Don’t let the title of this post fool you. It’s really not what you think….
As a woman who cannot conceive a child, I’ve put myself through a litany of questions that might be familiar to others in my place: Why me? Why us? How is this fair? Why doesn’t God love us/trust us/want to give us a gift? Where is my miracle?
The questions go beyond medical diagnoses and theological exercises, dipping a bit into the irrational, detouring into self-centeredness, but are nonetheless real, raw and heartfelt. These questions and others regularly cross the minds of women and couples who cannot conceive. We cry out to God, reach out to clergy and spiritual advisors, and look at our spouse, searching for the answer that will never really come. Whether the infertility has a diagnosis or bears the dreaded name “mystery,” none of us will ever really know why it happened to us; why God did not come in with the last minute save and work a miracle in my womb. It’s the kind of thing that can haunt us and embitter us, and make us lose a lot of time and good memories with our spouse, our family and our friends. Infertility tugs at our hearts and our intellects, setting them against each other.
I’ve had interesting conversations with two friends recently, both of whom have large Catholic families. In both cases, the subject of infertility came up, and the perspectives of each person (a man who has six children with his wife and two in heaven; and a woman who also has six children with her husband) were enlightening. We were all mutually – and unexpectedly – challenged by our discussions. We talked about marriage and family, and the witness their marriages are to me and my husband. When we look at couples with children we see the concrete manifestation of their love, and their sacrifices are embodied in their children and in the daily joys and worries that are part of the family structure. From safeguarding an infant and ensuring his/her healthy growth and development, to helping them with their homework and driving them to extracurricular activities; from college visits to graduations, to weddings and the formation of new families, spouses are invested in their children for the entirety of their lives. I know from my own experience that parents never stop worrying – or cheerleading – for their kids. I’m a married woman, but I remain my daddy’s “little girl,” and my mom worried and fussed over me until the day she died. All of this teaches my husband and me that marriage is all about fruitfulness: allowing our love to manifest itself in concrete ways in the world, ways that bring about good for others, and the good of the Kingdom of God. When I step back and look at it objectively it makes a lot of sense, and I can see how couples with children teach my husband and me what selflessness looks like, and how much harder we have to work to not fall into the trap of caring only what happens to us. Helpless infants and sick children need their parents now, not at their own convenience. Couples with children make self-denial part of their daily routine because someone always demands attention. Observing these dynamics demonstrates that raising kids is hard! But it shows something much more important, and which was borne out in both of my conversations. Children show us our weaknesses and give us opportunities to grow. They reveal strengths we never knew we had, and they reveal our spouses to us in new and incredible ways. To see a husband or wife through the eyes of one’s child must be an amazing thing. Yet we who struggle with infertility can still learn from that experience of observing family members and friends with their children. We who cannot conceive, have suffered the loss of a child, or cannot conceive again can learn an important lesson from the families in our lives. If we allow ourselves to, we can learn to see our spouse with unselfish eyes; to look at our spouse with God’s eyes.
Part of the process of grieving infertility – at least for me – has been discovering the fruitful potential in my marriage by being in relationship with and watching couples who have children. But what about the flip-side? I asked both of those friends with big families how my marriage is a witness to theirs. The question stumped each of them, and I think I know why: no one ever asks it. It’s not something we routinely consider, because the infertile couple (seemingly) has nothing concrete to show for their marriage, no physical manifestation of the love between them that is visible to the world. Though the conversations took place weeks apart, it was as if my friends had conferred with each other and practiced the same puzzled look at my question. After some thought, they each offered the same answer: Keith and I are witnesses to how important it is to nurture the couple relationship, to love and be a gift to each other, so that we can withstand the difficulties that will most certainly come as partners, not opponents. From my perspective, our sacrifice is not having a 2 am feeding, piles of laundry to wash and fold, or days worrying about our children’s futures. Our sacrifice is different from that of parents, but it can feel just as exhausting. At the same time, each of my friends acknowledged that while their marriages are good, and having children allows them to see their spouse as mother or father, there’s a danger of forgetting to take time with each other. In all of the busyness surrounding caring for children through all of their stages (from helpless infant to needy teenager) “date night” conversation often ends up steered toward the children. Parents should have conversations about their kids! But my friends observed that making time to focus on each other, to renew and reconnect, is doing what’s good for the children. The stronger their bond, the stronger the family structure. Married love grows and takes different shapes depending upon family circumstances. But at the core is the love of two people who joined hands and entered into a bond they couldn’t possibly create or maintain on their own. Without that core – and always relying on the grace received from the One who holds it together – the family will crumble. My marriage to Keith is barren of children but filled with possibilities for our love to blossom in the world. Our marriage is a sign of that bond between Christ and His Church, a bond of love given through suffering to the end, but not an end in itself. Christ proves from the Cross that even our suffering has the potential to bring about new life. When Keith and I unite our suffering to His – to each other – we image Christ’s love for the Church and our marriage is opened to different but no less legitimate avenues for fruitfulness.
When Keith and I were Crowned in Marriage, we had no idea of their true weight, or how they’d be worn by us as we traveled together through marriage. As I sit here now, thinking about almost eight years that have passed since those Crowns were placed on our heads, I recall their meaning. First, the Crown of Priesthood, which we share as we make our home a domestic church, where Christ reigns and we serve Him. Second, the Crown of Kingship, which calls us to be good stewards of our resources, to be grateful for what we have, and to offer hospitality and charity to those with less. Finally, the Crown of Martyrdom. It sounds almost romantic if you take it at face value: the call to “die to self for the other.” There are so many ways in which we must daily forget ourselves in favor of the other, and none of them are easy (even the silliest, least consequential things, like what to watch on TV). But the other meaning of martyr is equally important, and it’s what really makes a martyr for the Faith. Martyr means witness. When we prepared for marriage, and even when the priest put the Crowns on our heads, I’m sure we didn’t understand what they would really mean for us, and we never imagined that we’d each have to “die to parenthood,” in the biological sense anyway. Infertility really was inconceivable then! Now those Crowns fit differently, and somewhat more comfortably on our heads. The Crown of Martyrdom has taken on new meaning, too, especially as I think about those conversations with my friends. Keith and I really are witnesses to other marriages, and the importance of nurturing the marital bond so that it may be a creative force that transforms the spouses, and the world.
In our infertility, the Crown of Martyrdom does feel heavier at times. More often though, it rests comfortably on our heads, with the lightness of gratitude for each other, and the growing faith that we truly are called to image the love of Christ for the Church and the world.
Ann Koshute writes from Central Pennsylvania, where she lives with her husband Keith.