The Empty Crib

Surviving infertility

Every month, millions of women in the U.S. face infertility. While they've done all the right things to conceive, when their period arrives, once again they find themselves on that emotional roller-coaster ride of high hopes and dashed expectations. Another month of empty dreams, another month with an empty crib.

Infertility is defined by the medical community as the inability to conceive within one year of unprotected intercourse (6 months for women over 35), or the inability to carry a child to live birth. The most frequent causes of infertility include blocked fallopian tubes; poor or absent ovulation, especially in women over 35; endometriosis; and for men, problems such as low sperm count and impeded sperm motility.

According to Jennifer Saake, founder and director of Hannah's Prayer, a nonprofit Internet- and newsletter-based infertility support group, "Women need to remember that infertility is a medical problem. Too often we're told, 'If you'd only relax, or go on vacation, you'd get pregnant'! Or we even secretly fear that infertility is God's way of punishing us for some unknown sin. In my own struggle with infertility, I ended up praying and reading my Bible, hoping I'd earn a child. I became angry with God when I did everything according to the 'rules' and didn't conceive. It wasn't until I realized that I was making having a child my idol that I was able to find peace with my situation.

"God understands," adds Jennifer, "how desperately I need the healthy release of tears when my period starts unexpectedly, or I receive negative test results. The key is not to allow bitterness to blind me to God's compassion in the midst of these trials."

And through the course of those burdens, glimpses of that compassion and healing can come shining through. Among these glimpses is Kathryn Olson's story. Kathryn, 39, has struggled with infertility for 3 years. Her story is a poignant reminder not only of the pain, grief, and stress infertile women experience, but also of the faith, hope, and encouragement.

—The Editors

It happened in the cereal aisle of my local supermarket. I ran into my third mother-and-baby pair of the morning, and grief blindsided me. Feeling as if I'd been punched in the gut, I dissolved into tears, hoping no one would notice.

I'd headed out early that Monday morning to pick up a few groceries, hoping to get a jump on the midday crowds. Several young moms apparently had the same idea, and we smiled at each other as we passed in the aisles. Except I wasn't a young mom. I was a thirtysomething mom-wannabe. And after seeing my third beautiful child—this one a toddler, contentedly munching on a fresh bagel, safely snuggled in his mom's grocery cart—I could no longer hold back the tears.

I'd lost my only child in an early miscarriage more than a year and a half before. Time and God's grace had gone a long way toward healing my heart. But that morning reminded me again that the loss of a child, even a preborn child, is something a mom never really gets over. But I've learned some important lessons on how to survive infertility:

Be gentle with yourself.

It's easy to feel that taking care of yourself is selfish, but sometimes we need a break from people and situations that hurt.

You may need to avoid baby showers for a while, or plan a special time for yourself and your husband on Mother's Day. I'm not suggesting you withdraw from life. But on certain occasions—holidays or celebrations that are especially hard for you—cut yourself some slack.

Sometimes it's not a special occasion but an ordinary one that renews your pain. Maybe it's the anniversary of a loss—any loss—or simply the passing of another monthly cycle that reminds you your dream of motherhood is still just a dream. Whatever the cause, when you're feeling especially low, do something just for you. One of my favorite escapes is to snuggle up on the couch with an afghan, a bowl of popcorn, and a favorite book or video.

Allow yourself to grieve.

Since the loss of my baby, funerals are especially hard for me. At the funeral for my husband's uncle a few months ago, my heart broke as I saw the tears of the grieving wife and grown daughters. It was a stark reminder that God sometimes asks hard things of us—such as entrusting our loved ones back into his arms, when we'd much rather keep them here in ours. I even grieve that I was denied this comforting ritual of death—and celebration of a life—for my child.

I now draw great comfort from a Bible verse that never before had much impact on me. "Jesus wept" (John 11:35), the shortest verse in the Bible, describes Jesus' reaction upon visiting his friend Lazarus's tomb. Although Jesus knew he could raise Lazarus from the dead, he was moved to tears by the destruction and the grief death leaves in its wake. I'm comforted by that. It means that when my loss—or that of others—leads me to tears, I'm being Christlike. It's okay to grieve.

Expect emotional ups and downs.

Grief comes in waves or cycles. Mine didn't even set in until two months after my miscarriage. Until then, I think I was still in shock. Then, when the magnitude of my loss sank in, everyone else had moved on with their lives, and I felt funny talking about it. Now my grief hits me at unpredictable intervals and unexpected places—such as in the cereal aisle of the supermarket!

I've never been much of a crier, but since my miscarriage, the oddest things set me off. I've learned that's normal. I may be fine with something one day, then the next day feel angry, depressed, hopeless, or weepy at the very same thing.

The hardest emotion I've dealt with is that odd combination of feelings with which I greet the news of each new baby born to a friend. How is it possible to feel such joy and such despair at the same time?

Embrace the life God has for you.

I still hope God will bring children into my husband's and my life—either through natural birth, adoption, or a combination of the two. But I choose not to focus on having a baby. I want the life God's chosen for me, whether or not it fits my preconceived notions of what a "happy" or "successful" life looks like. I'm learning that true joy is found in submitting myself to God's plans and letting him mold me into the woman he wants me to be … even when it hurts.

I'll admit it's often impossible to feel good about the "holding pattern" I'm in right now. So I have to make a conscious effort—especially on my "weepy" days—to affirm my trust in a God who loves me and who wants the best for me. A favorite quote from author C. S. Lewis expresses it well: "We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be."

Look for God's comfort.

Even in the midst of my pain, I've seen evidence of God's loving care. I'm so thankful for one of my close friends who's experienced two miscarriages. I can talk to her about it any time, and she understands.

Another friend encourages me long distance through e-mail and prayer. One morning last summer, I was taking my mom home from the hospital, where she'd stayed overnight for some tests. As we were leaving, a couple was departing with their newborn. Something about the new father's delicacy and nervousness as he maneuvered the car seat containing their precious bundle hit me like a physical blow. It didn't help that I'd just had a negative pregnancy test after we thought we'd done everything "right," and it looked as though I might have been pregnant. That night I cried myself to sleep. The next morning, my friend Beth sent an e-mail: "Just to let you know I've been praying for you—God woke me around 4:00 this morning, in fact, with you and Timothy and babies on my mind! I felt led to pray for your faith to increase."

Wow. Tangible evidence that God had not forgotten me. Beth's prayer for my faith to increase was right on target: I need more faith that God's way is best—no matter how it does or doesn't line up with my desires. Regardless of whether I ever become a mom or not, I've come to realize that, as a character in one of my favorite books says, "I just want to look more like Jesus when I get to the other side of this thing." Hopefully, it will be with a baby in tow, but if not, I know God still really does desire the best for me.

Kathryn S. Olson is a book editor living in the Chicago area.

5 Ways to Help a Hurting Friend

  • Give lots of hugs. Almost always, a hug is better than words.
  • Write notes of encouragement. The simple notes of support I received after my miscarriage meant so much! They also provided an unexpected bridge into the lives of friends who'd suffered similar losses. I still take out the cards and letters and re-read them when I'm feeling down.
  • Acknowledge the loss. Author Rebecca Faber, in A Mother's Grief Observed, comments on people's tendency to avoid talking about painful things. In the months following the death of her toddler, William, she found that people were afraid to mention his name. One friend explained why: If Rebecca had momentarily forgotten the pain, they didn't want to make her feel bad again. She writes, "What people forget is that you never forget. The grief is always in your face, always there. It's far better for them to speak and show they care." The flip side of this is to be sensitive to avoid such phrases as "At least now you know you can get pregnant!" "Those statements are anything but comforting to grieving parents," says Jennifer Saake, founder of Hannah's Prayer. "In fact, any statement containing an 'at least … ' sentiment is inappropriate because you're minimizing another's pain. Simply say, 'I'm sorry you're having to go through this.'"
  • Be selective in sharing your story. After my miscarriage, it seemed that almost every woman I knew told me that she, too, had experienced a miscarriage. In a way, that was encouraging; it showed me I wasn't alone. But frankly, when people with broods of healthy children told me about the miscarriages they'd had years ago, it was little comfort to me right then. There may be times when your story will help your friend—but don't automatically assume she wants to hear it.
  • Be sensitive to her feelings if you become pregnant or adopt a child. When my friend Becky became pregnant not long after my miscarriage, she knew it could be difficult for me. I so appreciated her loving gesture of telling me her exciting news before making it public. While it was hard to watch Becky's belly expand during the following months, her sensitivity to my feelings made such a difference in my ability to cope with it. Now that she has a healthy son, she allows me to set the pace in interacting with him, knowing some days it's fine, and other days it hurts. Don't take it personally if sometimes your infertile friend simply can't bear to be around you and your little bundle of joy.

Be careful, too, about complaining. It's natural to joke about the trials and tribulations of motherhood—morning sickness, potty training, and all the rest. But remember, your good-natured banter might be painful to a friend who longs for a child.

—K.O.


We Opted to Adopt

My husband, Al, and I were in our late thirties when we married, and we both wanted to have children right away. I believed I'd easily conceive, but soon realized something was wrong. For the first time I cried over infertility. The Bible says that God stores our tears in heaven. He must have filled a barrel with my tears over my empty womb.

Al and I went to fertility specialists for tests, I took the fertility drug Clomid, and tried just about everything we could think of. Finally, after two-and-a-half years, I got pregnant—and miscarried. I frantically tried to conceive again, but was unable.

So Al and I decided to pray about adopting a baby. We read several books on adoption, then put in our application with a local adoption agency. The door to a baby, which previously seemed to be continuously slammed in my face, was suddenly wide open. Although our age prevented us from adopting an American infant, the counselor suggested we try the Romanian adoption program. It turns out there are 85,000 children in Romanian orphanages. And that's just Romania—there are as many and more in Russia, China, and throughout the world. Helpless, tiny children who desperately need a mommy and daddy to love them.

We attended the required classes, gathered the necessary reams of paperwork, answered intensely personal questions, and a year later traveled to Romania to meet our baby daughter.

Just like that, my infertility came to a screeching halt. Our daughter, Elizabeth, is our greatest joy. She's filled our nursery, our home, our hearts with love and laughter.

As I watch Elizabeth toil over a Play-Doh project or chase a bright balloon through the house, I wonder if God's purpose for my infertility was simply to provide a home for a little girl who desperately needed one. Did God care so much about this child that he allowed my womb to close?

I don't know. But I thank God every day that my biological child is safe in heaven, while my adopted daughter is safe in our home.

The Bible tells us in James 1:27: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress." You can't go wrong, in God's eyes, when you adopt a child and give him or her a loving home. The only tears I cry these days are tears of joy!

—Mary Roberts Clark

Different Paths Through Infertility

Fertility drugs.

I have two friends who have sons whom they owe to Clomid. It often works—and when used properly, rarely leads to the multiple births that capture the nation's attention.

Natural medicine.

Though they can't boast the clinically proven success rates of fertility drugs, there's some convincing evidence that improved nutrition, vitamin supplements, and natural progesterone can improve fertility (see Dr. John Lee's book What Your Doctor May Not Tell You about Menopause for more information). A particular benefit to this approach is that it focuses on improved overall health rather than on getting pregnant.

Adoption.

I've lost count of the friends and relatives who have become parents through adoption, both domestic and international. What a delightful way to overcome childlessness—although it, too, has its challenges. It may be difficult to overcome the sense of unfairness about it all: People who are unfit to be parents give birth every day. And yet we—eminently qualified (in our opinion!) to provide a loving and stable home for a child—would have to jump through endless hoops and spend oodles of money to become adoptive parents.

Acceptance.

It's a bit misleading to list "acceptance" as a separate path, because all paths through infertility require a measure of acceptance. But some couples have a special gift, enabling them to find peace in their questions, to find joy in not knowing. Some days I actually come close to attaining it!

—K.O.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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