“And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.” -Luke 1:36-37
I have often found that when others learn of our struggle with infertility, they don’t know how to respond. Often they want to journey with us and support us, but sometimes their words can be unintentionally hurtful. Rather than rushing out to the hill country like Mary to rejoice with Elizabeth in her joy and her sorrows, they find themselves crippled in reaching out to us. Especially when a friend finds themselves expecting a child, they often do not know the best way to tell us that is considerate of our struggles and at the same time allows us the opportunity to share in their joy.
Infertility is a very silent cross. It is not something that you can see, like poverty, hunger, cancer, disabilities, and other visible crosses. There is a silence that surrounds infertility because it involves a very personal matter. And sometimes, when those with this struggle do speak up, they are dismissed.
I attended the Greater Cincinnati Women’s Conference on March 1 of this year with a beautiful woman who has become a great friend. While there, I was sharing some of my struggles with some other women. I was also talking about my desire to build a ministry that would meet the needs of couples struggling with infertility. An older woman, one of the speakers, overheard me talking and decided to involve herself in the conversation. Her heart was coming from a place of true love and concern, and yet her words were hurtful.
At the time of the conference I had been married for thirteen months. Upon hearing that I had only been trying for thirteen months she said to me, “Oh, don’t worry about it then! It’s only been just over a year and Dr. Hilgers gets 88% of his patients pregnant! You’re on the right track, and look, God has even given you a vocation out of this struggle! You’ll be just fine, don’t get too worked up about it.”
I felt crushed. I felt foolish for sharing my struggle with these other women. I felt like my suffering didn’t matter, and that I was making a big deal out of nothing. I felt that because I’d only been struggling with fertility issues for a little over a year, that my infertility wasn’t a “valid” cross that I was carrying. I started to wonder if it was all in my head. I started worrying that perhaps my own stress and anxiety were the cause of our inability to conceive. I felt lost and embarrassed that I had even bothered to open up to these women. I thought that perhaps I was just being a drama queen and was complaining of my struggles unnecessarily to these women.
When people open up about their crosses, we have the beautiful opportunity to become an image of the visitation. We have the option to set out and travel to the hill country in haste to rejoice with our brothers and sisters in Christ, to share in their sorrows, and to carry their burdens with them. We have an opportunity to become an image of Christ to them and to recognize Christ within their hearts. And when we dismiss the sufferings of others, either by saying that they haven’t gone through their suffering long enough, or not to worry, or that it isn’t a big deal, we miss that opportunity.
When Mary visited Elizabeth, Elizabeth rejoiced with Mary, saying “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:42-44) She recognized Christ incarnate in the womb of Mary, as did her infant, John. Mary then responds by rejoicing with Elizabeth in the Magnificat,
And Mary said:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
47 my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
48 For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
49 The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him.
51 He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
52 He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
but lifted up the lowly.
53 The hungry he has filled with good things;
the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped Israel his servant,
remembering his mercy,
55 according to his promise to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Mary then remained with Elizabeth for three months. She rejoiced for “she who was called barren is now in her sixth month.” And though we do not know specifically what happened in those three months, we do know that Mary loved Elizabeth with a perfect love. Mary served Elizabeth in her need. And we can guess that Mary helped Elizabeth when she was in pain, comforted her when she was weak, and tended to her with gentleness and attentiveness.
We need to imitate the Visitation, especially with those who are suffering. Rather than dismissing someone’s struggles, especially with infertility, we need to acknowledge how difficult they must be. We need to try to enter into their journey and understand that this has been a daily cross. There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about our struggles in one way or another, because I have to track my cycle and chart every day. Rather than telling them “Don’t worry about it!” or “Just relax!”, we need to acknowledge the struggles and pains of their heart. We need to journey with them towards Calvary. We need to look at them and see Christ suffering in them. Even just listening can be an effective way to enter into another’s sufferings. Speaking of things that have helped us in our struggles can be particularly effective. For example, rather than saying, “Have you tried praying the Divine Mercy Novena?” look at them and say, “That pain sounds so difficult to carry. I know when I’ve been struggling that I’ve found comfort in the Divine Mercy chaplet.” Acknowledge their pain, and give advice from a perspective of active listening rather than simply trying to fix their problem for them.
Infertility is an intimate and heavy cross. Because it is so personal, it is difficult to speak candidly to others about it. Many are simply unaware of how their comments can be hurtful, even when they are trying to help. I am part of a few online support groups for women struggling with infertility, and so I asked them what was helpful and hurtful when trying to walk with them in their journeys. I found a singular theme in what they said was helpful: don’t be dismissive to our suffering and have an awareness of the impact of your words.
Just the other day my husband and I attended a marriage enrichment opportunity. The man greeting us asked us if we had kids yet, to which we said, “No, we’re still newlyweds.” It was the easiest response. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that statement. It’s a common conversation starter. But be aware that even that question can be a reminder to those with this struggle about their cross. What truly hurt was what followed, when the man said, “Oh that’s smart, waiting a bit.” Nicholas then interrupted him and told him, “No, we’ve been trying. We want children.”
Journeying with others means not making judgements on some of their most private decisions. Family planning should not be fodder for casual conversation. Even those who don’t have infertility but have the opposite struggle can be hurt by remarks on family planning. Saying to “fertile myrtle”, the woman with three kids under three who is pregnant yet again, “Was this one planned or a surprise?” can be invasive and potentially a reminder to her of how deeply overwhelmed she is and how much fear she carries about being able to be a good wife and mother with four children so young. Saying to the family with two children undergoing private financial hardships, “So when is the next one coming?” could be a reminder of their deep desire for more children and their harsh reality that they can’t handle another one yet. Journeying with others means accepting their situation as it is and looking at them with concern and love and simply saying, “How are you doing?”
When I was discerning with the Sisters of Life I learned about their Visitation Mission which met with women in crisis pregnancies. One sister said something particularly impactful: “When we sit down to talk to these women, the first thing we ask them is ‘How are you doing?’ Often we are the first person to ever ask them that question. They pour their hearts out to us, and we just listen, letting them know they are loved.”
Just listen to us. Let us know that we are loved. Let us know that you see us struggling. Remember us on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, for we pray for our children every day and love them, though they are not yet in our arms. For those of us called to adoption, we pray that our children may be safe and loved wherever they are, for we do not know how or when our children will come to us and it is possible that they are already on this earth. Pray for us, dear friends. Pray for us, ask us “How are you doing?” Give us the opportunity to open up about our struggles, and if we are ready, we will. And then when we’ve finished talking, if you are lost as to what you should do, just ask “Is there any way I can help you? How can I journey with you in this cross?”
Most importantly, just be aware. Be aware that there are those struggling to have a child. Be aware that not every married couple without children is contracepting. Be aware that dismissive comments such as “You’re so young!”, “Just relax!”, or “Don’t worry!” are hurtful. Know that giving advice such as “Have you tried x?” or “have you thought about adoption?” can feel invasive and doesn’t acknowledge our sufferings. Be aware that the way you announce your pregnancy to your friend could be hurtful. Some women prefer an email and text so they can mourn privately and then still respond to your announcement with joy. Some families would prefer that if you are a close friend, that you call them or tell them in person, depending on the distance. You know your loved ones, so consider their needs and their situation when you decide how to share your good news. But tell them directly. And then invite them to journey with you through the joys and struggles of your pregnancy. Challenge them to imitate the Visitation with you.
I would like to take the time to thank those that have been a true image of the Visitation to us. These are people that have entered into our journey with us, encouraged us, and helped us to know that we are loved and supported. The man who asked us if we had children later apologized to us after the event, recognizing how we had been hurt, and so I would like to thank him. I am going to avoid last names here since I don’t have permission to use them, but I would like to thank my dear friend Grace for her constant friendship and support. I would like to thank my parents and Nick’s parents for their love and prayers. I would like to thank Rebekah, for being a true friend to me, opening up to me about her fears, and for listening to me. I would like to thank one of Nicholas’ dear high school friends, who knew about our struggles and announced her pregnancy to Nicholas with true consideration for our struggles. I want to thank all those that have prayed for us. And I would like to thank all of the people that have opened up to us about their struggles after reading these articles. You have made us feel deeply supported and loved.
Finally, I would like to thank a couple with whom Nicholas and I hope to become dear friends. Devynn and Clifford, thank you for opening up your lives to us. Devynn, thank you for inviting me to the Women’s Conference. Thank you for listening to me as I poured out my heart. Thank you for sharing your own fears with me. And thank you to both of you for so considerately telling us about your joyful pregnancy and then inviting us to journey with you through it as your little baby’s soon-to-be godparents. The two of you were a true inspiration for this post, as it was your invitation that began to show me how imitating the Visitation is a true model for ministering to those in their sufferings and their joys.
To all those that have sought to be with us in our joys and sufferings in this journey, thank you. Keep imitating the Visitation with all those whom you meet.
For it is our sincere hope, that at the end of this journey, we will be able to rejoice with one another saying, “This is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.”
This is the fourth post in a series for National Infertility Awareness Week. The other posts are below.
Infertility as Disease: Accepting and Navigating the Medical Side of Infertility
Gratitude: The Gift Amidst the Cross