Before my husband was ordained a Byzantine Catholic priest, before it was even a twinkle in his eye, we as a couple had a different twinkle. We were hopeful, young newlyweds trying to expand our family. But as is true for so many couples, this was not as easy as we had hoped. Carrying a diagnosis of PCOS, we knew the road to parenthood would be tough, perhaps even impossible, but our longing to be parents was strong, and we accepted the challenge. I recall attending church on Mother’s Day the first year of our marriage. The priest, as many priests do on Mother’s Day, had all of the mothers stand for a special blessing. It was a sweet gesture and at that time did not phase me all that much. After all, we had just begun our journey and were not yet in the throes of infertility treatments that loomed in our future. Nonetheless, I felt a longing to be one of the women that stood proudly in the glow of motherhood.
Fast forward a few years, a cross-country move, a new church, and a now intimate familiarity with infertility treatments, Mother’s Day rolled around again. That morning, as liturgy began, I wondered how this new priest would handle the blessing of mothers. I could feel the tension rise within myself, knowing that I would feel more emotional, more left out, maybe even resentful of the beautiful mothers surrounding me. To my surprise, our new pastor opted to have ALL of the women stand. Not just mothers, but all women. He even asked that all “future women” stand, motioning to the little girls scattered throughout the pews. There I stood with an army of women of all ages! The sense of belonging, of fellowship, inclusion and support was overwhelming…and relieving. He prayed for every woman in the room to tap into their God-given gifts and answer the call to be a mother, whatever that motherhood may look like. It was a breath of fresh air at a point where I very well could have felt like I was drowning, and I was so grateful.
Unfortunately, this is not the scene that plays out in so many churches throughout the country. I truly believe this is not due to a disregard for those struggling with infertility, rather a genuine lack of awareness of the matter. I have seen this firsthand while standing by my husband as he worked through seminary. For most young men, let alone young men in formation, infertility awareness is far from the forefront of their minds. The conversation on infertility is reserved for scripture study of the likes of Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel. Important figures in scripture without a doubt, but for these men in the classroom, it is highly doubtful that they were thinking of their ministry to future parishioners when completing their exegesis!
As the wife of a seminarian, we were allowed to audit classes. I only had the opportunity to enroll in one course, (and of course it was the semester that was cut short by COVID precautions). When still in the classroom, a discussion emerged about the views of childless women in biblical times, how they were sometimes seen to have some sort of terrible affliction or that they had committed a grave sin and were being punished. Words like “barren” and “sterile”, “fruitless” and “dry” came up several times; words that certainly sting anyone who has traveled the road of infertility. Knowing that these words were simply adjectives to my seminarian classmates (who also became friends), I realized that I was presented with an opportunity to sensitize them to their word choice. I mustered some courage and nervously injected myself into the conversation, afraid that I might not be taken seriously or that I would be brushed off, being but a lowly auditor. Thankfully, the seminarians were very receptive to my thoughts and feelings. They admitted that they had never thought of the possibility of these words causing distress. I urged them to keep women like me in mind when preparing homilies and interacting with parishioners. And I prayed that they remembered my words as they continued their studies and moved into their ministries.
I was presented with a unique opportunity to call attention to something that would likely have gone unnoticed for young seminarians who would go on to be our priests. In that moment I was reassured that priests, all of our priests, are human. They, like all of us, have shortcomings in their wheelhouses; more than likely, it could take just a moment of courage to speak up to gently and gracefully let them know that their words and actions can inadvertently be painful for many in their flock. I pray that we all feel empowered to find that courage. Hopefully, we will, at the very least, plant a seed of thought for our pastors to consider when speaking of infertility and of motherhood. And hopefully, they will be able to see that Mother’s Day can be a celebration of all faces and facets of what it means to be a mother!
Alissa West is a stay at home mom on hiatus from her career as a Music Therapist. She lives with her husband of 11 years, Byzantine Catholic Priest Fr. Paul, and their children Adelaide and Nicholas. In her spare time, Alissa enjoys baking, sewing, being outdoors, and making music.