I received an email today from someone who is a part of my past…a part that was painful. It brought back a lot of the emotions that I felt during this particularly dark part of my life. This time period lasted about three years, but I will bear the emotional scars of it until I die. For some women, there is no ending. It breaks my heart in a million pieces. This “dark age”, if you will, began when we tried to start a family, and became devastating when we were labeled “infertile”.
The word makes me shudder because it brings back a flood of emotions, but it also makes me grateful because my heavenly Father included it as part of my story. Without it, I would not have gained a passion for adoption, and would not have the two precious boys that make my life so happy. Without it, I would not have gained a more precious, intimate relationship with God…I NEEDED Him. We all need Him every day, but I needed Him like never before if I wanted to emotionally survive each day. Without it, I may not fully appreciate the miracle that is growing inside of me right now…I am in absolute awe and wonder. Without it, I would not have gained a better appreciation for sensitivity, and a strong desire to choose my words carefully lest I hurt someone emotionally. Without it, I may not have seen the tender side of my husband, who needed no explanation when I walked in the door from work crying…he would simply hold me for a few minutes and then quietly start to cook dinner so I wouldn’t have to. Yes, I can be thankful for this painful time, and I am.
Now that I am on the other side of infertility (and adoption), I feel like I can speak out on a few things for women who are struggling with it. Everything I say may not be true for every woman who goes through infertility. I am just speaking based on what I went through and have watched other women experience during this. In this particular email I received today, I was told “before you mentor anyone else, you need to examine yourself first”. Isn’t part of being a mentor sharing what you went through, the way you handled things, and how you would or wouldn’t do things differently? Hindsight is 20/20, and I know that I wasn’t always easy to be around, but I can say that if women going through infertility were given a little grace, their feelings validated, and given a little sensitivity…there may be a lot fewer of what are labeled as “bitter infertile women”. Infertility is devastating – emotionally, physically, spiritually, and financially.
It is devastating emotionally because it is the loss of a dream. Most women have dreamed of their wedding day and having children from the time they were little girls. You marry a man that you are so in love with, you enjoy some time “just the two of you”, and then you decide it is time to start a family. You talk about what your baby may look like – will it have daddy’s eyes and mommy’s nose (in our case, hopefully not!)? You think of creative ways that you will tell friends and family your big news, and you start to write down potential baby names. A few months pass by with no pregnancy. You’re not worried yet because you have had friends who didn’t conceive until after 6-8 months of trying, but then more months pass by and you start to wonder if there is something wrong with you. After a full twelve months, you go to the doctor because at this point there is cause for concern. You and your husband both go through tests and you feel embarrassed. You may get results back and sit and cry because they found something wrong with you and you feel guilty because it’s your “fault”. On the other hand, you may get results back and fight feelings of bitterness because there is something wrong with your husband and it’s “his fault” that you cannot conceive. You put on a happy face and pretend like everything is okay, although on the inside you are panicking…”I may never be a mother. If I can never be a mother, I don’t want to live. I don’t want to be childless.” You have many friends and family members who are of childbearing age, and many of them become pregnant during this time. Each time you hear their wonderful news, you say “congratulations” because in your heart you truly are happy for them, but then you cry the rest of the day because you are reminded again of your closed womb and empty arms. You attend a few baby showers, but then you and your husband decide that it is counterproductive for you to subject yourself to baby showers if you are going to cry the rest of the day and be set back emotionally…so you start just sending a gift. You face many well-meaning yet insensitive comments. You decide that sensitivity training should become a part of the regular elementary school curriculum for every human being because if one more person tells you “you just need to relax and cut down on your stress and you will become pregnant”, you are going to scratch their eyeballs out. Even some close to you may feel like you are withdrawing or becoming bitter, and may approach you about it with good intentions, but it makes you feel worse. For most of my journey I was working with older folks (who sometimes don’t have a lot of tact) at an Ophthalmology practice. Each day I was asked by my patients when I was going to start having children, why I didn’t already have any children, when was my pregnant coworker’s baby due, and told maybe I should drink the same water she drank. Ouch. You feel defective, awkward, less-than, and forgotten.
It is devastating physically for several reasons. One, the emotional drainage makes you tired. Two, you may have to start some sort of medication to make you ovulate or to make your egg quality better, or you may have to undergo some sort of procedure whether it be exploratory or corrective. Many women have to give themselves injections month after month, and/or take pills that might as well be gold (I once dropped a pill that rolled under the fridge…I got a flashlight and found that sucker and swallowed it, under- the-fridge-fuzz and all. I figured if I paid $250 for about five pills, I was gonna find it!). Most of the medications make you a little more, um, crazy than you already are. They can blur your vision, make you sick, etc. No fun. You also have to make repeated doctor’s visits and have more ultrasounds than women do during pregnancy…it just doesn’t seem right. After all of this, you may have a procedure called an IUI (intra-uterine insemination) or an even more complex IVF (in vitro fertilization). You go through the dreaded two week wait, and then you either rejoice because it worked, or you want to lay down and die because after all that, you’re still not pregnant. And you start all over.
It is devastating spiritually because it throws you into what I call a crisis of faith. You wonder if God really does love you. Does He love so-and-so more because they received the desire of their heart without effort? Does He really hear your prayers? Are you being punished for something that you did in the past? How could such pain be a part of His plan? Did He forget about you? Many days I cried into my journal. I prayed for a pregnancy, in faith that God would grant it that next month. I couldn’t understand when it didn’t happen. Was my faith not strong enough? I can now look back and see how it did fit into His beautiful plan, but in the midst of it, “you can’t see the forest for the trees”.
It is devastating financially because infertility testing and treatment is EXPENSIVE. Most of it is out of pocket expense. Procedures are not covered by insurance…they should be. To an infertile person, their condition is just as devastating to them as heart disease, diabetes, or any other chronic illness you may think of. Some people choose not to do treatment and some do. That is their choice between them and their spouse and God. We chose after testing and talking to our reproductive endocrinologist that we would do an IUI. We did two, and after the second one failed, we chose to pursue adoption. We felt we were beating a dead horse and that our main goal was ultimately to be parents, not pregnant. Some people do many months or years of expensive treatment. I may not agree with the lengths that some go, but like I said, that is between them and their spouse and God to decide. Letting go of any dream is hard. Adoption is also very expensive and after spending money on infertility testing and treatment, it may seem unattainable. I remember when we were praying about adoption and I saw that the cost could range from $20,000-$50,000: I was speechless. We went into the adoption process with enough money only to apply, and prayed that God would provide – and He did! When we started the adoption journey, I still felt the pain of infertility although I knew adoption was God’s Plan A for us. Several people felt that I should have been over it once we decided to adopt. That may be the case for some women, but I can say that for most women who suffer from infertility and go on to adopt, the pain is still there. You experience a new kind of joy, and the pain becomes more bearable, but that wound is never fully healed.
Do you have someone in your life who is suffering from infertility and you just don’t know how to help them or reach out to them? My best advice, having been on the other side, is handle them with care and extend grace to them. Validate their feelings – let them know that you understand their pain is real and you are so sorry. Tell them you are praying for them. Don’t avoid them because you don’t know what to say. If you are close to them and you become pregnant, tell them in private and choose tender words…it will mean the world to them that you cared enough about their feelings to do so. Don’t talk about your pregnancy around them –let them bring it up (and they will bring it up if given space and time). Invite them to your baby shower because they still want to feel included, but don’t expect them to come – they may come, or they may pick out a thoughtful gift and give it to you ahead of time. Choose your words carefully (and this goes for everything in life)- use some sensitivity! Pray for them. Pray that God will rescue them from the pain they are feeling and quickly grant their desire to be a parent through whatever means He wills. Pray for peace. Pray for their emotional stability and their relationship with their husband. Send them an encouraging verse from scripture and/or a song that you heard that encouraged you. My close friend Debbie would do this for me on particularly hard days, and she also would admittedly edit her text messages before sending to be sure that they were sensitive and encouraging! There are many things I am sure she wanted to say and I probably needed a good kick in the butt some days, but she knew that would only make me feel worse and what I needed was a good friend and a shoulder to cry on. (She also brought me lidocaine alcohol swabs and Elmo bandaids and m&m candies when I had to give myself my first injection…sorry guys, she is my friend and you can’t have her! )
What not to say:
“If you would just relax you would get pregnant.” – There are real medical reasons why you can’t conceive. It has more to do than just relaxing.
“You are under too much stress to get pregnant.” – Again, real medical reasons, and no one can completely eliminate stress from their life.
“Just adopt and you will become pregnant.” -It does NOT happen for everyone who adopts. I personally know four families who have adopted and not gone on to conceive.
“You just need to wait for God’s timing.” – There is truth in this, but not what they need to hear. They know it in their head, but they get tired of hearing it all the time.
“I knew this person who tried for ten years before she got pregnant- but it did happen!” – Not encouraging!
“So and so is pregnant- maybe you should drink the same water.” – Not funny!
“Are you sure you’re doing it right?”… and the list goes on.
What to say:
“I love you and I am so sorry you are going through this. It’s not fair and I know it is so hard. God does have a reason for this although it is hard to understand right now. One day we will look back on this time and see what He was doing. But until then, know that I am here, I care, and I love you.”
My blessings definitely came through raindrops, my healing through tears. I grew to know Him better, my little blessings are asleep in the next room, and my newest unexpected blessing, in my now open womb. I am so thankful for the people in my life who journeyed with me and handled me with care. Please be that for someone else who is hurting…