Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Timothy P. O'MalleyOctober 22, 2012

Do you have children?” For most 30-somethings, this harmless question is the opening volley of a round of acceptable chit-chat. Colleagues at the office fill silences with news of recent pregnancies, first Communions and athletic milestones in their children’s lives. At the barbershop, the shearing of hair is accompanied by regaling the barber with mundane details of one’s progeny. College reunions become an occasion not simply to reminisce about chemistry class or the bizarre rituals of freshman orientation, but to meet the miniature version of the guy down the hall, who once set up a slip-and-side on the quad when the temperature climbed above 50 degrees.

For my wife and me, however, a question about our brood never offers an escape route from awkward social interactions, but is rather the prelude to uncomfortable conversations with strangers and confidants alike. “No children,” we say, our voices revealing our discomfort with the question. How can you say to a complete stranger, a trusted teacher, a friendly cleric, a college classmate: “We’re infertile”?

How can you say to a complete stranger, a trusted teacher, a friendly cleric, a college classmate: “We’re infertile”?

The Diagnosis and Aftermath

In the Old Testament, Hannah gives birth to Samuel after years of infertility and sings, “The barren wife bears seven sons, while the mother of many languishes” (1 Sm 2:5). As a theologian, I am well aware of the function of infertility in the Scriptures. When the aged Sarah, the elderly Hannah and the mature Elizabeth give birth, the reader is invited to remember that God is the major actor in salvation. The surprising reversal of infertility in the Bible is a sign of new life coming from death, an action made possible by God, who is the creator and sustainer of human life. But that part of me who has spent the last six years praying for a child cannot help but read Hannah’s song as a cry of relief. After years of barrenness and tears, finally a child!

When my wife and I were first married, we never imagined that we might join the ranks of Abraham and Sarah, Elkanah and Hannah, Elizabeth and Zechariah. We met before our senior year at the University of Notre Dame and became engaged a little over a year after we began to date. Like so many Notre Dame couples before us, our nuptials took place at the university’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart, where the priest prayed over us: “Bless them with children and help them to be good parents. May they live to see their children’s children.” In our first year of marriage in Boston, we decided it was time to begin a family. Month one passed. Month two. Month three. Six months later, our home became the anti-Nazareth as we awaited an annunciation that never came. The hope-filled decision to conceive a child became a bitter task of disheartened waiting. After a year, we began to see infertility specialists, who concluded that we should be able to have a child. No low sperm counts. No problems with either of our reproductive systems. The verdict: inexplicable infertility.

Our home became the anti-Nazareth as we awaited an annunciation that never came.

Unexplained infertility is a surprisingly miserable diagnosis. Something about my psyche was prepared for a scientific explanation—one in which our very fine doctors acknowledged that unless an act of God took place, no human life would emerge from intercourse between Kara and me. Indeed, a fair number of tears would have been shed by both of us. But with the diagnosis of inexplicable infertility, conception is scientifically possible. With every slight change in Kara’s cycle, a glimmer of hope rises in our hearts, only to be dashed with the arrival of menstruation. Kind-hearted family, friends and colleagues who learn about our infertility share stories about a mother or sister who finally became pregnant. But we have no way of knowing if we will one day join the ranks of the middle-aged, first-time parents.

The aftermath of the diagnosis was painful for both of us. It affected not simply our friendships and our own relationship, but also our spiritual lives. Our infertility gradually seeped into our life of prayer. Every morning, I rise and ask God for a child. I encounter the chilly silence of a seemingly absent God. Early on I found consolation in the language of the psalms, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” (Ps 22:2). Like the psalmist, I had my “enemies”: the friendly priest, who, upon learning that Kara and I do not have children, made it a point to say each time he saw me, “No children, right?”; the Facebook feed filled with announcements of pregnancies and births, a constant reminder of our empty nest. Even God became my nemesis: Why have you duped me, O Lord? Why us? We have given our lives to you, and our reward is pain and suffering.

Such self-pity, while pleasant enough for a time, is exhausting and a sure way to narcissism. We began to imagine that ours was the only life full of disappointment. We closed ourselves off from relationships with others, particularly those with children, as a way of protecting ourselves from debilitating sorrow. I ceased praying, because the words I uttered grew vapid, insipid, uninspiring. I entered Sheol, cut off from the land of the living. Something had to change.

A School of Prayer

How did I escape this hell? First, I learned to give myself over to a reality beyond my control. Life is filled with any number of things that happen to us. We are diagnosed with illnesses. Our family, despite our love, falls apart because of fighting among siblings over how to handle the remaining years of a parent’s life. We die. The beginning of true Christian faith is in trusting that even in such moments, God abides with us. This God invites us to offer our sorrow, our very woundedness, as an act of love. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., wrote in The Divine Milieu:

Christ has conquered death, not only by suppressing its evil effects, but by reversing its sting. By virtue of Christ’s rising again, nothing any longer kills inevitably, but everything is capable of becoming the blessed touch of the divine hands, the blessed influence of the will of God upon our lives…. For those loving God, all things are converted into good.

Praying the psalms again was the beginning of my own conversion toward the good. I learned that in uttering these words from a wounded heart, my voice became Christ’s. My suffering, my sorrow has been whispered into the ear of the Father for all time. The echo of my words in an empty room called my heart back to authentic prayer. Whenever I was tempted to enter into self-pity, I used short phrases from the psalms to bring myself back toward the Father. The psalms became the grammar of my broken speech to God.

This God invites us to offer our sorrow, our very woundedness, as an act of love.

Second, I began to meditate upon the crucifix whenever I entered a church. Gazing at the crucifix for long periods, I discovered how God’s silence in my prayer was stretching me toward more authentic love. In contemplating the silence of the cross, the image of Christ stretched out in love, I could feel my own will stretched out gradually to exist in harmony with the Father’s, to accept the cup that we have been given. I found new capacities for love available to me. I became especially attentive to the suffering of the widow, the immigrant, the lonely and all those who come to Mass with a wounded heart. My meditation upon the image of the cross has given me the strength to go forward with the process of adoption and foster care. The cross sustains me as Kara and I continue to wait for a child, who may need more love than we could ever imagine giving.

Third, in my formation into prayer through infertility, I have grown to appreciate the silence and half-sentences of God. Often, words still hurt too much for me to utter. In such sorrow, I have no energy in prayer. All I have left is an imitation of the very silence I hear in response to my petitions. Through entering into God’s own silence, I find my own bitterness transformed into trust and hope, a kind of infused knowledge of God’s love that I have come to savor. At times, albeit rarely, this silence results in a gift of exhilarating bliss—as if for a moment, I am totally united to God. Most often, it is a restful silence in which I hear no words. I savor such moments because only here do I receive the balm for the sorrow that often floods my soul throughout the day.

Fourth, our infertility has slowly led me to a deeper appreciation of the eucharistic quality of the Christian life. For years, I talked with far too much ease about the “sacrifice of the Mass”—how all of our lives must become an offering, a gift to the Father through the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. In fact, true self-gift is hard. It is hard to give yourself away to a God who does not seem to listen to your prayers. It is hard to wait for a child who may never come. It is hard to love your spouse when you are distracted by the phantasms of sorrow that have become your dearest friend. It is hard to muster a smile when your friends announce that they will be having another child. It is just hard.

At such moments, I do not know what else to do but to seek union with Christ himself; to enter more deeply into the eucharistic logic of the church, where self-preservation is transformed into self-gift. The Eucharist continues to teach me that I cannot do it myself. I cannot climb out of the sorrow, the sadness, the misery. But I can give it away. I can slowly enter into the eucharistic life of the church, to become vulnerable, self-giving love even in the midst of sorrow. Knowing, of course, that in the Resurrection, such love has conquered death.

As I have learned most of all through the Eucharist, Kara and I were not married for ourselves. We were married that our lives might become an offering of love for the world. For our nieces, for our nephews, for a child not biologically our own but whom we hope one day to welcome. Even our infertility is not about us. It’s about how God can transform our sorrow into joy, how even in the shadow of this cross, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. Of course, our woundedness remains. But prayer has given it a shape, a reason, a participation in God’s very life. Even through this suffering, the Word desires to become flesh in my life through a prayerful obedience to the will of a God whom I cannot quite comprehend.

Sometimes I allow myself to daydream about having a child. I recognize now that such a moment may never come, that nothing in human life is sure. That is why learning to pray through infertility has been a reformation of my vision of grace as gift, not guarantee. If grace were guaranteed, would such moments be grace, a gift beyond what we could imagine? So we stand waiting for Gabriel, learning to hear the angel’s voice in new ways: in time spent with our godchildren, in signing up to serve as foster parents, in delighting in each other’s presence. And the more I enter into the grace of prayer, the more I see that Gabriel has already come in these moments: Let it be done to me according to your word.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
11 years 7 months ago

It is a joy to read your words on the pages of America. You have such a gift of spiritual depth and a way of expressing that in the midst of reality that you truly bless the Church, academia, and the world. I am deeply moved by your words, experience, and embrace of God's gracious mystery.

This article, born out of your experience, is no doubt a solice to those who share your experience and an education to those who do not.

11 years 7 months ago
Sharing the depth of your sorrow and the depth of your love is an inspiration and recollection of our past. We adopted 2 beautiful sons and are blessed with grandchildren more loving and precious than we could ever have imagined. God works always in our favor and the care of all. I cannot fathom my life without my sons. No one can completely understand this unless he/she has suffered thru it. Suffering brings abundant joy.
James Murrray
11 years 7 months ago
Tim - this article alone made me subscribe to America.  Not to appear trite but 'I feel your pain.'  Ours was the low sperm count reason, however, it still hurts as technologies that the Church approves were tried:  experimental drugs, surgery, etc.  Yes, the surgery and drugs were on me, you know, the guy.  Sparing everyone the details, we finallly conceived.  What joy.  Then he (yes, we knew he was a wanted son) died.  His name was to be 'Emmitt' and I tear up even writing this nearly 20 years after.  There is a happy ending here, another son came but no others.  He is fine medically and great all other ways.  For the record, he was made 'the old fashioned way.'   Fortunately, I also had an Uncle, a priest, a Ph.D. in psychology who even in his late 70's when asked about using reproductive technologies that the Church would, let's say frown upon, said "Oh God, when it comes to something like this do whatever you think is right."  He was right.  Sorry but sometimes the official Church ... don't get me started.  You and your Wife are on a journey that is most taxing, stressful, and wicked (is that the right word?).   I will add too that we adopted an older abandoned child from Russia - who has taught us so much about early childhood psychology.  If you go this route, and I do recommend it too, if you do not adopt an infant then look for a child who has known some parental support in life, that sets the internal compass of attachment.  But I realize it is too easy to just say adopt, it's all just more of a basic internal driver to create life with someone you love.  It's a poor substitute to save a life with someone you love but still satisfying and Divine.  In this whole area, God Bless, and do whatever you think is right.  Yes, we went the technological route too without success and quit.  Do what you think is right and trust the Divine to understand.  Best.
Beth Cioffoletti
11 years 7 months ago
I could have written this article 30 years ago.  I prayed every prayer, felt every sorrow. Every month I mourned my un-conceived children.  Once I wrote a poem, "birthed by barrenness" about something that is born from this desert of non-life.

We adopted a child and all that sadness became transformed into joy and delight and gratitude.

But I still carry within me that something that was birthed by barrenness.
Beth Cioffoletti
11 years 7 months ago
... I think that rather than "wisdom" that something that is birthed by barrenness has something to do with a rock-hewn trust that was forged in my soul during those years - deeply disappointed in what I expected life to be, and a God who answered prayers, I learned the way of the non-answer, the emptiness, the hollowed out hole in my soul - and I began to trust and follow and even fall in love with THAT (if that makes any sense at all) ...
Michael Casey
11 years 7 months ago
If it at all possible, emotionally or financially, consider adoption. We were where you are six years ago and it felt like hell. I prayed a lot, but felt like I was praying into a hollow well, and each month got worse. We dreaded family gatherings and the people at work had long stopped asking me "Any plans for children?" One day my wife, who was really sick of fertility drugs etc. suggested adoption, and it was like the first break of sunlight after weeks of rain. A kind cousin, out of the blue, offered financial assistance (guess I wasn't really praying down a well), and a year later we had a wonderful little boy, Luis, from Guatemala. Three months after Luis came home, my wife started throwing up her breakfast, and we realized Luis was going to have a sibling (guess I wasn't praying down a well). A year to the day after Luis came home little brother Danny was born.
     Now (boys are 3 and 6) those dark days seem a lifetime away. But this fine article brought it all back.  Keep praying, but consider if possible that there are lots of little ones out there praying for a nice home and kind, loving parents also.  Best of luck.
Christa Beranek
11 years 7 months ago
Thank you for writing this article.  We have been in the same situation (unexplained infertility), and though there is a fair amount of support for infertiity, I never found much that was directed to people of faith: that there are spiritually more and less healthy ways to deal with the situation, the emotions it brings, and the tests to one's relationship with one's spouse.  I think that in sharing your journey through this you are doing a great service.  Praying for you and your family, whatever size and however you may be brought together.
Edward Emmenegger
11 years 7 months ago
In 1980, my wife and I traveled the same road you are on now.  We found koinonia in an infertility support group, and the Holy Spirit leading us to two adoption agencies.  Now our three adopted and one conceived children are 31, 29, 28 and 24.  The Paschal Mystery became both the meaning we found to hang onto, and the pattern for our lives.  I continue to look upon that three year journey as living proof of God's compassionate love.  Keep praying, but seek Christ in the people who are placed in your lives, and stay open to the riches God has in store.  Mostly, thank you for sharing your story and bringing hope to couples now in the deepest darkness before the dawn.
11 years 6 months ago
What a marvelous reflection on disappointment which we all face in one way or another.
Thank you for sharing your graced process of identifying with the Crucified One.  May your
dream be fulfilled by the God who loves you.  Peace, Sheral

The latest from america

Children cheer as they celebrate the first World Children's Day at the Olympic Stadium in Rome, Italy, May 25, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)
Pope Francis decided to hold a World Children’s Day to draw global attention to the plight and suffering of so many of the world’s 2.3 billion children from poverty, war and the effects of climate change.
Gerard O’ConnellMay 26, 2024
This week on “Jesuitical,” Zac and Ashley are live at Xavier University in Cincinnati with their spiritual director, Eric Sundrup, S.J., sharing their own experiences discerning their paths as young adults and offering insights from Jesuit spirituality to young people navigating big life questions.
JesuiticalMay 24, 2024
China's flag is seen as Pope Francis greets the crowd during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican
Marking the centenary of the first plenary council of the Catholic Church in China, the Vatican hosted a conference earlier this week on challenges and opportunities for Chinese Catholics.
Gerard O’ConnellMay 24, 2024
Jesuit Jacques Monet sitting at a table in a restaurant, smiling and toasting with a glass of white wine. He is wearing a dark suit and a tie with a pin on his lapel.
Jacques Monet, S.J., passed away peacefully on May 14 at the age of 94, leaving behind a great legacy to his church and nation.
John Meehan, S.J.May 24, 2024