When the Fruit of the Womb is Not Expedient
By Fr. John Shimchick
THE CONTEMPORARY EXPERIENCE WITH INFERTILITY
Among the many themes present during the marriage service in the Orthodox Church, two seem to be particularly stressed: God’s blessing and childbearing. Over a dozen times each of these themes is reiterated and their connection to one another would seem most obvious from the following petitions found in the Great Litany:
That He will bless this marriage, as He blessed the marriage in Cana of Galilee, let us pray to the Lord.
That He will grant to them chastity, and of the fruit of the womb as is expedient for them, let us pray to the Lord.
That He will make them glad with the sight of sons and daughters, let us pray to the Lord.
That He will grant to them enjoyment of the blessing of children, and a blameless life, let us pray to the Lord.
But what happens when the marriage does not result in the birth of children? What does it mean when the “fruit of the womb” is NOT expedient for the couple? Does it signify that God’s blessing is withheld? What this paper hopes to show, primarily from the experiences of infertile Orthodox couples themselves, is that God’s marital blessings, while seemingly most apparent in childbearing, can still be creatively and generously realized in equally valuable ways when the fruit of the womb appears not to be expedient.
INFERTILITY NOT UNCOMMON
Roughly 15% of married couples (1-6) will face some degree of infertility. It can be defined as “the inability of a couple to achieve conception after a year of unprotected intercourse, or inability to carry pregnancies to live birth.” (C. Garner, Insights into Infertility, Norwell, MA: Serono Laboratories, 1991, 1) For many couples it often comes as the first crisis they encounter and it tests their ability to communicate, their sexual intimacy, and even their faith in ways that cannot be imagined.
It is felt that with the proper diagnosis and therapy, approximately 50% of women attending an infertility clinic will become pregnant. While medical counseling can be helpful in guiding a couple through all the stress, uncertainty, and anxiety of the testing and procedures, it is also noted that it can be valuable in helping a couple “concerning the proper time to discontinue investigation and treatment” especially for those with no known cause for their infertility. (Those couples with 4 years or more of infertility have a poor prognosis.) (Investigation of the Infertile Couple, Birmingham, AL: The American Fertility Society, 1991,6)
When medicine and science have reached their limits without the desired result, what happens to the emotional and spiritual foundation of a couple who is forced to acknowledge their permanent state of infertility? How do they understand themselves and what has happened to them? What do they do about it? To answer these questions, it is necessary first to examine the Biblical foundations of procreation.
BIBLICAL FOUNDATION OF PROCREATION
In the Old Testament, the “traditional view was that children are a sign of God’s favor and sterility a curse, especially inasmuch as one’s hopes for immortality dwelled above all in the memory of one’s children.” (The Jerome Biblical Commentary, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968, 34:15, 560) The Scriptures begin with God’s command for fertility: “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). In Judaism, having children is a commandment from God.
Early Judaism and even some expressions of it today do not have a clear understanding of a personal survival after death. So God’s promise to make Abraham’s posterity as numerous as the stars in the heaven and the dust of the earth (Gen. 13:16; 15:5) “implied that life could be perpetuated through posterity, hence the central importance of childbirth.” (John Meyendorff, Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective, Crestwood: SVS Press, 1984,12)
Within the New Testament, as noted by Fr. Meyendorff, “the meaning of marriage changes radically. . . . Not a single New Testament text mentioning marriage points to procreation as its justification or goal .... Marriage ceases to be either a simple satisfaction of temporary natural urges, or a means for securing an illusory survival through posterity. It is a unique union of two beings in love, two beings who can transcend their own humanity and thus be united not only “with each other, but also in Christ.” (Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective, 15-16). It is no doubt true that on a theological level this radical change did take place in the understanding of marriage. Yet, when it comes to childbearing and one’s identity, it is possible to still feel and hear in direct liturgical and sacramental ways and in the responses of the community that the Old Testament understanding is still in place.
PERSONAL EXPERIENCES WITH INFERTILITY
We turn now to the words of two Orthodox couples today who have struggled with infertility. Their experiences of Orthodox church life will be utilized in the hopes of providing helpful insights for the pastor and for the parish community.
COUPLE ONE: MICHAEL AND ANNA
For the first eleven years of marriage, Michael and Anna were unable to conceive. Then Anna became pregnant, but five months into her pregnancy, she miscarried. Anna was never able to get pregnant after that.
Though they had no children of their own, Michael and Anna discovered that they were able to relate well to children with whom they came in contact. Michael decided, after some time as a “body” man in a car repair shop, that he would go to school, become a teacher, and eventually a guidance counselor. In so doing, Michael and Anna became “uncle and aunt” to several generations of children, affirming and nurturing them when other more obvious support was not always present.
Q. What made you decide to change careers and work with children?
A. I centered on kids because of everything that happened to me in my life. When all my energies went into the kids at school, I realized how much I loved them.
Q. Did you ever think of this in a religious sense?
A. I always thought, and here a priest helped me to see, that the things which had happened to me were made possible because God seemed to will this. He gives you the free choice, but also seems to be part of what your destiny is, part of why you were placed on this earth. I always thought that whatever gift I had, certainly came from God. And I did have a gift for working with children.
Q. Tell me more about this gift of working with children.
A. There was this love that seemed to flow outward and then was brought inward to me from them. Many of the kids I have had at school over the years still keep in touch. I think God is using me as an instrument to try to work with and be with kids. I can’t explain it except in a spiritual way.
COUPLE TWO: MARK AND MARY
Mary’s mother had been given the drug DES in the 1950’s while pregnant with Mary. Complications from the drug, surgery, and two ectopic pregnancies left Mary unable to conceive. She and her husband, Mark, adopted a child.
Q. How did being within a church community affect your struggle with infertility?
A. (Mark) It was extremely problematic because there is such an emphasis sacramentally on family and on the fulfillment of marriage in the bringing about of children. One can easily feel isolated and outcast, guilty, or certainly out of sorts given this emphasis.
Very often you have difficulty with loved ones. Relatives and friends, who while well meaning, find themselves uncomfortable with the fact that you don’t have children. Either they won’t talk about it at all or they use clichÃ©s: “Well, you’ll get it right one of these times,” or “Well, if it’s God’s will, you’ll have them.”
More internally, we came to this: Is God somehow withholding this grace, this joy for some reason? Why me? When you are a person of faith, perhaps it is even more devastating because you believe in the depths of your being that God is able to grant this. You believe that if you pray and if you’re true to Him, He will fulfill this promise. It becomes a judgment against one’s self when it is not happening.
Q. What were some of your other frustrations?
A. (Mary) The worst part of going through the medical procedures for infertility is not knowing if you will ever be able to have your own children. After the second ectopic pregnancy, there was pretty much no hope, and that realization made it much easier. It was like I had a whole new life. It put an end to ten years of uncertainty, of always wondering.
Q. Have you found that you’ve been able to talk with others about your experience?
A. (Mary) Since we’ve adopted our daughter, I’ve spent a lot of time talking openly about adoption and about the adoption process. I think at times it surprises people that I speak as openly about it as I do, but that’s because I attempt to make those who are sometimes as ignorant about adoption as they are about infertility, aware. I want to educate them about adoption and enable those who might not know me, to feel comfortable enough to talk about it and get some help.
Q. During the years of working with infertility, what would you like to have heard from those around you, especially your pastor?
A. (Mark) I would have liked someone to acknowledge that this is a great frustration, that it is something that does cause a struggle with faith, a struggle with a person’s sense of themselves, of their self worth, and where they stand with God. I would have liked someone to just share in the uncertainty of it.
I think the pastor needs to talk to people who have been there and begin to understand the struggles that take place and recognize that they’re not unique. The problem of infertility is really not that different than any other frustration, perceived or real failure that can exist in the life of a Christian person.
I had a friend, a Catholic priest, who was doing hospital work while he was attending seminary. He was going to visit a man in his late thirties who was terminally ill with cancer. This man had a very short time to live and my friend didn’t know what he was going to say. He realized that a lot of his patent answers weren’t going to cut it. He walked in, feeling uncomfortable.
The patient was uncomfortable, too. Here’s a stranger, a priest. You don’t know him. What’s he going to say. You’re struggling with your sickness and your own spirituality. The only thing the priest could think of to say was, ‘Tell me something, what does it feel like to be dying?” The man replied, “It feels like hell, Father. That’s a pretty stupid question!” “No really,” the priest said, “I really don’t understand what it feels like.”
That one question, genuinely asked, opened the door for everything else to follow. Maybe that’s the answer. Maybe priests need to know that it’s all right to admit that they don’t know what the person is feeling, but to acknowledge that the feelings are very human. The priest, too, is human and they can connect.
Q. So it’s perhaps not in knowing the right answer, but the right question?
A. There is no right answer. But to relate to another, a person has only to look as far as themselves. When in my life have I been filled with despair? When in my life have I felt a real challenge to my faith? If we can at least touch some of those feelings that we’ve all had, it gives the opportunity to reach out to another and say, “I’m sure I can’t understand how you are feeling, but I once felt such and such. Maybe you’re feeling something similar.” Perhaps that will open a door.
Q. How did you finally come to accept your infertility?
A. During adoption preparation, we met people who were talking and saying things that we had experienced and it wasn’t something hidden or embarrassing. We began to say, “Okay, these are the realities and they hurt. Yet, we’re going to move on, we’re going to live, and God is going to bless us and work with us.” To really recognize that is like having a heavy burden taken from your shoulders. But it’s not something you can tell yourself. It’s one of those things you’ve got to hear affirmed by others as well.
This was reinforced when we met with the young birth mothers at the adoption agency. The mothers would want to know what kind of persons would want to adopt a baby. How did you come to this decision? What were your struggles? What was it like to want a child and not to have one?
Every time we tried to explain to them where we had been, it was like another revelation to us, another experience of growth in terms of understanding that there was somehow a plan in this whole thing in which God did act and, while it didn’t go the way we thought it naturally ought to go, it probably went a better way.
Maybe that’s the lesson from some of the feastdays, (Nativity of the Theotokos, Old Testament matriarchs). Maybe the lesson is that the real issue is remaining faithful and true to God even when you are rejected for being barren, because if God wills it. He will overturn nature and you’ll have a child at 90. But even if He doesn’t, the real issue is your faithfulness and being right in the sight of God and knowing that He’ll bless you along the way. That’s hard sometimes to see, but it’s the message that the person ultimately has to get.
Every time I look at our adopted daughter, I become absolutely convinced that if left to our own chromosomes, we couldn’t have produced a better child. That’s a proud parent speaking. Nonetheless, I think something far better than we may ever have anticipated on our own, occurred as a result of that journey. And that’s something that is an incredible joy. I have no regrets whatsoever at this point for having gone that path. It’s just that along the way, it would have been such a blessing to have people that could also see, and encourage the verbalization of our frustrations and pain.
There is a growing body of literature that deals with the emotional and spiritual implications of infertility (See Bibliography) Nancy Gieseler Devor, in a moving article entitled “A Service for Isaac,” retells the moment when she was asked as a pastor to help do a memorial service for Isaac - the child her friends never had. After years of testing, surgery, and artificial insemination, they finally acknowledged the need to let go of their dream child. “Mostly they spoke of the relief at letting go their continuous rollercoaster of emotions, of an end to counting the days, waiting for signs that never came, nurturing hopes that were never fulfilled.” (The Christian Century, April 20, 1988, 391.) The service concluded with the prayer:
“We return to you the potential of this infant life, which for us will not be - and which is even now being laid to rest. But more important, we commit to you the potential in our own lives, which - through the presence and power of your Holy Spirit - may be realized, to the glory of your holy name.” (Ibid)
“But even if He doesn’t (grant the ability to have children), the real issue is your faithfulness and being right in the sight of God and knowing that He’ll bless you along the way.” These words from the earlier interview and the prayer from the “Service for Isaac” summarize the way out of the dilemma for the Orthodox couple who find themselves infertile, who long to make sense of God’s blessings in the midst of being childless.
The energies and gifts one couple would have utilized in loving their own child led to the act of adoption; in the other case, they brought about a ministry or vocation of working with and encouraging children.
For the pastor, it is not so much the ability to provide answers, as being able to ask the right questions. It means to verbally acknowledge the pain, frustration and even shamefulness of the couple’s feelings. But above all, it represents the opportunity for the entire Christian community to help the couple try to find together in the life of the church and in the sacraments, what God’s will is for them and how His holy name might be glorified in their lives.
RESOLVE (A national, non-profit charitable organization that offers information, advocacy and support to problems of infertility. 1310 Broadway, Somerville, MA 02144, Helpline: 617-623-0744)
Some of their writings:
“Coping with Infertility - How Family and Friends Can Help,” August, 1990. “Religious Perspective and Infertility” “RESOLVE Bibliography,” September, 1993
Spring, Beth. “Ministry to the Infertile,” Leadership (Summer, 1988), 95-97.
Worthington, Everett L. “Counseling the Infertile Couple” in Counseling for Unplanned Pregnancy and Infertility (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1987), 221-234.
This article is an abbreviated version of Fr. Shimchick’s longer paper. To read the entire paper, you can contact Fr. Shimchick at (609) 665-2491.