“It’s really easy to feel forgotten … by the Church and by God.”
“It’s really easy to feel forgotten … .by the Church and by God.” This is how some Catholic couples who struggle with infertility describe their experience. As part of my senior thesis on infertility in the Catholic Church, I interviewed eight Catholic couples struggling with fertility and found that while the Church instructs infertile couples not to use artificial reproductive technologies, the Church offers little, if any pastoral support to these couples who choose to follow the Church’s teachings. Couples feel isolated and judged, both by their fellow Catholics as well as those outside the Church. The interviews revealed several common themes and frustrations: couples feeling isolated and abandoned, struggles with the medical aspects of infertility, feeling inferior to other couples, and a sense of judgement by fellow Catholics.
One of the biggest struggles that all infertile couples spoke of was a feeling of isolation. Although one in nine couples experiences infertility at some point, most couples said one of the hardest things about being infertile is feeling alone. One woman said she wished people would “recognize the social isolation that infertile couples can experience. For a while it's okay, but pretty soon all your friends have kids and they are off doing their own thing.” Some couples said that often it can seem that they are the only ones undergoing this struggle.
A Taboo Subject
But the topic of fertility and infertility can be taboo, which is exacerbated by the Church’s silence on the matter in parishes and in the public square. ” Feeling forgotten and isolated can take a toll on a couple struggling with infertility. One couple said they felt this pang quite strongly on Good Friday while saying in church, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Another common issue for all the couples that I talked to was the challenges of the medical issues that accompany infertility. Addressing the conditions that cause infertility, such as endometriosis and polycystic ovarian syndrome, requires daily attention to medications, fertility markers, or diet, all of which can be burdensome particularly to the woman. Because of this, many women felt they couldn’t escape infertility in the way they felt their husbands were able to. One woman noted, “Even if I am having a good day, then I remember I have to take these 5 pills and that’s a reminder of what I do not have.”. Some couples opt to stop pursuing medical intervention because of the constant reminders of failure as well as the heavy financial cost. Some couples felt disheartened because they were spending hours and thousand of dollars on treatments that might only nominally improve their chances of conception.
The medical obstacles are not the only challenges that infertile couples face. Couples found that infertility strained their marriages and that it is crucial to understand the struggles each partner undergoes . One man said of a conversation he and his wife had, “There’s an issue of feeling used. That I’m just a sperm donor. We haven’t had sex in weeks and now it’s a baby day and she’s like ‘Get in here, we need to do this.’ It’s disconnecting the act from what it’s supposed to be. You start to have mistrust build between you, start to blame each other for all kind of stuff.”
When one partner starts to view the other as a means to children, these feelings start to occur. Couples emphasized that the health of the marriage must be the first priority, but that this can often be difficult when they’re struggling with infertility. Some couples found that taking a break from actively trying to conceive helped the marriage. But all couples said was that maintaining open communication is crucial to the health of the marriage.
Women often voiced that they felt less feminine because of their inability to bear children. One woman put it this way: “When we talk about Christian femininity, there is more to being a woman than the ability to bear life, but sometimes everything is brought back to that. Like, look what a woman's body can do, that means on a spiritual level she can do this or on an emotional level she can do this, except some of us can't do that first thing so there's that implication that you are maybe not actually a woman.”
This emphasis on motherhood in the Catholic Church can be painful for women struggling with infertility. A few women noted the particular pain associated with Mother’s Day for women who are unable to conceive. Mother’s Day serves as a painful reminder of what they want but cannot have. One woman spoke of dreading Mother’s Day and being unable to make it through Mother’s Day mass without crying.
Catholic infertile couples noted the judgment they feel from both Catholics and non-Catholics and the pain it induces. Non-Catholics, and even some Catholics who do not understand the Church’s teachings on assisted reproductive technology, will not understand why a couple would not pursue options such as in vitro fertilization or intrauterine insemination. Some think the infertile couple does not truly want children, because if they did, they would be pursuing every possible avenue to have a biological child, whatever the Church taught. One woman told the story of how her Catholic sister suggested to her that she “get the baby any way that she can and then just raise it Catholic.” Such suggestions can frustrate couples seeking to live out Church teaching because they imply that they could have a child if only they wanted one badly enough.
Couples even spoke of well-intentioned friends offering to act as surrogates. Although they appreciate the sentiment, they also find these offers unhelpful and in some cases, they make them feel worse. One woman said she feels it’s just another reminder of the capabilities other women have that she does not.
While the judgment received by non-Catholics or non-practicing Catholics can be frustrating, most couples expressed greater disappointment in the judgment that they have received from practicing Catholics. Every couple I interviewed spoke of fellow Catholics assuming that they were using contraception because they remained childless after so many years of marriage.
One couple explained: The parish we belong to is very orthodox Catholic and there is a certain stigma attached with being married and not having children. People don’t automatically think of infertility. They think ‘why aren’t you having children?’ They think it’s because of contraception.” One woman described this as “rubbing salt in the wound.” Couples spoke of how profoundly hurtful it is for people to make this assumption, especially given that they were not only open to life but actively trying to conceive.
Some couples noted that part of the reason they chose to be open about their infertility was because they did not want people to assume that they were using contraception. However, other couples felt uncomfortable being open about their struggles with infertility, and they felt this left them open to criticism. One woman voiced this frustration saying: “Biggest pet peeve ever is the habit we have as Catholics of assessing a family based on their size. Because the assumption is that however many visible children you have, that’s how many you want.” That’s not necessarily true, she continued.
You could have two children or one or zero or however many people think is not enough because you are contracepting or it could be because you have had five miscarriages, or you haven’t been able to get pregnant at all. So you can’t judge that family’s intentions based on what you see. Or you could have eight children because you are super generous or because you are super disorganized and you can’t count to twenty-eight. Again, we don’t know from looking at the family what is in their heart and what is in their intentions. But there’s that assumption of what a good Catholic family looks like. And I think that is damaging to family of all sizes.
Most couples noted that the Church’s teachings do correlate family size with holiness, but that they felt that it was the culture of the Catholic Church that encouraged this way of thinking.
Many people assume that the “fix” to infertility is adoption. Both non-Catholics and Catholics frequently suggest infertile couples simply adopt a child. The most commonly cited phrase that irritated infertile couples was “just adopt,” which couples found frustrating for several reasons. Many of the couples interviewed were in the adoption process or had considered it at some point. Adoption is a costly and long process, and a couple cannot simply pick up a child tomorrow. One couple said, “Well, we have been 'just adopting' for two years and $10,000 and we don't have a child yet. It's not a ‘just’ process. It's not like it just happens. There's a lot more that goes into that.”
Some couples wanted to adopt, but could not for financial reasons or because they were not approved through home study. For those couples not approved by an adoption agency, being told to ‘just adopt’ is also a painful reminder of the rejection that accompanied their journey towards adoption.
Further, not all infertile couples are called to adopt. Although adoption can be a beautiful option for infertile couples, this does not mean that it is a cure or answer to infertility. One couple I spoke to had adopted two children and said, “Adoption cured the childlessness; it didn’t cure the infertility. Not everyone is called to adopt and they are called to live beautiful lives of service for the Church.” Even those who adopted said that the longing for a biological child was still present. They were sure to emphasize that this did not mean that they loved their biological children any less, but it is a recognition that adoption is not the same as having biological children.
These are the lived experiences of Catholic couples struggling with infertility. The Church needs to do more to minister to these couples, helping them to live out their vocation to marriage just as she helps married couples blessed with children.