By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Couples who suffer with infertility experience a pain only another infertile couple can understand. A Catholic university professor who experienced infertility herself found that looking at infertility through the eyes of faith prevents it from becoming merely a human disaster and can turn it into a spiritual journey.
Professor Marie Meaney, an Arthur J. Ennis Teaching Fellow at the University of Villanova in Philadelphia told Zenit News that only God can prevent the extreme suffering an infertile couple experiences from turning into anger, resentment and bitterness.
Meaney, who has been active in the pro-life movement for many years, said infertility is a painful cross not easily understood by others.
“For those who are not suffering from infertility it may be difficult to imagine how painful it is,” she said. “Before it happened to me, I had no idea how awful it was. Most couples probably go into marriage thinking that children are a given, that they will simply come along; when they don’t, this opens up in a new way how central the gift of life is to marriage and in particular to the woman.”
Meaney describes the pain couples experience in being denied the visible fruit of their love. They want to start the adventure of raising children together, of seeing parts of themselves embodied in their offspring and watching their children develop into unique human beings. When this doesn’t happen, the constant waiting for a child may cause a couple’s life to be put on hold.
“They are simply waiting for children and in the mean time not much else makes sense,” Meaney said. “No profession, no successful career can fill the emptiness caused by infertility.”
Although infertility affects both men and women, it is particularly painful for women, she said, and likens it to the anguished cry of Rachel in the book of Genesis: “Give me children or I shall die!”
“The woman is the one to experience pregnancy, feeling the child grow in her womb, as Pope John Paul II said so beautifully in ‘Mulieris Dignitatem,’ and thus she will also feel more deeply the lack thereof. Since her vocation is motherhood of some kind, she suffers particularly from its absence.”
Infertility is painful even if a woman already has children but is unable to have more. “Except if she knows that the sterility is final, she will go through hope and disappointment every month; and this disappointment comes at a time when it is emotionally and hormonally the most difficult.”
Every time a couple sees a child or attends a baptism or baby shower, the pain of infertility may surface anew.
It’s only natural for family and friends to want to console infertile couples, but there’s a right and a wrong way to do it, Meaney said.
“As with all suffering, at the core of the response should be the willingness to suffer with the couple, to stand under the cross with them, to be there for them. After all, compassion comes from the Latin word ‘com-pati,’ ‘suffering with.’ Anything that falls short of that is less than helpful.”
Comparing a couple to others who got over their infertility and grew from it, or who stopped worrying about it and then suddenly conceived, only reinforces a couple’s feeling that they’re doing something wrong.
Adoption is an option, however, it’s not necessarily the right answer for every couple.
“Adoption, I believe, is a vocation and not every couple feels called to it,” Meaney said. “Some infertile spouses think they can be fruitful in other ways, and serve the Church in a manner that couples with children can’t.”
For instance, an infertile couple can be a great witness to the world if they speak out when it is appropriate to do so.
“The spouses can talk about the pain of infertility, about the great gift that children are,” Meaney said. “If their infertility is due to previous abortions or contraception, this might make others think twice. Or by speaking out against in vitro fertilization (IVF), which might be their only option to have a child, they are a witness to the fact that children are a gift and that no one has a right to them.”
Couples can find peace in their condition by looking at infertility through the eyes of faith, she said, and by relying on God to help them overcome feelings of anger and bitterness.
“However, God does not perform magic; he does not simply take the pain away, nor does he give us the answer to our anguished question, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ . . . We have the false conception that being abandoned to God’s will means that we will sail through all difficulties and master them in Herculean fashion. But being nailed to the cross means experiencing great anguish, as Christ did; but it will ultimately become our path to salvation if we accept it.”
If we embrace this painful cross, ultimately, we will find inner peace, Meaney said, and reminds us of the favorite saying of Pope John Paul II: “Do not be afraid.”
“We are afraid of crosses, of the deaths we experience through them. But God will bless us a hundredfold through them and we will bear fruit for the Church and the world in ways we probably don’t even know,” she said.
“In eternity this wound will be part of our glory, shining forth, reflecting God in a particular way. Though we may never have biological children, we will have spiritual children many of whom we will only get to know only in heaven.”
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