I found this short interview clip with John Piper very helpful on the subject of infertility, including a precious promise that I’ve not come across before. So, whether you are a couple or a single person struggling with infertility, here is the clip so that you can be comforted and strengthened too.
‘Let not the eunuch say, “Behold I am a dry tree.“‘
For thus says the Lord:
‘To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please Me
and hold fast to My covenant,
I will give in My house and within My walls
a monument and a name better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.’
Isaiah 56:3-5 (ESV)
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About halfway through the Lifeshapers course is the Holy Spirit night. After a time of worship, prayer partners team up to pray for course participants, and the Spirit is invited to do His healing and cleansing work in people’s lives.
I was dreading Holy Spirit night: the wound of childlessness was deep and raw, and I was terrified that an awful primal wail might burst from me if my internal pain was exposed.
A few days before the Holy Spirit night, the Lord revealed to me that I had always blamed myself for losing Two and Three by sinning. I shared this with my faithful prayer partner Judy, who prayed into it with me. At home the Holy Spirit reassured me with various Bible verses that Jesus took all the punishment for my wrong when He died and rose again, and that I was forgiven. I tried hard to believe, but still the doubt persisted.
On the Holy Spirit night, Judy and another friend, Pam, ministered to me. As they prayed I saw a picture in my mind of a beautiful meadow full of flowers and grass, with a stream in the distance. I saw three people: Jesus was playing and laughing with two small red-headed children. I watched as the three of them held hands and danced in an ecstatic and exuberant abundance of joy. I’ve never seen anyone as happy and fulfilled as those little children laughing and playing. They absolutely belonged in that wonderful place. It was like seeing a picture of God’s sovereignty and I knew that nothing I did could ever have altered God’s purposes for my twins. God’s Spirit made God’s Word real to me at that moment, and the burden lifted.
I became aware of Judy and Pam quietly praying over me in tongues. Judy offered me a handful of tissues, I hadn’t realised until then that my face was wet with tears. They hugged me and while Pam moved away to pray for someone else, I shared with Judy something of what I’d seen.
With the weight of guilt lifted from me, I finally felt ready to face my childlessness but wasn’t sure where to begin. So I decided to borrow the ’March of the Penguins’ DVD from a friend because it shows a scene of a penguin losing her chick in a snowstorm. Her heartrending cries are terrible and the only other time I’d watched it, I felt stabbed to the heart witnessing the penguin’s grief. A couple of nights before I watched the DVD, I had a dream: I was talking with Jesus in a room. He invited me to follow Him out of the room because He had something better to offer me, but I wanted to stay in the room and wouldn’t go with Him. In the end He left, but as He walked away He looked back over His shoulder at me and I couldn’t resist the invitation on His face. I left the room and walked towards Him, and He looked so glad. Then I woke up. I recognised that the room was like my childlessness, it was time to leave it behind to pursue Jesus. It gave me courage to watch the DVD.
I watched ‘March of the Penguins’ with plenty of tissues at the ready. The pain went deeper than tears, and at the very depths of the pain, Jesus asked me to give my childlessness to Him. ‘But it’s shameful Lord,’ I replied. ‘Are you sure You want this shame?’ Then I remembered that He had already borne all my shame on the cross and so I felt able to hand it all over to Him.
I know that healing has taken place because my whole way of seeing babies has changed: I no longer see them as threats but as lovable little people that I enjoy cuddling (albeit a bit nervously). I used to dream almost every night about empty houses and empty roads leading nowhere, but from the day I gave my childlessness to Jesus, all of my dreams are crowded with people!
Deep inside me there was a raw wound that I thought could never heal. It would crack open and bleed at the slightest provocation. But it wasn’t beyond Jesus’ gentle, yet powerful, healing touch.
And perhaps the most obvious proof of healing is the new category on my blog: childlessness.
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Last autumn I enrolled on a Lifeshapers course at Grace Church. I was 99% confident that I didn’t have any issues that needed dealing with, I just wanted to do the course so that I could get experience in prayer counselling with the aim of being a future prayer partner. I’m not saying I thought I was perfect, but God dealt with so much rubbish in my life a couple of years ago through illness that I didn’t think there were any ‘big’ issues left!
A few weeks into the course, while my friend Penny was praying for me at the end of a meeting I became aware of a big issue that God wanted to deal with in me. I hoped Penny would hurry up and finish praying because I felt at any moment I might erupt in an explosion of tears, only I wasn’t sure why. As soon as she was done, I said goodbye and fled to my car.
Driving home, I asked the Lord to show me what it was He wanted to deal with. I didn’t want to know, but at the same time I did! It was a painful and scary moment. He immediately showed me that He wanted to deal with my childlessness. It’s a good thing the roads were quiet that night because I cried so hard – sobbed – that it was hard to see and even harder to concentrate on driving. I forced myself to calm down as a neared home; I didn’t want Adrian to see I was upset because I couldn’t talk about it.
After Adrian had gone to bed, I sat staring into space. I didn’t want to face my childlessness, but at the same time I understood that if I didn’t deal with it now when the Holy Spirit had highlighted it, I might not get another chance. Certainly, it would be foolish to ignore God rather than face the issue, painful though I knew it would be. I was due to meet with my Lifeshapers’ prayer partner Judy the following morning. Would I have the courage to mention what had happened? Or would I have reburied it? I suspected the latter so, shortly before midnight, I texted her: ‘Make sure we talk about me being childless tomorrow as otherwise I’ll bottle out’.
Judy is a faithful friend and over the following weeks we prayed into it. She encouraged me to share with Adrian how I felt about not being able to have children. Poor Adi, he wondered what on earth I was going to say when I organised a ‘date night’ for us and said I had something to tell him. But, as always, he was incredibly supportive and understanding, listening to me while holding me close and giving me lots of hugs, not to mention buying me flowers and chocolate.
For two or three weeks I was very emotional. Sometimes I felt like throwing the Lifeshapers’ journal across the room and other days I couldn’t face doing the study at all. I refused to let anyone pray with me apart from Judy because I was terrified of what was buried. It was deep, and I wasn’t sure what was down there.
During that period, every church meeting I attended seemed to mention barrenness or babies in some way. On one particular Sunday, I went to pray with a lady during the ministry time and when she turned around I saw that she had a baby in her arms. Oh well, I decided I could ignore the baby. But no, the lady wanted me to pray for her little one. I hesitated, feeling that I couldn’t face it. For years I’d felt threatened by babies and would do almost anything to avoid them. But as I looked into this little girl’s big dark eyes, I suddenly saw her as a person and I remembered how Jesus welcomed little children and blessed them. He wanted my hands to represent His as I laid them on her and blessed her in His name.
My healing process had begun.
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Being unable to have children can affect a woman in all sorts of ways. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, I felt there was a sense of shame attached to being unable to do something that should be natural. No one ever made me feel shamed, and I didn’t even realise that this was how I felt until recently. But that’s another story….
If you’re the type of woman who has always dreamed of a home and children of your own (and I think most women will relate to this), facing the disappointment of it not happening is heart-breaking. It’s hard to face up to. Maybe some of you have become bitter. Others of you may be pushing it away and burying it deep inside. And I know that some reading this are quietly accepting it.
There is also that awkward silence in a conversation when someone asks: ‘Have you got children?’ and you say: ‘No’. It’s a fairly natural assumption that women or couples of a certain age will have children, and I don’t blame people for asking. What I do blame them for is their awkward response and the fact that, by their awkwardness, they lay all the responsibility on your shoulders to rescue the situation. I used to handle it by saying: ‘No we can’t have children, but I have eight guinea pigs,’ and in chatting about the idiosyncracies of my piggies, the conversation moved on easily. Now that I don’t have guinea pigs, I simply smile and change the subject. Most people appear relieved that the awkwardness is behind us and are happy to continue talking about other things. Others, however, disappear as soon as they can, no matter what I say.
Okay, I’m going to be bluntly honest with you here. In the months following IVF I lost all interest in sex. (I didn’t tell Adrian that and tried to carry on as normal, but he noticed even though he didn’t say anything. I know he noticed because he told me so when I asked him to read this blog post.) There didn’t seem much point in sex if it was never going to result in pregnancy. In the early weeks, having intercourse also brought back difficult emotional memories of the procedures I’d undergone and the psychological and physical pain of miscarrying. Eventually it all became easier, but it took about a year of praying and working through it, for me to recover genuine interest.
Being unable to have children affects not just the couple but also their family. My mum and Adrian’s parents will never have Adrian-and-Mandy grandchildren. Our brothers will never be uncles to our children. Our niece and nephews will never have Adrian-and-Mandy cousins. It took a long time for me to realise the affect our childless state had on our families.
It’s not just about the children we don’t have. I also grieve for the grandchildren we will never have. Right now, it’s not too big of a deal, but I wonder how it will feel when my friends who are my age become grandparents? I suspect a whole new aspect of pain will need to be faced.
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We had to wait about twenty months on the IVF list. During that time I became skillful at suppressing my natural desires and hopes for children. I buried the pain deeper and deeper so that I wouldn’t have to feel it.
Our names came to the top of the NHS list for IVF in January 2006. We attended an evening with about two dozen other couples who were about to embark on this life-changing process. Adrian and I prayed hard, and our then pastor and his wife prayed with us, all through the process, which was much longer and more involved than we’d realised. Every evening at 9.45 pm I carefully injected the drugs into my abdomen. The injections – which as far as I can remember went on for about five weeks – must be done at the same time each day. Occasionally this meant leaving an event early so that I could get home and inject myself. If this doesn’t happen or a day is missed, the whole cycle fails. It is only recently that I’ve stopped having recurring nightmares about missing urgent deadlines, but in the months immediately following IVF I would wake myself up in a lather looking for the medications I thought I needed to inject myself with.
God was very gracious and generous to us. We stipulated that only two eggs should be fertilised, because we couldn’t bear the thought of any spare embryos being destroyed or frozen, and although we were warned that this greatly reduced our chances, God gave us two little ones which were transferred to me.
The Bible teaches that whenever a child is begotten (conceived), that is when you become a mother and father. When our little ones were zygots (single-cell embryos aged one day), Adrian and I knew that we were parents. Two new little souls were in the world and they were our responsibility. The most natural thing in the world was to pray for them and to commit them to their Everlasting Father who was skillfully knitting them together.
When God took Two and Three on Friday 12th May 2006, I grieved for them like I’d never grieved for anyone else. But I wouldn’t let myself consider the implications: they were our only chance to have children of our own, and the loss was so final that I buried it deep inside along with my unrealised hopes and dreams.
From that afternoon on, there was a ragged wound deep inside me that opened up and bled at the slightest provocation. For the first few years I felt like a waterspout; I couldn’t sing certain songs, wouldn’t go to church if I knew particular subjects were going to be preached upon, and subconsciously tried to keep people away from the wound by never sharing my real grief and hurt with anyone. I never even spoke about it to Adrian. Having to give up my dreams of and for my children was hard, and I found I had little patience or sympathy with parents struggling because their children weren’t following the parents’ dreams and plans for them.
I worked hard at putting on a good front that I was fine about not having children, so good in fact that in the end I deceived even myself.
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Shortly after it was confirmed that Adrian and I were unable to have children, we had my dad’s funeral. My mum, brother and me discussed and planned an order of service to include a potted history of my dad’s life, which I then typed up. I still remember how painful it was to write the last paragraph: ‘Don will be sorely missed by his wife, son and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren, and his daughter and son-in-law….’ To me, the fact that Adrian and I were only a couple rather than a family made us incomplete, and seeing it in print I felt as though the letters were in bold, underlined and highlighted with flashing lights around them. Yet I couldn’t delete them because it was true that we didn’t have children. Maybe that was the first time I’d glimpsed that this was reality, and somewhere very deep down inside it hurt.
Being a couple seemed to make us inferior to people who had children. This wasn’t the case, but it was how I felt. It was as though, in my eyes, we hadn’t ‘arrived’ – hadn’t arrived at that mysterious place of the complete experience of adulthood.
The result of seeing my mum’s grief and the need she had of our support coupled with my own feelings of incompleteness and inferiority was a desperate desire to ‘get’ children in any way I could and as soon as possible. Adrian and I were on the NHS waiting list for IVF, and we also began to look at and pray into the possibility of adoption. As I said to Adrian at the time, ‘If anything happens to you I couldn’t bear to go through all of this on my own. I want children to be able to support me the way we’re supporting my mum.’ However, because we were waiting to go through IVF we were told we couldn’t pursue adoption at that stage.
When we were first put on the waiting list for IVF, I didn’t agree with it and had no intention of undergoing it, but neither did I feel in a fit state emotionally to announce my decision there and then. Once I could think clearly again after my dad’s death, I intended to cancel ourselves from the waiting list. Thankfully, I poured it all out to a Christian friend at work one day after shocking myself by unexpectedly breaking down in tears. Her and her husband had been through IVF in the past, and she shared with me that it is possible to have control over how many eggs are fertilised. So if only two embryos can be transferred (from the petri dish to the mother), you can request to only have two eggs fertilised. This made a huge difference, and after praying it through, Adrian and I felt at peace about going through IVF.
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There was a definite see-sawing of emotions going on when Adrian and I were trying for a baby. At first, I was casual but hopeful about it. Then as each month passed, I began trying different things to see if they would help. I took Folic Acid and vitamins, gave up coffee, and stopped eating peanuts. Someone said citrus fruit could hinder fertility, so that was cut from my diet. I was advised to lie down for half an hour after intercourse with my bottom raised, and to try having intercourse in different positions. It seems there is nothing sacred when it comes to the advice people will give you if you’re struggling to conceive – and they don’t think twice about sharing it either!
I even took my temperature diligently each morning, making a careful note in my ‘fertility’ diary from Boots so that I could figure out when the optimal time for trying was. Sex was no longer a loving, romantic part of our marriage – it was a drill exercise to be done on command. It certainly wasn’t fun anymore. And if for any reason we failed to take advantage of that crucial twenty four hour window, I stressed about it big time. I mean, you only have twelve opportunities in a year, don’t you? If you miss one, that really knocks your chances. And I was getting older all the time….
There was also the increasingly crushing disappointment every month as I’d realise that we’d failed again.
It was a tough time emotionally: putting on a strong front so that people didn’t suspect I might be getting upset about not becoming pregnant, trying to protect myself against continual heartache and disappointment by not allowing myself to be too hopeful, and pleading with God to bless us with a baby. If I was even one day late, my emotions were instantly tied up with the tiny life I hoped against hope was inside me…. only to find out there was emptiness. Again.
After a few years of trying, of me constantly burying my natural desires to be a mother and a lot of prayer, we visited the doctor for tests to see why it wasn’t happening for us. We made an important agreement before making that decision, and that was that no matter what (if anything) showed up on the tests, we would not blame each other, nor would we share such intimate information with anyone else. If you’re in a similar position, don’t feel pressured to share what’s wrong with anyone other than your partner – it’s no one else’s business, and it’s okay to keep it just between the two of you.
We received the results of our tests the day after my dad died, and they confirmed that it was, humanly-speaking, impossible for us to conceive naturally. We were placed on the waiting list for IVF. More about that in another post.
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When did I first become afraid of being unable to have children?
In my early twenties, with no boyfriend on the horizon I had a very real fear of being ‘left on the shelf’. I was all too aware of my body clock ticking away, and hated it when well meaning people assured me that I was still young, that there was plenty of time and ‘you never know what’s around the corner’. To me, there wasn’t plenty of time and the years stretched ahead of me looking depressingly empty of companionship and a family of my own. I mean, I had to meet that special someone, start going out with him, wait for him to ask me to marry him, and get married. That all took time. In my head I would try to chivvy God along a bit (just in case He hadn’t realised that I was running out of time): ’Okay Lord, if I meet someone by the end of this year then I should be married in, let’s say two years, and then all the books say you should be married for a year or two before trying for a baby. Lord, that means I can’t have children for four more years!’ It was all very dismal at times.
But then Adrian came into my life; we enjoyed a whirlwind romance and were married within eighteen months of meeting each other. I’d heard horror stories from friends who were already married about relatives and friends who, with the wedding safely out of the way, start dropping not-such-subtle hints about starting a family. Thankfully, we didn’t experience that. Instead I was gripped with the fear of failing to ’catch’ for a baby. There seemed something shameful in wanting something that I might not be able to have. Other people seemed able to produce babies with relative ease, but what if I couldn’t? Faulty defence mechanisms kicked in: if people thought I wasn’t bothered about having children, then no one would think I was a failure if it didn’t work out.
So from the early days of our marriage, I began dropping casual comments into conversations: ‘I’m not really into little kids, I never have been,’ or ‘I’m rubbish with holding babies, I prefer dogs and rabbits any day’. This irrational behaviour wasn’t based on fact, merely on fear. On one memorable Saturday evening, I was holding forth to my brother and sister-in-law somewhat vocally about how I couldn’t stand children and couldn’t imagine having any of my own (all lies). There was a silence while their eyes met. And then my brother turned to me, cleared his throat and said: ‘We wondered if you would agree to becoming the legal guardian of our children if anything happened to us.’ Classic.
I still don’t know why I felt it was so shameful to be unable to have children. But the fear and shame persisted for the next twelve years, and became a stronghold in my life that had to be demolished. But more on that in another post.
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When I was fourteen or fifteen, I had endless conversations with my best friend at school about the kind of man we wanted to marry. Naturally, he had to have a fantastic body and be incredibly rich. Until this wonderful man materialised, we contented ourselves with the usual school-girl crushes.
One of our favourite occupations was to play The Game of Life… with a twist. Instead of playing the usual way of finding out whether we would be rich or poor, what job we would do, and whether we would end up in a mansion or a poky house, we preferred to write our own rules, and concentrated on acquiring as many children as we possibly could. Depending on which squares we landed on we could end up with one child, twins, triplets or quads. I think we even had a square for octuplets! We had to spin the wheel in the middle of the board to find out if they were boys or girls (yellow, orange and red was for girls, while blue, purple and green was for boys). We also had to name all of these children, and we wrote the names down so that we couldn’t get mixed up. They didn’t just get a first name, but second names too. (My first ‘daughter’ was always Kylie Frederica!) It was great fun and once we had run out of our favourite names we scoured her teen magazines for obscure and outlandish ones. One afternoon I managed to acquire 102 children!
We often discussed what we would do if we fell in love but then found out the man we were planning to marry couldn’t give us children (it never entered our heads to wonder if we might be infertile). It was a tough question. Do you ditch the man you love in order to find someone else and have children? Or do you stick with love but head for a lifetime of childlessness? In our young hearts, a lifetime of childlessness looked terrible, absolutely the worst thing that could happen to you.
I’m glad to say that now we’re both approaching middle age (ssshhhh, don’t tell anyone!), we’re both happily married to good men we love with all our hearts. And my friend has been blessed with two lovely children. As for me, you know that Adrian and I are infertile. And I’ve decided that now is the time to take the bull by horns, as it were, and address this on my blog. So many people, singles as well as couples, suffer from childlessness and in the forthcoming posts I want to look at how it can feel, how to learn to live with it, and whether there is healing for the emptiness inside.
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