Coping with Infertility: It's Okay to Cry
“Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none.” ~ I Samuel 1:2
My friend just turned 28. When we went out to celebrate her birthday, she informed me that her biological clock is now ticking, and all she can think about is having a baby. So she’s been making plans to get more serious with her long-term boyfriend, get married, and get pregnant.
I think my clock is ticking, too. But six months of chemotherapy has left me infertile, and instead of taking the form of hope and motivation, it takes the form of grief.
It’s not a weight I feel all the time. Sometimes, like when I get ready and leave for work in less than 20 minutes, I’m very glad to have such freedom. When I get pulled into a last-minute meeting at work that lasts hours, I’m glad not to have to negotiate childcare or dinner plans.
Even when I’m taking care of children at the clinic, I enjoy being able to interact with them for 10 or 15 minutes, and then give them back to their parents.
The grief doesn’t lie in expected places; it’s more like guerilla warfare.
My friend invited me to her son’s birthday party – he was turning five. I went to Target to buy art supplies for him, and suddenly, in front of the markers and finger paint, it occurred to me that I would never have my own child who needed art supplies, and I started to cry. I scolded myself. Who cries over finger paint? What’s wrong with you?
Finally the tears stopped, I paid for the merchandise, and left the store. And I was fine - fine, I tell you - for a few months.
And then last night, I decided to see a movie. I paid $3 to see Where The Wild Things Are, which my friend told me was a must-see movie.
The movie started. There’s a boy who looks maybe nine or ten, and it shows how he adores his mom and tells her stories and lies on the floor while she’s working at the computer, just so he can watch her face.
I loved the depiction of such a sweet relationship between a child and his parent, and then, like lightning, it struck me that I will never have a little boy who dances with abandon until I laugh, who lays his head in my lap and lets me stroke his hair until he falls asleep. And I came undone. In the movie theater, with all of the lights off, I stared at the silver screen while tears streamed furiously down my face.
Last year I edited a book project that explored why pain and suffering exist and what our response should be to them. A few paragraphs talked about women who struggle with infertility, and the final conclusion was that they, in keeping with the examples of barren women in the Bible, should rest in the fact that God is aware of their pain.
I was supposed to be editing for grammar, not content, but I couldn’t resist making a comment. In the margin, I told the author I thought he was letting himself off too easily. The barren women of the Bible – Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth – did struggle with infertility. (I think Rachel summed up the anguish best when she cried, “Give me children, or else I die!”) But ultimately, they were all able to have children. Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Rachel gave birth to Joseph, Hannah had Samuel, and Elizabeth delivered John the Baptist.
If you followed the biblical example literally, you would assume that while you are now grieving the absence of a child, all you have to do is plead long enough with God and He will relent and allow you to conceive. Obviously, that’s not how it goes in this world. Not every pious woman who pleads with God for a child is granted her request.
Knowing that God is aware of our pain may be a comfort to some, but what good is it that God knows if He does not act? The greatest consolation is that not only does He acknowledge our loss; He somehow acts upon our pain.
Often the action He takes is not the one we would choose. We want the satisfaction of our longings – the positive pregnancy test, the refinished rocking chair, the Noah’s Ark nursery.
But even in the absence of these things, God is acting on our behalf. He is redeeming our loss and pain, somehow executing His sovereignty over our sorrow.
Jim Eliot, the missionary who was martyred in the 1950s, said, “Nothing given to God is ever wasted.” We surrender to God not only what is in our hands, but our hands themselves, which are empty and aching, knowing that even our loss is not wasted.
Knowing that God is acting both in presence and in absence.
Sarah Thebarge is a PK. After completing her undergraduate studies in Calif., she studied medicine at Yale and journalism at Columbia. She currently practices medicine, edits book projects, and lives in Portland, Ore. You can contact her at email@example.com.