After our first child reached preschool age we began trying to become pregnant with a second baby. For three years we were met with disappointment and failure in our attempts to expand our family. At one point I was late for my cycle and so certain I was pregnant that I asked to borrow a baby name book from a friend who had just given birth. I would lie in bed at night excitedly imagining who this baby would look like, whether it would be a boy or girl, feeling joy at the thought of either one.
When I found out I wasn’t pregnant I felt a certain loss and longing for the child I had imagined and somehow already loved. My grief was a tiny drop of water in the sea of sadness that engulfs those who experience miscarriage and perhaps a small taste of the bitter dose of infertility which some are forced to ingest year after year. I sat down and captured my feelings in this poem.
The Child Who Was Not
Inside my belly I weep bright burgundy tears
Tears for the child who was not
The daughter with raven hair like her father’s
Eyes blue as water, skin fair as clouds
Mimicking my woman actions
Returning my woman love
The son with his planes, his trucks and tractors
Who, running, would leap into my caress
Filling my ordinary day with awe
I loved her already, the child who was not
Practiced her name, planned her years
But here I sit on the twenty-eighth day
Barren as a dinner plate after a meal
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about 10 percent of women (6.1 million) in the United States have difficulty getting or staying pregnant. The gamut of emotions brought on by this situation can be large and encompassing. These maternal longings sometimes have the ability to overshadow even the parts of a woman’s life which may be rich and fulfilling, leaving her feeling inconsolable.
So was the story of Hannah recorded in the first book of Samuel. Unable to conceive, the Bible says she was “in bitterness of soul”. Weeping in the temple, she poured her desires out with words to which she gave no voice but only movement of lips. My guess is she was afraid to allow those primal noises of deepest desire to escape her inner being where they had been lodged for so long.
The priest, observing her behavior, assumed her to be drunk . Hannah informed him she was merely a “woman of a sorrowful spirit” and that she was crying out of her abundance of grief. Many women can identify with Hannah’s longing and despair.
There are modern day Hannahs who know the pain of infertility as well. One of those is a beautiful young woman I have known since she was in fifth grade. Michelle Baker Yount and my daughter, Molly, were best buddies growing up. During summers they spent countless hours together on the lake skiing, swimming and staying up late into the night. During school they shared sports like soccer,softball and volleyball as well as parties, sleepovers and proms.
After Michelle and her husband had been married for a few years they started trying to have a baby. When nothing happened, Michelle says each month felt like a year and each year like five. Repeatedly they celebrated their friends with baby showers, baby’s births and even second babies’ births with no hope on the horizon for a baby of their own.
Eventually they turned to help from the medical field and spent three long years filled with testing, blood drawing, diagnosing, drug enhancing, and two types of assisted inseminating. They were poked, prodded and prayed for as they rode the roller coaster ride of emotional torment that comes with infertility. The drugs that heightened hormones also heightened emotions and Michelle often found herself over reacting to minor things. But worse than the physical challenges were the mental ones. Michelle says that for her, “Fertility treatments were first and foremost a mental battle and at times I felt myself going to a dark place and holding onto only a sliver of hope.” She and Marc also reached out to every believer they knew asking them to add their faith to their own which sometimes lagged from sheer discouragement.
When the first frozen embryo transfer didn’t implant, it was a low point for Michelle. With Christmas coming they had no extra money (fertility treatments had depleted their finances), she felt no desire to celebrate, to send cards or to put up a tree. But in January they repeated the procedure which resulted in their beautiful Maren and a few years later a successful transfer of their final frozen embryo produced their fabulously fun little boy, Baker.
Michelle is grateful for medical advances in the field of infertility but is quick to point out that IUI only increases chances of pregnancy by 20% and IVF by 30%. “We definitely credit the Lord’s timing even though there was medical intervention,” she says.
I visited with Michelle last week discussing her personal journey through infertility and asked about the impact it had on her spiritually. “Basically it was a matter of learning to trust God,” Michelle says. Even after she became pregnant with Maren it was hard for her to trust that she would carry her baby to term. Looking back she sees how God was maturing her through all of her infertility trials, how if she had a baby without trying or earlier than she had wanted she would probably have complained about late night teething and early morning feedings. “Instead,” she says, “I thanked God for that crying baby at two in the morning, for that teething six-month-old and for all of those middle of the night feedings that I lost sleep for.” Unfortunately it’s usually easier for us to trust God when we look back than it is at the time we’re going through something we don’t understand.
“Basically it was a matter of learning to trust God,” Michelle says.
I asked Michelle for any words of advice for those struggling with infertility. Here’s what she said:
- Trust God. It may sound trite but try to believe that God has a plan for you and that it is a good one. Sometimes your spirit just has to tell your emotions what to do. Job said, “Though God slay me yet I will trust Him.” We all have opportunities to trust God with the “though” and the “yet”.
- Find a mentor. No one in Michelle’s family had ever experienced infertility so she was completely unprepared when it became a significant part of her life. Fortunately for her a family friend had walked the path of infertility then miscarriage and had ultimately chosen adoption. She encouraged Michelle to look at all of her options and assured her that whatever happened she would be ok. Michelle has since had multiple opportunities to speak hope to other women who are struggling in that dark place she was once in because she understands it so well.
- Protect yourself. Sometimes you just need to stay away from Facebook and Instagram when you feel like you can’t see one more birth announcement or cute baby picture without coming unglued. And that’s okay.
- Find a form of therapy. For some people this may be a support group or even a grief counselor. For Michelle clarity and focus came from a blog she started and continued sharing during the whole of her infertility ordeal. In it she chronicled not only their medical journey but their spiritual and emotional ones as well. Knowing their friends and family were current with their journey helped her and Marc feel less alone and isolated during their struggles.
And for the family and friends who mean well but sometimes are unsure what to do or say Michelle offers these insights:
- Skip the platitudes. Things like “Stop trying so hard and you’ll get pregnant” or “Have you thought about adoption?” Even saying, “Just pray about it” infuriated Michelle because obviously she had already been praying about it!
- Don’t be afraid to include a childless couple in your child-centered life. Knowing their friends were probably unsure whether to invite them to their children’s birthday parties or to baby showers or other child focused events sometimes left everyone feeling awkward and at a loss. Michelle encourages the inclusion of those struggling with infertility in the normal activities and events of life. The last thing they need to feel is ostracized or excluded. The emotions they feel may be a mix of joy and sorrow but even that is better than being left out.
- Consider ways we might make Mother’s Day or Father’s Day easier on the infertile couple. Mention is usually made of moms, grandmoms, stepmoms and sometimes a tribute to deceased moms on Mother’s Day but rarely is there acknowledgment of those who are struggling to become moms or who have lost children through miscarriage. This might be a way of making them feel included and a way of acknowledging their pain.
Psalm 34:18 “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves those who have a crushed spirit.” Scripture says in 1 Samuel 1:19 that the Lord remembered Hannah. Sweet Sister, if you are traveling the stony path of infertility please know that God has not forgotten you. And no matter how your story unfolds I pray your faith is strong in The One who is holding your hand.