My wife and I took a cooking class once. We made pasta with two unmarried couples we had never met.
I decided not to ask the twenty-something couple if it was their first date. Why put them on the spot?
The older couple talked about traveling and their dogs. I silently wondered if they had been previously married (perhaps divorced, or widowed?). But you don’t ask that. Not to perfect strangers over wine and ravioli.
“Do you have children?” asked the young man.
“No,” my wife replied.
“I’ll bet you’re asked all the time!” said the young woman.
“Our children have four legs!” the older woman joked.
“Take your time. You should be traveling and enjoying yourselves!” said the older man.
Whatever else may be off the table in polite company, the sex lives of the infertile is always fair game.
If I wanted to offer platitudes, I could say infertility is a silent struggle. That should be obvious. More than that, it is often a preposterous, risible situation.
Not that I want everyone to stop asking if we have children. It is a normal question. Although I could do with fewer assumptions and less unsolicited advice.
All non-Christians assume that you use birth control. You must love your work and your freedom. By no choice of your own, you become a poster couple for the modern childless marriage.
Many Christians assume the same. However, if you get as far as telling them you are infertile, they start offering advice.
Did I mention that the advice is unsolicited?
First, non-Catholics assume we have been waiting for someone to tell us about in vitro fertilization (IVF). Actually, the fertility clinics would gladly help. It is just that — aside from IVF being a grave sin — we are not even good candidates. Not that this is any of your business, but since you asked…
Next, Catholics tell us about Natural Procreative (“NaPro”). After months of tracking, our NaPro doctor suggested a laparoscopic procedure that may solve the issue. Not that this is any of your business, but thanks for the advice.
Friends and family often remind us of children who need homes and that we have the means to adopt. People do not usually call you selfish to your face. Rather, they smile, roll down the windows, and bring you along on a guilt trip.
Imagine this: you always thought you would race your wife to the hospital, put on scrubs, and let her squeeze your hand as she brings your child into the world. Instead, you sit together in a waiting room while someone else gives birth.
I know people who went through this with a birth mother for nine months, who later withdrew her consent. This is rare. Still, what people may not understand is that after the incessant gut-punches of infertility, subjecting your wife to additional psychological turmoil, however remote, is not appealing.
Ah, but we are not out of friendly advice! There is still foster care, and foreign adoption.
Personally, I think foster parenting is a remarkable act of love. These children often come with behavioral issues and even disabilities.
It is easy to theorize about adoption (especially when you have your own children and just want to impart advice to other people).
Our Lord’s own adoptive father, Saint Joseph, shows us the courage of raising a child who is not your own. Our Lord was not disabled and did not have behavioral issues, but how many among us are man enough to raise the Son of God?
Not everyone is called to adoptive parenthood. We are not sure if this is our calling yet.
Yet I find it strange that every friend, family member, and total stranger assumes that it is our calling. There is a subtle implication here that a childless couple is duty-bound to adopt, as if adopting is not a distinct vocation. There is a further implication that orphans and foster children are the leftovers, earmarked for infertile couples.
I know that this is not what people truly feel. But would we ask a couple with four children if they had thought about adopting? Or about becoming foster parents? Not likely.
Did I also mention that none of these options is free?
Here I have been told, “God will provide.” As one of nine, I am familiar with the concept that we live not by bread alone. Of course, my parents did not need pay for home studies or hire agencies before getting pregnant. They did not have (incredibly large) student loans, either.
Not that my finances are anyone’s business, but that is exactly my point. Even when the conversation arrives at my personal finances, I am still told things like that my wife “will be happier if she stays at home.”
You mean win the lottery, purchase a few children, and stop forcing my wife to work? Where do I sign up?
I am marginally amused when nonreligious people say how great it is that we get to travel and have dogs. I admire their optimism, even if I do not share it. I smile and nod, because if I actually told them about the moral pitfalls of IVF or embryo adoption, they would be utterly confused. Worse, they would dismiss my irrational fear of an imaginary sky fairy, along with all his crazy rules.
Your option is to let them think you use birth control or try to engage a perfect stranger in a deep moral conversation, in 20 seconds or less. Pick your poison.
Other Christians understand that this is a cross once they know it is not a choice. (That is, once their initial assumption about your use of birth control is corrected.) Indeed, Sara, Rebekah, and Elizabeth show us explicit examples of God’s love for couples struggling to conceive. Sacred Scripture is saturated with the pains of infertility.
Yet years of guilt trips and subtle character attacks tell me there is much some people do not understand. I suppose this is all part of what makes it a true cross?
Yes, Lord, I think I get your point.
But, for example, did you know your baby pictures all over social media break my wife’s heart? Do you know how alienating it feels to come to parties and parish events where you are the only ones without children, or worse, to not be invited at all? Do you know that when the priest asks all the mothers to stand on Mother’s Day, my wife is holding back tears?
This is nobody’s fault. People have every reason to share baby photos and throw parties with the kids. We probably were not invited because, well, most families at the parish do not know us. After all, our kids do not go to school or play sports with your kids. My wife is not in all the mommy groups or homeschooling groups. She is at work during the day.
She is sad on Mother’s Day not because she is jealous — she even sent you all Mother’s Day cards and goes to your baby showers. She just wrongly thought the Mass, of all places, would be a place of refuge today, of all days. Instead, it perversely becomes the place she dreads the most.
Have I read Humanae Vitae or JPII’s Theology of the Body? Yes, but more importantly, I live it, every single day. Every time I bite my tongue as a divorcee congratulates me on my decision to use birth control. Every time I look over at my wife, glaring back at some mother of ten kids telling her, “When you’re a mom, you’ll know what I mean.”
I have faced the temptation to become angry, sad, and bitter, or to give in to a smorgasbord of easy solutions. The world always makes immoral choices cheaper and easier than the right choices. Just go to any fertility clinic and find out how easy (and tempting) grave sin can be.
Speaking of temptations and easy solutions, I also know exactly why infertile couples might grow apart and divorce. Without the shared project of raising children, and without a shared legacy to look forward to, the person across the table starts to become a stranger.
This marriage thing already takes more work than you bargained for, and you are not even getting children out of it? What’s the point?
But Our Lord shows us a different path. He shows us the beauty of marriage as its own vocation. He turns us away from bitterness and toward love. When I allow Our Lord into this struggle, I come to an empathy for my wife that dwarves any feelings of young infatuation I had when we were dating. Not for nothing, those feelings caused me to marry her in the first place. But the love I have now makes me want to be a better husband. It makes me want to become a saint, just for her.
Before I achieve sainthood, I probably need to get past the white-hot rage I feel whenever an older man in a Hawaiian shirt tells me to enjoy my freedom, travel, and get a dog.
Nevertheless, infertility has taught me a couple of lessons other saints-in-training may want to hear:
Despite the modern world’s insistence, men and women are not the same. My wife’s experience with infertility is very different from mine. It does not pose the same challenge to my identity as a man as it does for her as a woman. It pains me and cuts to my soul, but not as it does for her. I have learned that a woman’s heart is deeper than any ocean. Her husband is usually just splashing around on it in a rubber raft.
I also see that marriage is more than just a baby factory (but certainly, have all the kids you can). Rather, marriage is its own path to sanctity. Again, contra the modern world, marriage is not merely “two people in love.” It is two people in love with Christ, their Shepherd. Husband and wife, walking hand-in-hand toward sainthood.
Editor’s note: This article was submitted to 1P5 by an anonymous Catholic.
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