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Barrenness and Its Discontents

Sometime last month, a friend asked me if there were certain things I wish people understood about my suffering with infertility. Things that compound the sorrow because others "just don't get it." At the time, I mentioned the pervasiveness of this trial; it is not limited to my reproductive system, but it affects my marriage, my work, my schedule, my friendships, my involvement in church, my relationship with God. That overflow is what first came to mind, but since then I've been pondering the question off and on and I've come up with further answers.

I wish people could understand the grief, the sense of loss. I don't just feel a wistful longing for what I don't have; I feel an aching gap of what could have been - the child that could be learning to walk, or starting to eat solid foods, or smiling for the first time, or ready to enter the world, or beginning to move in my womb, if only we had conceived at any point during the past two years. Month after month I mourn the baby that might have been. And that mourning doesn't diminish over time, like many griefs do - it mounts and grows and swells. When one cycle ends, I weep for the possibility that died that month, and the month before that, and the month before that, and all the months that have come and gone. Studies have shown that women dealing with infertility have depressions rates similar to or surpassing those of people who have AIDS or cancer or other terminal illnesses. I am grateful for the grace that has kept my sorrow from deepening into depression, but my grief could so easily tip into that precipice.

I wish people could understand the horrible catch-22 that infertility has brought into my closest friendships. Many of my closest friends are experiencing all the things that I long for - pregnancy, childbirth, caring for an infant. I don't always know how to deal with that, and I sense that many of my friends don't, either. There are so many "darned if you do, darned if you don't" scenarios: A friend joyfully announces a pregnancy. I want to be happy for her, but her good news is a stinging reminder of my anguish, and I fight back tears as I offer congratulations and wish she has been more sensitive. Alternatively, a friend waits for months to tell me about her pregnancy because she is not sure how to tell me and does not want to hurt me. When she finally shares, I go through the first steps of my previous reaction, then find a private place to cry over the fact that infertility has put up barriers in our friendship and turned me into a burden on others, a pariah. Or consider another: I am with a group of friends with newborns, and the conversation naturally turns to infant milestones, breastfeeding tactics, or some other such stuff. I start to withdraw, get a glassy stare, and mentally chant, "Do not give in to self-pity! Do not give in to self-pity! But what are they thinking to talk about this stuff around me?" But if my friends don't tell me about those milestones, about how they are feeling post-partum, or if I am not with them as they discuss those things, I feel left out and awkward and like I don't have a place in their lives anymore because I haven't conceived or given birth. Added to the grief of infertility is the grief of feeling friendships slip away. I want to still be a friend, and I want to serve my friends, and I want to know what their lives are like right now. But all of that hurts right now, and it is messy, and it takes a lot of patience on both sides to sort through.

I wish people could understand the way the heartache of infertility sneaks up on me in some of the most mundane moments. A song uses barrenness as a metaphor for spiritual dryness, and while most people just sing right through it, I am stuck in my tracks. I am barren, not metaphorically but literally, physically. My mouth continues to form the rest of the words of the song, but my mind is echoing, "I am barren...barren...barren..." We're praying with friends, and they are asking God for the salvation of their children. Others are agreeing in prayer. Meanwhile, my heart is fluttering rapidly and I have to sit down. My children don't exist. In a conversation with another lady about food spills and cleaning carpets, she mentions how much worse it will be when she has kids. I smile and nod knowingly, but my gut drops. I don't have the luxury of such assumptions. My carpets may be clean forever. These are the sorts of things that no one would even think to notice, but are the flags of infertility that wave at me everywhere I go.

I wish people could understand how unknown the future is. Yes, you might have a friend that tried to get pregnant for 7 years, then gave up and started to adopt, and then had pregancy take her completely by surprise (or whatever the variation of the story). But that doesn't help me. That doesn't give me any guarantees. You may be sure that I'll have babies someday, but I'm not so sure and I seriously question your certainty. I daily stare down the possibility that I will never be pregnant, and it gets more likely with every month that passes. By all means, have faith for me - I certainly need it - but please recognize that only the Lord knows if and when and how he will make me a mother.

I wish people could understand how silent, how hidden infertility is. You cannot tell by looking at me that I am in the midst of affliction*. This is not the kind of trial that mobilizes people to bring meals, to offer to clean the house, to send flowers. I can still function, outwardly. It is inwardly that I fall apart and lose control. People ask me if there is anything they can do, and I honestly don't know how to answer that question. But sometimes I wish that infertility brought some kind of acknowledgment besides words.

At this point you may be thinking, "Didn't she say up in paragraph two that she's not depressed? What is all this doom and gloom?" I know this all sounds rather bleak. It's not the complete picture - there is trust in God, there is spiritual fruit, there are many, many kind and compassionate friends, there is some kind of burgeoning hope - but I wanted to take time to write about the facets of my personal suffering that are often hardest to express. Because the anguish is real. Distress is not dismissed. Not by God. Not by me. And, hopefully if you've read this, not by you.

*Unless I am publicly weeping. Which does happen, and is humbling.


Anonymous said...

Andrea, thank you so much for your honesty. It is humble and an act of grace to share all this. You are loved, dear friend. I am praying for you.

Love, Sarah

GLouise said...

I can relate to this statement:

"This is not the kind of trial that mobilizes people to bring meals, to offer to clean the house, to send flowers."

I agree so much!

Brooke said...

YES. Yes, yes, yes.

Yes to all you that you have written.

You are precious.

Amanda said...

Dear Andrea,

Thank you for taking the time to think through this question (one I would have liked to ask myself, but for my tendency not to want to hurt feelings, thereby being the type to wait for months, making a dear friend feel like a pariah & a burden). While I'm certain I still "just don't get it", it must help me be a bit closer to understanding. Also, I really, really appreciate the effort & intent I hear in your words of empathizing with those on the other side of your struggle -- evidence that the Lord isn't allowing you to settle into self-pity, & you're honoring that.

Thank you for this!