Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth. For the better part of three millennia, theirs were the faces of the childless — the faces of those who wept, mourned and wrestled with God for a gift he wouldn’t give.
But this past summer, the cover of Time magazine showed the world a different face — that of a couple sunning themselves on a white, sandy beach, relaxed, childless by choice.
Increasingly, that face, not the biblical one, is the face the world connects with what the Time cover story called “the childfree life.” With America’s total fertility rate at 1.93, that’s understandable. For many, contraception, consumerism and the radical upending of countless social norms have turned what once was seen as a curse into a desirable choice.
Still, for millions of Americas — as many as one-sixth of married couples — the face of the childless life remains what it always was, with the cross of infertility weighing all the heavier in a culture that no longer recognizes it as such.
Pain of childlessness
That cross, in many ways, is a cross of shattered expectations.
“I always assumed I’d get married, then have kids right away,” said Kristy Tucker, who runs a support group in the Diocese of Lexington, Ky., for women struggling to conceive. “I thought because I was open to life, getting pregnant would be easy. But it wasn’t.”
The cross of infertility also brings with it a cross of seemingly endless doctors’ visits.
In 2007, after more than a year of trying to conceive, the then 30-year-old Tucker and her husband began looking for medical answers to their problem. Although it took multiple doctors, several rounds of testing and more shots than she cares to remember, NaPro technology and a Creighton Fertility Care doctor helped Tucker give birth to a daughter in 2010 and a son in 2013.
Jennifer and Ryan Dornbush, however, were also 30 when they began seeking medical help for infertility. Protestants at the time (they converted to Catholicism in 2008), the couple had used natural family planning methods for several years, first to avoid pregnancy, then later to attempt it. When those attempts proved unsuccessful, they went the testing route. Jennifer checked out fine; Ryan had a slight problem, which doctors believed could be corrected by minor surgery. The surgery, however, changed nothing, and the couple spent the next decade in and out of doctors’ offices looking for answers that never came.
Now 42, Jennifer still grapples with the question of couples who can’t conceive: Why?
“It’s such a little question, but it doesn’t go away,” she said. “Why don’t we get this gift? Why, when we’ve been faithful to what God has asked of us, is this gift being withheld?”
Challenges for Catholics
|Jennifer and Ryan Dornbush work in Hollywood, where they evangelize in the entertainment field. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Dornbush |
Most couples trying unsuccessfully to conceive face those challenges. Catholic couples, however, face additional ones.
First, they have to accept (then explain to others) that some options open to non-Catholics are off the table.
“Everyone wants to know why we won’t try in-vitro fertilization,” said Dornbush. “Especially when it’s the last viable medical option. They don’t understand why Catholics can’t go that route. Even when you explain, they don’t get it.”
Second, they have to live the childfree (or child-lite) life in a Catholic subculture that values large families.
That’s a struggle for Mary Langley. Married at 37, she was thrilled when she gave birth to two children within a few years of getting married, and peacefully accepted her inability to conceive after that. Ten years later, however, in a Boston-area parish filled with large families, Langley often feels out of place.
“Some assume we used contraception or that I waited to have children because of a career,” she said. “They just have no idea. I would love to have more children. I would love to have been married earlier. It just wasn’t part of God’s plan.”
Recognizing that helps Langley deal with the assumptions people make. But for those who know their choices did play a role in their inability to conceive, dismissing the judgments of others isn’t quite so easy.
Although Scott Belhorn was only 26 when he got married, his wife was nine years older. Neither were practicing Catholics then, and by the time they decided to try for a family, his wife was 40. Doctors assured his wife she could still conceive, but no baby came. Eventually, Scott went for testing, and they discovered the problem. But by then, it was too late.
Now 38 and saving up for an adoption, Belhorn still wrestles with guilt over the decisions he made a decade ago, a guilt, he said, that’s exacerbated by the attitudes of some in his Latin Mass community in Cleveland.
“The presumptions they make sting more because some of them are correct,” he said. “They remind me of my guilt.”
Trust in God
Despite those struggles, the cross of infertility can bring blessings of a different sort.
For Dornbush, the past 13 years have taught her about trusting God and letting go of the illusion of control. Langley said she’s grateful for the schooling in humility that’s come with her small family.
“It’s a trap when people have too high an opinion of you,” she said.
More opportunities for service outside the home also can present themselves.
“If you don’t have a large family, you’re able to extend yourself more deeply for the larger Catholic family,” said Belhorn. “If we’re not focusing on raising six kids, we can focus on visiting people in nursing homes, helping single mothers and building up the body of Christ in other ways.”
Dornbush, who works in the entertainment industry with her husband, agrees.
“We came here to work as missionaries, to evangelize this particular mission field, and we’re able to build relationships with people in the industry in ways we wouldn’t if we had children,” she said. “When you realize children aren’t possible, you have to let go of the hopes and expectations, then put something in its place so you don’t feel like you’re stepping out into the abyss. Moving to Hollywood was one of those things. Reimagining your life is scary, but it also can be exciting.”
That being said, the cross endures.
“God and I are going to have a long talk about this someday,” Dornbush joked.
In the meantime, the prayers and encouragement of the Church remain essential.
“Infertility is a hidden cross,” said Tucker. “People in the pews and positions of ministry need to understand that. Even the little things — like letting people know you’re praying for them — help. People may not talk about it, but come Mother’s Day, there’s always someone sitting in the pews, crying because she can’t stand up and be acknowledged.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor. This is the first in a two-part series on challenges of growing a family.