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The Waiting Game

The pain of secondary infertility may not end, but the loneliness can

Surgery waiting rooms are sobering places. As I wait, watching for my wife's obstetrician/gynecologist to come out of the room down the hall with her report on the laproscopy, I reflect on the two-year journey that has brought us here.

As with most faith-stretching experiences in our lives, this isn't a journey Amy and I would have chosen. But it is certainly one that has caused us to come face-to-face with a succession of hard questions.

Infertile? How could that be when we already have two children? Although neither of our boys were conceived exactly on our schedule, getting pregnant hadn't been difficult. So, in planning for a third child, we discussed the time of year we wanted the baby to be born, how far we desired him or her to be spaced from the older brothers, and how we wanted to make sure we met that all-important school cut-off date. As the pages of the calendar turned past each of those carefully laid plans, the truth became real. The when and if of having another child was out of our hands.

"You sure look good holding that baby!" a mom would say as she watched Amy holding an infant in the church nursery. "When are you going to have another one?" Amy would smile politely and respond, "Oh, we're thinking about it." But then the baby went home with someone else and Amy went home to ponder the emptiness and "think about it" some more.

"You need to have a third one," a dad would say as he and I discussed the joys and activities of our children. And I would simply reply, "Maybe someday," then later pray for that someday to come. Feeling somewhat barren, I would remember the times I had made similar comments; and I'd wonder how many infertile couples I had sent home feeling the same way.

During our first year of trying to conceive, it was fairly easy for us to say it was all in God's hands. We didn't allow ourselves to become consumed with the issue. The "trying" was fun. Our concerns about conception would fade as we would become lost in the laughs and roughhousing of our boys.

But as we moved into the second year, trying to conceive threatened to become routine. And each new menstrual cycle would bring with it a time of anxiety and a new set of questions. Why is this happening? Are we trying to force something that isn't to be?

As a marriage counselor, I've worked with couples as they agonize over infertility. I have tried to comfort those who have spent months and years and thousands of dollars attempting to have their first child. I began to wonder if our desire for a third child was born more in selfishness than in God's design. Shouldn't Amy and I be thankful for the children we already had? The truth is we are immeasurably thankful for our sons. But that doesn't take away the emptiness we feel or our desire for one more child. How could wanting another child to raise in a loving, God-honoring home be purely selfish?

While I sit in the hospital waiting room, a member of our church, a doctor, passes through. I recount for her the reasons Amy and I are here, and I wonder why I feel uncomfortable telling her. For a variety of reasons, infertility has become a secret issue. To share that you or someone in your family is sick or needs gallbladder surgery passes with a prayer; to share that you are unable to conceive carries with it a form of embarrassment—even shame. You feel you're not "really a man" or "truly a woman" if you can't create a child.

Self-preservation may be another reason for the silence. Well-meaning people, usually because of their own discomfort, often say words that wound the soul. "Oh, you can have another one," offers no comfort to a woman who has miscarried. "At least you've got the other two," or "At least you've got each other" only deepens a couple's hurt. Trite phrases work to compound one of the more arduous aspects of infertility: loneliness. Whether the loneliness evolves from feelings of embarrassment or an unwillingness to make private matters public because of feared remarks, couples often treat infertility like a scandalous family secret and therefore face their struggle alone.

One of the healthiest things Amy and I did was change that. We started with a small group of friends from church—couples who would pray for us, support us and still give us the room we needed. They would sometimes ask, sometimes avoid, but always pray. We are convinced that our willingness to share our burden and receive the support of friends is what keeps us from becoming completely consumed with our infertility.

Another blessing, this one unplanned, occurred when Amy was preparing to speak at a spiritual renewal retreat for women. "I feel like I should share what we're going through," she told me. That weekend, from an alcove in the back of the packed room, I listened to my wife describe a time when her period was several days late. She had purchased a pregnancy test and was planning a special time to tell me. I could feel the excitement of the 80-plus women as they waited to hear that Amy was pregnant. I saw their tears as they found out she was not. At that moment, I knew my wife was not only going to be cared for in her hurt, but that she would care for others who were also hurting.

Since the time our struggle became public, Amy and I have had in-depth conversations with several other infertile couples. While there are no magic words that will eliminate our suffering, we have discovered two very nourishing—even healing—comments from fellow-strugglers: "We understand how you feel," and "We will pray for you." The prayers are not just for conception, but for us and for our marriage. Along with the prayers, we're realizing that the stigma associated with infertility can be removed when others offer love without giving advice or counsel. "We'll be thinking about you." "We love you." "Call us if you need a listening ear." The comfort we receive from this is immeasurable.

What is God telling us through this experience? To grow and to trust. Even if I haven't discovered why we can't conceive, I've been reminded of the importance of others' support. The emptiness may not end, but the loneliness can.

And now, I play the game that all infertile couples do—I wait. My wife's doctor just came out and told me "everything looks great," which is both comforting and confusing. It's comforting to know they didn't find anything wrong. It is confusing because many questions remain unanswered.

And so we wait. But not alone.

Dr. Tim A. Gardner is author of Sacred Sex(WaterBrook) and a counselor and corporate trainer.

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

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