One thing that stands out on this infertility journey is that we – my husband and I – feel different than others, and there are times when this feeling intensifies. For example, this intensity occurs at church as we sit behind families with children, or at Christmas, when we receive cards filled with pictures of other people’s children. This “feeling different” can easily morph into shame and feeling “less than” for not having children next to us in the pews or adorning our Christmas greetings. These feelings turn into frustration when we hear phrases such as, “When we started our family, we….” or “After we were married for x months/years, we decided to start our family.” Another example that prompts similar negative thoughts is “Since you don’t have children, come to _____’s for Christmas/Thanksgiving.” While unintentional, such comments can be extremely hurtful because they can imply that husband and wife are not a family and are not on an equal footing with families with children. If you have heard such comments and felt shame, isolation, or frustration, you are not alone. While those feelings are very real and intense, they are not the final word.
The truth is that the sacrament of marriage forms a family with the husband and wife at the center. Genesis 2:24 tells that us that “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” Furthermore, the Catholic Church recognizes a family as the domestic church and calls the family to “be fruitful and multiply” with or without children. While children are one of the many blessings that a family may receive, they expand a family, but do not make a family. In fact, even in families that include children, the children will eventually become independent and leave the original unit of the husband and wife, who remain a family. So how do we live out being a family in word and deed, when we encounter others who say or do something that implies that we are less than a family? Below are several points to consider.
- Be intentional with language. Language matters and informs our mindsets as well as those with whom we communicate. Refer to you and your spouse as a family in talking with yourselves, other family members and friends. Some common ways this comes up for us are: “We are taking a family vacation in July,” or “Let me check our family calendar and get back with you.”
- Establish rituals and routines. Most of us likely have family traditions from our childhood that we thought about passing on to our children. Consider how you might still continue or adapt that tradition in your family even if your family does not include children. Consider establishing other rituals and routines such as family prayer, goals, etc.
- Do not be afraid to communicate your needs to others. When making plans for extended family gatherings, it can be tempting to defer or prioritize the needs of family members with children; however, keep in mind that this does not always mean that you and your spouse get the short end of the stick every time. Consider when and how to advocate for your needs as well.
- Discern your unique path to fruitfulness as a family. Since children are just one of many blessings a family may receive, consider, pray, and seek God’s guidance on what fruitfulness may look like in your family.
- Consider ways to feed and grow your marriage. Being united with our spouse in a strong family is not a consolation prize, it is THE PRIZE. Some examples are listed below:
- Choose a book to read aloud with each other or listen to a faith-based podcast together and discuss as you read or listen. We recommend checking out these books: The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman; Under the Laurel Tree by Nicole Roccas; The Seven Levels of Intimacy by Matthew Kelly.
- Since the ways husbands and wives cope with infertility can be vastly different, therapy can be immensely helpful to learn how to support each other on the journey.
- Identify regular date nights and opportunities for weekend getaways to connect on a deeper level than you can when you are busy with the routines of work and home life.
- Consider attending marriage retreats offered by your parish, diocese, or other organization, such as Worldwide Marriage Encounter.
Stacy and Todd write from the southeastern United States. They have been married almost ten years.