Learning to accept God’s will through infertility
It is a surreal feeling to have your worst fear come true. From the time I was a little girl, all I wanted when I grew up was to be a wife and a mother. I played with dolls until an almost uncomfortably old age. After placing my beloved dolls in a shopping bag to conceal them from the neighborhood boys I often played sports with, I would walk down the street to my friend Ashley’s home, where we would spend hours playing “house” in her basement, where I would put baby dolls under my shirt to imitate the pregnant women whose burgeoning bellies were such a marvel to me even back then. I likewise loved to carry the dolls on my hip, a position I had seen so many moms make look effortless, like their baby was an extension of themselves. It was my deepest hope and desire to be a wife and a mother. You can imagine then how it felt like a strange dream when, after over a year and a half of trying to conceive, I found myself alone in the doctor’s office discussing infertility and our slim chances of conceiving naturally.
I married the love of my life five years ago at the church where we met. During marriage preparation, our conversations about children and family were largely focused on how many. My husband wanted three children, citing the fact that we both came from happy families of three siblings; I wanted four, a nice even number and the same number of children both my brothers had at the time. While we playfully argued three vs four kids and discussed our dreams for our family with others, I instinctively prefaced any mention of our future children with the phrase “God willing”. It was always in the back of my mind that the gift of children was not a given or a right. There were plenty of examples in Scripture of holy women who were barren. In my own life I watched as some close to me struggled to conceive. I hoped and prayed that wouldn’t be our story and that God would fill our home and family with three or four children. That was our prayer when at our nuptial Mass we knelt side by side before a statue of the Blessed Mother and her beloved Son as my friend beautifully sang Schubert’s “Ave Maria”. Looking back, it seems fitting that our Marian devotion was before the pietà in the privacy of our church’s side chapel, for from that joyful, hopeful day we would enter our own personal, hidden Calvary. Our wedding day would come to remind me of the Transfiguration, a glimpse of God’s glory before the pain of the Cross.
While my husband and I were open and eager to start a family from the beginning of our marriage, as we waited we reveled in the sweet simplicity and joy of those early days when it was just the two of us. We effortlessly fell into a rhythm together and gradually made our house a home. Our marriage gave new meaning and enjoyment to the most mundane tasks. I delighted in cooking and cleaning and laundry and all the simple routines of family life. Daily I would be struck by a profound sense of gratitude to be living life with my husband. Despite the pain and hardship of frequent negative pregnancy tests, it was a blissful year of marriage as we enjoyed all the firsts as husband and wife: our first Thanksgiving, buying and decorating our first Christmas tree, our first family vacations together. When our wedding anniversary came, we recollected over dinner at a restaurant special to us the many blessings we received and shared our hopes for the year ahead. Despite a year of trying unsuccessfully to have a baby, our biggest hope was that God would bless us with the gift of a child.
The months after that celebratory dinner felt like a blur. They would be the hardest of our lives as test results confirmed my biggest fear: it would be unlikely for us to conceive a child naturally. We were devastated and confided our news to family and close friends who grieved with us. Not ready to accept the grim diagnosis and at the encouragement of others, we sought a second opinion and more medical information. What followed were several months of doctors’ appointments and tests, all verifying what we had learned. While doctors presented different options to make our dream of having a baby a reality, we sought to hear God’s will for us amidst the pain and heartbreak. My husband’s naturally hopeful disposition made it easy for him to find comfort in his unwavering belief that God had a plan for us. I, on the other hand, struggled. By faith I knew that God was in control, but my heart ached with longing to be a mother, to receive and bear life in my womb. I questioned why this was part of His plan for us when our hearts and marriage were so open to life. Faced with medical decisions, I knew God was asking us to be obedient and to trust Him with our fertility and our family, but I felt as if God had forgotten about me and was ignoring the deep desire of my heart, one I knew He had placed there. As I rejoiced with several close to me over news of their pregnancies during this time, I wondered what I did to deserve our barrenness and why God had chosen it for me.
Despite my grief and confusion, I still wanted God’s will. I knew we were being called to an obedience of faith that had never been asked of us before. It had been easy to follow God’s will when it was comfortable and undemanding, requiring no sacrifice of our wills. But now God was challenging us to follow Him in the difficult and the unknown, “to go the extra mile with Him” as my doctor had said in my initial infertility appointment. I sincerely wanted to, but I felt stuck in a period of desolation I had never experienced before. I yearned to experience God’s consolation and tenderness and the peace and freedom I thought following God’s will would bring. I understood I was being asked to take up and bear a cross but it was so lonely, so heavy, so crushing, I didn’t know for how long I could carry it.
At the time I was teaching at a Catholic school, trying to focus on my job and my students with a smile on my face while, inside, my heart was deeply burdened. One Friday morning in May after receiving a particularly difficult test result, I took my seat in the pew amongst my students for our weekly all-school Mass. I bowed my head and closed my eyes to pray and was confronted again with the very real possibility of a life without biological children. It was a future I would never choose, that I didn’t want, and could not conceive of, but I knew in that moment in a way I never had that I needed to. The word acceptance came to my mind. I thought of the word in relation to the grief people experience when a loved one dies. My sister-in-law who had recently lost her beloved dad came to mind. No amount of prayer, no matter how fervent or sincere, could change the reality of her loss and the pain and absence she felt. The only way forward, I thought, was to accept it.
I knew then that the same was being asked of me. God was asking us to accept the reality of infertility, that I would likely not bear children in my womb. I needed to lay down this vision of motherhood and parenthood for the one God had chosen uniquely for us. It would be one different to the life we had planned and different to that of so many others, but it was what He had in His infinite wisdom chosen for us. As the truth began to sink in, I opened my eyes and looked up from the spot in the church where my class sits each week. The very first thing that caught my eye as if it was brand new and newly hung was the large wooden Station of the Cross hanging above me. The stations are written in Croatian but the English translation is just beneath it. I read the words, “Jesus accepts His Cross”. In some versions it is “takes up His Cross”, or “carries His Cross”, but there it was today, as if just for me, the word “accept”. And I felt in that moment, God’s particular call to me to accept the hard truth of infertility and all the pain and loss that comes with it. That instead of resisting or rebelling or wishing it were different, I needed to accept it, willingly and freely. I could not change the reality of infertility, as much as I may want to, and instead must accept and consent to the unique plan God has for us.
I’d like to say it was an instantaneous conversion, but it still took time and hard spiritual work. The seed, however, had been planted and it was not long after that transformative moment in prayer that my husband and I discerned very clearly God’s call to adopt. My heart was filled with the peace and joy for which it had longed and that I knew could only come from discerning God’s will, from hearing His voice. I felt, for the first time in years, the freedom that comes from surrendering my plans, the ones I had been so desperately clinging to, into God’s hands. And while I did not know what or who God was preparing for us, in the uncertainty there was no longer fear, but excitement for this new season we had entered. Winter had given way to signs of spring and we were rejoicing with the hope of new life and the new things God was doing.