A thin gray wash of sterile-looking light barely illuminated the room on that early fall morning where Cheri and I found ourselves as far away from our goal of becoming parents than we could have ever imagined. For three years, we had pursued medical intervention to help us conceive, and now it had landed Cheri in the hospital with a severe case of ovarian hyper-stimulation. In our doctor’s eight years of practice, Cheri was only her second patient to have such a reaction. Fluid built up painfully around her internal organs and was siphoned off twice a day while she lay helpless in bed.
Our journey through infertility had brought marital, spiritual, financial and moral crisis to our lives. But just as Cheri became well and we finally became parents, our infertility became a very fruitful part of our marriage. It became a privilege to walk this path together.
This is what we learned through our five-year journey.
We Were Not Alone That Day
Although we spent the early months of our infertility journey in isolation and Cheri’s complications were extraordinary, we were hardly alone. In fact, once we started looking for others in the same boat as us, we realized that we did not need to look far. Our own circle of friends and acquaintances had plenty of infertility experience and wisdom.
In fact, one in eight American couples will experience infertility and require medical intervention to conceive. More than half of those cases will not be with the first child, but with subsequent children. One-third of infertility cases are in men, and one-fourth of all known pregnancies end in miscarriage. That does not include the estimated half of pregnancies that end early enough that the woman does not know she is pregnant.
All that is to say that everyone knows someone who is experiencing infertility, even if they do not know that they know.
Infertility Is Not a Woman’s Issue
Popular perceptions have almost always put the burden of fertility on women, and that has not changed for much of human history. Only in the twentieth century was it even acknowledged that men could actually be infertile at all! Even the women of the Bible equated their very womanhood with their ability to conceive, birth and raise children and despaired when they did not have the children they prayed to bear. Fertility even became a point of rivalry for sisters Rachel and Leah.
Contrary to all of this, infertility is not an issue for women to bear alone. It does not speak to a woman’s strength as a woman. It does not matter if the medical issue lies with the woman or the man. It is a human issue that husbands and wives bear together.
God Was Not Punishing Us
Another popular belief, even among women in the Bible, was that God was somehow punishing them through infertility. Thus, they would pray and plead and repent of all of their unknown sins and hope that God would see fit to “remove the shame” of childlessness from them.
The interesting thing about this is that God himself never affirms this belief that infertility is a punishment. He never tells Sarah or Hannah or any of the rest that he has found fault with any of them as women. The picture we get from the Bible is that God is providential over infertility, but that it is not a mark of sin or faithlessness.
Christian women especially may fall into the trap of trying to “pray the right way” or “just be good enough” in the hopes that God will answer prayers. That kind of false hope only traps women and adds further shame and frustration because they are actually trying to take responsibility for their infertility. No one tells a cancer patient that God is punishing him and he needs to repent. God is not punishing us through infertility either.
Life Is a Miracle
People say that babies are miracles, but perhaps we have become a bit flippant with that word “miracle.”
Infertility provided a wonderful, intimate window into just what it takes to make a miracle. We got a glimpse into just how much the odds are stacked against us, how many reasons there are for all of us to never have been born.
Along the way, none of our treatment, even the most invasive and expensive, ever supplanted the miraculous nature of life. Our treatment could only replicate what happens naturally inside the body. And none of it ever provided a guarantee. We could never make a sperm fertilize an egg. We could never force an embryo to grow. And we could not guarantee that a little embryo would implant in the uterus. And that is just the first few days of life! “Playing God” was never a question. God was still providential over every step of our treatment.
We Are Not In Control
Most of what defines “growing up” is a process of asserting more control over our lives and environments. From the time we first learn the word “No” as two-year-olds, to making plans for college, careers and marriage, we come to believe that we are in charge of our destinies.
And then we made “plans” to have children. We felt that we were “prepared” and that sense of control was revealed to be an illusion. However, this was not an illusion we mourned. It was a fantastic revelation.
Yes, we even started to feel sorry for couples whose children came easily to them, who showed up as “planned.” But we suspected that if their idea of control over their lives was still intact, their children might have something to say about that in a year or two.
We got to see our child in the first few moments of his life, just a few days after conception, nothing but a blob of cells clinging to life. For millennia, only God saw what we got to see, a human being yet unformed. God saw each of us in that state, a naked soul clothed by just a few microscopic cells, just as he sees a bird that falls from a tree. God promises that the flowers do not bloom by their own work, but because their Father loves them and tends them. And it is that same care that makes all of us alive.
Matt and Cheri Appling are the authors of “Plus or Minus: Keeping Your Life, Faith and Love Together Through Infertility,” released by Moody Publishers. They live and work in Kansas City, Missouri. Find the book on Amazon.
Photo by (Flickr CC): Ben Grey