As my youngest brother celebrated his birthday this week, a memory of myself at the wise age of 12 surfaced. In the past year, my now-17-year-old brother’s physical appearance swiftly matured as he surpassed all of our family members in height and began to lift weights. Much to his dismay, every time I see him, I am still reminded of the times that I changed his diaper as a baby. This week, I can’t help but bring to mind the night I spent in the hospital with my mother and my youngest brother the September that he was born.
A few years before, my two older sisters got to stay with Mom at the hospital when my youngest sister was born, and my then-nine-year-old self was filled with jealous rage about the arrangement. This time around, I had begged to stay with Mom at the hospital, and my parents agreed because my dad had to care for the little ones at home, and my teenage sisters had other competing interests that were more appealing than helping Mom with our baby brother.
I remember sitting by my mom’s side during her recovery and absorbing, like a sponge, every detail of her postnatal care of her sixth baby, which was a geriatric pregnancy. She battled chills all night, so she kept sending me to ask the nurses for warm blankets until they cut her off so her body temperature could regulate. She needed my help with fetching items out of reach and using the restroom. Of course, the baby also needed to be held and fed. I remember waking up through the night to help her and feeling more exhausted the next day than I had ever felt.
As I grew older and started to consider the possibility of my own pregnancy and the birth of my own children, that memory of my mother’s generosity challenged me. Would I have what it takes to be as strong as her? How painful would it be? How exhausted would I be? Would it be worth it?
Going into my marriage, this is the picture I carried of how a married woman was called to live generously: feminine generosity was manifest almost exclusively in the bearing, birthing, and rearing of children, or perhaps by living spiritual motherhood as a religious sister. Obviously, the latter was not an option for me once I was married, nor was God calling me to become a religious sister. As I began to struggle with infertility, I was confronted with this concept of what it meant to be a generous woman, and I realized that my experience was limited to one way of looking at it. Without children, I battled the idea that perhaps I was not a generous person because I could not live out the model of generosity that I had known to be true for a married woman.
Through the experience of infertility, the Lord has invited me to reconsider and expand my vision of feminine generosity. Nailed to the cross in radical abandonment, He offers an example to us of what generosity looks like. While He may not be asking me to take up the cross of biological motherhood at this moment, that does not mean I am ungenerous.
Feminine generosity is as unique as each woman. We see this reality in the lives of the Saints. I love considering how similar, but how perfectly distinct, were the paths to sainthood of St. Therese of Lisieux, a cloistered Carmelite nun, and her mother St. Zelie Martin, a religious-wannabe turned businesswoman and mother. Each of these women reveal the particular way that God called them to live generously. Pope Francis tells us that even the saints are not meant to be photocopies. He explains in Christus Vivit, “Becoming a saint means becoming more fully yourself, becoming what the Lord wished to dream and create, and not a photocopy.” Every person’s call to generosity is personal and extraordinarily unique. The same is true for all women.
In Pope St. John Paul II’s letter to women, he explains, “…ordinary women…reveal the gift of their womanhood by placing themselves at the service of others in their everyday lives. For in giving themselves to others each day women fulfil their deepest vocation.” Notice that Pope St. John Paul says “women.” He does not say “mothers,” he does not say “women who give birth,” and he does not say “religious sisters”; rather, he refers to ALL women. Each of us is called to live generosity in ways that relate to the particular plan that God has for our lives. Part of living generously means saying “yes” to whatever it is that God is inviting us to live uniquely.
Saying “yes” to living each day with infertility is an act of courageous generosity. It is courageous to be willing to walk the path that God has laid out in front of you. You might think, “how can I say yes to something I am not choosing?” The path of infertility is generally not one that we choose or one that we can escape unless God wills it, but it is one that we are sometimes tempted to do everything in our power to change. We take the pills, we do the surgeries, we pray the novenas, we eat the diets, we get the shots, and we let a chart dictate our intimacy with our spouse. These actions alone are not wrong to pursue, and they may even help some to fall pregnant, but they can be problematic when they clash with our ability to live lives that are open to the freedom in God’s plan. The trust does not belong in our plan, but in God’s. We can allow ourselves to become slaves to the goal of a pregnancy. When we tempt ourselves with the false idea that we can control the outcomes of our lives, we have lost the spirit of generosity that we are called to live. I am not saying abandon all treatment, but I am saying, don’t be afraid to offer God a generous and courageous “yes” to the infertility that God is inviting you to live with today, in this moment.
In my life, I am called to be generous with God through infertility in many distinct and tangible ways. I recognize my feminine generosity through radical availability to the service of others. In allowing myself to be accessible to the lonely, isolated, and weary in my community, I live this call. By welcoming with love and hospitality the stranger, I am a beacon of God’s generosity. Allowing God to redefine feminine generosity in my life has allowed me to be free to live the way that He created me to be. He desires this for each of us and he desires this for you too!
Stacey Huneck lives in Indiana with her husband, Phil. She holds a Master of Arts in Theology from the University of Notre Dame and serves as a high school Youth Minister.