As a little girl, I dreamed about who I would be when I grew up: astronaut, teacher, lawyer, CIA agent, even a nun. I considered them all, yet I was plagued by uncertainty. But the one thing I was certain of was my future title of “mom.” I looked forward to the days of sticky hands, messes on the floor, inexplicable meltdowns, and popsicle-smeared smiles. The good, the bad, and the ugly of raising children – I wanted them all. So when I found the right guy, got married, and began trying to expand our family, I knew I’d get pregnant quickly. I just knew we’d have 3 or 4 kids by the time I was in my early 30s – but that didn’t happen.
I am the 1 in 8, the growing number of women (and men) who struggle with infertility. And this week, National Infertility Awareness Week, is an opportunity for people like me to speak out, raise awareness about infertility, and receive comfort in other women’s stories. Check out the hashtags #niaw, #niaw2023, #1in8, and #infertility on social media for messages of hope and perseverance.
The Isolation of Infertility
Some couples have male factor infertility, where the husband’s sperm count is abnormally low. In other instances, the wife has PCOS, low ovarian reserve, or endometriosis. Many have no idea why they aren’t able to conceive. But no matter the cause of infertility, one thing remains true: infertility is lonely.
When my friends moved on from newlyweds to mommies, I remained stuck. They filled their homes with tiny clothes, diapers, and baby books, as mine became filled with medications, syringes, boxes of ovulation tests, and fertility books. Our conversations gradually shifted from light chatter about our favorite Taylor Swift songs and what to wear on Friday night to tips on the best breast pumps and how to fight morning sickness. I wanted to relate and be a part of these discussions, but you don’t know what you don’t know. And I didn’t (and still don’t) know what it feels like to be a mom.
As a Catholic woman walking through infertility, the isolation can feel even more stark. It’s no secret that the Catholic Church encourages and values motherhood. At Catholic weddings, the couple vows to “to accept children lovingly.” The Catholic Church staunchly opposes the use of birth control. On Mother’s Day, most priests recognize mothers at Mass and often give them flowers. Mary is frequently honored throughout the liturgical year for being the mother of Jesus.
And just last year, Pope Francis made headlines for suggesting that not having children is selfish. He said, “A man or a woman who do not voluntarily develop a sense of fatherhood or motherhood are lacking something fundamental, something important.” While I know that his comments have more to do with couples who willingly choose not to have children, they still sting.
Clearly, having kids is entrenched in the identity of Catholics.
What about those of us like me, then, who have tried really hard, yet can’t seem to conceive? How do we cope in a Church that glorifies motherhood?
How to Cope with Infertility – from Women Who Have Been There
I lead a local infertility and loss ministry group called Sarah’s Laughter. I’ve walked with over thirty women going through infertility, listened to the pleas of their heart, and heard how they cope. Some have been struggling to conceive for years on end. Some have gone through multiple rounds of fertility treatments. Others are actively pursuing adoption. After listening to their sorrows and incorporating their suggestions, here are some ideas on how to cope.
Acknowledge that your lack of motherhood is a loss.
Naming your pain validates your sorrow. I have often felt guilty for grieving over what could have been, when other people in the world experienced tangible, devastating losses like death, abuse, or cancer. I felt shame that my body failed to do what it was supposed to do as a woman. But minimizing the sorrow only made me feel worse. The truth is, infertility is a loss, and a heartbreaking one at that.
Share your journey with people you trust in your community.
Not only will this halt the awkward, painful question of, “Do you and your husband want to have kids?” but it will help lighten your burden. Those close to you and in your community want to help, but they often don’t know how. Telling your story and asking for their prayers is a way they can help.
Embrace non-traditional ways in which you can mother.
Even if we don’t have children, we can still pour out our beautiful maternal hearts to others. We can be mothers to every child we encounter by showering them with love. We can be mothers to friends who are hurting and need empathetic, warm embraces. We can nurture those in our careers, churches, and extended families. Don’t let your lack of children prevent you from leaning into your maternal nature.
Be proactive about difficult days, like Mother’s Day.
At my church, I ask that infertile women be included during Mass on Mother’s Day. My priest readily agrees each year. This lessens the dread of attending Mass and also assures me that God and my church community care for me.
Find purpose in the gifts that God has given you instead of dwelling on what you don’t have.
Early on in my infertility journey, I felt like becoming a mother was my sole purpose in life. I told myself that, if I didn’t conceive, then my life would be empty and sad. In doing so, I made my desire for a baby into a god. I’ve learned over the years to shift my perspective of my infertility journey into one of gratitude. Difficult days will never go away, but practicing gratitude for what you do have can change your heart.
The Catholic Church honors motherhood, but the Church also cares for you and your own struggle to motherhood. If you are walking through infertility, know that you’re not alone. Take heart in Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth: “And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren; for nothing will be impossible for God.”