baby and it took us more than a year to conceive again, that pregnancy resulting in our beautiful daughter who was 2 in December. We have now spent a year actively trying to conceive in order to give our daughter a sibling. I have Poly-Cystic Ovary Syndrome. It takes “fertility focused intercourse”, medications, post-ovulation injections, ultrasounds, and blood draws in order for me to even have a chance of conceiving. It is humiliating, emotionally exhausting, financially draining, and spiritually brutal. It’s also all too common.
Infertility, which is defined as inability to conceive after 12 cycles of trying (if not charting), and 6 cycles if charting NFP and “using days of fertility”, affects a full 10% of couples of child-bearing age. In about 30% of cases the cause is issues with the woman, 30% issues with the man, and 30% issues with both the husband and wife. Secondary infertility is also a very real cross that many families experience. Secondary infertility is when a couple has one (or more) children and experiences the above definition of infertility in attempting to grow their family. A couple can experience both primary and secondary infertility, as well as experiencing only one or the other.
Of course, for Catholic couples experiencing infertility, there are many unique blessings and challenges. One of the blessings is the teaching of the Church on the sanctity and transmission of life. While it can also be challenging to know that many options are off the table, so to speak, when it comes to infertility treatment, we found those parameters refreshing and comforting, as we did not have to wrestle on our own with weighty decisions about which ART (artificial reproductive technologies) we would be comfortable with and why or why not. Because of the understanding of the sanctity of the marriage act that we have, we could never be comfortable introducing a third party into that exchange, or in removing the creation of life from the martial act. We are grateful to the Church for this wisdom.
One of the challenges is that for those couples who take their faith and the call to be open to life seriously, there is deep pain. There is the pain of your own barren womb, the reminders of pain that come in the many pregnancy, birth, and baptism announcements. There is joy over new life in the world, of course, but that new life is always a reminder of your own barrenness. Accompanying that pain is the realization that most of the other devout Catholics you meet will assume you are contracepting because you have been married X number of years and have zero, one, or two children. You will be keenly aware of this when people ask you the following:
“When are you going to have babies?” or “When’s the next one coming?”
“Have you heard of Humane Vitae?” or “Do you know you need to have serious reasons to use NFP?”
Sometimes they don’t say a word, but the glance at my 2 year old and then quick check of my still flat belly say more than any words could. No, I am not like you, but not for the reasons you think.
Yes, the road of being Catholic and infertile is one filled with sorrow and which often stretches your faith and hope to the breaking point. But there is hope, and there is so much support available, scarce as it may seem.
For anyone reading who is walking down this long and painful road, or loves someone who is, please consider checking into some of the resources listed below. Some are medical, some spiritual and emotional. This is an all-encompassing journey, and we need all-encompassing support.
All You Who Hope (an infertility and adoption blog)
Fertility Care Centers of America (Creighton Model NFP and NaPro technology)
Pope Paul VI Institute For the Study of Human Reproduction (center of Dr. Thomas Hilgers, founder of NaPro technology)
My Sisters, The Saints: A Spiritual Memoir by Colleen Carroll Campbell (not an IF book specifically, but the story of her infertility journey is amazing)
One final thing, for anyone reading who is walking this road; you are not alone. You, and every couple carrying this cross, are in my prayers every night. You are in the hands of God, and He will not abandon you.
If you are reading this and love someone carrying the cross of infertility, know that advice may not be wanted, but prayers are. The best thing you can say to someone who is carrying this cross is, “I love you. God loves you. I am sorry. I am praying for you.”