“Hannah had no children . . . and she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed to the Lord and wept in anguish.” I Samuel 1:2b, 10
When we were little girls, cherished dreams captivated our imaginations. What did your “Dream List” look like? Was there a swirly-lettered, purple gel penned space that read, “Experience trials and become a better person because of them”? It wasn’t on my list either. “Become a mom,” was close to the top.
I don’t like pain. I like to be comfy-cozy. I like to be useful. Lord, it’s not as if becoming a mother is a completely selfish ambition . . . I want to serve You and my family as a mother! If you have prayed that prayer and experienced empty arms, then you understand the pain of infertility.
“Infertility is the failure of a couple to conceive a pregnancy after trying to do so for at least one full year. In primary infertility, pregnancy has never occurred. In secondary infertility, one or both members of the couple have previously conceived, but are unable to conceive again after a full year of trying” (Medical Dictionary). According to Mayo Clinic, infertility effects 10-15% of couples in the USA (Mayo Clinic).
For those of you who suffer the pain of not being able to have children, do you know that God’s plan is good – but right now it just doesn’t seem like it is good, for you? Over the years I’ve periodically wondered if God really understands what we women go through. The Bible says Jesus was in all points tempted like us (Hebrews 4:15-16) . . . BUT, He never went through all this woman-stuff! How can He possibly understand the pain of cramps, miscarriage, child-birth, or infertility?
God designed and created women – every minute and amazing detail . . . from chocolate cravings (what did women do before chocolate was invented?) to motherly instincts (Psalm 139). He knows everything we think (with the brains He made for us to use), and He knows everything we feel (with the emotions that were His idea). There can be no question about caring . . . Jesus died a painful death to rescue all women everywhere who will come to Him. He knows. He understands.
Is your heart weary with the pain of infertility? Do your arms ache with the seemingly never ending struggle? You are not alone! No mere person can fully understand, love, and help you . . . but God can. (Single sisters, who would love to have children – we haven’t forgotten you.) If you have sons or daughters, do you know someone in your church, at work, or in your neighborhood who is unable to bear children? You will learn specific ways to minister to women from our four contributors below.
Dear Sisters … thank you for allowing us to walk in your precious shoes.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4
Sometimes infertility is expected because of illness or injury received. In most cases, like ours, it is something you think will never happen to you. I had already “had” to wait for marriage longer than I planned. Now I “had” to wait to have children! After a number of doctor visits, we were told it was very unlikely that my husband would be able to father children. Now my heart hurt for my husband as well as for us. He felt so badly not to be able to provide for one of my greatest dreams.
The Lord has used this, as He does with all things, for our good. He has been gracious to help me give my expectations to Him, and exchange them for His way, even though it is unknown and unsettling. I struggle with how I think people perceive us because we don’t have children. They think there’s something wrong with us. Or that we do not love each other enough. Or even that we do not know how to have sex right. I know for sure that some people view our childlessness as a hindrance to my husband’s pastoral ministry.
I need people to understand that there is nothing “wrong” with us, just because our family looks different than theirs. I hope they understand that just as God puts them through things we will never face, this is something God has designed for us to go through.
Some people think it’s not that big a deal. I assure you that it is a big deal. It is one of the most difficult things I have had to face. And regardless of how “well” I handle it, it will never go away. Mother’s Day is especially difficult for me, but not for reasons you might think. I can be okay with not being a mother on Mother’s Day, because I believe Mother’s Day is a day to honor your own mother, not mothers in general. That is how it began. But well-meaning people make it more difficult for me than it has to be. Those who know me best, know that it does not help me to be given a Mother’s Day gift, even though I’m not a mother, or to be told that “I have a mother’s heart” or “You will make a good mother.” I KNOW I have a mother’s heart. I know I would be a good mother. But, I am NOT a mother. And being reminded of these things does not help me make it through another Mother’s Day. Our church recognizes all ladies if we do a special gift, and my husband doesn’t usually preach a beat-them-up Mother’s Day message. Many people have told him they really appreciate this.
Please get to know infertile couples on a personal basis. Don’t be afraid to open the door for them to talk about the Lord’s working in their infertility. Don’t isolate them from yourself because you have children and they don’t. You still have things in common with each other to build friendships on. And, yes, your childless pastor and his wife can still minister to you, even on parenting issues.
Some things NOT to say: “It will happen for you. One day you’ll have a house full of children.” You don’t know that. And I need to work at being content right now, and right now I don’t have children.
Also, “I understand exactly how you feel.” Even if you are infertile or childless yourself, your situation is not exactly like mine, and you can’t know what I am struggling with in my situation. We each will struggle at different times, with different triggers, and with different aspects of the pain of infertility. I hate it that the first question people usually ask is, “Do you have any children?” When I meet people, I try to ask, “Tell me about yourself” or something like that. If they don’t mention children, then I don’t pursue the topic of children.
People also need to understand that because the pain of infertility will never truly go away, there will be some times when we are “okay with it” and some times we are not. And often we have no idea which it is going to be. There have been times when I have gone to a baby shower and been perfectly fine. There have been other times when I did not go because I knew I would not handle it well.
And then there are times when it’s like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde! One day I was reading in my devotions Psalm 113:9 “He maketh the barren woman to keep house, and to be a joyful mother of children.” I was very encouraged by that verse in thinking about fostering/adopting. Then, later that week, a friend of mine who had been married for only about 8 months posted this same verse with her pregnancy announcement! My first thought was, “You know nothing about being barren, girlie!” (Not very gracious, I know, but I am human!) Every time a friend announces she is pregnant, there is a pang–sometimes sharper and longer than at other times. This is why I say that the pain of infertility/childlessness does not ever truly go away.
Speaking specifically to women who are infertile – you must let it go. Your infertility/childlessness will always be brought up before you–by others and by your own mind. If you hold it for just a moment, and turn it over to God, you will grow stronger. But the longer you hold on to it, the more debilitating it becomes, and the more paralyzed and ineffective you will be for God.
Also, look beyond your infertility. That does not have to define you. You are a child of God, with all the blessings and privileges God gives to each of His children. We are in the process of becoming foster parents, with the intention of adopting. There are many children already alive who need a good home. You may be able to have a ministry that others cannot have BECAUSE of your infertility.
“… My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness …”
II Corinthians 12:9a
As I started teaching Sunday school classes and 5-day clubs in my teen and early adult years, I remember loving the story of Hannah (I Samuel 1-2). The more I studied her, the more I realized the amazing faith she had to trust God . . . and how God honored her heart’s desire above and beyond what she could have hoped.
However, it wasn’t until I was in my late 30’s, just newly married, that I realized also the great agony she felt in not being able to have a child. How greater still her distress must have been to have a rival oppress and ridicule her over and over with this!
For those who understand the sadness and pain of infertility, you know what heartache feels like. For me, I thought since God had me wait to be married, He would surely bless my husband and me with a child within our first year. However, that did not happen. I didn’t understand, but I didn’t worry too much about it. Some other people I’d known had had to wait a year or so to have children.
After that first year, we thought we should see if there was something medically wrong with one of us, so we went through the regular tests. We were hopeful. When all the tests came back normal, I was put on fertility pills. We prayed fervently and believed God would use this to help us. And each time it failed was harder than the last.
I began to lose faith. Yes, sometimes I questioned God. I wondered what I had done wrong, and why God was punishing me. Then I would feel guilty for thinking that way. Yet, no matter how I tried, I couldn’t shake those ideas away. I agonized in prayer to God, asking Him to forgive me and help me not lose faith. I shared this with my husband at times, but I knew he was struggling, too. So, I would find quiet places to cry and pray.
One time I was so sure that the medicine had worked, for my time of the month was late. I grew increasingly excited each day it did not come, planning how I would tell my husband and share the news with our family.
I didn’t tell my husband, but I took a pregnancy test. When it came back negative, I wept uncontrollably. I felt like a lesser type of woman and again despised by God! When my husband came home, I couldn’t conceal it. He was very understanding, gently holding, comforting, and praying for us.
When the infertility pills did not work, we were scheduled to see a specialist about injections. However, the more we prayed about it, we felt this was not the course we should take. We prayed God would show us what to do.
At one of my lowest points, I called a close college friend. She cried and prayed with me. She even sent a beautiful card that I still have on my nightstand today. This helped immensely. To make a long story short, it was through her that we began the adoption process. We had already prayed about it, but we were not compelled to take a step of faith.
Although there have been ups and downs and steps of learning about faith with adoption, too – now two years later God has blessed us with a baby boy. We were privileged to bring him home when he was two days old. In one month the adoption will be finalized, and this long, at times agonizing process, will be completed. We named him Caleb because it means, “Faithfulness.” And we have truly seen God’s faithfulness in this entire situation.
I want to encourage those of you who face infertility issues . . .
- Know that God cares for you. And although our feelings may try to persuade us otherwise, all God does is good, not evil (Romans 8:28).
- Don’t be afraid to tell God how you really feel. He knows anyway! Sharing with Him helps us release those feelings.
- Pray for His perspective to be shown to you. Search the Scriptures. Let Him be your guide (reading the Psalms is a great place to start).
- Find a strong, faithful Christian friend with whom you can share your innermost feelings and thoughts. She (or he – your husband) can be the one to lift up your weary hands and hearts (Romans 12:15; Galatians 6:1).
I know your pain is real and the pain you feel can seem overwhelming. There are still times when I wish to hold a baby in my tummy, feeling him or her move and kick. Yet, God has not chosen that for me. And maybe He has not chosen that for you. Let God help you through this. Let God’s strength enfold you in this weakness. His strength is perfect for all we need. Trust Him.
“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” James 4:8a
Ever since I was ten or eleven years old, I have had abdominal pains. The doctors, at the time, did not see anything wrong and told my mother it would all go away. When I was fourteen my mother took me to see a gynecologist. They said that I had cysts on my ovaries.
In 1993, I married my husband with plans to have children in a couple of years. In 1998, my husband and I sought our doctor’s help to find out why we had not gotten pregnant. One visit ended with the doctor telling me that I would not get pregnant without medical help. After running numerous tests, I was the problem. How I struggled with that, as my whole life I have loved children and could not wait to have my own.
The doctor gave us some options. We tried one with no success and decided that was not what we wanted to do. I remember going out walking while visiting my sister’s house and having my period come early after the procedure. It was devastating to have the procedure not work and being away from my husband. I put a lot of faith in that it would work.
The following year I went to see another doctor. He found out that I had endometriosis and more cysts: an answer that we could wrap our minds around. There was something blocking us from having children. He gave us three options – hysterectomy, birth control pills, or laparoscopy. We chose laparoscopy to relieve the pain. At this time we were not thinking this would help us have a child. We were planning on moving half way across the country for my husband to go to school. Our focus had changed so that he could go after something he had wanted for years.
In 2002, after moving to Michigan nine months earlier, I saw a specialist at the University of Michigan. The doctors wanted to get me pregnant and then deal with the endometriosis. We were to start the tests that we had gone through in 1998 again, this time with top of the nation’s knowledge and resources. I was excited to get started, my husband was not so excited as I was in so much pain each month.
The time that we were to start, my younger sister got married and I was not at home when I needed to be. I remember at that time, sitting and crying out to God why we could not have children. Within three weeks I was calling the doctor to get in, as I was experiencing pain I had never experienced. I was told to get a pregnancy test, even though I fought with the nurse to see the doctor. The sweet woman gave in and told me to get the test done first and then she would schedule the appointment with the doctor. I did not need to see the doctor as I was pregnant with my first daughter after four years of knowing that I could not have children.
The pain alone, of not having children, was enough without the “encouragement” of some of my family. I was told “God has a plan,” “God will give you a child some day, it is just not the right time” and others. Family would shy away from my chances to reach out for support. I knew in my head it was true, but try telling my heart that I will have to accept not having a child. I got to where I could not go over to my in-laws, because I was reminded of how I wanted children, but my sister-in-law who was pregnant did not want them. It was such a struggle to allow myself to accept what God had given us without being reminded of it. It was also a struggle that helped my husband to eventually stand up for me.
When my sister got pregnant, she was nervous to tell me. My mom stepped in and told her to tell me. I will always rejoice that she told me. She knew how it hurt for me not to get pregnant, but she loved me enough to tell me. I was happy for her.
Many months passed with tears and aches that I could not describe. Mother’s Day was not a day I wanted to be sitting in church. God gave us a pastor and his wife that also struggle with that same issue. God put our pastor in our church for a reason. I had to listen to it for three years before I was able to take it to heart. That same pastor was able to rejoice with us as we brought three girls into this world. I also had a great friend that God gave me to lean on and be leaned on. She too struggles with infertility and could understand each month the disappointment of the empty womb. I eventually found a book that helped me: When Empty Arms Become a Heavy Burden by Sandra Glahn and William Cutrer. While writing this, I think back on what we went through and how God’s plan was in place the whole time. If I had gotten pregnant in 1997, we would not have been able to have my husband go on for further school or be where we are today. He was in charge back then and in 2002 when I got pregnant for the first time. It is something I can look back on, but when I was going through it, it was not an easy task. I found that my husband and I had many prayers going up to God on our behalf. What a wonderful feeling that our families were quietly supporting us during a hard time and then loudly proclaiming their joy to answered prayer. I never want to be used as an example for people to use on their infertile relatives – “See! She got pregnant! So will you!” Whenever I am asked, I tell the pain and struggles that I endured so that I could be that someone to encourage others with their struggles. I understand the pain of not being able to have children.
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11
“And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” II Corinthians 12:9-10
It was the only thing I had ever wanted. It was the only role I ever really dreamed about starting back when I was a very little girl. Of course everyone is different – some dream of fame and fortune. Some dream of their wedding day. I dreamed about being called, “Mama.” Isn’t it humbling how God, in His sovereignty and infinite knowledge of us … and the way He’s promised to work in our lives to conform us more and more to the image of His Son, will do whatever He has to do to best get our attention …
We had been married a few years. We were “ready” in all the ways from the outside looking in to begin to add little people to our family and heritage. So we began hoping that someday soon we would join the ranks of those complaining about not sleeping, like, ever. Month after month it didn’t happen. Finally we got to the place where we had to acknowledge that something wasn’t right which was confirmed very soon with a trip to the doctor’s office.
“You will very likely never conceive a child without some form of fertility assistance. I can refer you to a fertility specialist to review your options.” It was an instant heartbreaking blow that I had never even considered and I was in the shortest of moments on the path to what would become years of tears in secret and discouragement and watching what seemed like everyone around me living out my dream.
When ministering to a sister in Christ who struggles with infertility, as with any life-changing and painful event, there is really no one-size-fits-all approach. For me, I had to struggle ALONE through the initial stages. I didn’t tell anyone – not even my best friend or my mom. It was too fresh and too raw. Eventually (after six months or so) I got to where I could talk about it and we started telling those closest to us. Now, nearly a decade later, everyone knows. We talk openly about it basically with ease. That doesn’t mean I’m past moments of tears and frustration but I am to the point where my pain is more predictable so I can deal with it more publicly and with a little more grace than I used to know how to do.
There will be events in an infertile woman’s life that will force her to start essentially from scratch in her process of grief and often she won’t see it coming. For me, I find no problem being happy for many who can have a baby, even when I’m sad for me with the reminder that it’s still not and likely never will happen for me. But the blow that brought me to my knees all over again was when a very close woman in my life announced her pregnancy and I could not see how God would allow her, with her choices and lifestyle, to become pregnant. My life spun out of control in the time it took to listen to someone tell me the news in a simple sentence on the phone. The news came out of nowhere and was debilitating. I was actually far more affected by the news of her pregnancy than I’d ever been with the news of my own un-pregnancy over and over and over.
Try to remember that infertility is one of the issues that can take decades to actually resolve, which is unique in some ways to other sources of emotional pain. If a woman finds out she is infertile early in her 20’s (as I did) she will likely hope, once a month, that it’s finally her turn until it’s no longer possible. And in my case, we have been medically advised that we CAN become pregnant, we just likely won’t. So I personally have a dangling carrot until I start menopause, which could still be a decade away.
Choosing adoption to grow a family, though amazing and beautifully theological, can still leave a woman on the outside as many of us long to know the feelings of carrying a child and going through the rite of passage of labor and delivery and all that goes with all of that. We know we’re missing out and that can be an additional source of nagging sadness.
Here are some thoughts on how to serve those who struggle in this way: This might be one of those unique situations where “Just say something” may not be helpful. For me, it was all I could do to want to join people in their events for fear of an untimely and embarrassing show of waterworks. But by giving her a note or a card, telling her you’re praying for her and you’re there if she needs to talk (something she can read in private) – with this you can’t go wrong.
Then, if she ever does seek you out, choose your words carefully and try not to give too much advice. If you have something you think she should see, pose it in the form of a question is a soft way to minister truth.
And most importantly, PRAY!
- Pray for her to get the desire of her heart.
- And if that’s not the path God chooses, pray for peace that passes understanding.
- Pray for grace that she might enjoy children and families and friends who have them.
- Pray for her marriage – some marriages don’t make it through infertility.
- Pray for her wisdom as she seeks to do the will of the Father in “pursuing her options” to grow her family.
- Pray for her endurance and her heart to not become bitter. Pray for strength for her to be able to use it and other life experiences to minister to others.
- Ultimately, pray for her to be sensitive to the working of The Lord through this particular struggle and to seek to be a steward of her suffering so that it may finally result in His glory and her good.
Each strand of sorrow has it’s place
Within the tapestry of grace
So through the trials I choose to say
Your perfect will in Your perfect way.
“Trust in Him at all times, you people; pour out your heart before Him; God is a refuge for us. Selah.” Psalm 62:8