Coping with Infertility
Rhonda Thompson knows what it is to struggle with infertility. About one in eight couples faces this life crisis, she says, so there are probably people in your church struggling through the Mothers' and Fathers' Day services, Family services and baby dedications. Do you know what they are experiencing? asks Rhonda. How would you respond if these people wanted to discuss Donor Insemination or IVF from a Christian perspective?
Infertility: What it Was Like For Us
"How big are your husband's balls?"
"Your husband's balls . . . how big?"
My GP peered expectantly across her desk but I was speechless. Compared to what? Why did it matter?
That was my first foray into the world of infertility. In the four years since then I can say that, uncharacteristically, I have been speechless many times.
Not because of the never ending blood tests, specialist appointments, scans, operations and drugs. Not because of the painful examinations, the 6.30am dashes to the clinic, the thousands of dollars spent. But because every month a period still arrived.
While the treatment was going on there was hope, but a period signalled failure and the pain was unbearable. It was crushing, mountainous, hopeless. And at that point I wondered why? Why me? Why does God not hear our prayers?
While dealing with this pain I found myself confronted by people who would not recognise this was really a problem. So you can't have kids - do something else! People who were ace comforters in the face of death or illness could not understand the need for sympathy when there had been nothing tangible lost. 'Only' our dreams of having a family.
The personal nature of infertility and treatment encourages couples to keep quiet about their pain. When I did confide in someone I received a mixture of responses - embarrassment was OK but the Peter Pan advice was truly breathtaking - "take a holiday", "take a warm bath", "take fewer warm baths", "you just need to praise the Lord", "sometimes it just takes a while to get things going". Yeah honey, it sure does when you're as fertile as a brick like me, I would think charitably.
And then there was the future. Not only were we isolated from our peers when they discussed midwives, kindies and baby showers. We also faced a future of watching our friends' children grow, marry and present them with grandchildren. At each step of the way we would be thrilled for them as we were when they became pregnant, but once again we would be left out.
So what's the problem? I hear you ask. Infertile people usually have two incomes, no screaming kids to worry about and peace and quiet. The problem is that they did not choose this 'tranquil' lifestyle.
They opted for the self-sacrificial path of parenthood and found themselves in clinics being poked and prodded by a succession of strangers and possibly paying thousands of dollars for the privilege. Infertile people who become pregnant report being thrilled about trials such as morning sickness. They have no complaints because at last they have a choice - like everyone else.
While it is true that some couples are able to readjust and move on without infertility becoming a big issue, for most infertility is a drawn out grieving process with no focus and no definite end. And even though treatment or adoption may bring the desperately wanted family, it will usually not cure the physical cause of the infertility or the associated feelings of inadequacy.
Infertility is a serious problem. If someone shares this problem with you it is important to recognise this and listen carefully to their fears. Do not trivialise their pain with glib advice.
Of course the advice I was given was correct - I must praise the Lord. But in the pits of despair I needed someone to listen, to be Christ to me, to remind me of Christ the suffering servant who felt my pain and wept with me. It was not until I saw Jesus carrying me, even as I wrestled with the pain, that I was able to praise him.
Think About It
Several infertile people have said that when they asked their minister/priest for advice on subjects such as donor insemination or frozen embryos they got a pretty poor response: "he couldn't get down the stairs and out of the house fast enough", said one.
I don't recount this as a criticism - few people in the street have thought about these treatments, so it is no surprise that it is new to church leaders. And certainly there are few easy answers in this area. But it is not difficult to ask the couple exactly what is involved in the treatment they are considering and offer to pray and consider the matter with them.
Some treatments may sound bizarre to the uninitiated, and there is a tendency to dismiss the lot as if they are likely to create a Frankenstein. Actually, they may create a baby and a family, something Christians prize. The end does not justify the means, but perhaps if we consider the various treatments more closely we will find that many are just aids to help the body work as its Creator intended.
We were so encouraged when, somewhere near the end of our four years of infertility, a pastoral couple offered to pray with us. It said to us that the church did care, that we weren't an embarrassing hiccup in some sort of health and wealth theology.
The day of my pregnancy test a Salvation Army collector in the street gave me a verse which was Romans 12:12: "Be joyful in hope, patient in adversity, persistent in prayer". This sounds ominous, I thought, and sure enough the next couple of weeks were an emotional rollercoaster because my pregnancy hormone levels were too low and we faced the possibility of losing the pregnancy. Despite this we were thrilled that it could actually happen to us - even if only for a few weeks.
The many people who had prayed before we were pregnant increased their efforts and we were surprised to feel at peace despite a potentially disastrous situation. After what seemed like months - although it was only three weeks - we finally got the all clear the day before Christmas Eve.
Thrilled, I rang my special aunt in England who was not at all surprised and who said that she had prayed since September that I would be pregnant by Christmas (she doesn't believe in giving God ultimatums but thought this once he might understand!).
We are so thankful that he did understand and that we were able to get pregnant with treatment which included fertility drugs rather than having to try IVF. We had felt uneasy about the cost of IVF, the emotional involvement and the issue of frozen embryos and were seriously considering inter-country adoption instead.
We have learned many lessons from the experience. Dealing with grief has taught us to be more empathetic toward those who are suffering, to remember to acknowledge grief and to listen.
We have learned to deal with a crisis together and our marriage is stronger for it. Ross never faltered from his stance that he would rather have me unable to have children, than any other woman who could. I will never forget that. Having been something of a quitter in prayer I have now learned the importance of being persistent in prayer.
But we are pregnant and it is easy for us to file our experiences into neat piles of collected wisdom. Hugging my childless friend as she sobbed after a baby-filled service on Sunday I was lost for something to say and wondered when God would answer her prayers.
I know that God may delay in granting a child if he has work for the couple to do that is more easily accomplished without children. Couples often find their capacity to 'parent' or look after those in need put to good use with the elderly, youth groups or Sunday School. So often the timing is not quite right - one lady who finally got pregnant in her late thirties found that that was an ideal time for her even though years before she had baulked at the idea of being an older mum.
A couple may eventually adopt a child into their family who then has a chance to know God. Couples who adopt from overseas can offer a loving family and security to a child who has never had the benefits of family life.
While these are good things, I know hearing them recited does not help ease the pain. Nothing will heal my friend's pain except holding her own baby.
Jesus did not go to Lazarus' aid straight away, and he died. This delay brought glory to God and strengthened Martha and Mary's faith, yet the delay brought suffering and grief to the sisters. God's priority is not our short-term comfort but our long-term spiritual maturity.
Dealing with the 'hard stuff' taught me about prayer and genuinely trusting in God for the future. It was a hard lesson and towards the end of the four years I was completely broken and could not cope with the treatment any longer.
The controlled prayers and tears were gone and I desperately cried out to God for help, for an end to it all, and he heard me. He helped me deal with the crisis and ended it when I could not cope any longer. It was the hardest lesson of my life but I think I can say I am grateful for it.
Ross and Rhonda are pleased to announce the safe arrival of a wee miracle called Alexander. Rhonda is a former journalist who, needing a new challenge in the face of a 'child-free' future, went to law school where she continues to put her brain cells through the hoops. Prior to this she attended the Bible College of New Zealand where she met a fun-loving accountant called Ross who, fortunately, is a dab hand at giving injections! Ross and Rhonda live in Tawa where they can be seen arriving with half the Baby Factory (and a baby) at Tawa Linden Baptist Church most Sunday mornings.
Anyone wanting to chat about infertility issues is welcome to contact the Thompsons via DX SX10002 Wellington.