Last spring we happened to share with the priest who witnessed our marriage that we were going through some issues trying to conceive. This was still fairly early in our “attempting” so I just happened to mention in passing if he could include our desires to grow our family in his prayers (he was actually over to bless our house), especially because he had some formative spiritual direction for us when we discerned we should be open to our fertility. Being the thoughtful and involved Father that he is, he mentioned that he had recently heard of several couples who were having the same issues and asked if we would all like to get together for mass and dinner. A few weeks later he followed up with an email, asking if a date three months in the future was OK for us to get together.
Sure, I thought. But I’ll probably be pregnant by then. Then I’ll probably feel really silly for agreeing to all this.
(In case anyone doubts I have the power of positive thinking).
Anyways, turns out I wasn’t pregnant, but we did have a lovely night of Mass, dinner and socializing with 3 other couples who were also experiencing difficultly conceiving. There were two “older” couples and two “younger” couples – relatively speaking. There was a range of “time trying to conceive”, basically ranging from almost a year (us) to 8 years. Yes, you can bet that I felt like the weakest person in the world being there alongside couples that have carried this cross for much, much longer than I have. At that point I was used to having my anxiety and fear being blown off for not trying long enough by fertile friends and was a little anxious at being blown off by these new infertile women. However, it was a great experience and most of the couples understood that not conceiving is not conceiving and we all share a common bond, no matter the length of time. They had supportive things to say, even if for part of the night I did feel like their ‘project’, with them telling me words of advice like relax because there is nothing else you can do, take one day at a time, and to have faith because that first year is the hardest. I did start to feel a bit of a “pain Olympics” (or where infertile women like to compete over how ‘infertile’ they are), which was probably only apparent from my view, but this was to be expected I guess and minimal. After all, I was just starting the journey as they were able to tell me about significant mile-markers and scenery changes along the way. As with most things, it really helped having examples of other couples facing this hardship and surviving, “mentors” of sorts that could provide concrete examples of hope without diminishing the pain I felt. These couples gave me hope for my future that these tears would eventually dry up when talking about sub/infertility with strangers.
Perhaps the most miraculous moment came during Mass when the Father did a semi-introduction of us all to each other in the homily (after we had officially met but before eating dinner) and revealed the most amazing news yet – that the couple who had been married and open to life for 8 years, after at least 3 surgeries and multiple adoption failures, was yes, finally pregnant with their first pregnancy. Praise the Lord! They conceived sometime after the first email was sent and the date of our gathering. They hadn’t actively tried anything in over a year, and there they sat, shedding tears of joy after waiting so long to receive this gift from God. The whole room was in tears at this miracle.
I realized then that this was not a short term journey and the longer I counted months by days, the more I was setting myself up for heart-ache. My vision of thinking well, at least I’ll probably conceive in the next few years suddenly stretched to a decade. Am I strong enough to endure a decade of this – or even more? I admit I was terrified, but I’m glad I got that reality check early on. Heck, when I would express doubt in us being able to conceive around the 6 month mark my husband used to jokingly threaten me with “Do you want to go to that Loving Embrace group where real infertile women are so you can feel embarrassed for being so sad?” I knew then that I was weak. These women were warriors and their faith, so solid. At least in hindsight. I was so, so weak. I am so, so weak.
Perhaps the second “Ah ha!” moment of the night was during the homily again, when Father talked about his history and involvement as director of vocations. Some of you may wonder what a celibate priest has to say about yearning for children, but the similarities were more than obvious. As director of vocations in a small Italian order, he moved to Texas to expand more than 25 years ago. The house they owned that he longed to be filled to the brim with young men exploring their callings sat mostly empty. He could count the number of vocations on one hand and they were much, much less than he desired. That he prayed for. He often begged God to tell him that if He desired such a good thing and was there willing and ready to serve and mentor these young men, why did He not send them? His empty nets mirrored our empty arms. But even our 8 year empty arms paled in comparison to 25 years but luckily, its not all about the ‘pain Olympics’. He reminded us that our desire for children and his desire for vocations both pointed to a similar longing, a longing for God. A love of God so strong that you want to share it with others, no matter your vocation.
They were beautiful words to help me realize that longing for God IS universal, even if the specific cross of infertility is not. Now, whenever I pray for those empty arms out there and the parents longing to fill them, I also try to remember those empty nets and pray for God to fill them as well.