Dealing With Infertility: A Man's Perspective
This article does not presume to outline an approach which will be comforting to all people going through grief. It will also quite likely fail to alleviate the long term pain which people who struggle with infertility will go through for potentially the rest of their lives. I do not profess to be an expert on this issue or to have suffered as long as some. What I hope to do is to simply give one man’s perspective about their experience with long-term unexplained infertility.
About one in four pregnancies in New Zealand end in miscarriage. These are only the recorded numbers of women who had to be hospitalized or were even aware of the outcome. It has been suggested that a further quarter of embryos die shortly after conception. Consider also that roughly one in ten women struggle to have or to keep their children. Do the number crunching and you quickly realise that infertility and failed pregnancies are very common.
Most people understand what it is to lose a loved one yet we all deal with it differently. Some people actively look for support yet others struggle to open up to anyone other than the Lord. Some experience a constant emotional pain and others only experience the pain on certain occasions. Some talk of their struggle for purpose. Some blame the devil. Some blame themselves. Many people tend to find some consolation in the understanding that their loved one had a full life. They may remember the blessings enjoyed together or the joy which they brought into the lives of others.
This tends to be more difficult at funerals of younger children. Many might comment that ‘they had such a promising future’ or ‘they weren’t able to experience life.’
As Christians we acknowledge that God has planned this pain for us. He has numbered our days. We understand it is for our good. We are being refined for a greater purpose. We are being forced to rely on God rather than the work of our own hands. We might echo the words of the hymn that ‘Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.’ Or perhaps ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.’ These hymns and many others speak of where our true hope and joy lie. Man’s chief end: ‘to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’
Romans 5:3: ‘...but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.’
Yet how do you respond to someone who is suffering because they have been trying to have a child and the Lord has never blessed them with one? Does your reaction change as time progresses? Is it different after one year? Five years? Fifteen? Perhaps it seems a bit hollow to tell someone after fifteen years of trying for children that ‘It will happen eventually because other people have been trying longer and they were eventually successful.’ Maybe you change your approach and start talking about the danger of making idols out of earthly things or the sin of not trusting in the Lord. You could also reprimand them for jealousy or envy.
These criticisms may have a lot of truth in them and in some cases this sin may need to be highlighted explicitly. The frustration for the people who go through this is palpable though. As often as I pray to the Lord for contentment; as often as I think I have put it to rest, the Lord seems to keep reminding me of it while I try to forget it. Just like a husband who is prompted to remember his wife after ten years of her death and misses her once again, the pain caused by a lack of children can come when you least expect it.
The temptation we have as men is to try to solve issues. Especially early in a marriage we may end up in some conversation which ends with: ‘Well if you didn’t want advice why did you tell me about it?!’ We tend to take the same approach with grief. We will give advice with the intention that if they follow it the problem will be solved or at least improved. In my experience this doesn’t help with infertility.
‘Get your wife to hug other people’s babies ... it works!’ ‘Adopt and you’ll get pregnant.’ ‘Stop eating meat.’ ‘Stop eating beans.’ ‘Eat this root!’ ‘Learn to do massage.’ ‘Go on a long holiday to France.’ ‘My friend did it and...’ ‘There was this woman...’ ‘My auntie’s Scottish cousin knows this person who saw it happen...’ Believe me, if the theory sounds half-pie-decent it’s been tried and hasn’t worked. It may have worked for some but the Lord has different plans for different people and we cannot direct our steps. If only it were that easy.
It becomes even more frustrating when you start to wonder whether your desire for children is distracting you from the Lord. At what point does ‘wrestling with God’ for something become idolatry? At what point does the recurrent pain suggest a lack of faith and trust?
The Lord speaks of children as a reward and a blessing. Psalm 127:3-5:
Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate.
Many people fail to understand that when dealing with infertility or miscarriage, it is not only the woman who has to go through pain and hardship. A man is called to raise his family in the Lord. Just like a wife is made to bear children a husband is made to lead his family; not just his wife. It is also a husband’s God given purpose to look after his wife though; to be willing to lay down his life for her; to protect her. In fact, these concepts are both implicitly and explicitly in the traditional vows we took as husbands.
When you are dealing with this kind of issue, however, you take your wife to the hospital where she is continually poked and prodded. There are countless blood-tests and physically painful operations. I wanted to remove all of these pains but all I could do was sit in the waiting room praying and twiddling my thumbs. Regardless of how strong my wife may be it does not change my desire to be strong in her stead. I felt helpless. This is an awful feeling for a man who feels a responsibility to protect.
Yet men will generally become isolated through their desire to be strong. When people are aware of the problem they will ask ‘how is your wife doing?’ This is not wrong but it does leave us lonely. We need other men in particular to extend support and care even though we won’t admit to it or we don’t appear to be having any difficulty.
A comment also on adoption: Almost all people who have gone through infertility have considered adoption. The issue is much more complex than the theology suggests. I completely agree that adopting a child has similarities with God adopting us into his family and that it is a noble and selfless thing. Nevertheless, realise that it is much easier to agree in principle than it is to make a decision. My wife and I are open to adoption but there are some big issues we have to work through before we actually go to the hospital and pick up someone else’s child.
Consider for a moment: Are we forcing the issue with God and saying we will have children no matter what his will is? We are making a choice here. Most people don’t have to consider these questions. Whether they like it or not God provides them with a child and they must learn how to be parents. But if God does not provide then what is His will? There are consequences to this decision: how will you deal with it when your adopted son tells your wife that she ‘isn’t my real mum anyway!’ or ‘I want to find my birth parents’ or the adoptive process falls through after you have already invested your emotions into a child. Are you strong enough? Is your wife strong enough? Does God’s plan require that we don’t have children for some reason?
So where does that leave us? My wife sent me 1 Peter 4:7 the other day: ‘Give all your worries and cares to God for he cares about you.’ God will protect both me and my wife and cause us to grow spiritually even through these difficulties. Psalm 23: ‘I will fear no ill for You are with me.’
The Lord gives an amazing promise in Psalm 27:14. ‘Wait on the Lord; Be of good courage, And He shall strengthen your heart; Wait, I say, on the Lord!’ He does not promise that he will provide a child but he does promise that in His time our heart will be made strong. James 5:11: ‘You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord – that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.’ Job had to persevere through the difficult times. It was painful and hard and the loss of his family lasted far beyond the restoration of his possessions. But the Lord has an intended end even though we may not see it. The end is good.
I praise the Lord that my wife is primarily in His hands rather than mine. I thank Him for his providence in other areas of our life. And when the pain gets too much we turn directly to Him in prayer and wait for that comfort. It doesn’t always come in the first week or year but it does come.
Please also be aware that when people who suffer in this way need to withdraw for some time alone they are not actually alone. The Lord is with them. When you extend support, do not feel the need to give advice to solve the problem but don’t let that stop you from asking how we are going. And please pray for those of us who continue to struggle with this pain and will quite likely do so for the rest of our lives – that we will learn contentment and we will find rest for our souls.