By Mary Elizabeth Hanchey
April is Infertility Awareness Month. One in every eight couples faces infertility. Sometimes the cause lies with the woman’s body. Sometimes the cause lies with the man’s body. Sometimes the cause is a complicated combination of problems. Sometimes the cause is unknown.
But, one out of every eight couples who are trying to get pregnant cannot.
Among those gathered for worship every Sunday, and among those who remain outside the walls of the church, there are so many who have cried recently over a negative pregnancy test, or invasive medical procedures, or the oppressive financial burden of fertility treatments, or the sense that their body is broken and at fault, or the apparent lack of a way forward for having babies. Perhaps their yearning for children is complicated by being single or by partnering in a relationship where biological children are impossible.
There are so many who are surrounded by reminders that other people their age are making cute pregnancy announcements and celebrating baby showers with cake and gifts; who see pregnant bellies everywhere; who must answer prying family members who ask when they will start “trying.”
There are so many who need to hear from the church:
- You are not alone.
- Your grief matters.
- There is a place for you here, in this community, even though you do not have children.
- God is not punishing you.
- God is not withholding blessing.
- You are God’s beloved.
But unless we are intentional about thinking through what is said from the pulpit, as well as what transpires in hallway conversations and Sunday school sharing, we might accidentally give a very different impression. We might attempt to empower and comfort and offer hope by saying:
- God will never give you more than you can handle; or
- Just ask and you shall receive; or
- Trust God’s plan; or
- God will give you children when the time is right.
Or we might say nothing at all. And none of these are appropriate responses.
These platitudes hint at a thoughtless, if not spiteful, God. Instead of promising that God is present in the doctor’s offices and in the dark lonely nights and in the midst of the weeping and despair and fear and brokenness, these careless sentiments suggest that God has doled out these horrors. It seems that the bleeding and hurting and sobbing and aching and the empty nursery are simply a part of God’s plan that must be endured. These platitudes suggest that asking has been rejected and that feeling as if one’s grief is too much to be “handled” is a sign of spiritual weakness.
Or, in the silence, the church says: this grief is not worthy of mention before God.
Infertility Awareness Month gives way to Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. In the coming weeks our congregations have the opportunity to speak with intentionality so that the one in eight, and all who are in the pews and the hallways and the Sunday school rooms, get a clear sense of what the church, at its best, can say to those who yearn for children with their whole being: You are God’s BELOVED.
(And also, I am so very sorry.)
Mary Elizabeth Hanchey is a CBF leadership scholar earning her M.Div. at Duke Divinity School. She is the co-founder of Project Pomegranate, a ministry dedicated to providing spiritual resources for those who have experienced infertility, pregnancy loss, or infant death, and for the communities who walk beside them. To learn more, visit projectpomegranate.org and check out Project Pomegranate’s recently published book – Though the Darkness Gather Round, Devotions about Infertility, Miscarriage, and Infant Loss.