It’s one of the most awkward questions I encounter and one of the most stressful, frustrating, and tear-inducing. It’s a question asked by well-meaning and caring relatives, friends that don’t know any better, friendly parishioners I know and by nosy busy-body parishioners I don’t know. And while I’m pretty good at hiding and dealing with my emotions, I still don’t know what to say to people when they ask that question, even after 6 ½ years of marriage.
Because my husband and I are in the midst of infertility struggles. Somehow, fertility struggles such as miscarriage and infertility are on the list of “taboo topics” to discuss openly and honestly within our Catholic faith and in society at-large. Plus, many times honest responses are full of emotion, making the topic difficult to talk about.
In a faith that values the preciousness and sanctity of every human life, a faith that rejoices and celebrates in the creation of new life, a faith that encourages procreation of new little souls with God, there’s not too much said if there are difficulties in getting pregnant or maintaining a pregnancy. People don’t know what to do (or not to do), or what to say (or not to say), to someone in these situations. Fertility and infertility are extremely personal. And for most, extremely private. And yet infertility and fertility problems are much more common than we often realize. There’s a good chance you know several people struggling with them.
What is Infertility?
Infertility is typically defined as the inability to conceive within one year, or not being able to carry a child to live birth. Woman who are able to get pregnant, but have miscarriages, are also considered to be infertile. Infertility can come in two ways: Primary, which is when you haven’t been able to have any children; and secondary, which is when you have been able to have at least one child.
Infertility is often a silent, lonely, stressful, frustrating and tear-inducing cross. It can be an agonizing cross to couples who long to have children, and especially to those that have always wanted a large family like my husband and me. It can be a doubly-difficult cross when you’re Catholic, as having children is a typical expectation within the faith community. As with all crosses, it can be a positive experience or a negative experience. And most often, it’s a little bit of both. It is a cross that many woman AND men carry:
Infertility is a disease that results in the abnormal functioning of the male or female reproductive system.
Infertility is defined as the inability to conceive after one year of unprotected intercourse (or 6 months if a women is over the age of 35) and/or the inability to carry a pregnancy to live birth.
1 in 8 couples (or 12% of married women) have trouble getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy (so there’s a good chance you know multiple people struggling to have children).
Infertility is not always a woman’s problem. Both women and men can have problems that cause infertility. About 1/3 of fertility issues are a result of a women’s problem, 1/3 of fertility issues are a result of a man’s problems and the other 1/3 are caused by a mixture of male and female issues or cannot be explained medically.
Approximately 44% of women with infertility seek medical assistance. Of those, 65% give birth. (The birthrate numbers are higher with NaProTechnology, but NaProTechnology can’t resolves all medical issues or unexplained infertility.) Information from Resolve.org
The Cross of Infertility
Much of the time in dealing with the cross of infertility, I have been blessed to have a spirit of joy, patience, peace and trust in God’s plan. But it would be misleading of me not to admit that at times I struggle to have hope, to have joy, to have patience, to have peace and to have trust in God’s plan through this process and with this cross. There have been priests who have scolded me for confessing my frustrations with God; friends who have off-handedly mentioned they forget to invite my husband and I to hang out because we don’t have kids for their kids to play with. There have been acquaintances who have asked extremely personal questions, family members who have offered to be surrogates, and there have been numerous doctors appointments, blood work appointments, medications, surgeries and dietary changes.
The cross of infertility can be stressful, frustrating and painful. It can be emotionally, mentally, socially and spiritually draining; and yet it is a cross given from Christ not as punishment but with a purpose. It is an opportunity to unite to Christ on the cross. I have had the joy (and yes, I do mean joy) of offering up the difficulties, the pain, the frustrations, the emotions and more to God for many purposes and people throughout these past few years. No, it doesn’t take away the pain and difficulty, but it does provide a purpose for the cross.
– – – – – – – – – – – – If you or someone you know is dealing with infertility, the Catholic medical group Pope Paul VI Institute has done extensive research and work in the field of fertility and infertility resulting in NaProTechnology (Natural Procreative Technology).
It’s July 2008 and I’m strapped to a surgical table as a fertility doctor siphons three dozen eggs out of my ovaries through a long needle. Blood is coming from between my legs, as the needle repeatedly perforates my vaginal walls en route to my ovaries in search of viable eggs. In the next room, my husband is masturbating so fresh sperm can be used to fertilize the eggs.
When we’re done, my ovaries hyperstimulate and I pass out. My abdomen and chest begin to fill with fluid; the anesthesia doesn’t stop the severe pain that fills my body. I struggle to breathe. The doctor stabilizes me, but it still takes nearly a week to recover from the brutal procedure.
The doctor had retrieved 38 good eggs, of which 31 are fertilized. Over the next week, 16 of our embryonic children die and are discarded. Thirteen are cryogenically frozen, mostly two to a vial. Two fresh embryos are transferred to my uterus.
Yes, the cost is high for what we’re doing, both financially and physically. But it will be worth it, I tell myself. Because surely at least one of these embryos will give us our heart’s desire–a beautiful child of our own.
Justifying Our Choices
My journey into in vitrofertilization (IVF) actually began in the 1980s, when my mother used donor sperm and intrauterine insemination to conceive me and my twin sister. When we were 12, we discovered that the man we thought was our father was not. I was disturbed that we were created by my mother and a stranger, and have always felt as if only part of me was “real.”
Fast-forward to my own marriage in 2004. We wanted children right away, but a year of trying had resulted in no pregnancy. I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, an endocrine disorder that inhibits regular ovulation. Doctors put me on the same ovulation-stimulating medication my mother had used to conceive me–Clomid. Four unsuccessful cycles later, we moved on to artificial insemination, though we did at least use my husband’s sperm. Still no baby.
In desperation, we graduated to the expensive and complex process of IVF, where my eggs and my husband’s sperm would be taken out of our bodies, joined in a petri dish, and the resulting embryos would be inserted into my uterus.
Even before we started down the IVF road, there was a voice inside of us whispering that it was wrong. But that voice was drowned out by louder, more persistent voices, like the doctors’ who said we had little to no chance to conceive without it. Friends and family, too, supported anything that would end the suffering of our infertility. Then there was my own desire for a child, shouting down the doubts and assuring me that God would want me to be happy and that as a woman, I deserved a child. And really, how could science that helps create life be a bad thing?
So we signed the contract and started the IVF process. To prepare, I took hormone injections and pills to stimulate my ovaries for egg retrieval. Though most eggs were fertilized simply by exposing them to sperm, some needed sperm forcibly injected into them with a needle. These newly formed, microscopic human beings were then graded for quality and we were encouraged to discard “low-grade” embryos that had little chance of survival. But because we couldn’t fully stifle our doubts about the wrongness of IVF, we insisted that all our viable embryos be preserved.
Suffering and Loss
After the first transfer in July 2008, we were thrilled to discover we were pregnant with twins, due the next April. But at 21 weeks gestation, our twins–Madi and Isaiah–were born prematurely and only lived for one hour each. During those brief, heartbreaking few hours, we held them, bathed them, dressed them, and baptized them, holding onto their tiny, fragile bodies as long as we could.
For the next year, I floated numbly through life. I believed the twins’ death was God punishing me for my past sins. My husband remained silent. Through it all, my heart was torn about the route we’d taken, as well as the fact that we still had 13 frozen children whose lives were on hold.
Eventually we felt ready to try IVF again. In October 2009, our only singly vialed embryo, Jeremiah, was thawed and transferred to my womb. We did not get pregnant.
In February 2010, we did another transfer. The embryologist came into the room beforehand and said that “one expanded and one did not.” We knew then that our son, Luke, had survived thawing, but that our daughter, Lucilla, had died and been discarded. In the end, Luke died, too, and we did not get pregnant.
Three months later, we thawed another vial and both Elijah and Ezekiel survived. The situation was complicated, however, because the death of the twins at 21 weeks had shown I had an incompetent cervix. This made carrying even one baby risky. We decided to transfer only one of the boys, because I would likely lose both if they developed properly after being transferred to the womb. Elijah was transferred and we were ecstatic when he was born in 2011.
His brother, Ezekiel, didn’t make it. But he was so, so resilient; he was initially frozen, thawed, refrozen, and re-thawed, yet survived to be transferred in January 2012. We did not get pregnant. Three months later, Olivia didn’t survive the thaw, but we were able to transfer Isaac.
A Spiritual Awakening
While waiting to see if I was pregnant with Isaac, I went on my first spiritual retreat. I went skeptical and defensive; I wasn’t going to share what I was going through with anyone. But God gave me a “spiritual spanking.” The poignant lyrics to a song caused me to break down crying and I experienced an intense spiritual awakening. That night, I went to reconciliation for the first time in years.
I had yet to own my sinfulness, however, because in my mind, I was still denying the truth—that I had killed my children through the violent and undignified process of IVF. By the end of the retreat, however, grace had finally washed away my pride and I experienced a full and overwhelming gift of faith. Overnight, my life went from being about what I wanted to being entirely about the love of God. Two days after I returned from the retreat, we discovered that Isaac had died, too, and I was not pregnant.
After seeing my transformation, my husband went on the same retreat in May. He had several profound spiritual experiences of his own, where he felt the Lord lift the guilt from his heart. God assure him that our deceased babies were safe and loved and would be waiting for us in heaven.
But faith didn’t solve the problem of what to do with our still-frozen children. We could leave them frozen, discard them, donate them to scientific research, or adopt them out. We felt all those options were disrespectful to the children and we feared they were offensive to God, too. We’ve since learned that the Catholic Church hasn’t fully clarified what is the most morally prudent and loving route to take when dealing with frozen embryonic children and theologians are all over the map on the issue. Some say every child created deserves a chance at life and ought to be implanted, as we did; other theologians suggest embryonic babies should be baptized, thawed until they pass away, and then buried. Hopefully the Church will soon define the best course for frozen IVF children, but until then, couples in our situation can only seek counsel through their spiritual advisers and through the Holy Spirit, in prayer.
We went into the first of the final three transfers in August 2012. Though I had been through the process before, this time was different; sadness consumed me as I sat in the clinic waiting room. I felt God’s pain from all the lives discarded by doctors and parents, who often create embryos only to throw away the “surplus” to save storage fees or get rid of lesser quality ones. I saw the cold beginning and end of so many of my babies’ short lives–first in a petri dish, then in and out of a freezer, and finally discarded like trash.
Vincent survived thawing and was transferred to my womb. Raphael hadn’t survived, however. We’d learned from our priest that if a baby didn’t survive, we had to save his body and bury him properly in holy ground, just as we would a born child. So this time I told the embryologist we wanted the “bodies” of any babies who didn’t survive the thaw to take them home to bury.
I remember it so clearly–the embryologist walked out of the lab, cradling the vial containing Raphael. She had a very solemn look on her face and was very respectful. I knew she was Catholic, too, and I can’t help but wonder how that experience affected her. Vincent didn’t survive transfer, either, though, and we did not get pregnant.
Four months later, we transferred Bethany; John didn’t survive the thaw. I was able to keep John’s body in a vial as we had Raphael’s. We did not get pregnant.
The final transfer took place in February 2013. Mary Laura Claire was transferred, and we carried her brother, Gabriel Jesus, out in a vial as we had his two brothers before him. We did not get pregnant.
When our twins had died, we’d had them cremated and placed their remains inside small pewter hearts that had been sewn into “Build a Bear” animals. We kept them on a shelf in our bedroom for five years. As we grew in faith, so did our knowledge that those babies, too, deserved to be buried respectfully. Five months ago, we went home to New Mexico, and buried our twins with their three embryonic brothers.
After nine transfers and 30 babies, our IVF journey had finally come to an end.
Realizing the Truth about Life
Earlier this year, I went on a retreat for post-abortive parents, since I felt that what I’d done to my babies through IVF was similar. I felt mixed vibes from others there, possibly because most people don’t understand the complexity of IVF. But if life starts at conception, then you can have sorrow and regret for denying your children life through IVF, the same as you do with abortion.
At one point, I was sitting outside. The sun was warmly bathing my face, but inside I was in turmoil. In my mind, I saw two ribbons–one expressed was the violence, darkness, and sinfulness of humanity, while the other showed the beauty and sacredness of human life. I suddenly understood just how sacred every single person is to God. I realized how selfish my decisions had been in allowing my babies to be violently injected into my uterus after they’d endured the indignity of freezing and thawing. Yes, the violence paralleled that of abortion.
The similarities were further brought home to me when I read over the IVF and cryopreservation contracts for the first time a month later. I felt brokenhearted and ashamed as I read the dehumanizing language describing that most sacred process of creating human life. Our babies were described as “cryopreserved material,” “concepti,” and “orphaned specimens.” Another section gave the clinic permission to take “Title” (ownership) of our embryos if we stopped the process, as if our children were commodities like cars. This consumerist mentality, combined with the emphasis on “cost effective treatment,” is what makes it acceptable for IVF children to be donated for research, abandoned, discarded, and even aborted through “selective reduction” when too many embryos stay alive after transfer.
The contract also stated that, “It is rare for an embryo to not survive thawing.” Half of our babies didn’t survive thawing. And, “Occasionally, an embryo is not found in the vial due to the nature of embryos to stick to the vial or pipette.” What incredible dangers we’d exposed our children to! Only one phrase in the entire contract spoke to the humanity of our children by calling them babies.
Being created in a lab and then frozen violates the dignity of these tiny human beings. Thawing and discarding is killing. Reducing women to incubators and men to sperm donors is also undignified. Children have a right to be the fruit of their parents’ loving union, not products to be bought, sold, donated, or trashed.
There are still days when my sorrow about our children and the IVF industry itself becomes nearly unbearable. It’s hard to accept that we consented to what we did, but the desire for a child is so primal and powerful and we understand the desperation that drives couples to IVF. I take consolation in what God said to Habakkuk: “WAIT! I am here through it all! And I am establishing a work in my people that you cannot imagine! Be ready and willing when I call you.” I offer this story of our family’s journey through IVF, with its perils and heartbreak, as my expiation and my fiat–“Father, You are my only source of strength; my very existence. I am your instrument; do with me as you will!”
::Stay tuned for the podcast! You will hear from Jenny Vaughn directly about her journey with IVF.::
In case you haven’t heard, the subject of birth control has been in the news lately. Before I get in to this post, I’m going to add a clarifier that I am not a doctor or a pharmacist and the advice contained in this post should not be used to replace medical advice. But this is about really learning about what it is that you, our readers, put into your bodies.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I want to tell you something that gets under my skin like nothing else does. I bet that you’ve probably heard at least ten people in your life say it (or some variation) this last month.
“But birth control isn’t all bad. I know someone who’s taking birth control for medical reasons and it cured her.”
Show of hands? Who here has heard someone say that? Who has said it themselves?
Let me tell you what’s wrong with that statement. I’ll start with the easy part.
Birth control doesn’t CURE anything!
In consulting with Dictionary.com you find that the following definition of the word “cure” exists: Cure [kyoor] noun, verb, cured, cur·ing.
1. a means of healing or restoring to health; remedy.
2. a method or course of remedial treatment, as for disease.
3. successful remedial treatment; restoration to health.
4. a means of correcting or relieving anything that is troublesome or detrimental: to seek a cure for inflation.
5. the act or a method of preserving meat, fish, etc., by smoking, salting, or the like.
The one place where this definition falls short (in my opinion) is that it doesn’t state that the “means of healing or restoring to health” should be specified as permanent means of healing or restoring to health.
Someone whose cancer has been cured has been healed or restored to health – permanently. Someone whose endometriosis has been cured has been restored to health – permanently. Someone who is still battling cancer (or endometriosis) has not been fully restored to health and therefore cannot be considered cured.
It is very discouraging to me that a woman with any or all of those symptoms would walk in to a doctor’s office and the doctor would just throw medication at the problem without taking the time to diagnose what’s wrong. Yet that’s what happens! That doesn’t happen with other medical conditions, why “female problems”?
For the last year I have been struggling with some incredibly awful heartburn, nausea, gas, bloating, and what I later learned was a swollen esophagus. The doctor wouldn’t prescribe anything for me until she’d run a battery of tests. She needed to figure out what the problem was (particularly making sure that I wasn’t having any cardiac issues) before she started to treat me. Yet if I were to go to her and say “my cramps are so awful that I can hardly sit up at my desk at work, and then when I do get my period I can’t go anywhere or be away from a bathroom because I go through tampons so quickly,” what usually happens (in most doctor’s offices)? I walk out with a prescription for birth control pills without having run a single test to determine what the problem is.
Yes, when you have endometriosis all you want is relief. If someone would have told me that when you take birth control pills to treat the symptoms of endometriosis, the symptoms usually return and are usually worse, I maybe would not have gone down that road. In other words, when I was ready to finally have a child with my husband, there were more than a few months where I wondered if I could live with the cramps while we were trying to conceive. (I ended up having a laparoscopy four years ago, and probably need to have another one but don’t want to deal with the recovery that I had last time)
The other condition that a lot of the symptoms listed above (acne, irregular and heavy periods, too much hair) are symptomatic of is Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). If you’re not someone who’s been around the Infertility community, or if you don’t have a family member who has PCOS, you’ve probably never heard of it before. As many as 1 in 15 women have it, and it’s one of the number one causes of Infertility. I have five good friends who have PCOS and I know several other women who suffer with the disorder. It’s a frustrating thing to deal with.
PCOS is largely the result of Insulin Resistance (IR). Because the body can’t process insulin correctly, the female reproductive system doesn’t work quite right and instead of releasing an egg on a routine cycle (every 28 days for “average” women), the ovaries produce cysts and an egg is released on an unpredictable schedule. Often times reproductive endocrinologists talk about patients with PCOS having a “string of pearls” row of cysts in their ovaries.
Women fall victim to thinking that birth control pills cure PCOS because they (generally) go to see their doctor about the fact that they never know when they’re going to get their period. The doctor gives them a prescription for birth control pills, which they take, and they get a period every 28 days. It’s almost like a miracle for them – they have predictable cycles, their acne starts to clear up, their cramps aren’t as bad, they’re not nearly as moody, they can walk past the ice cream case in the grocery store without filling their cart… Life is almost normal.
But then when they want to have a baby? They go off of birth control and their problem is back and even worse.
God willing, they get someone who talks to them about the benefit of diet and exercise. There is a great deal of evidence that women with PCOS benefit from a diet like the PCOS diet or the Glycemic Index diet or being gluten free. They learn that just dropping 5% of their body weight has a profound effect on their fertility. Amazingly, when your body isn’t working so hard to combat the roller coaster of Insulin Resistance, it can do a better job at fertility.
But the medical community doesn’t tell you that the only way to really cure PCOS is through diet and exercise (and not just “eat less than 1,800 calories a day” – but eat the right things) because there are drugs they can throw at the problem. If you don’t want to get pregnant you can take birth control pills. If you do want to get pregnant they can give you Clomid to force your body to ovulate.
I hate to say it, but we’ve allowed ourselves (and I count myself in this group) to be tricked in to believing that birth control pills are the answer to all of our problems.
In many cases, however, they complicate the problem further. I firmly believe (but can’t find a doctor who will agree with me) that the five years I spent taking birth control pills caused my infertility. Those gastrointestinal issues that I referred to above? Turns out that they’re caused by Insulin Resistance (IR). I don’t have PCOS, but I have something very similar to it, so I’m learning how to eat right for my body. If someone had talked to me when I was in my 20’s about IR I could have saved myself a lot of heartache (and chest pains). My body has lost the ability (also complicated by age since I’m closing in on 40) to correctly produce progesterone, something that I believe was always there, but has been complicated by using birth control pills to regulate my hormone swings. My hormones don’t know how to “swing” without help – like the 6-year-old who sits on a swing and doesn’t know how to pump her legs because someone has always pushed her.
So what’s the answer? If you know a woman of child-bearing age who complains about painful periods, irregular periods, heavy bleeding, acne, or excessive hair on her face, urge her (beg her) to ask her doctor what other options are available to her other than the birth control pill. If you yourself are on the birth control pill for “medical reasons”, please do your own research. Is continuing to push hormones in your body that just simply mask the symptoms rather than treat the problem worth it?
I’ve written before about my journey with Infertility, and I’ve tried to always be candid about the pain of carrying the cross that God has given to me. I’m not going to lie to you all and say that it’s been an easy cross to bear – and there’ve been plenty of times where I’ve taken the posture of Hannah weeping and wailing in the temple rather than a prayerful attitude asking God to guide me along my journey.
But recently I was sitting at my desk at work, writing yet another report, and feeling sorry for myself because I’d let myself get my hopes up – AGAIN, I got a reminder that God is always present.
I had been experiencing all of the signs of pregnancy. I knew that our timing had been perfect. My husband and I were together during my fertile period, I was able to start the progesterone to help lengthen my luteal phase so that if, God willing, conception had occurred my body might figure out what to do and the little baby could actually implant in my womb… I was even enjoying the fact that I was feeling completely ill. Surely we were going to get our miracle this time!
And then I saw a test that looked just like this one
And a second just like this one
(Yes, I took two. I was so convinced that I was pregnant that I told myself that it only made sense to confirm it with a second test)
And I sat there in our bathroom staring at the counter and these tests.
Normally a negative test just makes me feel completely numb, but not this time.
This time I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I sank to my knees and I cried. My husband gently asked if he could do anything and I shook my head. I got up and went to the computer and I sent a message to some friends (including the Sistas) and told them that I had gotten a BFN (a “Big Fat Negative” – lingo in the world of Home Pregnancy Tests) and that I felt like a waste of a woman. They all knew that I was going to be testing in the morning and they all had told me they’d be waiting.
There came loving messages including one from a beautiful friend who told me “God doesn’t make junk.” And another from someone who told me that women shouldn’t be judged by their fertility. I’ve been reflecting on that message quite a bit – if we don’t judge men on their ability to make a baby, but rather to be a husband and a father then why do some of us as women (okay, ME) judge ourselves on the ability to carry a child.
I got ready and came in to work because I needed something to get my mind off of the BFN. I had reports to write. I had paperwork to catch up on. I could either sit & feel sorry for myself or I could do something productive with my day.
Another friend e-mailed me this Bible verse:
“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—oracle of the LORD—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.” ~Jeremiah 29:11
And I decided that it’s time to make time to fill out the adoption application with the new agency that we’ll be working with. There’ve been some bumps in the road that have delayed us from starting the process. Clearly adoption is my path to motherhood. Clearly my miracle was going to enter the world in a way other than through my womb. I felt a glimmer of hope, deep inside of myself.
I started thinking about our priest’s homily this Epiphany when he said “God wants to meet us in the messiness. He wants us to find him in the muck of our lives because he was born in a barn, amongst the animals as a sign that there is nothing too messy for God.”
And I started to pray that God would help me see him in this messiness.
But I was still down. I was still feeling broken.
I got a text from a friend who attempted to make me feel better by telling me that I was stronger than the rest of our group (a group of friends who all met as a result of Infertility) and that’s why I was the last one left waiting for my miracle. (I appreciated her attempt to make me feel better, but it didn’t help like she thought that it would). I didn’t feel like I was strong. I felt like I was being a baby because I was left off the guest list for the party.
And then the phone rang. I almost didn’t answer it because I thought that it was another friend calling to try to help.
But I realized… she didn’t know. She was calling for something else…. So I answered the phone.
Her daughter, who’s a High School student, has excruciating pain as a result of endometriosis. She’s already had a laparoscopy to try to correct the problem, and she hasn’t yet felt relief as a result of the surgery. My friend was desperate to find relief for her daughter, and was out of ideas.
She called because she knew that I had struggled with the pain of endometriosis and had a laparoscopy to correct the problem (although it has returned, but that’s another story). She knew that I had said to her several times “whatever you do please don’t let the doctors put her on birth control pills.”
She was calling because she wanted help…. she needed help – from me.
Me! She needed help from me – the broken one!
I listened, and I prayed when I heard the mother’s anguish that comes from not being able to help her child. I talked her through why their doctor’s advice of putting her High School aged daughter on lupron injections was a bad idea. I encouraged her to seek out a pediatric gynecologist and a doctor trained in NaproTechnology to get second a third opinions. I encouraged her to hang on to hope.
And then I realized that had it not been for my journey with infertility I wouldn’t have been able to give this counsel to my friend. I wouldn’t have known what to say to help her. I wouldn’t have been able to point her in the right direction – and her daughter (who’s one of the most beautiful and fun-loving teens I’ve ever met) might find herself getting dragged down my road ten or fifteen years down the road.
So I have prayed for my friend’s daughter, for these doctors that they’re going to consult with, and for my friend, that answers may be coming quickly. I prayed that God will help me to accept adoption as His will for my husband and I (because I’m realizing that I’m still in the process of mourning the idea that I may never give birth to a child). I prayed that God will take away my pain from this most recent BFN. And then I thanked God that He was able to put me in the path of my friend and her daughter, and allow to help them end her pain. And then I prayed for our birth mother – wherever she may be.
So I think that was God’s message for me today. Dr. Martin Luther King, junior may have said it best when he said
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others? Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how you begin to die a little.”
I am going to take this opportunity to introduce you to a saint that I have developed a special devotion to, St. Hannah. St. Hannah is the patron saint of childless wives and infertile women (whether they have children or not), and I strongly identify with her suffering. When I was going through active infertility treatments I spent a lot of time prayerfully conversing with her about my frustrations, my sorrows, and my pain. Since today is St. Hannah’s Feast Day I wanted to take this opportunity to help our readers get to know this little known saint a little better.
Hannah’s story is told at the very beginning of the first book of Samuel. Elkanah had two wives: Hannah and Peninnah. Peninnah and Elkanah had children (sons & daughters), but Hannah remained childless. The reading says
“When the day came for Elkanah to offer sacrifice, he used to give a portion each to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters, but a double portion to Hannah because he loved her, though the Lord had made her barren. Her rival, to upset her, turned it in to a constant reproach to her that the Lord had left her barren.” (~ 1 Samuel 1:4 – 6, NAB)
I think it’s key here that the author of this book says “a double portion to Hannah because he loved her.” Elkanah wanted Hannah to be viewed as equal in the temple, he wanted her to feel special. He knew that Peninnah reproached Hannah for being barren and he wanted her to feel loved and honored. Some have even speculated that Hannah was the favored wife of Elkanah. The passage goes on to show us that Elkanah was greatly troubled by Hannah’s sorrow over her barrenness: “Her husband Elkanah used to ask her:‘Hannah why do you weep and why do you refuse to eat? Why do you grieve? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (1 Samuel 1:8)
If you’re infertile, or if you know someone who is, you know that this is not an uncommon conversation. My husband and I have had it more than once during our journey so I can really relate to Hannah. She feels broken, she’s wondering to herself “what’s wrong with me? Why does Peninnah get to be a mother? Look how mean and nasty she is to me!” and Elkanah is simply thinking “Hannah has everything she needs and I love her? Why isn’t that enough?”
The next part of the story makes me laugh every time I read it.
Hannah rises early in the temple and is seen by the priest Eli. While she’s praying Hannah begins to weep. She says “O Lord of hosts, if you look with pity on the misery of your handmaid, if you remember me and do not forget me, if you give your handmaid a male child I will give him to the Lord for as long as he lives neither wine nor liquor shall he drink and no razor shall ever touch his head.” (1 Samuel 1:11) and while Eli watches her pray he thinks that she’s drunk and says to her “How long will you make a drunken show of yourself? Sober up from your wine!”(1 Samuel 1:14) She’s so upset that he thinks that she’s drunk! While I’ve never been in prayer in a public place and become so upset that I’ve been mistaken for being drunk, I have had people look at me – and I can only imagine what they’ve been wondering.
As she leaves Samuel at the temple (at the age of 3, after he’s been weaned) with Eli she offers up a beautiful prayer that some have said is similar to the Magnificat that Mary sends to God when she arrives at Elizabeth’s house (another infertile woman in the Bible who also conceives a son after many years of barrenness).
“My heart exults in the Lord, my horn is exalted in my God. I have swallowed up my enemies; I rejoice in my victory. There is no Holy One like the Lord; there is no Rock like our God.” (1 Samuel 2:1-2)
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:46 – 49)
Hannah disappears from the book of Samuel after the author tells us that the Lord blessed Hannah with three more sons and two daughters.
The greatest comfort that I have found in the Communion of Saints is not only that these holy people now reside with God and can intercede on our behalf (let’s face it, I need all of the help I can get), but that they were real people with real problems and real humanity. Hannah deeply felt the pain of infertility. Elkanah deeply felt the pain of his wife. The Lord blessed them with six children – in God’s time. The saints are there for us to serve as our guide and to help us understand that pain is a normal part of life, that it’s normal to beg & plead with God when we don’t think He hears us, that it’s normal to be confused about our call in life. St. Hannah is in heaven now and there are days when I can almost hear her saying “I understand.”
I don’t think that there’s any coincidence that St. Hannah’s day falls during Advent – the season of waiting. Hannah teaches us that good things come to those who wait. Hannah teaches us that the Lord wants to see our pain, the Lord wants us to lay our emotion at his altar. Hannah reminds us that husbands who love their wives want them to feel whole and loved and valued.
St. Hannah pray for the childless women and those women who long for another child who read this post today, intercede for us that we may soon join you in prayers of thanksgiving and celebration.