You may have noticed that during 2013, writes Stephanie Cottam, there have been more being stories in the media about a woman’s struggle to achieve what should be the most natural and easy process for her body to accomplish. This is being achieved by the persistent attempts of patient-charity Fertility Network UK as it raises the profile of the issues affecting as many as 1 in 6 women’s ability to conceive a baby, and banish the misconceptions many people have about infertility. That means within the group of married women you know in your Church, in your workplace, or even your friendship group… someone is struggling a very private, and often very intense battle to have her baby.
We have been conditioned as a nation to see fertility as being something which shouldn’t be discussed. The old way of dealing with infertility was to see the woman as being shunned by God. Chances were if a woman couldn't have a baby, she was probably paying the wages of her promiscuous lifestyle, having caught an STD. Unfortunately there are many aspects of our modern society which continue to hold-on to this mistaken line of thinking. Infertility also challenges those who had no problems, making them feel awkward around a woman who is struggling to conceive… I mean, what on earth do you say to her?
The patient-run, Infertility Network UK, is trying to raise awareness of the many conditions affecting women. For example, a number of women are struggling with the life-long symptoms of PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), which is one of the most common female hormonal, endocrine disorders and causes cysts to grow on a woman’s ovaries, obstructing them. Not much is known about PCOS, as it is such a complex disorder; but there is strong evidence that it can, to a large degree, be classified as a genetic disease. As can Endometriosis, another common disorder, which causes cells that normally line the womb to grow in other places around the body – including the intestines and kidneys. There is much research being conducted into both of these disorders; but in spite of all the advances in medical science, the ability of a woman with one of these conditions to conceive continues to be pretty hit-and-miss.
For many women who are struggling to conceive, the initial process of identifying the problem doesn’t happen until they start investigating why they are not able to get pregnant. Through a range of invasive tests, it comes as a shock to hear the outcome, “You have PCOS” or “You have endometriosis”. In my case, when I first presented symptoms to my family doctor as a teenage girl, I was fobbed off with the pill rather than offered an investigation into what was causing the problem. I was later diagnosed with Endometriosis, which has since led to problems in having a baby.
The whole point of raising awareness of infertility, in many ways, seems to have bypassed the Church, so many Christian women continue to suffer in silence, dealing with a monthly onslaught of emotions, failures and lost hope. It knocks her faith. Knocks her confidence. Knocks her relationship with God. It’s not an easy thing to talk about – I mean, how can you actually broach the subject! She faces the silent reproach of other women who don’t actually understand what she deals with, who glibly fob her off with a cheery, “just relax and let God do His thing” or, “God will make a way for you.” Or, “God is definitely going to make you a mother, just keep trying and trusting!” before they forget about her struggle.
The Bible is more open about fertility than most Churches can be! The stories of Sarah, Hannah or Elizabeth, for example, make great material for the whole “God can do miracles.” “God is faithful to His promises” etc… But as a way of understanding how a woman deals with the struggle to conceive… oh, that’s a bit awkward, we can’t go there!
I have been studying Rachel and Hannah: two women from different moments in history, whose stories were similar, but their responses to their struggle to conceive were very different.
Rachel. The wife of Abraham's grandson, Jacob, who was so loved by her husband that he worked for her father, his uncle, for an agreed period of seven years, but was duped "at the altar" into marrying Rachel's older sister, Leah. He loved Rachel so much, that he agreed to work for a longer period in order to have her as his wife too.
Rachel, the beautiful younger sister, younger wife; "but Rachel was barren" (Genesis 29:31). In those days, barrenness was the worst "illness" any woman could suffer; it was enough grounds for her husband to divorce her. Not only did Rachel face the monthly shame, but her sister was producing heirs regularly, causing a bitter rivalry between them, and deep envy and resentment within Rachel. One was loved. One could bear the heir.
We catch a glimpse of Rachel's desperation in Genesis 30:1 when she cries out to her husband, "Give me children, or else I die!" I imagine Rachel allowing the words to burst from her heart through her mouth in a moment of an intensely desperate plea, with tears spilling down her cheeks... "Give me children, or else I feel I have nothing else to live for – I have no future, no purpose, I would rather be dead!" Her anguished sobs bouncing around their tent as Jacob tries to comfort his wife. Her animal-like wail reverberating throughout history, caressing the heart of every woman who understands Rachel's pain and anguish. "I want to be a mother above everything else, give me children!"
It's almost accusatory, this challenge to Jacob. You can hear it silently echoing between her words, "YOU, my husband, give me children too". He becomes angry – a sign of his helplessness at her situation. He knows her frustration, but knows he cannot replace God in her circumstances. He knows he is helpless against the Creator God, "Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?" He responds.
A few centuries later, we meet Hannah. The wife of Elkanah, who was so loved by him, she would receive double portions of the offerings whenever they went up to Jerusalem for the Annual Feast. "But Hannah had no children" (1 Samuel 1:2).
Hannah, like Rachel, was one of two wives to the same husband. Hannah, like Rachel, was barren. Hannah, like Rachel, was taunted by the other wife. Peninnah "provoked [Hannah] severely to make her miserable... year by year, when she went up to the House of the Lord" (1 Samuel 1:6-7).
Hannah was so heartbroken by her own sorrow and distress; coupled with the derision of "her rival", she was no longer able to eat. She was suffering deeply every month, that I believe depression (bitterness of soul - verse 10) literally seized her at the hopelessness she felt at her situation. Hannah couldn't do anything to contain her grief. She couldn't eat. She could only cry – weeping, mourning in deep despair and anguish.
This is where the similarities between Rachel and Hannah end. It may have taken years of torment to reach this place, but here we find Rachel turning to God: Crying out to Him, praying to Him, pleading with Him, as she asks Him to open her womb, to allow her the joy of bearing a child; pouring out her soul, her anguish, her pain, her sorrow to her Lord.
For a Christian woman, the struggle to conceive can be exacerbated by trying to understand God’s purposes in the battle she faces. It can be a lonely place for a woman, surrounded in Church by families and knowing the anguish of her helpless situation. Her faith is being tested beyond her natural ability, and there are no answers, no guarantees, no date by which she knows it will all be over and she holds her child in her arms.
This year saw the first ever National Infertility Awareness Week, from Monday 28 October to Sunday 3 November, in what is hoped will become an annual event. As a Church, we should be engaging with our sisters, to let them know they are not alone, that this battle is not targeting them specifically. Although there may not be a straight answer to understand her trial of subfertility, we can stand alongside her, uphold her and catch her when grief hits. And those moments can be so unexpected – she is not being difficult when she leaves a children’s party, or avoids attending Church on Mother’s Day, it’s just that sometimes, when she is reminded of what she doesn’t have at the most inopportune time, it’s easier to hide from the crowd, than to face the sympathetic gazes and false promises.
Whether you know who she is or not, you can pray for her and her husband as they deal with the longing to be parents. When one part suffers, we who are of the same body also suffer. Maybe the Lord will lead you to be a source of encouragement, will use you to let them know that they are not alone; and maybe, one day, you will be able to rejoice with them in their rejoicing.
Stephanie Cottam writes and edits a girls magazine for Christian teens, called SHINE. She blogs and is the author of Ready or Not - He is Coming