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    Understanding the Pain of Infertility

    September 16, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    It is probably an understatement to say that, in a culture like ours where it is assumed that a person cannot understand something unless he has experienced it for himself, it is controversial for a mother who managed to have four babies in six years to write such a post. But the fact remains that I have had a thought or two on this subject jumbling around in my head for quite some time.

    Some of this has been connected to my own pain of losing a pregnancy, the twin of one of my children, and being unable to nurse. I considered these things as “tastes” of the real pain, which is the pain of not being able to bring forth fruit at all.

    Infertility has become so widespread that any mention of Mother’s Day has become controversial within the church. Instead of recognizing the mothers present, our congregations are compelled to acknowledge the sensitivity of infertile women on such a day. This pain is real, and it smarts on Mother’s Day.

    Its isn’t just women that are effected by this though, as men can also have fertility issues. There are doctors that specialise in Advanced Urology that focus on diagnosing and treating this issue effectively if it becomes a problem that is preventing conception.

    I remember sitting through a Mother’s Day sermon once, and the pastor was going through what must be one of the standard passages for those men who choose to preach about family life on Mother’s Day:

    Blessed is everyone who fears the LORD, who walks in his ways!
    You shall eat the fruit of the labor of your hands;
    you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you.
    Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house;
    your children will be like olive shoots around your table.
    Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD.

    The LORD bless you from Zion!
    May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life!
    May you see your children’s children!
    Peace be upon Israel!

    Psalm 128

    And another is like it:

    Unless the LORD builds the house,
    those who build it labor in vain.
    Unless the LORD watches over the city,
    the watchman stays awake in vain.
    It is in vain that you rise up early
    and go late to rest,
    eating the bread of anxious toil;
    for he gives to his beloved sleep.

    Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,
    the fruit of the womb a reward.
    Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
    are the children of one’s youth.
    Blessed is the man
    who fills his quiver with them!
    He shall not be put to shame
    when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.

    Psalm 127

    The particular pastor I was listening to on the particular Mother’s Day of which I was speaking took the sociological route {something I’ve heard more than once} to help his congregation understand the significance of children to an agrarian, tribal culture. He explained what sort of blessing children, especially sons, were to these people, how they were an economic benefit to their families.

    It’s not that anything he said was wrong, but I did leave the sermon thinking that he missed the point. After all, the passage is quite objective. The children of a righteous man are defined as a reward. They don’t magically become such at the age of eight when they can finally be of substantial assistance to their father in the fields; they are blessings from the moment of conception. A table surrounded by the bobbing heads of toddlers is a joy and reward to a righteous man, regardless of whether they are of any financial benefit.

    I don’t mean this to be a criticism of the pastor, for I believe he was trying his best to get across the blessing of children in a culture where children are seen as the complete opposite, as an imposition and inconvenience. This is the culture which, as standard procedure, takes unnatural and extrordinary means to avoid having babies.

    It is this culture, with its inappropriate view of children, that brings such pain to infertile women. Think about it. A culture that doesn’t value children thinks that the infertile woman should count her sterile womb as some sort of blessing. I have experienced a tiny taste of this myself, when we saw visible sighs of relief upon hearing that we were unable to have more children.

    Our culture subtly sees the infertile woman as blessed, which is the complete opposite of what Scripture says.

    The tragic result of this is that a barren woman in our culture has no comfort and few comforters.

    Why in the world, our culture says, is there cause to cry about the fact that you’ll never get morning sickness, you’ll never have pregnancy weight, you’ll never stay up with sick toddlers, you’ll never go on a boring field trip, and you’ll never face a rebellious teenager?

    What our culture overlooks is that bearing fruit is the most natural thing in the world, as much for a woman as for a tree. It is what we were designed to do, and everything about us screams this truth in our ears when it doesn’t go right. Think about the creation of woman:

    So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.

    And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

    Genesis 1:27-28

    God created mankind and exhorted them to be fruitful. In a perfect world, this would have happened without incident. The presence of sin made things complicated, but it didn’t change what a married woman was intended to be:

    The man called his wife’s name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.

    Genesis 3:20

    Her very name identified her as a fruitful being.

    But here we are. The world isn’t perfect, and some women never become mothers, or have a really hard time becoming mothers. And this is painful. It’s painful because it isn’t natural {thank you, Mr. Kern, for affirming this thought to me}.

    I remember how I struggled with bitternness when I was unable to nurse my babies well. Measuring powder and water into a bottle and shaking them up was like a slap in the face every single time. This was the most unnatural way in the world to feed my infant, and I knew it, and so I struggled. Everytime I nursed the baby, I dreaded having to give a supplement afterwards. I tried to be grateful that I wasn’t born in some other age, when a mother’s insufficient milk supply would mean the death of the child, but the truth was that, for a very long time, I couldn’t get over the fact that my body wouldn’t do what it was obviously designed to do.

    This example of nursing problems can lead into the idea that women who require fertility treatments in order to conceive {even though they can conceive and bear a child and are mothers}, experience their own type of pain. It is not natural to require extensive tests and treatments in order to have children. And needing these things adds a dynamic to the marital relationship that can bring tension.

    Until we understand this fact, that infertility in its many forms is against the design of the woman, we won’t have the proper compassion. Instead, we will say something truly stupid, such as reminding her how many thousands of dirty diapers she’ll never have to change.

    So what is compassion? What is the alternative to empty platitudes? The answer is probably prayer. We all encounter the pains of a fallen world; sin weighs heavy upon the whole world, and infertility is not unique, nor is it modern:

    Elkanah her husband would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”

    I Samuel 1:8

    Hannah’s heart contained bitterness, Scripture tells us, and she begged the LORD to look upon her misery. I find it interesting that Scripture never condemns her for this. And because it doesn’t, we need to rethink any temptation to tell an infertile woman to get over it. Get over what? Her very nature? This is not an easy obstacle to overcome.

    This does not mean that a woman cannot find comfort in Christ. She can. It does not mean that she can not learn contentment. She can. But far be it from the rest of us to sound the clanging gong of Job’s comforters. Rather, may we mourn with those who mourn, and pray for joy in the morning.

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    10 Comments

  • Reply Mystie September 20, 2009 at 5:02 am

    Brandy,

    Yes, and part of the reason the myth remains is because few share what is actually commonplace: our families are not what we would have planned.

    Yes, it’s good to distinguish between having a taste of pain and understanding what someone else is going through. When we lost our son at 16 weeks, and I held his little body in my hand after going through a delivery, I got so irritated at people who said they knew what I went through because they lost a baby at 8 weeks. On the one hand, a loss is a real loss and I don’t want to downplay that. On the other, it was very different having a blighted ovum miscarriage at 10 weeks the next time around.

    And it was those losses that also brought us around to seeing that we don’t have control and to deciding birth control should not be the default position. People usually think in terms of when should we stop using birth control, but we decided to switch it around and we have to have a good reason to use birth control (we researched and prayed and are not Quiverfull, also). And then God emphasized again to us that we aren’t in control by withholding pregnancy for a time.

    And socially how babies are seen is shifting, especially in very liberal areas. Eastern Washington is quite conservative, but in Seattle there are more dogs than children. I would assume it’s probably similar in the big cities of Cali.

  • Reply Brandy September 20, 2009 at 4:13 am

    Mystie,

    Yes, I think we agree on this! In general, I think I am learning that anytime we introduce technology into a situation–whatever the situation might be–we are changing the dynamic of the thing. And we can’t always predict all of the details the new dynamic will effect. We think of the technology of birth control as being personal and private, but whenever a technology is adopted by the majoriy of a culture, it becomes a cultural characteristic and begins to have these extensive, unforseen ramifications.

    In terms of introducing the concept of “family planning” where children are “choices” which we make, this gave those of us born into the dynamic an illusion of control. I remember the horror when I was losing my daughter’s twin. For a number of hours, it was believed that I had lost the entire pregnancy. It was my second miscarriage in six months. I remember thinking that perhaps I’d never have another child, and it was a shock to me because of the ease with which we conceived our firstborn. It that moment, I new that “control” was an illusion. In fact, that was what eventually led to our rejection of birth control for our family (unless medically necessary…we are not Quiverfull). We were comfortable letting go of control because we realized we couldn’t predict what the future would hold for us.

    I think the can of worms concerning the relationships between older women and younger women in the church is definitely part of it. Most grandmas out there are part of the industrial economy. They don’t have the time available to live life alongside young women, and the culture suffers for it.

    Oh! One last thought: I liked what you said about assuming appearances are meaningful. I think the illusion of control coincides with this. Because we assume control, we assume that everyone’s family is exactly the way they planned it. I know very few families who would actually say that is true, but the myth remains.

  • Reply Brandy September 20, 2009 at 3:59 am

    Ellen,

    I see your point. And you are right, whatever message the culture sends doesn’t really matter, in the sense that it cannot change the nature of a woman. I suppose I wrote that portion (and I tinkered with that sentence a few times because I couldn’t get it quite right) as a response to the recent push from the climate change/global warming folks to eliminate new people. Or, at the very least, new poor people.

    The green religion is making a push right now to turn the bearing of children upside down, and instead of it being a moral good, they want it to be seen as a moral evil, a threat to the planet and a cause of climate change. I was trying to capture a taste of that, but without giving details I see how it rang empty.

    By the way, I do not consider myself to be infertile, nor to really understand what that feels like. I think it important that I say this. I think that I’d be minimzing the pain to say that I get it on that level. I think I have had tastes of such pain, but that is different than truly experiencing it. Though my own fertility has had its bumps and come to a premature end, the Lord has blessed me.

    I think my own situation has been on my mind lately because my baby will be walking any day now, and so I’m enjoying the very end of my baby days. But I would feel the end like this, to some extent, whether I had four children or eight. Change is never easy, regardless of how naturally it comes about.

  • Reply Mystie September 19, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Another problem is we assume appearances are meaningful.

    We spaced our first three 2 years apart purposefully, then lost two, but our “third” child is still spaced less than 3 years. Then after getting pregnant immediately whenever we wanted to 5 times, we decided not to use birth control, and I went 13 months wondering if 3 was all we were going to have. I had a longer time between pregnancies when we weren’t using birth control than when we did. And yet they’ll still be only a little more than 2 years apart, so it all looks planned. And the spacing is between 2-3 years with most of my friends, those who did plan it that way and those who had hoped for 18 month spacing but got 3 years and those who never used any birth control. And I have friends who have 18 month spacing without birth control, and some planned, and some while on birth control. And I know families that chose to stop at three and 2 who never used bc, had 3 18-24 months apart, and then no more. And then we, who were quite fertile before, had to wait and pray, and now I’m pregnant at the same time as my friend who had to have treatments to become pregnant for her first two and now is unexpectedly, naturally pregnant (she calls it her “organic baby”). And I know families who wouldn’t appear to be infertile because they’ve adopted. And there are couples who deliberately waited and said so, then couldn’t, while everyone assumed they were still deliberately waiting.

    You simply can’t know someone’s situation at all by looking at appearances, but it’s taken me years to see and realize that.

  • Reply Mystie September 19, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    I think you’re right, Brandy. Plus, I’ve noticed women are very reluctant to mention they are “trying.” I often wonder what level should be normal for sharing, and what is too intimate. Birth control is the norm, chosen infertility is the norm, and the ability to choose fertility or infertility is assumed, especially by those who don’t have experience to know otherwise. And then we don’t share one another’s lives closely enough, so your average young couple fall into the cultural assumptions. I think it falls under the Titus 2 older/younger women thing; we need women to share lives with so we gain that knowledge that helps us grow in wisdom. I experienced that when I lost my baby and had a miscarriage. Suddenly so many women came up to me to share their miscarriage stories, but before I experienced it, I had no idea it was so common or that any of those women had experienced similar things. I think women who have gained wisdom from experience really need to share it with those who are clueless so we counteract our culture’s assumptions.

    Part of that birth control assumption is also the common advice to newlywed couples it to wait a few years to have children. Couples are expected to put off children, and then have them when they’re ready. So then, after the conventional few years, the ones who advised on waiting now feel obligated to give the follow-up advice, “So, um, your newlywed time is up now. You really should start your family sometime soon.”

    I also see that people — even in the church — are quick to proclaim their chosen infertility, whether it’s the waiting or the spacing or the “We’re done!” variety, and no one shares “We are hoping for a baby” and the common questions are “How many are you going to have?” (especially after 2 or 3), veiled or outright “Was this baby planned?” and all spacing is assumed to be a deliberate choice.

    It’s only now through my own experience and the experiences of good friends that I know past fertility doesn’t guarantee future fertility, past infertility doesn’t guarantee future infertility, pregnancies don’t guarantee living babies, and we really have very little control over whether or not or when we have babies, and we need to stop thinking we do — even if we’re on birth control. Shouldn’t this all be common wisdom shared among women?!

  • Reply Brandy September 18, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    Just thinking about this some more:

    In regard to the lack of tact that infertile women suffer, might this be related to the prevalent use of birth control in our culture? The use presupposes fertility, first of all. But more than this, it assumes that we have a level of control which we may or may not have in reality. Because it is understood that of course couples use birth control because everybody does, then we start asking questions of each other: When are you going to have a family? That sort of thing. The assumption is that you don’t have one because you chose it, and you could have one if you made a different choice.

    I was thinking about this because I noticed in some books set in the 19th century that if people didn’t have children, it was assumed that they couldn’t because birth control didn’t really exist. So everyone instinctively knew to be careful with the woman who wasn’t a mother.

    Birth control perhaps introduced a different dynamic in terms of the assumptions we make about one another?

  • Reply Ellen September 17, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    As an infertile woman, I know the pain of longing and knowing that my body doesn’t work the way it should. I have two babies now, but I am still carry an infertile label. I can’t have children without significant medical intervention, and though the children that I have ease the pain of that considerably, I’m still aware of it.

    But I’m not sure that I agree that the larger culture doesn’t give comfort because it doesn’t value children. I think that our culture tells us not to value them, but we still do, even if we make statements to the contrary. There’s lots of complaining about the headaches of childrearing, but all married couples are still expected to have some children, and married couples who choose not to have children are still considered selfish in America in all socioeconomic groups. There’s a disconnect there between some of our words and our actions is my point.

    I’ll be praying for you as you deal with the fact that you can’t have any more children. The hardest infertility pain that I faced was wondering if I’d ever be a mother. I personally think its easier to handle infertility after you have a couple of children (siblings of some kind), but it doesn’t still mean that you aren’t hurting when it isn’t possible to have others when this is a desire of your heart. Who knows? I may know about this myself if we decide to have a third and can’t…

  • Reply Brandy September 17, 2009 at 11:43 pm

    Gina, I know, and as I was writing this, I committed to praying for you more faithfully. I am a still so happy that the Lord blessed you with a daughter in such an unexpected way.

    Kristie, Your commented reminded me of some old sins of mine. I made assumptions about two different women earlier in my own motherhood, when I had less sense and compassion, and both times I was completely and utterly wrong about them, and the truth was that these women were infertile, and struggling with it privately in their own hearts. It isn’t that I ever offended either one of them (I don’t think that I did), but I still feel guilty that I made these assumptions because it’s what I didn’t say–the compassion I didn’t extend–that I regret.

    I do think that sometimes people just don’t get it. I know there was a time when I didn’t. In fact, that was one of the reasons why I wrote it; it was a sort of preaching to myself, a reminder to remember what I’ve learned.

    You are right: questions about having children can be so painful when wrongly asked. I think I’ve learned that they are best left unasked when it comes to people that I don’t really know very well. My own curiosity is not justification for asking a question.

  • Reply Kristie September 17, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    This pain, and the sad fact that too many women suffer from it, is the reason why I get very upset when I hear people pressuring a woman to have children. (e.g. “When are you having kids?” There’s never a good time, so you better not wait too long…” etc.) It is insensitive, invasive and presumptuous; and in the case of a woman who suffers from a form of infertility, it is devastating. I sometimes wonder if people are unaware of all the potential mishaps, or if they just don’t seem to get it….

    All that to say: Yes, let’s mourn with those who mourn.

  • Reply Gina September 17, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    I understand the pain firsthand and I agree heartily with your conclusion. Thanks, Brandy!

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