This Christmas, I preached through the Christmas story as told by Luke. For all the times I've read the story, I've never noticed this small line hidden in the middle of the Christmas narrative. But this year was different. This year, that small, innocent line refused to go unnoticed and forced me to see it.
After Elizabeth became pregnant with John, she praised God. "The Lord has done this for me," she said. "In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people."
We know that disgrace. My wife knows that disgrace. I know that disgrace.
No, it isn't the same type of disgrace that Elizabeth experienced. In that day, an inability to bear children was equated with sin. It was assumed that the reason for barrenness was your own doing. You must have done something. You must have something to repent of. Some sin you committed. Some reason God was withholding his blessing from you.
You created the problem by your disobedience, and now God is punishing you.
Thankfully, the shame of disapproving eyes and rumored gossip doesn't surround infertility in America anymore. But shame still exists.
Shame grows with constant thermometer readings. Peeing on countless sticks. Needles. Probes. Tiny plastic cups. Forever counting days. Sex that feels mechanical and forced because "It's time."
Shame slips in with the silent words spoken as another month pregnant only with hope passes by. It is amazing how much silence surrounds the struggle of infertility. The silence of not wanting to talk about it. The silence of wanting to talk about it, but being scared. The silence of trying to avoid the one thing you are wondering about, but not wanting to focus on it, and yet having your mind dominated by it. The silence of not feeling comfortable talking with others about it because it involves sex. The silence because you just don't want to deal with the questions.
That silence gives shame all the voice it needs to whisper silently, "Something is wrong with you."
Infertility is a shame-filled, silent trial, isolating couples in closed bedrooms of pain.
As a man, the pain of infertility is difficult to talk about. While my wife and I walked through our experiences together, she felt the pain of not being able to conceive more acutely than I did. Pregnancy was failing to take place in her body. Even though the doctors couldn't find anything wrong with either of us, she was the one scheduling the monthly ultrasounds. She was the one taking medications. She was the one physically being reminded every 28 days of the failure to conceive. The pain was much closer and much more tangible for her. And all I could do was stand back and watch. I felt hopeless. Unable to do what I normally do when situations aren't what I want them to be: Fix it.
We stood in the kitchen having the same discussion we've had every month. The sadness was making Sarah cry and I stood there helpless. I hugged her, but I couldn't do anything else. I couldn't fix this. This was out of my control.
Helplessness is not a feeling I do well with.
As I held my crying wife, I didn't cry, but quietly grieved and started pulling back from hope. The grieving brought on by infertility is different from other grief I have experienced because you do not grieve what was lost, but what never was. At some point, you start grieving for what never will be.
Men don't talk often about infertility. My guess is that, if we started the conversations, a lot of guys would feel helpless. When people dream of starting their family, no one sees years of disappointment and frustration as part of the process. No, when we dream of starting our family it is a nice and tidy schedule. "First we will go off birth control, then in 3-6 months we will get pregnant." Wouldn't that be nice?
Instead, those struggling with infertility find themselves dealing with resignation, bitterness, anger and exhaustion.
Exhaustion from fighting to hold on to hope.
Infertility is a brutal cycle that steps on hands gripping hope. The cycle begins each month with hope only to be followed by disappointment.
At any point in this cycle you are constantly reminded of what you cannot do by running into countless pregnant women in the grocery store, at church or at the gym.
Church is a good place to find support, but it isn't always a tower of refuge. The American church is one place in our culture where marriage and kids is an expectation. Singles are constantly met with questions about when they will get married, and unnecessarily pitied or prayed for when a potential spouse isn't in the picture. Young marrieds are bombarded about when they will start having kids, as if their marriage doesn't really matter until a child validates it.
Around church, having kids is talked about as if it is like scheduling a tune-up for your car. "Isn't it time the two of you start having kids?" is one of the most painful questions a couple dealing with infertility can hear. Because that's exactly how they feel! It is time for them to start having kids. They've been hoping and praying and wanting and waiting for a long time for God to respond to their request. So yes, it is time, but no, kids don't show up on a timetable.
My wife and I struggled for 14 months before we surprisingly found ourselves expecting our now-3-year-old son. We were literally starting to have all the testing done the next month when my wife woke me up with the news that she was pregnant.
So many couples never wake up to that news.
It's now been over two years that we have tried for another child. Two years and an ectopic pregnancy that we had to end. I'm not writing because my wife and I have discovered some secret to living with infertility. I don't think there is any. I'm not writing because I have some great pastoral wisdom to help comfort those who are struggling with infertility. In fact, I don't even know how to end this post. All I have is this:
You are not alone. Your struggle may be in silence, but you are not alone.
I don't have a magic Bible verse of comfort, or prayer of peace, or words of wisdom, or any answers.
I only have "me too." Us too. We know. We understand. And we mourn with you.
So may we, together, accept that there is nothing wrong with us and see we are simply sharing in the human experience -- which is simultaneously beautiful and painful, disheartening and hopeful.