I was sitting with a group of young wives I had just met. One woman was days away from delivering her first baby, so it was natural for the conversation to turn to babies and childbirth and even more natural I suppose for them to be curious about me, since I was the only mother in the group. I never saw it coming, the question that caught me up short: “So…what was childbirth like for you, Carolyn?”
As if on cue, everyone turned to me. It was a moment I will never forget. I had a story to tell—a miraculous one that still stuns me with God’s unexpected goodness (adopting a daughter). It wasn’t the story they wanted to hear. Not only did their sudden interest in me evaporate, I felt discredited as a woman. I had nothing to contribute to their conversation, which they resumed without me. I have since learned to excuse myself when women start sharing their delivery room experiences.
The emotional pain of infertility often is not understood because it is such a private and personal condition. To share this requires extreme emotional vulnerability. Unfortunately, the comments and attitudes of people are not always conducive to a man or woman feeling safe to open up. (See previous blog “So, Isn’t it Time You Start a Family?”)
It is important for a woman (and man) dealing with infertility to grieve the loss of her/his dream to have a child. The infertility experience involves many hidden losses for individuals, their loved ones, and society as a whole, including:
• Loss of the pregnancy and birth experience
• Loss of a genetic legacy and loss for future contributing citizens of the next generation
• Loss of the parenting experience
• Loss of a grand-parenting relationship
• Loss of feelings of self-worth
• Loss of stability in family and personal relationships
• Loss of work productivity
• Loss of a sense of spirituality and sense of hope for the future
Well-known Elisabeth Kubler-Ross describes the grief stages in her book On Death and Dying. Each stage of loss is experienced to a greater or lesser degree, and one can go back and forth between stages–rarely in chronological order–before coming to acceptance. All of the grief stages apply to grieving infertility, although the time line and intensity will vary.
Denial: It is often difficult for a woman who is having trouble conceiving to even use the word “infertile” because it has such a sound of finality, an end to her dream of having a child. However, denial also prevents her from being able to seek help, to look into options of testing to see if there are specific medical reasons for her inability to conceive, and to consider whether she and her husband want to consider medical treatment for infertility.
Shepherds who understand this difficulty may gently coach women by asking if they have looked into other options, naming possible medical treatments. Offering a question such as, “Have you been given any new information or diagnosis?” may be just the prompt she needs to address her reality. Even if a woman is not ready to go that next step, she will note the shepherd is a helpful resource when she and her husband are ready to discuss other options.
Anger: It is often extremely difficult for a woman to admit her anger because it can affect her at so many levels. Some women feel angry with their own bodies for “betraying” them or at their spouse if the infertility is medically attributed to the husband. She might feel anger toward other women who are able to conceive children easily and she perceives that they take it for granted that anyone can have children. She may be angry with God for not answering prayers, for not hearing, or not caring. A woman who is angry may feel guilty about her emotions and try to deny having such feelings.
A shepherd may provide the safe place a woman needs to talk about the hurt, frustration and fears that are behind her feelings of anger. She will be encouraged to express her feelings and thoughts behind the anger. She will also be encouraged to tell God directly how she is feeling about Him, and she will be assured God is big enough to handle her pain. A caregiver who listens well and prompts this woman in pain to talk will be a needed catalyst for the healing processes.
Depression: When childlessness becomes the overwhelming focus of her life, a woman can become depressed past the point of experiencing sadness to not being able to find any joy in life. At this point her marriage and other relationships with friends and family are affected. Some sadness is normal but if it begins to spill into all areas of her life for an extended period of time, she should be referred to professional help.
Bargaining: This seems to be a common theme in the prayers of infertile women; the promise to God that if He will answer their prayer for a child, they will use their experience to minister to others to His glory. It is sort of a “if you give me this, I’ll give you that” concept. The best place for a woman struggling with infertility to grow toward is a place of being able to accept God’s plan for her life, a process that takes time.
A shepherd may assist by gently prompting a woman’s relationship with God to move to a place of being able to answer affirmatively the question, “Will you still love me even if I do not give you what you are asking?”
Next blog will include the final stage plus good resources.