A Cross Like Yours: Perspectives On Infertility

According to the CDC,1 about 6 percent of married women in the U.S. between the ages of 15 and 44 fit the medical definition of “infertility,” that is, being unable to conceive a child after a year of trying. In 2011, the average Catholic parish in the United States had 1,168 families.2 If your parish is average, there are 70 couples under your care who are struggling with infertility.

But the experience of infertility is broader than that. The CDC also notes that 12 percent of women in that age range in the U.S. have some kind of difficulty with getting pregnant or carrying to term. Couples who already have one or more children can suffer from secondary infertility, difficulty conceiving again after a successful pregnancy. And miscarriage carries with it its own grief.

So it is likely, then, that there are more than 70 families under your care who are carrying this cross. As you probably know from your own experience, invisible crosses are often the heaviest.

Reflecting on my experience and talking with other Catholic wives who have had similar experiences, I have come to realize that many priests who genuinely want to help are at a loss as to where to start. Many of us have gotten bad advice or heard hurtful comments from priests who are otherwise good priests — faithful to the Church’s teaching, full of love and kindness, and so on. It’s hard for us not to have the guidance we’re seeking, and I imagine it’s hard for you, too, to not be able to provide what we need. And since you’re not privy to what women talk about when there aren’t men around, and you don’t live with wives who will tell you, I’m not sure how you would learn.

My aim here is to bridge that gap.

NB: Infertility affects husbands as well as wives, and it affects men and women in profoundly different ways. I suspect women talk about this with each other more than men do, and anyway I am a woman and am not privy to men’s conversations. For this reason, I am primarily sharing what I can from my experience and that of other Catholic wives.

The first thing to know about infertility is that it’s a cross, like yours. You have your own crosses and you have some experience accepting and carrying them. Your experience of your crosses and the experience of infertility are materially different, but formally and finally the same: every cross is a sharing in the One Cross that won our salvation; every cross is a gift of God to help us grow in holiness. If you are carrying your own cross well, or trying to, then you should have some idea of what we need from you.

You’re not a doctor, surgeon, or psychologist, and you shouldn’t be expected to provide professional expertise outside your field. But you can talk about God, prayer, and sacraments; you can be a father to us. That is what we need you for.

In my own experience, I am grateful to the priests who helped me prioritize my growth in holiness over the growth of my family, who helped me accept my medical problems as my path to holiness (and as my husband’s path to holiness), who showed me that God really did have a plan for my life, who spoke and acted with the assumption that God knew and cared about my life, who sympathized with me and encouraged me, who helped me apply the Church’s teaching to some nuanced and complicated medical decisions, who provided sacraments and taught me how to pray through darkness. All of that is in your bailiwick.

Emotions are legitimately complicated. Catholic teaching — I should say, the truth about the human person, human sexuality, marriage, and family — is an affront against the contraceptive mindset of secular society, wherein children are seen as a hobby or an “extra.” The Catholic subculture subsisting within this society rightly proclaims the immorality of contraception and the good of having children, but the true proposition “it is good for married couples to have lots of children” can begin to sound like “a large family is the only way for married couples to be legitimately Catholic, or to legitimately witness to the culture of life.” Most of us remember our marriage prep courses reminding us that we must be open to children, even if those children are conceived at a time we believe is inconvenient; we’ve heard testimonial after testimonial about how unexpected children turned out to be a great joy. There is a sense that the default thinking is an aversion to children which must be combated.

This is not entirely wrong, but we must remember that the desire for children (and the desire to have a body that basically functions) is a completely normal desire. Most people, even secular people, naturally want children; most Catholics deliberately cultivated this desire as they prepared for marriage. Yet few of us recall hearing anything about the possibility that it might be difficult to conceive children, and we are surprised to find ourselves unable to do a thing in fulfillment of our God-given vocations, when irresponsible teenagers do that same thing all the time by mistake. We wonder if we are even allowed to grieve, because a life without children (or with a small family) is supposedly the easy, carefree life, contrasted with the difficult but holy life that Catholics are supposed to live. But what the Catholic Church teaches is true, and we should not be surprised to find, for example, a study showing that the emotional toll of infertility is similar to that of cancer,3 or, according to another study, similar to “cancer, hypertension, or recovering from a heart attack.”4 “Man . . . particularly suffers when he ought, in the normal order of things, to have a share in this goodness and does not have it,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II.5

Carrying this cross well requires a careful balance, because the saintly life is paradoxical. On the one hand, we need to be open to children and keep our hearts and marriages oriented towards this openness. On the other hand, we need to accept the emptiness that God has given us and not rebel against it in anger or despair. Infertility is a vocation of suffering: We must maintain a desire for children while living a life without them. It’s hard.

Like everyone, men and women who struggle with infertility can have emotions that are not rightly ordered (jealousy, envy, anger, resentment). But if the Catholic Church’s teaching on life and marriage is true, then grief itself is rightly ordered in cases of infertility. Infertility is not like lacking a fancy car. It is like never knowing your mom. We may need help to see God’s loving handiwork in the midst of our grief, but we are right to grieve. Learning how to grieve well, and to experience this grief in light of God’s providence, is often a great help to ordering the other emotions.

You don’t need to solve the problem. This miscommunication between men and women is so chronic it’s become a joke: that men want to solve problems where women are only seeking affirmation and a listening ear. But your job is not to obtain children for us, nor primarily to lend a listening ear. You should lend a listening ear, but you are a priest, and your primary job is to point us to Christ.

It is surprisingly common for priests to ask questions like, “Are you really trying?” or “How do you know you can’t conceive?” (These are both real examples, and I’m not really sure how I would answer them.) Also common is a belief that the cause of infertility is something psychological or subconsciously sinful, e.g. lack of faith, contraceptive mentality, history of sins against the sixth commandment, emotional infidelity to marriage. Recall that people who do not believe in God, people who use contraception, people who sin against the sixth commandment, and people who are unfaithful to their marriages conceive children all the time. Adoption is a great gift for many people, but it does not heal a broken body, nor does it create a child who for an instant looks like one’s own grandfather.

Healthcare professionals can help us figure out the medical problems. Psychologists can help us manage our grief and learn better habits of thought. You are a priest: We need you to point us to Christ and help us carry our cross.

Carrying one’s cross requires active patience. I love the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but its paragraph on infertility cuts to the quick, noting that “spouses who still suffer from infertility after exhausting legitimate medical procedures should unite themselves with the Lord’s Cross, the source of all spiritual fecundity.”6 But the cross of infertility is not primarily in the finality of learning that one’s marriage will never produce children. The cross is one that is carried through time, as our Lord carried his cross, not accepted with finality in a single flourish of submission but dragged forward, inch by inch, minute after minute. Helpful and sympathetic friends, our Simons and Veronicas, accompany us for part of the way, but not the whole way, and they can never really ease the pain. We fall, more than once, and experience the agony of hopelessness before getting back up and taking another step — because what else is there to do?

Carrying the cross of infertility means maintaining the emotional stamina to have everything private, intimate, and personal examined under bright lights and talked about casually, even disrespectfully — and wondering whether it’s sinfully contraceptive to take a break from medical treatment. Infertility means showing up to work, day after day, hiding a crushing loneliness and morning sickness caused not by a pregnancy but by a prescription. It means fighting for one’s marriage amid doubts: I am my husband’s cross; he would be happier with someone else; we should never have gotten married; my body is useless; I have nothing to offer to God. It is a wound that is constantly reopened and that never truly heals, at least in the natural order of things. The cross is real well before legitimate medical procedures are exhausted — and for those who eventually do have children, the scars often remain.

But this is the arena in which God is asking us to serve him and to grow in holiness, and he is not less present to us than he is to those with whom he co-creates new human life. Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J. began to understand this in his own life when he followed God’s invitation to serve Him in Russia, then (initially) found that he had no apostolate: no one would hear about God; no one sought sacraments. He was prevented even from revealing that he was a priest. He felt useless — moreover, he felt useless as a priest; the doubt went to the core of his vocation and identity. But he realized that “[God’s] will for us was the twenty-four hours of each day: the people, the places, the circumstances he set before us in that time. Those were the things God knew were important to him and to us at that moment, and those were the things upon which he wanted us to act.”7

The same is true for those who struggle to conceive and carry children. We often feel useless as women and as wives. But the question is not whether God wants me to be a mother or not; the question is what God is asking me to do in the unrepeatable circumstances of this day, this hour, this minute. Bringing a human being into the world is enormously significant. “Between God and the individual soul, however, there are no insignificant moments; this is the mystery of divine providence.”8 I am convinced that this is the best and perhaps only way to find God’s peace in the midst of infertility.

Because, in truth, the cross of infertility is not so different from the crosses carried by priests, religious sisters, parents, and single people. There really is only one Cross, and we all have our share in it. Carrying our share of it well, finding that peace and joy that our Lord promises — it’s incredibly difficult, as you know from your own life, and it cannot be done in an instant. But it is central to life in Christ. More than anything else, we need Jesus — to know his love, to see his grace, to respond to him well. You can’t heal our bodies, mend our relationships, or obtain children for us, but you don’t need to. You are a priest. Give us Jesus.

  1. www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/infertility/index.htm.
  2. Mark M. Gray, Mary L. Gautier, and Melissa A. Cidade, “The Changing Face of U.S. Catholic Parishes,” (Washington, D.C. National Association for Lay Ministry, 2011), 1. cara.georgetown.edu/caraservices/parishes%20phase%20one.pdf.
  3. A.D. Domar, P.C. Zuttermeister, and R. Friedman, “The psychological impact of infertility: a comparison with patients of other medical conditions,” National Library of Medicine, 1993. pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8142988/.
  4. “The psychological impact of infertility and its treatment,” Harvard Health Publishing, May 2009. www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/The-psychological-impact-of-infertility-and-its-treatment.
  5. Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris, 7. http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1984/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_11021984_salvifici-doloris.html.
  6. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2379.
  7. Walter Ciszek, He Leadeth Me (New York: Image Press, 1973), p. 39.
  8. Walter Ciszek, He Leadeth Me (New York: Image Press, 1973), p. 182.
Mary C. Tillotson About Mary C. Tillotson

Mary is an ESL teacher and freelance writer. She completed her MA in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) at Eastern Michigan University (2019) and is a candidate for an MA in theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. She lives in Michigan with her family.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this. I am a young married woman at the beginning of this journey and reading your words was like seeing my darkest thoughts put to paper. (Screen?) I feel less alone, in the best way possible. I’ll be bookmarking this and revisiting every few months–for myself and for others.

    • Avatar Mary C. Tillotson says:

      Rebecca, I’m sorry to hear about your difficulties, but I’m glad my piece could be helpful for you! It is a hard road, but God is with you every step of the way. Those who walk in darkness will see a great light… and that light is real. His love for you is real and it is good. To see that in the midst of darkness requires a lot of interior wrestling; it’s not a thing that can be explained. So what I’m going to do here is affirm that it’s true and encourage you to (develop, if you haven’t already, and) maintain a life of prayer and sacraments, and wrestle with God in prayer. Fidelity to prayer and sacraments — everything is in that.

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