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.