One in eight couples struggles with infertility.
But, when was the last time you heard that discussed in church?
When it comes to the “don’ts” for couples facing infertility, the Church has much to say. Don’t use IVF. Don’t use IUI. Don’t use egg donors. Don’t use surrogates. Don’t go against the natural order of things by trying to play God.
Discussions about the ethics of assisted reproductive technologies are lengthy and prevalent among Catholics. If an infertile couple seeks guidance on which medical options are approved by the Church and which are not, it’s easy to access this information. However, finding spiritual and emotional support for the burden that comes with infertility is not nearly as easy.
In fact, in many parishes and dioceses, this support simply does not exist; that is unacceptable. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are suffering and, instead of walking with them, we hand them a list of what not to do and send them on their way. As a Church, we need to do better.
Here are concrete ways you can minister to couples struggling with infertility. This list isn’t enough, but it’s a start.
Do. . .
Check in and ask how your friends are doing.
Give your friends the opportunity to talk about how they are feeling and what they struggle with. Create a space where they can open up. You don’t have to have the answers. You just need to listen with empathy.
Acknowledge difficult holidays.
Certain holidays can be hard for couples facing infertility, especially Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Reach out to your friend on these days and let them know that you are thinking of them. Acknowledge the ways that they have brought joy into your life.
Offer tangible and specific help.
Carrying the cross of infertility can be exhausting. Some times, it even means surgery to correct underlying problems that might cause infertility. Offer to bring a meal if your friend needs surgery. Better yet, start a meal train. If your friend has a particularly rough day, lighten their load however you can, even if it’s just doing a load of laundry or sending a care package. It can be as easy as sending your friend a funny meme to distract her while she nervously waits to be seen at the doctor’s office.
Be sensitive regarding pregnancy announcements.
Pregnancy announcements and baby showers can be particularly hard for someone struggling with infertility. Consider telling your friend about your pregnancy privately before announcing it on Facebook or in a group setting. This gives her time to privately process her thoughts and emotions. Acknowledge that the news might be painful for her to hear, and that you know it’s not a reflection of how she feels about you. Don’t be offended if your friend feels she can’t come to your baby shower; respect her limits at different points in her journey.
Pray for all couples longing to welcome a child.
One of the best things that you can do is pray for your friends. Remember them in your daily intentions. Pray for peace and healing. Offer up your suffering for the suffering that they endure. Ask St. Gerard to intercede for them. Let your friends know that you are praying.
Don’t. . .
Offer unsolicited medical advice.
Well-intentioned people might instantly offer solutions upon hearing that a couple struggles with infertility: “Have you tried NaProTECHNOLOGY? Have you considered acupuncture? Have you tried Whole30®?” While you may be trying to help, this kind of response is usually unhelpful to the couple receiving the advice. Yes, they probably tried many or all of those things. Unless they specifically ask for medical advice, please refrain from giving it.
Ask, “Why don’t you just adopt?”
Adoption is a beautiful calling. It also requires discernment and not every couple that struggles with infertility is called to adopt. Adoption is not a “cure” for infertility. A couple I know that has infertility did feel called to adopt and now has three children through adoption. Still, the woman told me, “Adoption cured the childlessness, it didn’t cure the infertility.” Furthermore, adoption is a lengthy, often expensive, and difficult process. It’s not as simple as it's often portrayed to be.
Say, “Just relax and it will happen.”
Nothing is less relaxing than being told to relax.
One of the most hurtful things that can happen to a couple facing infertility is that people make assumptions about them. Namely, that if they do not have children, it must be because they use contraception. Due to this, some couples feel like they have to disclose their struggles with infertility, something that is deeply painful and intimate. This is not because they necessarily want to share, but because they are tired of people making assumptions about them. It is wrong to make assumptions. Commenting on any couple’s family size is not what we are called to do as a Church.
The institutional Church has a long way to go in pastoral ministry to couples with infertility. However, we, as members of the body of Christ, can take those steps through our words and action. Perhaps the institutional Church will follow.