It’s hard for them to see – the new parishioner who squints and repeats after me the number of years I’ve been married (“But where are the kids?” seems clearly written on his face); the extended family member who warns against waiting too long to start a family; the fresh acquaintance who nods knowingly when I share how meaningful I find my work (clearly, I’ve chosen career over children) – yet I am so desperately, painfully open to life.

I thought I was open to life before. When I first got married and made my vows, and we said we’d be open to children, I welcomed the opportunity to finally demonstrate my “pro-lifeness” through my own maternity. I’d had it all planned out since I was young – at least twelve children seemed reasonable. Since I was already in my late twenties when I eventually married, I modified that hopeful expectation to a more practical eight to ten. I was in for a rude awakening; instead of readily actualizing, this innocently naïve openness matured into a deep, painful, but hopefully fruitful wound.

This openness is wired into my very being, into my feminine body and soul. Yet as the reality of infertility began to dawn, it was so tempting to simply close myself off to hoping for life. This openness, this longing, felt like a fatally painful flaw, a cruelly specialized cross I did not know how to live with. As I learned to grieve, I slowly came to understand that this openness neither needs to be fulfilled nor eliminated for me to have a meaningful or holy life. Similarly, it is not something to be measured or compared.

It is so easy to look around at the couples in church and silently rate their openness to life based on the number of children in the pew or how quickly they started a family after getting married. I know, because subconsciously, I did this before my own journey with infertility provided space for deeper reflection. I know I’m not alone in this, since time and again I have listened to talks and read articles on the topic of marriage and family that either state outright or directly infer that the number of children a couple has is proof of the couple’s openness to life and proper living out of the marriage covenant. This approach has various flaws, including the risk of viewing children as an accomplishment, a reward, or even simply an obligation, rather than a true gift. Yet, on an even more fundamental level, the correlation between desire for children and fertility is clearly not direct or simple, otherwise unwanted pregnancies would never occur and neither would there be those of us hoping so desperately while our wombs and our nurseries stand empty.

This begs the deeper question, is the state of being open to life only consequential or beneficial to the Church and the world when it bears visible fruit? Or, like the life of contemplative religious, poured out in hidden silence and yet generating abundant grace, is it not possible that one’s very openness to life has silent meaning and can bear great fruit in the heart of the Church? Given the Catholic understanding of the relationship between the natural and supernatural, visible and invisible, the latter is far more probable. This understanding does not need to stand in contradiction to the concurrent call to bear life and be a mother in other ways. Rather, it helps explain why the grief and longing of unfilled openness can continue to exist even alongside great fruitfulness in other capacities.

This painful openness is not devoid of supernatural value. Perhaps this very suffering will bear richer life than I could ever have realized through natural means. Perhaps in some small way my persistent longing as a woman unable to actualize her biological maternity can offer reparation for a society which glorifies the right to circumvent motherhood. Perhaps the posture of my soul broken open to life has no less meaning because my arms remain empty, my openness and longing so often invisible.

To live this reality well, I have to hold this tension: not despairing of bearing children or artificially convincing myself that I’m happy to embrace a childless life, while also not idolizing conception and parenthood. None of these deviations express true openness to life. Instead, my openness can be purified and sanctified only in the delicate harmony of desire and surrender. So, although it is hard to see, I remain open to life – profoundly, tenderly open to life.

Bernadette has been married since 2018, works part-time as a technical research analyst, and resides in Ohio with her husband and Golden Retriever. She loves reading, baking, and watching sunsets from her kitchen stoop.