In Briefing #262, Phil Wheeler wrote some pastoral reflections on infertility, entitling his article ‘A silent grief’. But I believe that infertility ought not to be so. In my experience, sharing the process of infertility with my Christian brothers and sisters has been, on the whole, a positive experience. However, infertility is a process—a process of coming to grips with the physical, emotional and spiritual issues that arise from this problem. The issues can’t be dealt with overnight, and often, when one issue is dealt with, another one arises.
In this article, I’d like to share my process—some of the spiritual issues I had to deal with during the six years I grappled with infertility, as well as some helpful hints on what to say and what not to say to friends dealing with the problem.
The spiritual process
Infertility is different for everyone. A lot depends on each person’s situation and where along the process they find themselves. However, in my discussions with other women, I have seen some commonalities. During my six years of infertility, I came to recognize and repent of my sinfulness (sometimes painfully and slowly!) in the following areas:
- Jealousy and envy—particularly when someone close (e.g. a family member) fell pregnant quickly and easily. Struggling with these feelings can be a lot more difficult when we place certain expectations upon ourselves (e.g. “I was going to have the first grandchild in the family”). It’s easy to identify the problem and repent, but sometimes it’s harder to let go of our expectations.
- Self-pity: Why me? Why can the unmarried teenager down the street fall pregnant whereas I can’t? It’s not necessarily wrong to ask these questions, but they can’t always be answered. The temptation is to wallow in self-pity while justifying it in your own mind: “No-one else understands what it’s like”, and so on.
- Self-righteousness and pride: There I was, thinking I had it all together when the Lord opened my ears to what I was thinking! “Aren’t I wonderful by bearing up under this suffering and struggle!” “Aren’t I a great example for everyone else!” “Isn’t it pathetic how people who’ve only been trying for six months are making such a fuss; they don’t even know what it’s like yet. Don’t they trust God?” To me, this was almost the worst sin of the lot (not that you can grade sin), because I had started to judge my brothers and sisters, and think I was better than them.
- Not trusting God: Until you actually experience something outside of your own control, it’s easy to trust God. It’s easy to trust him when everything happens exactly as you want it to when you want it to. Until something happens (or, in this case, does not happen) outside of your control, you haven’t really been challenged to trust God. Then it’s a shock to realize how little you do. Do you really believe God knows best when you’re approaching 37 and everyone else is working on their second, third or fourth child? It’s easy to say you trust God, but it takes a lot longer to actually mean it—and mean it to the point where you can honestly say that whatever God’s will is, you are content to accept it. And while this end point is the Lord’s work, you also have to work hard to get there. There is no way to circumvent or hasten the learning process.
Surprisingly, I also came to recognize some joys in infertility. Firstly, I reached the point where I knew that God had used infertility in my life for my good (Rom 8:28)—to make me more like Christ, to bring me to the point where I trusted him completely despite my own desires. After six years, I could see the green patches on my side of the fence—the great night’s sleep, the romantic holidays with just my hubby and me, and, most of all, the time I was able to spend serving and fellowshipping with my church family. Not many people had my wonderful advantage of neither working in paid employment, nor running around after children. Instead I got to share lots of cups of tea and coffee with my excellent brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers in Christ. God blessed me so much during that time that I have nothing but supreme gratitude to him.
Secondly, I found joy in sharing my experience with others in similar circumstances. Once you start talking about it, it’s amazing how many people there are in the same boat. One awesome Christian woman in my previous Bible study group took 15 years to fall pregnant. I cannot describe her amazing faith in the Lord. Sharing your struggles with your wider church family is a scary thing (especially if you’re the minister’s wife!), but the prayers, support and love you receive far outweigh the few unhelpful comments.
What to say and what not to say
If you have never experienced infertility, you may wonder how you can help a friend dealing with the issue. Here are some tips.
1. What NOT to say
- “Don’t worry; God will bless you with children soon.” There are no promises in Scripture that the Lord will give every woman a child—only that he will work everything for good in our lives (i.e. make us more like Christ).
- “I know someone who went overseas and then fell pregnant/moved to a new area and then fell pregnant”, and so on. Even if this is true, there is no guarantee that it will also happen to your friend. All you’re offering is cold comfort.
- “Just stop thinking about it.” This is one of the most useless and sometimes hurtful things you can say. How do you suppose your friend can stop thinking about it? She may be able to for most of the time, but there’s a forcible reminder every month! It’s even worse if your friend is undergoing fertility treatments because there are reminders every other day via pills, injections, blood tests and so on.
- “Try not to get stressed.” It has been scientifically proven that stress is not a factor in falling pregnant, otherwise anyone having fertility treatment would never fall pregnant. (IVF is very stressful.)
- Don’t expect that every time your friend talks about infertility, she wants to cry about it. Sometimes she might, but sometimes she’s fine. The way your friend feels will be changing constantly. Try not to pre-empt her feelings; let her tell you what she’s feeling this week. The Lord will be working in her through this experience, but even years down the track, bad days pop up.
- Don’t quote Scripture at your friend. If she is a mature Christian, she already knows what the Lord is saying to her. If she is a young Christian for whom you’re pastorally responsible, this may be another matter. But if you’re, say, a mother with five children, perhaps you may not be the best person for this situation.
Other unhelpful comments include “Have you ever thought that the Lord might not want you to have children?” and “Look to Sarah’s example”.
2. What to say
At this point, you may be thinking “Is there anything I can say?” or “I feel terrible because I’ve said one or more of these things to my friend already”. Let me assure you that if your friend is a growing Christian, they will readily forgive you for any unconscious blunders you’ve made. Most of the above comments were spoken to me by well-meaning friends, and I truly love them for doing their best to comfort me. After all, we’ve all said the wrong thing at one time or another!
Just because you haven’t experienced infertility doesn’t mean you can’t help or support someone who has. However, a little thought and sensitivity go a long way in becoming a truly encouraging Christian brother and sister. Here are some things you can do:
- Offer a listening ear and a comforting hug when needed. Sometimes all we need is for someone to really listen, rather than offer advice.
- Keep treating them as a ‘whole’ person, not just someone dealing with infertility (i.e. show interest in the rest of their life as well).
- Pray for them. Pray with them. Ask them what they would like prayer for. Don’t just pray for them to fall pregnant. More importantly, pray that they will be content, whatever the circumstances, and that they will grow in their trust in God.
- Be sensitive and help them if they’re required to be in a situation where they’re surrounded by mums with young kids (e.g. a congregation with lots of mums or a house party). Try not to talk about children all the time. Take them out for a walk or a cuppa—perhaps somewhere away from the whole nappy scene. Do something fun with them.
Infertility is not just a problem for childless couples. The couple who have had only one child may be struggling with secondary infertility. Or that single man or woman approaching their 40s may be struggling with the idea of not being able to have children. May the Lord help each of us to encourage and build one another up to stand firm until the day of Christ.
Editor’s note: Following her six years of infertility, Karen and her husband, Todd, now have four children—the first two of whom were conceived through IVF.