One in six couples will experience infertility at some point in their marriage. Infertility is medically defined as the inability to conceive after 12 months of “unprotected” intercourse or 6 cycles using “fertility-focused” intercourse. A couple who has never conceived has “primary infertility” and a couple who has conceived in the past (regardless of the outcome) but is unable to again has “secondary infertility”. Many couples who experience infertility have also experienced miscarriage or pregnancy loss.
This week, April 19 – 25, 2015 is National Infertility Awareness Week.
We, a group of Catholic women who have experienced infertility, would like to take a moment to share with you what the experience of infertility is like, share ways that you can be of support to a family member or friend, and share resources that are helpful.
If you are experiencing infertility, please know you are not alone. You are loved and prayed for and there are resources to help you with the spiritual, emotional, and medical aspects of this journey.
The Experience of Infertility
In the beginning of trying to conceive a child, there is much hope and anticipation; for some, even a small fear of “what if we get pregnant right away?” There is planning of how to tell your husband and when you’d announce to the rest of the family. It is a joyful time that for most couples results in a positive pregnancy test within the first few months. However, for one in six couples, the months go by without a positive test and the fears and doubts begin to creep in. At the 6th month of trying using fertility-focused intercourse (using Natural Family Planning), the couple knows something is wrong and is considered “infertile” by doctors who understand the charting of a woman’s pattern of fertility. At the 9th month of trying, the month that, had they conceived that first month, a baby would have been arriving, is often the most painful of the early milestones. At the 12th month mark the couple “earns” the label from the mainstream medical community as “infertile”.
As the months go by, the hopes and dreams are replaced with fears, doubts, and the most invasive doctors’ appointments possible. As a Catholic couple faithful to the teachings of the Church, we are presented by secular doctors with options that are not options for us and are told things like “you’ll never have children” and “you have unexplained infertility”; by our Catholic doctors we are told to keep praying and to have hope as they roll up their sleeves and work hard to figure out the cause of our infertility, with each visit asking, “How are you and your husband doing with all of this?”
We find it hard to fit in. We have faith and values that are different than our secular culture, but our small families, whether childless (primary infertility) or with fewer children than we hoped for (secondary infertility), make us blend in with the norm. We have faith and values that are in line with the teachings of our Church, but our daily life looks so much different than the others who share those values and that makes us stand out in a way that we would rather not. We are Catholic husbands and wives living out our vocation fully. Our openness to life does not come in the form of children; it takes on the form of a quiet “no” or “not yet” or “maybe never” from God each month as we slowly trod along. Our openness to and respect for life courageously resists the temptations presented to us by the secular artificial reproductive technology industry.
Often times our friends and family do not know what to say to us, and so they choose to not say anything. Our infertility stands like a great big elephant in the room that separates us from others. Most of the time, we don’t want to talk about it, especially not in public or in group settings because it is painful and we will often shed tears. We realize it is difficult and ask that you realize this difficulty as well. We will do our best to be patient and to explain our situation to those who genuinely would like to know, but please respect our privacy and the boundaries we establish, as not only is infertility painful, it is also very personal.
One of the hardest experiences of infertility is that it is cyclical. Each month we get our hopes up as we try; we know what our due date would be as soon as we ovulate; we know how we would share the news with our husband and when and how we would tell our parents. We spend two weeks walking a fine line between hope and realism, between dreaming and despairing. When our next cycle begins – with cramps and bleeding and tears – we often only have a day or two before we must begin taking the medications that are meant to help us conceive. There is little to no time to mourn the dream that is once again not achievable; no time to truly allow ourselves to heal from one disappointment before we must begin hoping and trying again. We do not get to pick what days our hormones will plummet or how the medications we are often taking will affect us. We do not get to pick the day that would be “best” for us for our next cycle to start. We are at the mercy of hope, and while that hope keeps us going it is also what leaves us in tears when it is not realized.
Some will experience infertility with a complete lack of cycles. Some couples won't even get to experience the benefit of being able to really try to conceive because of this harsh reality, which is a constant reminder of brokenness for those experiencing it. The pain and anxiety that comes from a lack of reproductive health can be crippling.
And yet others, despite hormonal dysfunction and health issues, will experience the cyclical nature of infertility through conception itself (or recurring conception). These couples go on to lose their children (early, full term, or shortly after birth, and anywhere in between) either once or many times. If you know that we've experienced a loss (something we may or may not have the courage to share), know that we are grieving. It wasn't "just" a pregnancy or "just another" pregnancy that was lost; it was our living baby that died. And we are more likely to be traumatized by the cyclical nature of our infertility because of our losses. We do not get to choose that our cycles will mimic our losses. We are at the mercy of hope.
Our faith is tested. We ask God “why?”, we yell at Him; we draw closer to God and we push Him away. Mass brings us to tears more often than not and the season of Advent brings us to our knees. The chorus of “Happy Mother’s Day” that surrounds us at Mass every year will be almost more devastating than the blessing of mothers itself. We know that the Lord is trustworthy and that we can trust in Him; sometimes it is just a bigger task than we can achieve on our own.
* Pray for us. Truly, it is the best thing that anyone can do.
* Do not make assumptions about anything - not the size of a family or whether or not a couple knows what is morally acceptable to the Church. Most couples who experience infertility do so in silence and these assumptions only add to the pain. If you are genuinely interested, and not merely curious, begin a genuine friendship and discover the truth over time.
* Do not offer advice such as “just relax," “you should adopt," “try this medical option or that medical option” – or really give any advice. Infertility is a symptom of an underlying medical problem; a medical problem that often involves complicated and invasive treatment to cure.
* Do not assume that we will adopt. Adoption is a separate calling and should be discerned by every married couple irrespective of their ability to conceive biological children. Infertility does not automatically mean that a couple is meant to adopt.
* Do not assume that if we try to adopt that the process will be successful. Many adoption attempts fail and don't result in a couple receiving a child placement (temporarily or permanently). Some couples are flat out rejected from attempting to adopt by different agencies and governments. Just like adoption is an incredibly intrusive and emotionally charged issue that is part of a separate calling in the journey to "parenthood", it isn't always a possibility for infertile parents. Do not assume we can. And be gentle if we are trying. It's extra painful to be infertile and not be able to adopt. And we are likely so hurt that we can't bear to share the details with everyone.
* Ask how we are doing and be willing to hear and be present for the “real” answer. Often times we answer, “OK” because that’s the easy, “safe” answer. Let us know that you are willing to walk through this tough time with us. Frequently we just need someone who is willing to listen and give us a hug and let us know we are loved.
* Offer a Mass for us or give us a prayer card or medal to let us know you are praying for us. Just please refrain from telling us how we must pray this novena or ask for that saint’s intercession. Most likely we’ve prayed it and ask for the intercession daily. Please feel free to pray novenas and ask for intercession on our behalf.
* Be tolerant and patient. The medications we take can leave us at less than our best; we may not have the energy or ability to do much. Please also respect us when we say "no, thank you" to food or drinks. We may have restricted diets due to our medical conditions and/or medications.
* Share the good news of your pregnancy privately (preferably in an email or card or letter and not via text, IM chat, phone call or in person) and as soon as possible. Please understand that we are truly filled with joy for you; any sadness we feel is because we have been reminded of our own pain and we often feel horrible guilt over it as well. Please be patient and kind if we don’t respond immediately, attend your baby shower or don’t “Like” all of your Facebook updates about your children. Again, it is really about us, not you.
* Help steer group conversations away from pregnancy and parenting topics when we are around. We like to be able to interact in a conversation to which we can contribute meaningfully.
*Do not exclude us from your life because you think we may be uncomfortable. It is actually more painful to be left out because of the cross we're carrying, and we know that doesn't make a lot of sense to our families and friends. We will excuse ourselves from events or situations if we must, and please let us do so gracefully if the circumstance arises.
* Do not ask when we are going to “start a family” (we started one the day we got married).
* Do not ask which one of us is the “problem” – we are either fertile or infertile as a couple.
* Do grieve with us if you know that we've experienced a miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant death (or many). You may not know what to say to comfort us, and that's ok. Let us grieve at our own pace and on our own schedule without guilt or explanations, even if we have living children. Do not offer platitudes for why you think it happened, how you think it's part of God's plan for us to suffer, or any number of things you think might have been wrong with the child. It was our living baby that died. Let us grieve, pray for us, and if you can, let us know you care by being there for us in our grief. Let us know that you remember that our baby lived, no matter how short of a life.
* Do not say things like "I know you'll be parents some day," or "It will happen, I know it will!" Along the same lines, please do not tell us stories of a couple you know who struggled for years and went on to conceive or to "just adopt and then you'll get pregnant" (this one actually only happens a small percentage of the time). Only God knows what our future holds, please pray with us that we are able to graciously accept His will for our lives.
* Do not pity us. Yes, we have much sorrow. Yes, we struggle. But, we place our faith in God, lean on the grace of our marriage, and trust that someday, whether here on earth or in heaven, we will see and understand God’s plan.
Because this topic is so difficult for so many women and men, the best thing our friends and family can do (and indeed strangers we encounter who may be aware of our struggles) is pray for us. We are grateful for those who offer their prayers and support in a gentle way. Your support is invaluable to us.
Lastly, remember that compassion means "to suffer with". We didn't sign up for this to happen. We can't control whether we overcome this. And we're doing our best to navigate the murky waters and maintain our sanity and our faith and our relationships with our family and friends through it all. We truly need your support and love to accomplish that. Please, please suffer with us and be Christ to us. No other understanding of our cross will be more merciful or more loving than if you put yourself in a situation to sympathize or empathize with us. The pain of infertility is exacerbated by the fact that it draws us into ourselves. We need your help to remind us in the most difficult moments that we aren't alone, God didn't forget us, and that we have something precious to offer through the fruitfulness of our marriage even when it isn't manifesting in the children we so desperately want to hold. Together, we can offer up our shared suffering for Christ. It's a powerful witness to both of our faiths to travel this road together and we'll manage it better with your help than if we have to travel it all alone.
This post was made possible through the collaboration of 430 members of a "secret" facebook group of Catholic women and men struggling with the pains of infertility in all of its forms. Together we are stronger. And in having the conversation, we are breaking the silence. If you are Catholic and experiencing the pains of infertility and would like to join a "secret" facebook support group, please send me an email at tomato (at) tomatosvine (dot) com and provide me with your email address and we will happily add you to our discussion.