When my husband Dan and I married in 2011, we had no idea that infertility would be a part of our story together. We married young enough and healthy enough to think that soon we would add a little one to our just-started family of two. But as it turned out, we experienced six long years of infertility before we ultimately became parents through the gift of adoption when our daughter was born in 2017 (which is a whole story in itself!).
We are not alone in this experience. It’s estimated that around one couple in every eight will face infertility at some point in their marriage, and that around 15% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage or stillbirth. Our experience is just that — ours — but we have learned several lessons through walking in this “valley of tears.”
Find your tribe
Suffering is hard enough, but suffering alone can be unbearable. We were all made for community, to rejoice together and to grieve together. As month after month passed without a positive pregnancy test, we yearned for friends who “got it,” who knew from the inside what it felt like to ride the monthly roller coaster of hope and disappointment. Finding this “tribe” was a great consolation. For us, it was a mix of in-person friends and online friends we met through Facebook groups and blog networks. We could speak the same “language,” learn from each other and provide real-time encouragement for those really tough moments.
Our tribe also included each other, although this involved some growing pains to learn how to suffer together. Infertility gave Dan and me a lot of practice in being completely honest and open about our emotions, no matter how raw or seemingly repetitive, and respecting the different ways the other person grieved or coped. For example, I needed to share my feelings with Dan often, sometimes on a daily basis, to process through the various “triggers” of that day; Dan found it more helpful to invest in enjoyable activities that gave our lives meaning.
Finding our tribe also meant discovering which of our friends with kids would be willing to enter into our “world” and be considerate in how they talked about their children, announced pregnancies, and so on — and which friends we would need some distance from. While it was hard at times to be around our friends’ little ones, it was also incredibly healing to have a special place in a few kids’ lives, especially our godchildren. And it helped us not feel as left out from our friends’ lives, despite not being parents.
Embrace your fruitfulness wherever you can
For us, one of the hardest parts of being infertile was feeling like we had less to offer the world than couples who were raising children, or that somehow our marriage was less “real” because it wasn’t yet “fruitful.” This is just not true! A good priest friend encouraged us to rest in the truth that our marriage was real and fruitful, even if that fruit wasn’t children. How beautiful it is that ALL love bears fruit!
We found healing in looking for ways we could be fruitful: through our paid work, through our weekly care of an elderly widow, through making ourselves available to friends and family who were in need, through teaching marriage prep, and so on. As we didn’t have children (early bedtimes, schedule demands, etc.), we had more time than parents often do to be involved in works of mercy and service. And going outside of ourselves in this way helped combat the temptation to sink into our own sorrow or to think that our responsibility for others ended at the perimeters of our own little family.
Give yourself permission to opt out
Living with infertility means that daily life becomes a minefield of triggers. Every pregnant woman, every ad for baby gear, every invitation to a baby shower or baptism — these are all reminders of the deep, unmet desire for a child. There were days (and weeks) when I felt so vulnerable, with my feelings of sadness seemingly right on the surface. At times, I felt wounded constantly throughout the day. It was exhausting!
I learned that it was okay to say no — no, I won’t be able to attend the baby shower; no, I won’t be able to come to the party (with lots of little kids). At times, I felt guilty about this, but gracious friends understood, and I found other ways to celebrate people or spend time with friends that weren’t so emotionally exhausting. Infertility is a daily cross, and it’s important to take care of your mental health, just as anyone with a chronic illness would.
Feel the feelings
Perhaps the best advice I received during our journey of infertility was to take time to truly feel the feelings: to, on occasion, drop the mask — the happy face of trying my best to get through the day without crying — and just cry. Or yell into a pillow. Or sit and feel completely devastated, no apology.
Feeling those raw feelings is hard, and at first, I tried to minimize them, shove them deep down, or distract myself from them. But the fact is, infertility is devastating at times. It’s a profound grief even for those who haven’t lost a child (and certainly for those who have). I learned to respect my “darker” feelings and build time into my life to let them wash over me, process them, and pray through them.
I think this is the real “boot camp” aspect of infertility, or any suffering: facing the tough stuff head on and entering into the pain, trusting that your heart will grow stronger, bigger, and more capable of love by being stretched in this way.
Infertility doesn’t always have a clean ending; for some, it is a lifelong cross. For us, we still don’t know if we will ever be able to conceive, although our daughter has given us the tremendous joy of parenthood. But no matter what the future holds, the lessons we learned during the most difficult years of infertility continue to bless our marriage and family.