The Federalist recently reviewed a memoir about a woman’s infertility journey that included more than a dozen miscarriages on the way to three children who lived past birth. There is another infertility story to consider, one just as true and heartbreaking, although perhaps a bit more joyful. The story is my own, even as it is the story of your widowed neighbor lady and your aunt who never married and countless other women who have walked this earth childless from generation to generation.
The story is this. For whatever reason, God in His wisdom has not given me and my husband of 17 years the gift of children through conception or adoption. We are barren, not because of any particular medical diagnosis of infertility, but because our union—the work of our own hands—has produced no children.
This childlessness is not of our choosing. If we had been given a say in the matter, we would be parents today of children birthed from my womb and adopted from Ethiopia and China and fostered from our own neighborhood. Yet the sad reality is that wanting and trying alone do not a parent make.
The most exact science provided by the world’s top fertility specialists can produce a viable baby less than half of the time. Adoption is only possible if a mother in conjunction with a government gives you her own child, and foster parenting is both supported by and, in some cases, ruined by the ethics of the state.
Bodies fail, people fail, and governments fail. This means that even the best of pursuits for having children fail. Ask your neighbor widow. Ask your unmarried aunt. Ask me. And listen to our stories.
What It Is Like to Be Barren
Being barren is like living a day that has already ended. The family line is broken, the dream unfulfilled. The happy ending is edited to read, “and they lived childless ever after.”
There is no one for my husband to give his name. There is no baby to bring to the baptismal font, no child to take to ballgames and concerts, no middle schooler to enroll in the science fair, no teenager to drive to college, no daughter to wear the family wedding gown, no grandchildren in which to delight. All the moments in life we anticipate as adults—births, baptisms, graduations, weddings—now bear a cruel sting.
If you put my heart under a microscope today, you will see fault lines and cracks and all kinds of seismic evidence of continual breaking. My pillow is often wet by the time I fall asleep in my quiet home, but 17 years of childlessness have taught me that barren women do not have the monopoly on wet pillows.
Mothers shed their fair share of tears, too, as do grandmothers and teachers and aunts and any human being who cares about anyone else. Having a child will not suddenly make my pillow dry. A child will simply give me a different reason to cry, a different vocation from which to view the world and take care of others.
For children are so much more than a commodity to be made and gotten. Children are people in need of all kinds of support in life, not just parents. Children need friends, teachers, advisors, role models, babysitters, trainers, social workers, judges, lawyers, writers, cafeteria ladies, aunts, pilots, and janitors. Children need all of us to help in their raising, including a barren woman like me.
My Mothering Success Story
I am a mother of none, yet I am a mother to thousands. Believe it or not, I wake each morning and rise from my wet pillow to face a day of child-rearing. The major difference between me and most mothers is that all of my children live outside of my home rather than in it. Students, college graduates, interns, teachers, church families, Bethesda Home residents, widows, nieces, nephews—all of these precious people are mine, given to me by a gracious God to love and support and serve my whole life long.
In her article “The Hidden Blessing of Infertility,” Karen Swallow-Prior, a professor of English, a published author, and a devoted wife, gives us a glimpse into the peace and joy that can be gained from avoiding reproductive technologies that transform the “marital bed into a site of manufacture” and, instead, greeting with joy the people God gives us to care for today:
[W]ith my eyes turned from this option, they were free to see the things God was bringing before me. If ever I felt inclined to lament the lack of children, God never gave me time to do so. In response to every private, fervent pleading I’ve made before God, his answer has been a different door slammed open: a missions opportunity…a sudden book contract, an unexpected job…the chance to care for aging parents, a student needing extra help, another telling me I am her ‘true mother’…
I never lost the desire to have children, never stopped storing away favorite names in my heart, just in case. But, thankfully, long ago I lost any desire to have anything that was not clearly given by the hand of God, anything that was not a good and perfect gift from above (James 1:17).
Perhaps all of us perform a disservice to infertile couples by continually pushing them toward the next, shiny thing that promises fertility. I know that I have been better served throughout my barren years by people supporting and encouraging me in the rich vocations God has given me today rather than by inciting me to covet and strive for what others have been given.
I doubt that I will ever stop asking God for a child of my own, one I can raise from behind my front door rather than beyond it, but I would not be telling the whole, beautiful story if I neglected to tell you that my present barren life is already rich with the love of children. Perhaps my own infertility story will end, not with a baby, but with so many people.
Katie Schuermann is a Lutheran pastor’s wife and author of “He Remembers the Barren,” second edition (Emmanuel Press, 2017).