A Spiritual Answer to Coping With Infertility
Interview With Professor Marie Meaney
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By Karna Swanson
WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 25, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The suffering of infertility can be intense for couples, but looking at the condition with the eyes of faith can turn the experience into a "spiritual journey," says professor Marie Meaney.
"Only God can prevent extreme suffering from turning into anger, resentment and bitterness," says Meaney, an Arthur J. Ennis Teaching Fellow at the University of Villanova in Philadelphia.
Meaney, who has been active in the pro-life movement for many years, is also the author of "Embracing the Cross of Infertility," a talk offered online and on CD through the Human Life International Web site.
In this interview with ZENIT, Meaney comments on the challenges facing couples struggling with infertility, and the possible spiritual consolations and rewards of embracing the condition with faith.
Q: You say accepting your infertility is much like accepting the death of a child, and that it is particularly difficult for the woman. What is at the core of this suffering?
Meaney: For those who are not suffering from infertility it may be difficult to imagine how painful it is. Before it happened to me, I had no idea how awful it was. Most couples probably go into marriage thinking that children are a given, that they will simply come along; when they don't, this opens up in a new way how central the gift of life is to marriage and in particular to the woman.
Obviously, the marriage is no less valid if the couple is infertile; but when no child is conceived, the spouses are denied the visible fruit of their love. The spouses desire to see their love embodied in the gift of life; they want to start the adventure of raising children together, seeing in them parts of themselves, and yet also completely unique persons with their own vocations and personalities.
Infertility affects both men and women, but the woman's suffering tends to be particularly pronounced. Already Rachel cried to her husband Jacob in the book of Genesis: "Give me children, or I shall die!" -- Genesis 30:1, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2374.
The woman is the one to experience pregnancy, feeling the child grow in her womb, as Pope John Paul II said so beautifully in "Mulieris Dignitatem," and thus she will also feel more deeply the lack thereof. Since her vocation is motherhood of some kind, she suffers particularly from its absence.
Infertility is terrible for her even if she already has children, but is unable to have more. Except if she knows that the sterility is final, she will go through hope and disappointment every month; and this disappointment comes at a time when it is emotionally and hormonally the most difficult.
Some women feel that their life is on-hold during this time: They are simply waiting for children and in the mean time not much else makes sense. No profession, no successful career can fill the emptiness caused by infertility.
Q: What tips would you give to parents, friends and pastors of an infertile couple? What should they say and not say?
Meaney: As with all suffering, at the core of the response should be the willingness to suffer with the couple, to stand under the cross with them, to be there for them. After all, compassion comes from the Latin word "com-pati," "suffering with." Anything that falls short of that is less than helpful.
Let me give some examples: The spouses may go through a long period of anguish about their childlessness, which to others may seem excessively long. The worst kind of comment is to mention other people whose suffering was supposedly worse, yet who got over it more quickly and grew from it; the implication is that the couple is not meeting that standard and is at fault.
Or, previously infertile people tell the couple that once they had "let go" and had stopped being stressed about their infertility, then they had suddenly conceived. The implication to the infertile spouses is, however, that they are not abandoned to God's will, otherwise they too would be able to conceive; it is therefore their fault in some sense that they are not conceiving.
This is what Job's friends did: They held Job responsible for his suffering. At times we all become like Job's friends: We tend to make those suffering responsible for their pain when it has lasted for a long time; for otherwise we would have to stand under the cross with them.
Seeing other children, being present at baptisms or baby showers can bring out suffering in the infertile couple in a new way. Sometimes people accuse the spouses of being envious while in reality their suffering is simply surfacing in those circumstances.
Generally I'd say, don't be the one to broach the subject. Perhaps the spouses don't want to talk about it or perhaps they are not in pain about it just now. Show an openness to listen compassionately and this will be a deed of mercy.
Q: Is there a point at which a couple should stop trying to conceive? Is adoption for every infertile couple?
Meaney: Every couple must discern for itself how pro-active it wants to be about trying to overcome its infertility. Some simply don't have the financial means to explore new -- albeit ethically licit -- options. Others can't face the emotional strain of continuing to attempt new procedures, the hope and disappointment that comes with it each time. Some need closure and decide to move on, though they would be delighted by the surprise of an unexpected pregnancy.
Personally, I think it is a good idea to think out of the box, try alternative medical options and never to give up. You just never know what might work for you. In any case, it is important to find out the reasons for the infertility in order to find solutions; sometimes the pain is so great that it is hard to face medical tests, and this is where husband and wife should encourage each other.
Adoption, I believe, is a vocation and not every couple feels called to it. Some infertile spouses think they can be fruitful in other ways, and serve the Church in a manner that couples with children can't.
Q: What is the role of a childless couple in promoting a culture of life?
Meaney: On the one hand, the childless couple is in the unfortunate situation that to outsiders it seems to have embraced the contraceptive mentality and the culture of death.
On the other hand, the couple can be a great witness to the world, if it speaks out when appropriate. The spouses can talk about the pain of infertility, about the great gift that children are; if their infertility is due to previous abortions or contraception, this might make others think twice. Or by speaking out against in vitro fertilization (IVF), which might be their only option to have a child, they are a witness to the fact that children are a gift and that no one has a right to them.
Finally, by embracing this cross, the spouses will de facto be promoting the culture of life; by uniting themselves to Christ they are "serving, like Christ, the salvation of [their][…] brothers and sisters," as John Paul II states in "Salvifici Doloris" (No. 27). Only in the next life will they know the extent of their spiritual fruitfulness.
Q: Your essay underlines the spiritual elements of infertility, discussed in terms of a cross to bear. What suggestions would you make as to deal with infertility in a spiritually fruitful way?
Meaney: Looking at infertility through the eyes of faith prevents it from being merely a human disaster and turns it into a spiritual journey. Only God can prevent extreme suffering from turning into anger, resentment and bitterness. However, God does not perform magic; he does not simply take the pain away, nor does he give us the answer to our anguished question, "Why is this happening to me?"
But if we embrace this cross, then ultimately we will find inner peace. A temptation is to meet the challenge stoically, thinking one can "deal with it" without realizing that one is avoiding the cross, and thus denying oneself the necessary mourning period.
Often we think that if we are suffering much, we must be doing something wrong. We have the false conception that being abandoned to God's will means that we will sail through all difficulties and master them in Herculean fashion. But being nailed to the cross means experiencing great anguish, as Christ did; but it will ultimately become our path to salvation if we accept it.
"Do not be afraid," John Paul II exclaimed at the beginning of his pontificate. We are afraid of crosses, of the deaths we experience through them. But God will bless us a hundredfold through them and we will bear fruit for the Church and the world in ways we probably don't even know. In eternity this wound will be part of our glory, shining forth, reflecting God in a particular way. Though we may never have biological children, we will have spiritual children many of whom we will only get to know in heaven.
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On the Net:
"Embracing the Cross of Infertility": www.hli.org/infertility