I’m writing this question at the outset of Advent, which might seem an odd time with the season’s emphasis on the birth of Jesus to instead write about marital infertility. However, the Christmas story does not begin with the annunciation, but instead with an infertile couple, Mary’s relative Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. So, Advent is exactly the right time to approach this traumatic challenge to married couples. And a quick note to those who have been fortunate enough to conceive, carry children to term, and birth them into the world, do not pass on this question. Why? Because all around you are other couples approaching Christmas yet again with an agonizing longing that they cannot satisfy. Imagine how difficult your Christmas would be without your children. So, with the golden rule in mind, listen on.
Perhaps the first thing to recognize if you are struggling with infertility is that you are not alone. The CDC estimates that nearly 20% of American couples struggle with conception and/or carrying a pregnancy to term, a rate slightly higher than the worldwide average of nearly 18% of couples. That is a lot of people. So, there are others very close to you struggling with the same challenge.
No one should deny or minimize how much you feel what you have been deprived of.
Second, the emotional, familial, imaginative, marital, and human losses of infertility are very real. There is nothing wrong with you if you feel it intensely. God made us for children, so to be deprived of them is a real deprivation. Infertility is a marital injury, meaning, the negation of a right. As a married couple, you have a right to bear children into the world, for you were made in the image of God who eternally begs the Son. So, if your marriage has been injured by the losses of infertility, it is normal that you feel that loss. No one should deny or minimize how much you feel what you have been deprived of.
Love—not blame or despair—is the only way to courageously endure together the many traumas we experience in the cauldron of this world.
Third, many kinds of injuries can crack marriages—if we let them. We take vows to love one another fully in both sickness and in health. Infertility weighs heavily on that sickness clause, reminding us that we must bear the suffering of our spouse, a suffering that affects both husband and wife, regardless of whose biology is allegedly the cause. And I do say “cause” rather than “fault,” because there is no fault in infertility. One or both of you suffered a biological malady that has left your marriage injured. You didn’t choose it. You didn’t cause it to happen. Something else impaired your natural biology against your will. Thus, infertility has been thrust upon you individually, yes, but upon your marital unity most of all. So, under no circumstances should you lay blame on your spouse if he or if she is medically identified as having the biological malady. View infertility as a marital challenge that you have a choice together on how to handle. Then, commit to love one another through it, just as you do any other marital trial. Love—not blame or despair—is the only way to courageously endure together the many traumas we experience in the cauldron of this world.
Fourth, while you cannot wholly overcome this loss, you can mitigate its impact. Injuries of this magnitude are terribly difficult to handle alone as a couple. Women critically need other women for consolation, as do men from other men. Marriages were never meant to fully satisfy every human need for couples. We need our family members, as well as our close friends to share our joys and losses. So, don’t let embarrassment rear its ugly head here, for you have done nothing wrong. Wives, share with your sisters, mother, aunts and dear female friends, what you and your husband have been going through. And husbands, find that brother or father or uncle or solid male friend and go do something together and let it out. As a couple, reach out to your close couple friends, too. We were made for love, and this means not only that we must love others, but that we must open ourselves to their love for us. Trauma permits others to use their gifts, talents, and resources to help us, but only if we let them. Sometimes our strength lies not in standing alone, but in leaning on a brother.
Fifth, while we can mitigate the impact of infertility by bonding with family and close friends, we can also engage in alternative forms of procreation. To “procreate” means to bring forth, so all procreation is the bringing forth of something good and beautiful from within ourselves. As Catholics we are deeply aware that natural parenting is a participation in God’s creative act, since each biological conception is likewise a spiritual creation of a new human soul-spirit. But not all procreation need be biological, for we can create from within ourselves in many other ways. God has blessed every Catholic with both natural talents and spiritual gifts in their baptisms and confirmations. Both naturally and spiritually, then, we are inheritors of a whole range of talents and capabilities that we can employ to love and create in the world around us. Only, because of the additional natural powers and sacramental grace of marriage, as life-partners you and your spouse can jointly do so much more than you might have done merely as individuals. So, use that churning love powerhouse of both the combined genders to jointly love those around you. Find ways to inject yourselves (not as pests 😊) into the needs of the people around you, making yourselves available to support and encourage them. Use your joint interests, your joint talents, and your joint cares to together unleash the creative power of God. I’m emphasizing what you can do together, fully aware that you both also possess many talents that might be better actualized individually. For example, the husband may love fishing and the wife finds worms disgusting, while she can’t stop making cookies at Christmas, and he just wanders in to grab the odd handful from time to time. So, it wouldn’t be at all strange for him to go fishing with a bunch of his guy friends, while she sets up a cookie event with her friends. Of course. But the loss of children eliminates a natural unifier that God created to glue couples together. So, it’s important to create alternative glue; hence, the togetherness I’ve been emphasizing in co-using your talents, gifts, and resources. It’s fine to use your individual powers, but those that join you together will better build a love endurance through the hardships of infertility.
In your quest to have a child, don’t lose one another.
Oh, and a word of caution on your sexual glue. If you and your spouse are currently trying to get pregnant, take care that your desire to make a baby does not undermine your making love. Sometimes we can become so focused on the biological details of trying to perfectly execute our biological sexual unity that we forget that marital sex is always supposed to be about making love first. My wife likes to say that every child has the right to be conceived in love. Where that love is absent, it sets off a domino chain of trouble ahead. So, in your quest to have a child, don’t lose one another. Remember that sex isn’t just about baby-making, but crucially is the socio-biological-emotional-spiritual-imaginative glue that God created to routinely bathe your relationship in the total self-giving love commitments unique to marriage. Good fruit requires a healthy tree, so nurture one another sexually, rather than merely using sex as a tool.
Sixth, yes, you can adopt. There are many children in need of adoptive parents, but the road to adoption within the United States is often grueling for couples. Adoption must be soberly entered into rather than as an act of emotional desperation. And keep in mind that your adopted child will be carrying traumas from his own parental losses, so a gritty pragmatism rather than a rosy optimism is called for here.
Believe in God’s overall love for you rather than reducing it solely to the question of children.
Seventh, remember that God has not forgotten you. He loves childless couples, so much so that he has given signs that he remembers your suffering. In the Hebrew Bible we find the saint Hannah who prayed desperately of her grief and loss in being unable to conceive. The Scriptures state that God “remembered” her. Since God is omniscient and cannot forget things, what does that mean? Well, the “re” in “remember” is also a force intensifier. That means that God intensely thought of Hannah, and he loved her in her loss. In her specific case, God granted her a child, who rose to become the prophet, Samuel. In the case of Elizabeth and Zechariah that I alluded to at the outset of this Question, God likewise gave them a child, the greatest of all prophets, St. John the Baptist. While these sorts of miraculous interventions are very rare and cannot be expected, one never knows! So, share your grief with God in your prayers, as well as your patron saint, the blessed virgin, her own mother, St. Anne, St. Elizabeth, St. Zechariah, and St. Hannah. They understand your suffering. Just be sure to end every prayer of this kind as Jesus did, when he asked to be spared the greatest trauma of his life, “Yet not my will, but thine be done.” Be thankful for what God has already given you and choose in faith to use those gifts in love, regardless of whether he grants you a child or not. This is obviously very difficult, but this is the virtue of faith in operation. Believe in God’s overall love for you rather than reducing it solely to the question of children. Why? Because of what comes next!
What is that? The theological virtue of hope, the engine of love, for we know that God will make up this severe loss for you just as he does all our losses in the fullness of his Kingdom. How? Well, we don’t know the specifics, but we can use our imaginations to pull back the curtain just a bit. From our near-death experience reports, we find lots of children on the other side. Further, parents who lose young children are likewise confident, just as King David was in the child he and Bathsheba lost, that they are alive with God. So, isn’t it just possible that God will permit those parents to parent those children to adulthood in his kingdom? And what about all those aborted children who entirely lacked loving parents? If their parents don’t accept God’s offer of forgiveness, might God not offer their parenting to infertile couples in the kingdom of God? He might. And finally, since God intends to fully restore all things, to make all things right, then, since childbearing is a natural right of married couples, might God not heal your bodies and bring your children into the new world of his kingdom, granting you the opportunity to parent them in a world without death, illness, war, hunger, or cruelty? He may. What we do know for sure is that God fully knows your pain and will totally and comprehensively restore your loss if you love him with all of yourselves. That’s an omnipotent guarantee. It cannot be bettered. So never lose hope. Trust God. And with that surging hope and thanksgiving for your spouse, join together in a creative renaissance of love in the lives of the people around you. For in the end, God will make all things well.