Filled with sadness
Questions of “why me?”
Far from the presence of the Holy
It feels unholy and unfair
Isolating and overflowing
With emptiness—a void
And a sense of failure…
This article is longer than most. I felt it important to bring awareness to the topic of Infertility and Child Loss because it is a common journey many women experience. Though I have not experienced it myself, I have known many who have a story they have silently reread over and over again. In this article, I have invited my classmate and friend, Rev. Dallas Thompson to share her story. To know Dallas is to know the energy of joy. One would never know that a story of child loss is a chapter in her life story. Since I have not personally gone through this particular journey, I felt it important to create space for those who have and are willing to share. This is one of two articles on this subject. I am grateful to Rev. Dallas Thompson for adding her voice to this writing.
There are many difficult texts in the Bible that we learn how to read in seminary. There are tons of awareness days, weeks and months, that call us to pause and reflect or come together in celebration. As the world gets smaller and communities more diverse, we wrestle constantly with ways to be inclusive and welcoming. The topics around sex and sexuality are slowly finding their way into the sacred spaces of the pulpit. Ministers and ministries are acknowledging the intimate nature of humanity and of our relationships. Yet, the conversation around motherhood is still antiquated. The role of motherhood is limited to the image of Mary and Jesus during the Advent season or to Ruth and Naomi’s relationship and commitment to God and family. What is left out of the conversations and the depictions of motherhood are the stories of women who have dealt with infertility or the death of their baby. As the Church continues to reimagine its sacred narratives and finds ways to see all, it must begin to include the voice of the childless and the mother who still mourns the loss of a child/ren.
This is by far the hardest thing for me to write about. As I enter my fourth decade, I am reminded that time has been a blessing in my life. I am also reminded that I must make some decisions about my life and the family that I want. I have had this conversation with my friends, but I now sit closer to the reality that I may not be able to have a child of my own. The mix of emotions this realization carries is almost unexplainable. In my 20s and early 30s it felt like a choice; like freedom to be childless. I felt that once I was ready to bear a child that it would be my choice. Of course, a lot of this was dictated by my hopes to be in a relationship and to be settled into my career as I was finishing my Master’s program. By my mid-30s, I told myself that I would like to try to have children, but I still told myself that if it was God’s will it would happen. Giving God “the out” felt reasonable as I was in another Master’s program and not actively in a relationship. I also knew that my maternal grandmother had her last child closer to her mid-40s and thought that I had plenty of time and the genes to make childbearing possible later in life. As I write this, the lump in the throat grows and I must acknowledge that my ability to bear a child might not be possible or as easy as “just making the decision” as I had once imagined. As I have discussions with friends, posting prayers online for friends realizing they are infertile, I have slowly come to realize that the topic of infant child loss and infertility is difficult; yet widely experienced among women.
I decided to write about this after having a long conversation with one of my oldest friends. In the course of our conversation, I told him about Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month in October for women who have experienced the loss of a child in birth. As we continued to talk, I was reminded of how I had to sit with the loss of my own sister who was stillborn, when I was 9 years old. I have prayed with friends who were actively losing their child and some who experienced multiple child loss before successfully having a baby.
I remember a time when the main “joke” for April Fools Day was to post on Facebook that you just found out you were expecting. The “likes” and comments would add up throughout the day and then at some point the poster would announce that it was just a joke. Or, you would get a message saying because you commented or liked the post you were now required to post something to your page. Eventually this “joke” was challenged when those who had been triggered by these “jokes” would post messages imploring people not to make their April Fools post about fake pregnancies. It was not until I went to seminary that I was truly confronted with the vast number of friends and classmates who were going through the joy and sadness of childbearing. Though I had known women before who sat in this difficult space, the timing of where I was in my own thoughts about motherhood heightened my awareness to the range of emotions that my classmates were experiencing. Also, the sheer number of women pregnant on campus at one time made childbearing hard to ignore–much like the theme of child bearing during the Advent season is hard to ignore.
Dallas and I took a class at Columbia Theological Seminary with Dr. Mindy McGarraw-Sharp called “Death, Dying and Bereavement”. The project Dallas presented to the class was powerful. It also presented another chance for me to reflect on my own journey and to be present in conversation with friends. I have asked Dallas to share a bit of her own story, project and why this topic is important for the community of believers. To be in community means to create space for everyone to share their story. I pray that you take a moment to create space in your heart to hear Dallas’ story.
“At the age of 22, I found out that I was pregnant; a few weeks later, not only was I going to be a mother, but I was going to be a single mother. That time was so scary for a lot of reasons, but one reason was because the pregnancy was actually unexpected. I was told at 16 that I would probably never have children due to my diagnosis of severe endometriosis. Having my son Ashton was one of the biggest blessings of my life, but it was a blessing born out of a lot of shame. Most of the time when I told someone I was pregnant, I was met with some version of, “Well, don’t you know what causes that? How stupid can you be?” I also heard a lot of comments stating that it would be so hard to raise a baby on my own. But I did it! Ashton was born in August 2004.
Another blessing found me a couple of years down the road. I married my husband Josh when Ashton was nearly two years old. Sometime during the next year, Josh and I decided to start trying to get pregnant. I knew I’d always wanted a big family with lots of children. And to be honest, I also wanted to be able to celebrate a pregnancy announcement, not to say, “I’m having a baby” while hanging my head in shame. And Josh was such a good dad to Ashton, and I was excited about him getting to experience a pregnancy and the newborn years, for us to be able to do that together.
We tried for a couple of years with no luck. I’d come off birth control, so I knew that could delay a pregnancy. After two years or so, I started researching on my own and reading books about how to get pregnant. That sounds so strange! I read books with titles like Taking Charge of Your Fertility and The Idiot’s Guide to Getting Pregnant. I started taking my temperature and trying to chart my own ovulation. We planned for sex and tried to time it around my cycle. I propped up on pillows and laid stone-still for hours, hoping for gravity to help us out. After a year or so of that, I finally talked with my OBGYN doctor about it. (Why did it take me so long? I think I was afraid to admit that maybe my doctors were right in the beginning.)
Josh and I both went through fertility tests. That was embarrassing and disappointing. Josh was totally fine; the problem was with me. So I went through some hormone treatments. I had surgery. We did everything short of IVF because frankly, that’s more than we could have afforded.
After several years of trying, enduring a painful surgical recovery, and the physical and emotional stress of hormone therapy, we tearfully decided to stop fertility treatments. I was heartbroken. It felt like giving up, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt like a failure, as a mother and a wife. I remember that I even offered Josh a divorce so that he could marry a fertile woman. I felt like I was preventing him from the beautiful experience of pregnancy and infancy as a father. I felt like I’d robbed him of something precious and sacred. And it was all my fault.
Josh and I have now been married for almost 15 years. The pain has eased some for me. But there have been many, many tears shed along the way. I remember the day I sold Ashton’s crib. We’d stored it in the basement so we could bring it up whenever we got pregnant. After it became clear that wasn’t going to happen, I offered to sell his crib to a friend. I pulled it upstairs and gave it a good cleaning up. After she picked it up and took it home, I collapsed on the kitchen floor and cried. Sobbed, really – gasping for air as tears streamed down my face. My body ached with the pain of letting go of that crib. It was like a final admission that we weren’t going to bring another baby into our house.
And there was a period of time when I couldn’t attend my friends’ baby showers. I was too jealous. Too heartbroken. Too angry. Now I can attend baby showers – I’ve even thrown one recently. But there are still some TV episodes I can’t watch… Some of my favorite shows have episodes where the main characters have been trying to get pregnant for years and finally get that positive pregnancy test. I still cry when I watch that. I still carry the hurt in my own heart, and I grieve the hurt that it has caused my husband.
And there are times when I read in the news that a child has been abused by his or her mother and the child has been taken into custody. It breaks my heart, and I honestly have cried out, shouted at God – “Why would you allow her to become a mother but deny this for me?”
Don’t misunderstand; I am incredibly grateful for my son Ashton. He’s a tremendous blessing, and I love him with all my heart. He is such a gift! But that does not negate the fact that there were dreams hoped for that died month after month, year after year. Each negative pregnancy test was a loss. Each time there was a minus sign instead of a plus, I wept. I grieved. And that grief never goes away.
Infertility awareness is so important to me. Infertility is not an inconvenience; it’s a disease. It affects approximately 6.7 million women in the US (12%), and it affects both men and women equally. You likely know someone who has struggled to get pregnant. To be a better friend, family member, or leader, learn the facts about infertility and show compassion to anyone you know who is living with it. It’s a hard road, for sure – and it always will be, but it’s been made a bit easier by those who have stood by us and supported us.
I believe it’s vital for the Church to acknowledge infertility and child loss – from the pulpit, in education settings, in newsletters. Anywhere between 10-15% of couples who are trying to have children have difficulty conceiving. This number applies in our congregations as well. I know of people in my church – including myself – who have in some way experienced the heartache that comes with infertility. If we never mention it, we are not attending to a very real and unfortunately common source of grief. As a church, we are seemingly comfortable with shepherding our people through many different kinds of loss, but infertility still feels like a taboo in the church. The more we are silent about it, the more we stigmatize it. People have miscarriages. People have difficulty getting pregnant. People can try for years and never conceive a child. This shouldn’t be dealt with in the shadows. We need to name it, to say that we know it happens, and that it’s not any person’s fault that it happens. The same grace we extend to so many others who mourn ought to be shared with people grieving infertility.
One of the classes I took in seminary was called Death, Dying, and Grief. Throughout this class, I explored the grief that I hadn’t acknowledged throughout my own experiences. As a final project, I created a website based on the mosaic theory of grief – stating that grief isn’t linear and doesn’t necessarily happen in stages, but instead that grief shatters our future dreams and that part of our mourning process involves acknowledging the broken pieces and doing something with those pieces. The hope is that something beautiful can be created out of those shards of grief. You can find the website – with personal stories, facts, and help for individuals and churches – at infertilitymosaic.weebly.com.
It would be exciting to see the Church use some of these resources in October (for Infertility Awareness Month) and even throughout Christmas. So much of the holidays is geared around families, particularly families with young children. So another call I’d like to issue to the Church is to be careful about how we use that word “families.” If we market a Christmas Eve service as being “for families,” is it solely geared towards families with young children? We ought to remember that families are diverse, and families can look many different ways and still be beautiful and holy. Two partners with no children are still a family. A single person with neither partner nor children is still part of a family. We as Church leaders have a responsibility to closely examine the language we use, particularly around the holidays.
For many years on Mother’s Day, I have led the prayers of the people from the pulpit. I always include women who have not been able to have children even though they have desperately wanted them. I try to include many variations on motherhood, for aunts and foster mothers and step mothers and women who step in as mother figures – including the joys and the griefs that come with it. One time, I had a church member walk out during the prayer as I prayed for mothers who’ve had miscarriages. When I talked to her later, she talked about how she’d recently had a miscarriage, and she was so shocked to hear about it in church that she couldn’t handle the sudden upswelling of emotions. People need to hear their stories being told in the church. Praying for women who’ve lost children – or who’ve lost the dream of having children – should know that their lives and their sorrows are important.
What does the emphasis on Mary and the birth of Jesus do to isolate women without children?
In the Church, even if we don’t elevate Mary to the status of saint, we tend to idolize her for being theotokos, mother or bearer of God. She is honored for bringing Jesus into the world, for birthing him. What does this say to women who cannot birth children? I can imagine this could stigmatize women who cannot get pregnant, women who have lost children before they could be born, and women who adopt or choose surrogacy. Logically, I can separate Mary’s innate holiness because of the child she bore from a supposed holiness because she could bear him, but the lines get blurred in grief.
Furthermore, there is a Biblical theme that extends far beyond Mary that women who are “faithful enough” are rewarded with children. There are numerous examples of this happening for women who were “barren”: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth all come to mind right away. And at Christmas time, we celebrate that Mary, though not infertile but so faithful and holy and good, was given a baby too. I remember when I was at some of the lowest points of my life thinking, “If I were more faithful, would God take away my infertility? Is God punishing me by closing my womb?” I have heard this same sort of question from many women who were trying to get pregnant. The heartache is real, and our scriptures oftentimes do not help alleviate the grief and the guilt. Because of my experiences in life and my study of scripture, I try to examine these stories and these characters with a new lens.
Did God really reward these women’s righteousness with the gift of a child? Or did the Biblical writers assign that as an explanation? How does our perpetuation of that cause-and-effect narrative continue to stigmatize and shame women who cannot get pregnant? And how can we, as the Church, help to turn that guilt into grace?
I believe we start by talking about it. Acknowledging it. Learning about it and offering resources. We need to reexamine these stories that are so precious and dear to our faith, then we need to look at them critically to examine how they might be bringing harm instead of hope to those we love in our communities. We’ve done this hard and holy work in other areas of pastoral care and ministry. Now is the time to do our part as the Church to help bear the burden of this particular grief with so many who are mourning silently in our communities.”
Dallas shared that this last question sparked conversation among the chaplains at work. I wanted to share my own feelings as well. I love Christmas, it’s close enough to my birthday to feel like I am having a long celebration. I can honestly say though that I have never really connected liturgically with the Christmas story. Only recently have I really tried to take advantage of Advent as a time of preparation and new beginnings, but when it comes to feeling a deep connection to the story of the Virgin Mary, it is just one of the many narratives I know I will hear during Advent.
When I hear the liturgical readings about the Virgin birth, I feel emptiness. The feeling is a bit of confusion and disgust. Why would a young woman, just out of childhood, be picked to bear a child? What a burden to place on a virgin. I know the biblical narratives do not transcribe easily for modern times, but what does it mean to be a woman without experiencing child bearing? What does it mean to not be a virgin and yet childless or even unable to have a child? I feel the emphasis on Mary and the baby Jesus is engrained deeply like the “Noble wife” described in Proverbs 31:10-31. I cannot relate to either image depicted: that of a young virgin or that of a wife. When these types of passages are read in Church my mind wanders. I sit in self-judgment listening to all of the elderly women pondering, “Why is such a pretty young lady like yourself unmarried and childless?”
A proud aunt and godmother, I smile at the children in the pew in front of me and pray to see my own tiny reflection one day playing amongst them. There are children who I pictured in my wedding who are now close to having their own families. My own niece and nephews are now the age to babysit my intended kids instead of being their playmates. The term “sweet baby Jesus” has become a term I use jokingly when exasperated by life instead of with reverence reflecting on the miracle of his birth; and I have to be honest about why that is for me. Christ’s birth reminds me of the ways I am not a “normal” woman in society. I have carried no child of my own, even in death. My place of honor as a mother is manufactured by fulfilling the roles of an aunt or god-mother and often under-appreciated by the Church and overlooked in society.
I would love to see Women’s Day services include more voices from single women and conversation about the trials these women face. We need to celebrate the ways women endure emotional hardships and to lift up those in their community who support them through these moments of sadness and feelings of emptiness. And the Church must recognize that this pain does not go away with time. As Dallas described, there are hopes and dreams and excitement that dies when one loses a child or realizes that they are unable to have children. There are unsaid expectations society and the Church has for young women that are left unmet or are not the true desires for that young woman. This season of Advent and Christmas are a great time to talk openly about hopes that look different from societal norms we have created. It is such a difficult topic and I am sure it is uncomfortable to address publicly, but we have to start somewhere. I am grateful to have been called upon to sit in prayer and in grief with friends and classmates as they went through the pain of losing a child. I know those friends and others will be there for me as I go through my own journey. Though I have not begun to fully sit with my emotions as I enter this journey, I hope that the Church will be included in my community of supporters that will create space for me to process.
When the world seems dark
When hopes and dreams are lost
Babies sleep in eternal spaces
No longer in reach
Unable to feel the warmth
Of their parent’s embrace.
Holy Mother, we cry out to you in sadness and confusion, unable to shake the feeling of unworthiness and pain that failure often brings. Knowing God, the day of understanding, Your will and reasoning comes slowly and doubtfully. Even when the tears cease from streaming they sit lodged and trapped in a realm no one dares to see. Holy Spirit, you journey with us to and from this realm with tenderness. Help us to create spaces for conversation and journeying together as your people. You call us to be in community, but we fail to hold space for all the pain we face individually and collectively. God of solidarity, help us to be a community for all those who are silently suffering. Give us the wisdom to comfort and the fortitude to endure communal and individual pain. Grant us peace.
Rev. Dallas Thompson is a resident chaplain for a hospital system in North Georgia. She is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament within the PC(USA) who graduated with her M.Div. from Columbia Theological Seminary in 2019. Before working in ministry, she worked as an educator with bachelor’s degrees in Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Dallas has been married to her husband Josh for nearly 15 years, and together they are raising a percussionist who so far has managed not to scare off all the neighbors. She was diagnosed with secondary infertility in her late 20s, and as a minister, chaplain, and friend, she continues to be an advocate for people grieving losses that are often ignored in our society. Dallas uses this and other life experiences to help her shape liturgy, worship, and pastoral care in the church. Her favorite things are warm blankets, donuts, and mystery novels – in no particular order.
Melva Lowry is a candidate for ordination in the PC(USA). She’s a ruling elder in the Greater Atlanta Presbytery at Rice Memorial. Mel holds 3 Masters from 2 PCUSA affiliated seminaries. She recently served as one of the Hands and Feet Fellows for the 224th General Assembly.