The sex life of an infertile couple sometimes seems as if it's a matter of public interest. At least that was our experience.
Sonja and I had been married for five years and had no children, an immediate red flag to nosy people we met at church.
"Don't you know that children are a gift from God?" one man asked.
For those years Sonja and I had asked God every day to bless us with a child. We were aware of their value.
"You'd better get started!" some would say. This would launch us into a conversation about how we'd been "trying" and how we hadn't yet conceived. "At least you're having fun trying, right?" was a comment that usually came with a coy wink.
Wrong. We were not having fun "trying." When you're infertile, making love takes on the not-so-romantic air of an assembly line production, where the baby factory yields nothing month after month, year after year. Trying to get pregnant isn't fun when you're stringing together 72 months of forced sex and failed tries at conception.
Sadly, millions of couples suffer from infertility. According to a study by the Center for Disease Control, there were 2.1 million infertile married couples in the United States, and another 6.1 million women with "impaired ability to have children." Infertility is usually defined as the inability to conceive after one year of unprotected sexual intercourse.
Often, infertility deals a deathblow to a marriage, as a couple deals with years of disappointment and turns against each another. But it doesn't have to be that way. Through a recognition of God's sovereignty, an emphasis on prayer and making the marriage—not conception—the number one priority, infertility can draw a couple closer instead of destroying them.
Every infertile couple's experience is unique, but ours was unique even among people struggling with infertility—we had nothing wrong with us. For years, fertility specialists poked, prodded, and probed Sonja countless times. I'd been required to give a "sample" into a small cup.
Through it all, they found no reasons to explain our inability to conceive. We were young, Sonja ovulated normally and had no conditions that would preclude conception, and my sperm was grade A. Yet we were unable to do what all those people with "unwanted" pregnancies could do: conceive. With straight faces, medical experts diagnosed our condition: "Unexplained Infertility." Brilliant. Now I know why my faith isn't in science.
Ovulation graphs based on daily temperature readings littered our bedside table and served as evidence of our condition. For months, Sonja counted days, predicted cycles, and beckoned me to the bedroom when neither of us wanted to be there. Our sex life had morphed from spontaneous passion to hitting "windows in the ovulation cycle," or feeling the hopelessness of missing a chance to conceive.
Sonja and I could speak authoritatively about the biological nuances of making a baby, but could do nothing about it. Sometimes it seemed we were experts in failure.
It took only a few months before the conflict over forced lovemaking started to take its toll on our marriage. Our pattern of "trying" was similar to that of other couples trying to get pregnant. Sonja would chart her ovulation cycle, then command me to hop in the sack as often as possible during the 48 hours when her egg was supposedly making its way down her fallopian tubes. Repeated sex would have been my ultimate fantasy at 16, but I'd been enjoying the secure and even-keel sex of a married man, and now she was telling me to do it again, and again, and again?! It's a turn-on the first time, but not the fiftieth.
If a window of opportunity passed without me performing my manly duties, Sonja was stressed, I was frustrated, and we were fighting. It didn't exactly set the mood for hitting our conception window. Of course I wanted to do my part to conceive, but somehow it felt wrong to sacrifice our healthy love life in a gamble for a child who may never come. In time, we found we both were the root of our problem—Sonja carried the burden of knowing when she was ovulating, and I carried the burden of performing sexually.
Sonja and I recognized the danger to our relationship, in large part because of our friendship with another infertile couple, Brian and Stacey (not their real names). After two conceptions and one successful birth, Brian and Stacey had gone through five years of secondary infertility (a period of infertility following the birth of a child). As the years passed without another pregnancy, Stacey became frantic that she would never have another child.
The years of rote sex brought them to the verge of divorce, Brian told me. It caused damage to their intimacy that was still in the process of being healed nearly five years later.
Through Brian and Stacey, we learned we couldn't put our marriage at risk by continuing to "try" as we had been. We had to make our marriage a greater priority than our baby, which was easier said than done. In our experience, infertility can easily turn a baby—or even a pregnancy—into a form of idolatry.
Scientific fertility advancements certainly contribute to a couple's idea that they can make a pregnancy happen, and therefore to the temptation toward idolatry. But our Christian subculture does that, too. Some Christians put such an emphasis on children being a gift from God that we can easily forget that they are just that—a gift. Children aren't a right, and they're not something people can create through "trying" to get pregnant. I know couples who seem to conceive every time they look at each other with passion, but even these conceptions are God-ordained.
As Sonja and I struggled with infertility, we had to remind ourselves that God's foremost command to us was that we commit our relationship—and our expectations for our family—to his sovereign will.
"Don't ask, don't tell"
Meanwhile, we changed our approach to hitting the fertility window to preserve and protect our sex life.
Sonja instituted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Perhaps it was a psychological trick, but Sonja, who knew when she was ovulating, wouldn't tell me about it; she'd just get amorous. Guys are clueless anyway, so this wasn't difficult. When Sonja would lead me to the bedroom, I wouldn't ask any questions, but instead would just enjoy her initiative. We still didn't get pregnant, but our sex life didn't suffer either.
While God protected Sonja and me from an extended period of sexual conflict related to infertility, many other couples have more intense struggles.
What all too few of those couples learn is the need to focus more on love itself—away from the bedroom—and less on lovemaking.
Infertility doesn't have to destroy a marriage. And while it certainly affected ours, it didn't destroy it.
Once Sonja and I decided to submit our design for our family totally to God, he blessed us. No, not with pregnancy, but by making it clear we should adopt. A year later, in April, we went to Korea to pick up our son Isaac, who became the light of our lives. Then, the big surprise came a few months later in August, when we found out we were pregnant. Our son Ashton was born in May.
People, even Christians, often explain our pregnancy as a result of our adoption. "You've finally relaxed!" they say. Or, "See, the problem was psychological all along!" We keep explaining it's clear to us that God closed our womb for a reason. He had a special design for Isaac, and for us.
Six years of infertility was difficult, but by God's grace our marriage thrived and we grew in our intimacy with him.
Marshall Allen, a journalist, lives with his family in California.
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