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Don’t Waste Your Infertility: Gender and the Hard Lessons of Life

When you have no children and you want them, you tend to notice (and covet) the children of others everywhere. Walking down the streets of Chicago, I’ve seen crack addicts use their kids as selling points for donations from passersby. We’d hear of every tragic family relationship—women tossing children in dumpsters for one—and wonder if even Social Services had better judgment than God when it came to deciding who gets a child.

These feelings were only compounded by books that suggested that childlessness was a curse from God. In one face-to-face confrontation, someone suggested that we were disobeying God’s mandate to be fruitful and multiply. Is it really the best policy to accuse a struggling young couple, who have been told they have fertility problems, and who have suffered shots, pokings and proddings, that they are the sinful ones?

While we were under that sort of scrutiny, I’m not sure we treated ourselves any better. I only have one brother and he is not married, so I felt a certain burden to carry on the family name. For Mindy it was different. She is the oldest of five children raised on a farm. She more than expected that same life for herself, wanting a large home-schooled family like her mother. And being first born, she felt it was her duty to set that example. God satisfied neither of us in our plans.

For a long while, every comment, no matter the intention, stood out to us.

“You look tired Brandon,” said a friend one day.

“I’m spending some long nights working on my Masters thesis,” I replied.

“You think you’re tired now, just wait until you have children.” He slapped me on the back and walked off with a chuckle.

Wait until I have children? I heard that line several times, as if no one was ever exhausted unless they had children. But I knew that it was just one of those things people say and mean no more than when they say, “some weather we’re having here.” He had no idea we had issues with infertility. The real problem was that I couldn’t stop thinking about children. Children had become an idol.

For years we lived our lives in anticipation of that child. We put many opportunities to serve God on hold, after all, the next treatment could change everything. Mindy worked every year, but never worked on a career. She simply took the next available job in whatever city we lived. I worked on my career, but my vision of being a husband never fully considered Mindy’s overall satisfaction with life.

It is often assumed by those with my theological background that much of the identity of a woman should be found in her children. But when there are no children, who is she? Added to that, I believed that I eventually had to finish my schooling and become the sole provider for a spouse whose identity was mostly to be found in children. It was my duty, I thought. But now things were different and being a husband for me no longer included children, it was only the two of us.

Now understanding it as a gender issue, we had to reassess our identities in Christ. In doing so, I discovered that we lived under many false assumptions. We lived as if we were under “Plan B.” Plan A was interrupted by infertility, or so we felt. We believed we were to suffer under Plan B until God saw it fit to give us children. What we did had little significance for our future, it was what we were doing “in the meantime.”

We needed a course correction. We needed to understand that Plan B, was not Plan B, it was Plan A. Our infertility was not a problem, it was God’s way of guiding our lives through Plan A—the real Plan A. There was no Plan B. God intended us to take what we were experiencing and redirect our energies toward serving him fruitfully. We were to end our wallowing and give our attention to the service of the gospel. Our identities were not to be found in our procreation.

Mindy found the freedom to explore her gifts—which are without a doubt in writing and editing—and in discoveries like these we found fruitfulness in new ways. Children could no longer be our idols. That which was a source of despair, became an opportunity for service and a special journey. We were no longer to waste our infertility.

John Piper’s article, “Don’t Waste Your Cancer”—the obvious inspiration for the title of this post—reminds us that God brings these things into our lives to redirect our energies in service to him. Written at the news of his prostate cancer, there are some points that resonate with me and concur with the lessons I’ve learned. To paraphrase Piper, we waste our infertility if we “do not believe it is designed for us by God.” We waste our infertility if we “believe it is a curse and not a gift.” We waste our infertility if we “spend too much time reading about infertility and not enough time reading about God.” And we definitely waste our infertility when we “fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ.” This last point is only now hitting home with me; after all, infertility problems aren’t the kind of conversation one enjoys having or even writing about publicly. But with 1 in 6 couples struggling with infertility—a problem evenly divided down gender lines—I’m sure there are plenty of others who are going through what we’ve already experienced and who are seeking spiritual help.

Without a doubt, children are a blessing from God. Our  nieces and nephews are a joy from God in our life. And because children are a blessing, Mindy and I have worked hard to have a positive impact in their lives, even writing a church history series for children, called History Lives. We hope that they will learn to love the church and find inspiration in those that made Christ their identities. We hope that they too will ask those important questions such as, who am I as a servant of Christ? What is my purpose in life? More importantly, whatever adversity comes their way, we hope that they will not waste it, but will find the path laid out before them as an opportunity to serve and love God.

Note from Admin. This post was published some years ago and is so well written we thought it was worth repeating.

23 Comments

  1. Comment #1202 posted June 8, 2006 at 4:58 am

    Touching and true. Thank you.

  2. Lori
    Comment #1205 posted June 8, 2006 at 6:28 am

    It is often assumed by those with my theological background that much of the identity of a woman should be found in her children. But when there are no children, who is she?

    A single woman friend of mine shared her heartbreak recently. “On Mother’s Day, my pastor praised all the mothers in the congregation, saying God had blessed them because motherhood is a woman’s highest calling. Well, where does that leave me? And what if there had been any infertile couples in church that morning? How would they have felt?”

    The modern Church has enshrined motherhood as part of its culture. As your post so poignantly points out, though, what happens when your life doesn’t measure up to this cultural ideal? Then the Church becomes uncomfortable and often tries to rationalize it (“You must be sinning”), sometimes with unintentional cruelty.

    Even if a woman has children, it is assumed that her life stops until she has finished raising them. Rather than being seen as a woman with spiritual gifts who may still have something to contribute to the Body, she is defined primarily as a wife and mother. As Michelle said in response to an earlier post,

    “It is so hard to explain to men – or even to single women – how painful and frustrating it is to live in this state of “married invisibility”… If I have been “downgraded” somewhat by marriage, then having children is the ultimate “intellectual demotion”…if I have become somewhat invisible through marriage, then children will thoroughly complete the transformation to total transparency!

    I believe the overall problem of “putting your life on hold” until something good comes along also applies to many Christian singles. Too many of them believe that their life will not start until they get married–a notion that too often is reinforced by the Church. They waste precious years of their lives waiting for Mr. or Miss Right, when they could be using that time to contribute to the Kingdom. From my experience with YWAM, I know that single people have a great deal to contribute to the spreading of His Word. Therefore, it’s a terrible shame when the Church holds to the idea that those who don’t fit the perfect image, whether it be childless couples or single people, are incomplete and can’t really serve God until they receive what they are “lacking.”

  3. Comment #1209 posted June 8, 2006 at 9:46 am

    Thank you for sharing your story so clearly and with great understanding.

    The stereotypes are hard to live down and eradicate even from our own thinking. Some thought patterns are deeply entrenched and pop up at the most inconvenient times. Praise God for his work in your lives – may you be a great blessing and encouragement to many because of who you both are in Christ.

  4. TeriLynn
    Comment #1211 posted June 8, 2006 at 11:15 am

    Wonderful post and very appreciated.

    Lori wrote: “The modern Church has enshrined motherhood as part of its culture. ”

    The church has enshrined motherhood as a means to placate the women who want to contribute something of value to the world. Motherhood is woman’s contribution. By giving it inordinate glory (remember Christ says blessed is the one who honors God in reply to the woman who said blessed was the mother that nursed Him) they can then say that is more than enough contribution for women, leaving the rest for the men who can never achieve such importance. It’s taking the art of patronizing to new highs.

    Of course motherhood is important. So is fatherhood. But that has nothing to do with the empowerment and gifting of the Holy Spirit that God would use in us to further the Kingdom of God. We can all be parents and also serve God.

  5. Sary
    Comment #1214 posted June 8, 2006 at 12:02 pm

    Thanks, Brandon.

  6. Comment #1237 posted June 8, 2006 at 6:49 pm

    Thanks for the kind comments.

    Regarding Mother’s Day: Often on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day at church, we are reminded of our situation. Sometimes flowers are given out to all the “mothers” (meaning adult women) by little kids during the service, and they then give one to her. The kids, of course, do not know she isn’t a mother.

    Maybe giving out flowers isn’t the best policy, but we’ve learned that while 1 in 6 do struggle with infertility, 5 in 6 do not, and so we can understand (or at least try to) why these things aren’t always on other’s radar. Although we wish it were.

    Of course, when we first found out about infertility, it was harder to find some perspective and allow grace with our fellow Christians on these occasions. And I’m sure many others feel the same way. But over time, mother’s day or father’s day have (at least in part) returned to what it was originally for us, a day to celebrate our mothers or fathers.

    Regarding families and singles: I think many Christians today, at least in certain, more conservative crowds (because I wouldn’t want to over-generalize) idolize the family in much the same way early Christians idolized singleness. For a good number of early Christian leaders, marriage was what you did if you didn’t have what it takes to be single. Singleness was the ideal Christian relationship.

    Whereas, today I see marriage, especially with children, as being emphasized as what all good Christians must do. The better route is to recognize that there are many callings to which God calls his children, rather than force others into the one we’ve been called.

  7. Comment #1240 posted June 8, 2006 at 7:10 pm

    Sorry for the typo… :-) MINDY

  8. Comment #1248 posted June 9, 2006 at 1:12 am

    You say a lot of valuable things Brandon. It is a good thing to focus on our abilities and gifts to serve God.

    I respect your feelings and emotions on this subject, however I cannot see cancer, infertility or whatever suffering as designed by God. To me these are results of a broken world, where people suffer under things that happen. I see the brokenness of this world as ultimately caused by sin in this world.

  9. Comment #1276 posted June 9, 2006 at 9:09 am

    Ruud- Thanks for your comment. I agree that sin and its accompanying problems are the condition of humanity due to the fall, but they are not outside of the providence of God. Of course, this is where part of what I’m saying is connected to my Reformed tradition.

    I’m thinking of passages such as Genesis 50:20, where Joseph tells his brothers that they did what they did out of sinful motives, but God used it for good. Much the same, in this broken world, God uses the problems of this world for his own purposes.

    God sometimes brings things into our lives to demonstrate his power and bring glory to himself. He does it in ways that often challenge our understanding of original sin, its consequences, and why people actually suffer–the mystery of providence, as some would say.

    So sometimes we are assuming too much when we attempt to say why certain things happen, as some tried in the case of hurricane Katrina. And so I’m also thinking particularly of John 9:2-3: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” (For a good critical look at the background of his passage I’d suggest Craig Keener’s commentary on John, vol. 1 [Zondervan, 2003].)

    Of course, this topic is a bit off the subject for The Scroll, but I’ve written a little about this in some form or another on my personal blog (unaffiliated with The Scroll) if you’d like more.

  10. Comment #1288 posted June 9, 2006 at 11:39 am

    Thanks Brandon. I really appreciate your candidness with your struggles, and your ability to see suffering as a blessing, an agent of sanctification in our lives…and as a woman student at WTS, I really appreciate your thoughts on recognizing the gifts that the Lord has instilled in each woman (not just in men)! It would be nice to hear this sort of thing more often around here.

  11. Comment #1330 posted June 10, 2006 at 2:38 am

    Brandon,

    Thanks for your reaction.
    Of course there is a balance. For myself I always make a difference between ‘God uses our suffering’ and ‘God sends us suffering.’ I am open to the suggestion that the latter also happens, but I believe that is only in very rare occasions.

  12. Comment #1367 posted June 10, 2006 at 4:51 pm

    Thanks, Brandon, for sharing this. While we are blessed with our little girl Claire now, we struggled for some time before she came along and began to understand much more empathetically what others must experience (and we continue to struggle with regard to hopes for more children – “secondary infertility” is yet another wrinkle, with its own problems and awkwardnesses).

    I hope pastors and other church leaders read your thoughts and similar ones and begin to think about finding ways to include all kinds of life situations into the community of God’s people without making any one circumstance somehow superior or even “normative.” A lot more thought needs to be put into the fact and implications of how our one family in Christ relativizes and re-situates the “natural family.”

  13. Comment #1380 posted June 11, 2006 at 6:47 am

    Miroslav Volf wrote about his difficult journey to fatherhood in a recent issue of Christian Century. It is rare for men to write publically with emotional depth on the topic, and I honor what you’ve written.

    We were infertile for several years, and finally, with the help of drugs/IUI, conceived our triplet sons who were born prematurely and all died. Later, we had twin sons, who are turning one next Tuesday.

    It’s just such a difficult journey, and it doesn’t even feel over for me yet, which continues to surprise me. Infertility so devastated my sense of worthiness and normalcy, that I wonder whether my living children are really here to stay, whether this joyous experience will be taken from me, and whether I ‘count’ as a real mother. In part, this is because my story of conception, pregnancy, and birth are all different from stories of unassisted reproduction. I thought having my baby (phrased intentionally in an idolatrous way!) was the prize and the answer, but instead, God provides healing in God’s own way and time. (Please feel free to comment here, but please don’t send me private e-mails that try to help me unless you know me – I’m writing out of growth and at least some self-awareness — it’s not a cry for help!)

    I hold my theodicy loosely – if believers can stay connected to God at all in such difficult experiences, then great. I think maintaining love for God and receiving love from God is more important than an air-tight theodicy. That said, I haven’t added it all up the way you have. I just can’t thank God or give God credit for killing my first three children. I think it was wrong, unjust, and not something God orchestrated, supervised, or desired under sovereignty. I know there’s probably a more precise Reformed way of describing sovereignty, but however it’s described, I reject it! That theology always feels cruel to me. It seems to be more kind in the eyes of those who have been socialized to see the world that way – have a deeper immersion in the Reformed perspective. If it is hopeful for you, then I hope it continues to help you on your journey. It’s the same Jehovah God we seek to understand, worship, and submit to even in life’s most difficult times.

    Thank you for writing – what a blessing.

  14. Comment #1425 posted June 12, 2006 at 11:02 pm

    My wife Carol and I were — many hours ago now, over our morning coffee — discussing the sadness of Leah and of Rachel. Leah because she was unloved by Jacob, and Rachel because she was (at least for a time) barren. Carol had to go off to work, leaving me alone bemused in front of my computer.

    But as I thought about this — and continue to think about it — I find myself not knowing who between these two saints was more blessed, and who carried the greater sadness? As a romantic, I suppose I mourn Leah’s predicament more. But as I read the above post, and the comments with it, I second-guessed myself. My wife and I have four children, two each from marriages where we were the partner left behind with our children.

    Being a parent abandoned is a great sorrow more like Leah’s, but not to be a parent at all when it is the heart’s deep cry, when love blossoms betwixt wife and her husband yet the bodies do not yield evidence… No, I have no idea of what Rachel’s pain was. And would not want to, most honestly. Thank you all for sharing.

    I hope, by the way, I see a few of you at the Cornerstone Festival, where CBE (along my home fellowship, Jesus People USA) co-sponsors the “Gender Revolution” tent. Blessings,

    Jon

  15. Comment #1439 posted June 13, 2006 at 11:33 am

    Thanks for posting this. I’m not married and I have no children. I don’t know if I’ll ever be married or have children. For a long time, I’ve vascillated between telling myself that I am much more in Christ than my ability (or non-ability) to have children and that I’m not any less of a woman because I’m not married. It’s exactly those kind of comments you spoke about re:”You think you’re tired now, just wait until you have children.” that spear me in the heart unbeknownst to the person who had just idly spoke it. I’m 36 and get all sorts of questions about why I’m still alone (i.e. not married) and why I don’t have children. To those questions, I really have no answer except to say that my life is what God wants it to be. If God wants me to be married and have children, then I will. If not, then not. This is what I tell myself to keep from giving in to the societal pressure for me to be identified solely by a husband and children. But over the years, I’ve been priviledged to have God use me in a number of ways and even though I love children (I can’t stress that enough.), the love that I feel from God far surpasses any love that I could feel for anything else.

    So, thanks (I mean really: THANKS.) for posting this.

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