On Feeling Invisible

Note: This is a journal-style reflection that I wrote during a difficult moment during my journey of infertility. While it was written a few years ago, I think (I hope) that it can still speak to the hearts of those carrying the cross of infertility, and in particular childlessness (no living children) – a cross that often goes unnoticed or unaddressed.

It’s 4:30 a.m., and I can’t sleep. I’m not surprised. Tonight (yesterday?) we had our monthly married couples’ group, and per usual I was the only non-mother. Three babies plus one pregnant woman = emotional challenges. Strong emotions = physiological reaction (heart racing, sweating, shortness of breath, etc.) Physiological reaction = not good news for sleeping through the night. Sigh.

One thing that I’ve struggled with a lot while experiencing infertility is feeling invisible. Here are some examples of what I mean:

1. The assumption that all married people are also mothers and fathers. I come across this a LOT, in day to day conversation, in homilies, in online stuff. It’s the idea that having children is a “when” not an “if.” Yes, that’s true for most people (eventually) – but not all! Where does that leave us, who are married but not parents? In some sort of formless limbo.

2. The lack of sustained treatment of infertility in Church documents and discourse. I’m very familiar with Church documents on marriage. I did my master’s in marriage and family studies, and I work for the Church in the field of marriage and family. And lately I’ve been feeling a good amount of anger of how infrequently infertility is mentioned, and even when it is, how it’s treated bizarrely. For example, in the preparatory catechesis for the World Meeting of Families 2015, the only mention of infertile couples is in a chapter called “All Love Bears Fruit.” Sounds promising, right? Except not once is it stated that children aren’t the only fruit of marriage, or that infertile couples are still fruitful – the focus instead is on celibates (single and consecrated, although the distinction is not clearly made – but that’s another story), and the only direct mention of infertility is how childless couples are analogous to celibates because both have extra time and resources to give to others. Okay….not an awful point, but seriously? That’s the only thing you could think of? You couldn’t give one measly sentence to acknowledge the pain of infertility and childlessness? (Not to mention miscarriage…!) It’s really hurtful to me to read documents like this that are supposed to be for all married couples, and not to see myself there.

And that’s not an isolated incident.

3. Literally being overlooked. This has happened more than once: after mass, I’m either standing with friends who have kids, or holding one of their kids, and our priest (or someone else) makes eye contact with me for less than a second before giving the kids a big smile and talking with them. Or another couple with kids will give me a cursory “hi” before talking to the real people they want to see, the other parents.

I even had one time where I was holding a friend’s daughter (who is black) and someone I don’t know remarked how cute she was (true) before saying, “She’s not yours, right?” in a tone that said obviously not, and while yes, it was true, couldn’t she have been adopted? Then she moved on to talk to the girl’s mom (“How are you?” etc.) without giving me the time of day.

Garrrrr. Even writing this, I sound like a bitter old barren woman!! And it’s true – I do feel bitter! I feel a sour sensation in my very bones thinking of times I’ve been overlooked, ignored, looked through, not mentioned, and so on.

It’s extra, extra hard when I feel like the Church – my Mother – doesn’t see me. I know – or at least I want to believe – deep down that that’s not true. But wow, it’s hard to do with so much evidence to the contrary! Only rarely hearing prayers for infertile couples. Homilies directed at parents. Church documents that don’t even think to list infertility as a challenge that married couples face.

In my more charitable moments, I realize that infertility is present to me every single waking moment in a way that it is not to others, not at all. I get that. But it still hurts! Where do I fit in? What is my value, not being a mother? How do I not let the bitterness I feel poison my heart? I don’t want to shrivel up into a narrow-eyed judgmental person, always looking for people’s missteps. Don’t curse the darkness; light a candle, as the saying goes. And I do try to do that in hopefully appropriate ways, “raise awareness” etc.

But wow, so many days I just want to be – and feel – SEEN.

Bethany Meola is a graduate of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, and lives in Maryland with her husband Dan and daughter Zelie-Louise, who joined their family through the gift of adoption.

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