Infertility. The word holds a multitude of connotations. Some may feel indifference towards it – it has never touched them, never entered their vocabulary and possibly never will. To others, the word brings with it a tidal wave of emotions: anger, fear, desperation, anguish, loss, envy. Every birth announcement, school play, birthday, Mothers’ or Fathers’ Day and Christmas is tinged with longing and sadness. Millions of couples have experienced these feelings and many continue to do so without their longing for a child ever being brought to fruition.
Why, then, do these couples often feel so isolated? Why do so many Christians who have experienced infertility feel uncared for and alone in church, perhaps too embarrassed or ashamed to admit any problems or inadvertently shunned by their fellow church members, for whom having a big family has just been a matter of course? A place where they should feel loved and welcomed, a refuge from the struggles of life, becomes to them cold, uncaring and insensitive. They watch while their church offers groups for singles, young people, senior citizens, students and families and wonder where they fit in.
As someone who has personally experienced infertility for a number of years, I have often wondered what part the Christian church could play in reaching and helping people like me.
I feel that there are three main strands that encompass how to care for those in our church who are struggling with infertility: knowledge, compassion and sensitivity.
Firstly, a knowledge of what infertility actually entails is vital. Infertility is not solved by ‘just relaxing’, nor is it a problem that simply disappears after having one child: secondary infertility is very common. It can be caused by a number of complex medical factors or diagnosed as ‘unexplained’. For one of my friends who also experienced infertility, one of the most difficult question she was asked was ‘Whose fault is it?’. Other friends have been advised to ‘adopt and you’ll get pregnant’, another unhelpful and completely unsound comment! It is so important that we are aware of the causes of infertility before we try to wade in with advice and unknowingly hurtful comments. Jesus’ example is very helpful in this context. While He was talking to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), He was able to get alongside her because he was aware of the problems in her life and had intimate knowledge of them (4:16-18). He did not judge or condemn her with this knowledge but led her to Him (4: 21-26).
Compassion is also an important element in walking alongside those on their infertility journey. We are called as Christians to ‘clothe (ourselves) with compassion, kindness…gentleness and patience’ (Colossians 3:12). Some people just do not know what to say to those in their congregations who are struggling with infertility and consequently avoid them for fear of upsetting them or showing insensitivity. It can be especially hard for those who already have children to know what the best thing is to say to someone who does not. However, I have experienced so much love and encouragement from those who, although not fully able to understand how it feels to long for children, have prayed for me, wept with me and laid a comforting hand on mine. Sometimes the smallest act of kindness can mean so much. It can often dramatically change people’s experience of church in the midst of trials.
Lastly, sensitivity plays a significant role in helping infertile couples. While it may be encouraging, for example, to read that all of the women in the Bible who prayed for children were eventually given them, it does not help to be reminded of this on a regular basis! If we can be sensitive about how we include children and families in our conversations, church calendars and comments, it would enable couples facing infertility to feel safe and welcomed at church instead of excluded. Mothers’ Day can be an especially painful time of year for many women, including those who have experienced miscarriage. Showing sensitivity to others in these situations reflects the love that is ‘patient’ and ‘kind’ and ‘always protects’ (1 Corinthians 13:4 & 7).
Infertility is complex and wide reaching. It is also not often discussed or addressed in our churches. Perhaps if we bring it out into the open more and offer help, love and comfort to those in our congregations who are experiencing it, many who feel utterly alone in a crowd of worshippers may eventually feel as though someone really does care.