I never expected this.
Since those words swam in my head every single month that we were waiting for a baby, I should not be surprised that infertility continues to shape my life in unexpected ways.
But this post? More people have read it – and are continuing to share it – than have read anything on my blog in the four years since I started writing it.
The comments on that post are only a sliver of the stories shared with me through email, on Facebook, and in person. I’m floored by how many people are yearning to hear that they are seen.
So many couples are suffering the invisibility of infertility. And so many of them wish their churches would speak a word of peace to them in their pain.
What can each of us do, whether we’ve struggled with infertility or not, to support the couples suffering around us?
Watch your assumptions. That young couple you see? Don’t assume they’re wrapped up in their careers and are choosing to delay parenthood. That older couple you see? Don’t assume they never wanted kids. Those neighbors with an only child? Don’t assume they didn’t want more. Those co-workers with one boy and one girl? Don’t assume they stopped simply because they got their “matched set.”
Plenty of people have complicated situations when it comes to the question of conceiving and raising children. The less we jump to conclusions about someone based on what we know about them, the more we open our hearts to the more likely truth that we do not know their deepest struggles. We offer people such refreshing freedom when we refrain from slapping on labels or squeezing them into boxes by the judgments we pass from a distance.
Watch your words. Sitting with people in pain is uncomfortable. Our natural tendency is to try and fix the situation. But the words we use to show our concern can wound when we want to skip over someone’s suffering and start to offer advice.
My one pastoral suggestion in almost every situation of suffering is to avoid “at least” statements. At least you’re still young. At least there’s always adoption. At least you have other children. The grief and anger surrounding infertility, whether primary or secondary or after miscarriage, are complex emotions. They cannot be easily smoothed over by statements suggesting that the situation is not as awful as it could be.
Honoring the particularity of someone’s pain by simply sitting with them, listening, and letting them know you care for them is a rare gift. You cannot fix their circumstances, so you do not have to try.
You have so much to offer instead: your prayers, your presence, your patience in letting someone give voice to their own story.
Watch yourself change. Don’t make the mistake of holding back from reaching out, simply because you have not experienced their same sorrow. One of the gifts of believing in the Body of Christ is the reminder that we are not confined by the contours of our own life. We are deeply united with each other. We can share our joys and wounds on a deeper level than mere sympathy because our lives are caught up together.
Let your heart be stretched and your prayer life be widened by the experience of allowing others to expand your understanding of the suffering around you.
And once your eyes are opened to a new kind of struggle – like infertility – keep going. Start to see some other silent suffering sitting next to you: on the bus, in the pew, at the coffee shop. Reach out with one kind word.
See what happens.
When we open our eyes, the invisible becomes visible. Pain is no longer ours to bear alone.
And isn’t that what our communities of faith hope to be? Places where we care for each other. Places where we are pulled out of the worries and wants of our own worlds.
Places where we remember that we belong to each other. And to God.
. . .
If you’ve been following for a while, thank you! Here are a few more places I’ve been writing this week: at Practicing Families on raising three white boys after Ferguson and at Small Things With Love on why we owe our babies to NFP.
Dear couple in the pew across from us:
I see the way you grip each other’s hands when you notice us. I see the way you try not to cry while you watch our kids. I see the way you kiss her forehead quietly; I see the way you lean your head on his shoulder, blinking back tears.
I see the way both of you stare straight ahead, willing yourselves not to think about it.
I see you.
While my husband and I are trying to corral the Mass chaos of three small kids, your eyes catch mine and then quickly look away. Turning from the sight of someone who has what you want.
Anything to keep from dwelling on what a young, growing family means to you.
I see you at the grocery store, too. At the park. At the restaurant. At the work party, the neighborhood potluck, the family reunion.
But somehow it feels even more painful when I see you at church. Maybe it’s because I know you’ll have to watch our motley crew for a whole hour, not just one quick turn down the store’s aisle or a sidewalk’s length at the park.
But mostly it’s because I remember sitting right where you are.
Praying with Kleenex balled in my fists, praying with tears at the corners of my eyes, praying for the strength not to envy, praying for this to be the month, praying to a God I clung to and yelled at, all at once.
I know the way you’re thinking, because I used to do the math just the same. Early 30s, I bet. Three kids. They’re so lucky. Our time is running out. It’s never going to happen for us. I hate this.
I wish I could tell you it gets better. I wish I could make the miracle happen for you. But besides my prayers – which you always have, and always will – all I can tell you is this: I see you.
I see your pain and I see your struggle. I don’t ignore it or forget it just because my arms are full of drooling babies and squirmy toddlers.
I remember that is one of the worst side effects of infertility. Not just the crazy hormone swings or the monthly disappointment or the gut-twisting ache when yet another friend calls with yet another excited pregnancy announcement.
It’s the invisibility. The way you feel like the world can’t see your pain.
And the awful truth? The church doesn’t always see your pain either.
Rare are the prayer petitions for couples suffering from infertility or miscarriage or stillbirth. Even rarer is an outreach ministry, a support group, a prayer chain – any resource to tell you that this community cares for you and grieves with you and hopes with you.
But things can start to shift once we start seeing each other. Once we remember that we are seen. Once we remember all the ways that the Body of Christ can be wounded.
Because when I see you, I remember those days, months, and years of infertility. I remember not to take my kids or my chaos for granted. I remember to pray for all those who are in pain or who are longing.
So while you’re sitting there at church on Sunday, feeling alone in your pew and alone in your heart, remember that someone out there sees you.
That there are those of us around you who have lived with that heartache, whether we went on to have children or not.
And we never forget what it feels like to grieve, to cry, to curse, to pray every Sunday, every day, again and again, for the one chance that will change everything. Or for the strength to accept a life that looks different from what we hoped.
We see you. And when we see you, we can start to be part of the change.
Part of the church that can pray for your pain. Part of the community that can support you in your struggles. Part of the Body of Christ that remembers that without each other, we are not whole.
This is how we learn, how we love, how we grow. By seeing what is invisible.
And I see you.
In love and hope,
From the mom in the opposite pew
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
We’d planned it perfectly. A baby in early spring, before work got too busy and the summer too hot. The worst of the morning sickness would be passed in time for the holidays, and I could curl up on the couch for football season in the fall when exhaustion set in. We’d have a few months to get the boys adjusted to our addition before the oldest went off to kindergarten, and then I’d have just two at home again.
Of course, in hindsight I see the hubris of thinking we were in control, of micromanaging the most mysterious realities in our lives. We struck out boldly into the prospect of baby #3, assuming that we’d frontloaded our share of heartache on the infertility side of parenting.
But pain and loss know no quota. There was never any divine promise that suffering could be skipped over. Only that we will be companioned the whole way through.
. . .
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
I was early in the pregnancy, far enough along for us to celebrate the giddy joy of finding out and making plans and scheming how to share the news. But even when the signs started to point south and the tests confirmed our fears, I figured that since I was so early, it wouldn’t be too painful or drawn-out even if it did happen.
Instead I was overwhelmed by pain that felt like the worst wrenching of labor, contractions that came so fast I could barely breathe, shaking and numbness in my limbs that finally made me crawl to the phone and call the nurse who told me to get to the ER as fast as we could. I’d never heard stories of the real, raw truth of what it means to miscarry, so I had no idea what to expect.
But just because a death comes early does not mean it is lighter to bear or let go.
. . .
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Carrying was supposed to be the part I could do. Sure, there would little deaths all along: the wine, the caffeine, the favorite foods, the comfortable sleep. But I knew what it meant to feel sick for six months; I was ready to make the sacrifice again; I needed no convincing that the end product was worth it. Infertility was the struggle we knew, so we figured that once the lines blurred clear on the test stick, we’d be sailing straight ahead till delivery day.
Instead I have to learn what missing means. To white out the appointments already marked on my calendar. To stop mentally scheduling around a due date that is now a ghost. To take the time – the infinite long ache of time – that my body needs to heal. To let a dream die. To mourn a baby that will never be.
. . .
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In my heart. In our plans. In everyone’s hopes.
But supposed to is a shimmering mirage. One of the few truths I know is that if you’re lucky to do enough living, it will inevitably break your heart. We forget that supposed to means a guess, a wonder, an attempt. We craft an illusion of control believing that supposed to means the right way, the my way, the only way.
Only when life and death crash up against each other in one powerful smack of a wave do we remember that we exist at the mercy of greater forces than our own mind, and that supposed to was never a magic potion to wave away mortality.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. But it is.
I wanted to carry. But now I learn to miss.
. . .
But we hold this treasure in earthen vessels,
that the surpassing power may be of God
and not from us.
We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained;
perplexed, but not driven to despair;
persecuted, but not abandoned;
struck down, but not destroyed;
always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus,
so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.
(2 Corinthians 4:7-10)
She sits across me in the suburban coffee shop, hands cupped around a warm cardboard cup just like mine. Soccer moms with their teams in tow troop through the store, swarms of kids buzzing in and out the door in the morning sunlight.
Her eyes are bright as she talks, but I see the sadness behind her smile, steal a glimpse back into the dark mirror of my own once-waiting.
They’re seeing a new doctor, starting a new treatment, charting cycles and crossing fingers. She’s got a good feeling about this month. Sure, it’s been two long years of trying and she’s creeping closer to forty, but the doctor said her numbers were looking up. And there’s no reason not to be hopeful, right?
Waiting. To have a baby in her arms.
. . .
We’re getting ready for bed in the midnight dark, zipping window blinds down with a snap when I notice that the porch lights are still on across the street. The sleepy home of our quiet neighbors now stands on high alert, beacons shining bright and bold in the black of night.
“What do you think that’s for?” I wonder out loud to my husband. “They never leave the lights on.”
“It’s prom night,” he shrugs as we turn to sleep. “They’re probably waiting up.”
Waiting. To have their baby home safe.
. . .
Parenthood starts with waiting. Nine months at least, sometimes years longer before the due date countdown starts to tick.
But no one told me that pregnancy would be only the beginning of the waiting.
Waiting outside bedroom doors for the baby to stop crying, exhausted after every expert’s advice fails to secure sweet sleep.
Waiting next to the phone for the doctor to call with the test results, heart thumping to hear the news that life will soon ease back to everyday-ok.
Waiting in airport lounges to catch the last flight home, arms aching to get back to the kids and cuddle them close.
Waiting for the baby to wean, the toddler to walk, the preschooler to potty train, the spouse to get home, the fever to break, the teeth to cut through, the school year to start, the summer to arrive.
Some waiting is the natural nervousness of a novice. I look back on the few short years since I became a mother and marvel at how often I made mountains out of mole hills, worrying about milestones they missed or markers that seemed delayed.
Some waiting is the weary work of weathered wisdom. I look around me at parents in all stages of this lifelong calling, waiting for their kids to find a job, to move out, to fall in love with the right person, to follow their own path.
When impatience starts to get the better of me, when I find myself straining forward to see what’s next, when I tire of trying to live in the present, I wrestle with waiting.
But wrestling never wins; it is only when I stop to catch my breath that I realize there is only This. In preparation for That, perhaps. But waiting is about the present, not the future.
It’s the only way I can live right now.
. . .
I lie there in the quiet dark, long after he’s fallen asleep next to me, and I wonder what it will feel like to wait for my boys to come home.
I waited so long for them to arrive, and some days I’m so impatient waiting for them to grow up, and I realize that all this work is a waiting game.
To parent is to wait: to watch, to witness, to wonder what comes next, to want more for your child than what they have today. But to wait is also to be forced to slow down, to relinquish the illusion of control, to put your desires on hold while life makes other plans.
What could be harder than waiting? I wonder in the warmth of my comfortable bed, two blessings of boys tucked in their rooms down the hall, no one I love speeding out on the slippery roads too late tonight.
This life is a relentless pull, asking us to stop when we want to go, making us release when we want to grab tight. We have to wait in the midst of all this back and forth. We never know what’s coming; we waste our time worrying about what never happens.
But when we wait – that is an act of faith.
“The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision…He brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
I always thought Abram was staring up into a dark night sky, dazzled with stars-as-descendants, breathing in cold crisp air as he tried to believe the impossible for a childless man of his age.
Turns out I was wrong.
Read the rest closely. The sun sets later, as the story slips into Act Two of the fateful covenant, as Abram and God seal the deal over a nighttime sacrifice and a burning torch of hope in the darkness. So the day was likely still bright and blazing when an aging Abram was first asked to trust in stars he could not see.
I’m deeply grateful to Ignatian Spirituality’s Just Parenting blog for this insight that turned this Sunday’s Scripture inside out for me. Because I never realized how the time of day adds a final layer of implausibility to the story: God drags the old man outside into noontime sun, tells him to count all the stars he can see and then trust that he’ll have offspring so many.
Either the cruelest joke or the crucial test of faith: to trust what you cannot see.
. . .
Infertility is the foundation of my parenting.
When I’m sinking into a dreadful day of tired tempers and toddler tantrums, when I’m floundering and grasping for air as I spiral downward, infertility is always the solid ground I finally touch with my toes, the reassuring firm beneath my feet from which I pause and push off to rise, to gasp up to the surface again. I remember and right my thinking:
At least I have them. At least we were able to have children. At least they exist.
Any small annoyance is relativized in the face of my babies’ being, the sheer graced gift of their lives. No matter the current crisis, my view is widened to the scope of what matters. My momentary maternal failings become but a blink.
I remember that I have the blessing of a bad day as a mother.
Because it means I mother.
I wonder when these daily, weekly, monthly reminders of the blessedness of bearing children will start to fade. Like the people who live tucked in the foothills of towering mountains or stretched along the edge of the vast sea – I always wonder when they start to take the landscape for granted. Time settles us into the way-it-turned-out as if it were always given. But it is never simply given.
The immensity of what we’re asked to trust, in those rare times when we’re asked to truly trust, only becomes visible later. We see what was obvious only in a different time or season.
But in the blinding sear of midday, when the sweat runs in rivulets down our back, when our necks crick from craning skyward, it is easier to wave it away, shrug off with a sneer.
It is always easier to walk by sight than faith.
. . .
Now the stars are clear as night. Now I start to sense the scope of what I was called to trust when parenthood seemed far from predictable. Now I see the bright sparks against the black sky, the wider span of a greater plan than I could grasp during long months of waiting and wanting and wondering and wallowing.
Did I trust the noontime promise, the prospect of distant lights that would shine brighter when I needed them in deepest dark? Mostly what I remember from our years of infertility is sadness, anger, bargaining with God, weeping with jealousy at others’ good gifts.
But from where I watch tonight, staring out at a winter’s wash of white stars shining through cold darkness, I see clearly. How the wrestling with God, the willingness to trust the divine with my deepest desires, was trust enough for that time. Because it saw me through the heat of day to the calming cool of night.
I wonder what I am called to trust today. What noontime stars am I unable to see, squinting into the sun? What promise of a wider view, a multitude beyond imagining? What prospect so much bigger than my one small life, but of which I am still a part?
I stand at the window watching stars and I marvel at Abram’s trust.
All that he believed he could see at midday.
You know those years when you just don’t feel like celebrating your birthday?
Such was my attitude toward Mother’s Day this go-round. I was just not all that into it.
My mothering lately has been grumpy, impatient and frazzled. It’s a stressful season of our family’s life, so I’m trying not to take it too seriously. But I still didn’t feel much like celebrating. Even though I believe firmly that Mother’s Day isn’t something we earn, I decided I’d rather have a normal, quiet, low-key Sunday than a Hallmark holiday.
But as I nursed Grinch-like sentiments this past week, the notion of Alice in Wonderland’s un-birthday wryly popped into my head. What would it mean to celebrate an un-Mother’s Day instead of the normal flowers-chocolate-&-brunch festivities?
First I thought it might mean indulging in a day of activities that had absolutely nothing to do with mothering. For example, uninterrupted sleep! Adult conversation! Spa treatments! Wine! Gourmet meals that someone else cooked! Plenty of geographic distance from one’s progeny!
So then I started from a truly unconventional standpoint. What if I spent the day thinking of un-mothers instead?
Un-mothers could be fathers, the paternal yang to the maternal yin. So yesterday I prayed for fathers – for their work outside the home to provide for their families and for their work at home to nurture their children.
Un-mothers could be children, the necessary and opposite other half of the mothering relationship. So I prayed for children who daily seek the love of a mother to help them grow.
Un-mothers could be women who want desperately to have children, those who suffer through infertility, miscarriage and failed adoptions. So I prayed for the women whose hearts break as the years pass, whose stomachs sink when strangers ask questions, whose hands ache to hold a baby.
Un-mothers could be women who have chosen not to have children, those who feel called to different paths. So I prayed for women whose vocations lead them to other nurturing relationships, rewarding work, and life-giving commitments.
Un-mothers could be women who have suffered the loss of a child, whose motherhood has been broken and reshaped by pain and death. So I prayed for women who grieve for their children, who struggle to redefine themselves as mother after loss, who seek to go on living after the life they held closest to their heart has stopped.
Un-mothers could be women who do not want the children they have. So I prayed for women whose motherhood was forced on them, or who made decisions to end their child’s life, or whose deep sorrow and anger at the world causes them to hurt their children.
In the Christian tradition, one way to describe God is the via positiva: what God is like. God is like a mother. Another way to describe God is the via negativa: what God is not like. God is not like a mother.
One way to understand mothering from a spiritual perspective is the via positiva – what it is to be a mother. Much of my thinking and writing in this space takes this slant. But another way to understand mothering is the via negativa – what it is not. Broadening my perspective to embrace those who are not mothers helps me to understand my own parenting better, situating my cares and concerns within a wider view.
And praying for those whose lives and loves differ from mine reminds me that all of us, mothers and un-mothers, are swept up into the mystery of who God is.
Which is a question well worth pondering, no matter what day it is.
We’ve been tackling lots of house projects lately – windows, floors, closets. So I find myself thinking a lot about this home we’ve created, this place we became a family.
There is a deep joy in making a house a home, a fulfillment I never imagined when I was an energetic twenty-year-old, hauling tattered boxes in and out of different apartments every year. Today I find myself having lived on this street for longer than I’ve lived anywhere except my childhood home. My address hasn’t changed in years, but my perspective has.
Through the seasons I’ve spent gazing out the same windows at the same trees, I’ve learned that settling in isn’t the same as settling. The joy of owning a home is putting down deep roots so beauty can grow. It’s the wisdom grown from tending to one small piece of God’s green earth. It’s the wonder of taking someone else’s place and filling it with your own dreams.
We’ve planted gardens and fruit trees, rose bushes and lilacs. We picked out new appliances when old broke. We hauled furniture upstairs and down when inspiration struck. I’ve watched crews of construction workers tromp in and out of our yard, putting on new roofs or tearing up old floors. My handy husband even built a bedroom and a basement of bookshelves.
In short, we’ve made this place our own.
But when I think back on this house, my strongest memories will be the transformations that took place within us, within its walls.
This house was full of infertility’s charts, tests and meds before it was full of babies’ clothes, books and toys. It was full of couple love before it was full of children. This “starter home” is where we became partners and parents. Where we started writing the story of our life together.
A few days ago I took a break from wrangling the bottomless heap of kids’ clothes in the closet. Sweaty and tired, I laid on the floor and stared up at the spinning fan. The fan that my husband installed, in the room that my mother and mother-in-law painted for our first baby. I thought about the home we have made while I listened to my son pretend to read from one of his favorite books:
We’d dreamed a baby, we’d wanted a baby, we’d planned for a baby, we’d waited and waited and waited for a baby.
Until finally there was you.
As he flipped the final pages, I turned my head on the carpet to watch him sing: And oh, how we love you!
Watching my baby-turned-boy, I realized that perhaps this chapter is the most important one we’ve written in the story of this house. Not the herb garden we planted out front or the strawberry patch we dug out back. But the family we became along the way.
When we were giddy newlyweds rushing in the door from our honeymoon, we had no idea how the early years of our marriage would be shaped by the wanting and hoping and praying for children. This was the place we dreamed our babies, wondering how they would look and when they would arrive. This was the place we planned for our babies, worrying as the months stretched into years. This became the place we waited and waited and waited for our babies. Until finally, they were here.
And oh, how we love them.