Showing posts with label infertility. Show all posts
Showing posts with label infertility. Show all posts

Things I'm Tired of Explaining about Infertility to Other Members of My Church

Infertility in the LDS Church is such a weird place to occupy because it's the place where so much of the Church's messaging on sex and gender, on Complementarianism and traditional divisions of labor within the community, completely fall apart.

Being a parent may be the most important thing some people will ever do. I have no issue at all with people saying this about themselves to describe their own journey through the world. But that's not universally true for everyone because of someone's gender or alleged propensity for reproduction. The fact that infertility exists at all is all the evidence you need of that. If it were somehow necessary for a person's salvation or exaltation for everyone to have children, it wouldn't be withheld from anyone.

Having children is not the most important thing I will ever do. For me, there are entire lists of priorities and experiences that are more important for me. The greatest happiness and joy I could ever know is not being withheld from me. My life is complete and joyful without children in it. It is not only possible to be happy without children, there are many aspects of happiness and self-fulfillment that I have access to that parents will never know. Those who have spent their entire adult lives as parents shouldn't pretend to know what my life is like, or expect me to be unhappy in it. It's far from the worst thing that could happen to someone. It's definitely nowhere near the top of the list of the worst things that have happened to me. Those who act as if it is are useless to and unprepared for ministering to infertile individuals and couples in any meaningful way. Especially when the most important message many of need to hear is "God has a plan for you that will ultimately be better for you than having children."

So why do people, including church leadership, continue to treat having children like it's essential to our salvation, when neither the gospel of Jesus Christ nor any of the covenants we've made present it that way?

Power consolidation. Boundary maintenance. Cultural curation for the kind of person who treats children as an identity marker and avatars for their own influence on the world.

It's how the Church is trying to ignore the problem of dwindling membership, which this exact messaging has caused, instead of addressing the problematic gender disparities reflected in this messaging.

No one is entitled to have children, then to use those children as a means of self-fulfillment, spiritual education, or approximations to the divine experience of being God. Even if you can have children, this is a harmful way of viewing children because it makes having children all about the parents and their needs.

You don't have children to meet your needs. You have children to meet their needs.

I didn't need to have children to learn that lesson, or many of the other lessons that people needed to become parents to learn. There is more than one way to approach that kind of selfless love, in all kinds of relationships. Parenting is one of many, not the only kind of selfless love, and certainly not the most important kind of selfless love for many people.

And what kills me in talking to members of the Church who try to push back against this perspective is this: they claim to be the arbiters of the ultimate form of selfless love because they are parents. But these are the same people who will pound on the single piano key about parenthood to such an extreme that it alienates other people. And when they do, and someone tells them it's harmful, they're the first ones to say that what they're doing is more important than anyone else's feelings. They talk of a selfless love they don't actually possess—not for people outside of their family and, I would argue, not for anyone inside of it either.

All this to say: the Venn Diagram overlap between people who don't respect or value people at church with infertility and the people who also enmesh themselves in disturbing ways with their own children is a circle.

Catch neither one of us wanting to be at church with them as adults.

Christ-like Empathy: The Art of Treading Lightly

Someone was trying to encourage people in my circle online to prepare for General Conference by reposting this post from Hayley Clark from Instagram in full. It starts off by telling people there are no valid reasons not to tune into General Conference as it's happening, and deteriorates from there. And it reminded me so much of what I used to think when I was younger. It felt like looking at something I might've written and posted in my twenties. I've learned and grown a lot since then, and rather than pointing out how reductive and harmful that messaging is, I wanted to respond by explaining how I learned that lesson. And since it's a season of my life that's difficult to talk about, I wanted to preserve my response here so I can reach for it in the future if I need to.

Many years ago now when I was a young teenage convert, while studying my patriarchal blessing and worrying about the future, I found out from God that I would never have my own children. I also found out that if I ever got pregnant, I would end up having severe complications and end up dying in childbirth.

This scared me when I heard it the first time. And the second time. And the third time. And every time I thought and prayed about it afterwards. The answer never changed, for years afterwards, no matter how much I tried to change the will of God afterwards. Not when I went to BYU. Not when I went on my mission. Not when I got married and was sealed in the temple. Not when my husband and I tried to have a family. Not when I got diagnosed with the cause of my infertility. Not when the depression related to my infertility got so bad, I couldn't stand the sight of children anymore because it caused me so much pain. And not in any of the years that passed as I continued to age, year after year, watching everyone else have the blessing I so desperately wanted.

I tried to throw my life away for the sake of giving my husband a child. Just one. And that was the only time God has ever truly scolded me in my life, as gentle as it was. I valued myself and my life so little, I would've traded it away because I thought that's what was expected of me. And even then, God wouldn't give me the thing I was asking for.

Anyone who hasn't been in that situation cannot know the pain I carried month after month, year after year, calculating the ages of the children I would have as I aged, what their names would be, what they'd be doing now. The other kids at church who would be their same age. The milestones they'd be passing. If I had gotten pregnant when we first got married, they would be 10 now. They'd be in fifth grade, getting ready to go to middle school next year.

So when I tell you there was a time when everything about being in church, including General Conference, caused me a tremendous amount of pain, that there was no peace for me there, you don't have to question me about that. I was there for talks in General Conference that were so hideous and spiritually violent to infertile and childless women like me, it made me nearly suicidal to think about them for years afterwards. But I did exactly what this post is telling people to do. I put my nose to that grindstone and did so much harm to myself because this was the expectation—not from God, mind you. From the people in the pews next to me. From leaders in General Conference who painted families with such broad strokes, it made me question what my purpose was in life if I couldn't have children and form the kind of family they were always talking about. What value did my life have, if not to do this?

The inability to put it all down, take a deep breath, and get some logical perspective apart and away from the social pressures church leadership was putting on me to be someone I would never be, was compounding my problem. Not solving it.

If the messages in General Conference are becoming tangled up in toxicity and social pressures that are destroying someone from the inside out, finding healthier ways of engaging is EXACTLY what they should do. If that means disengaging from General Conference, either in part or in full, then so be it. Their blessings and comfort from God can and will come from other places—including all of the talks and lessons at church over the next six months where everything that was said will be reexamined and contextualized through the lenses and voices of faith of their own community around them.

There was a woman in one of my wards, a real Mother in Israel, who carried me through so much of this pain in a way no one else could. She would see me run away from church during Mother's Day and knew what it meant. She followed me outside one day and told me her story. She and her husband had a child who had died young.

"For a long time, I hated Mother's Day and I hated babies."

She made me feel seen and understood. She provided the recognition of my struggle when I felt so totally isolated in it. She was a living example of the kinds of burdens people in the Church carry that never end, that can't be fully resolved through some miraculous act of God. When I think of "Relief" the way Sister Camille Johnson invited me to a couple weeks ago at the Relief Society devotional, that sister who helped me is the one I think of instantly. She was the stand-in for the Savior in that season of my life. Her hands were his hands.

I understand why people put social pressure on others to participate in absolutely everything the Church produces the moment it happens. They have a narrow sense of what it means to access God's blessings right then and there, with no sense of his compassion and timing. If that person isn't there, they'll miss it! Don't they see that?

No, they won't.

Have faith in our Heavenly Parents to know and love their children. Have faith in their perfect compassion. They know exactly where each and every one of us are on the journey of life. None of us are lost to them. There is a way forward through every trial, but it doesn't always look like being at Church and listening to other people. Sometimes, it looks like Jesus going up alone on the mount to pray. Other times, it looks like a very specific person, who is not you or anyone whose names you will ever know, reaching out to them because they have what that person needs.

What I don't like about this post above is it is tone deaf and lacking in compassion. It's purposefully leaving out the context that is going on right behind the words: that those who are struggling are only doing so because they're doing something wrong, and it would all just be resolved if they started doing the right thing.

It doesn't take into account the times when bad things happen to people that cannot be changed or minimized by anything that anyone can say or do. The pain just has to be felt, and the careless, compassionless, and reductive things that people say are making it worse.

If you want to love others like the Savior does, you can't always ask them to come to you. Sometimes, you have to go to them where they are. And if where they are means they make some accommodations and are doing the best they can, you accept that and celebrate with them that they found a way to the Savior, no matter what it looks like. You thank God that you've been fortunate enough that you've never experienced what they have to need those accommodations, knowing that some day that might change. And if you are wise, you learn from their example of how to keep their faith alive when the harsh realities of life try to extinguish that faith.

No one is obligated to perform their faith in the ways you want them to. You don't know what is best for everyone. You can't cajole anyone to heaven, no matter how much you may want to. And if you try, you're in a lane you don't belong in. That space belongs to Jesus Christ alone, and you have much to learn about his methodologies if this is how you approach him.

You have the privilege to witness the miracles that God will do in your presence. He is the source of that healing and those miracles. Not you. And when you truly believe that, your words won't gloss over the feelings and pain of other people you don't know like this. You'll take them seriously and not offer weak and feeble solutions to their pain.

If you want the skill set to relieve pain, to be the kind of person others trust with their most profound struggles in life, there are many right ways to do that and only one wrong way. Invalidating others through the oversimplification of their needs is easy. Earning trust by listening long enough to believe people about their own experiences, learning from them, and fixing what is broken in yourself before you try to help others is hard.

There's no confusing the difference between the two, of who has done that work and who has not. Once you see the difference, you can't unsee it.

Setting Boundaries in a New Ward

Now that we're in a new ward, I've been practicing and rehearsing all the weird boundary conversations I get to have with the folks around me.

"It's not that I'm unwilling to serve in a calling. It's that if you're asking for anything that takes more than an hour on a Sunday to do, the answer is No. I don't have the time or energy for that."

"For the sake of clarity from the outset. I don't have kids. Yes, it's because I can't have them. Yes, it does mean I don't particularly enjoy being around your children. Do not ask me for free babysitting or callings in Primary."

"Do not ask my husband about my infertility (or anything else about me) behind my back. He will tell me. It will upset me. Talk to ME about me, please. Thank you."

"I am perfectly willing to say 'No' to you if you ask me for something I don't want to do. This is not an invitation to convince me. It means my decision has been made."

"If you ask me what I think about something, you're going to get an honest answer from me. That's the way God made me. Deal with it."

"If you want a good relationship with me, don't assume that because I've served a mission and been a temple worker that I am an endless reservoir of time and talent for you to pull from. That is not my life anymore."

Having Healthier Conversations about Fertility in the Church

If you're Mormon or Mormon adjacent, never underestimate how important it is to have healthy conversations about fertility with your kids.

I've known since I was a teenager that I would have fertility issues. My PCOS was still undiagnosed at that time, but the symptoms were already affecting my health. I suspected something might be up. Then it came up one day as I was studying my patriarchal blessing. As a result, I've known from the time I was 16 years old that I would have fertility issues.

I went through my Young Women lessons and my BYU dating experience already knowing this about myself. I dreaded the thought of getting married because I knew anyone who married me would probably miss out on parenthood. Thinking back over that point in my life, there was one person who had an open conversation with me about infertility that prepared me to be an infertile woman in the Church.

It wasn't a general authority, a bishop, a doctor, or a parent.

It was a girl from my freshman ward.

Her sister was already married and also in a student ward. She told me how her sister hadn't been able to get pregnant while she watched everyone else around her have babies. "She goes to church and listens to people go on and on in testimony meeting about how grateful they are that Heavenly Father trusts them with his children," she was explaining to me. "And she just sits there in silence thinking 'What's wrong with me? When is God going to trust me enough to parent?'"

Those words didn't fix my problem. But they prepared me to live in a community that has no healthy, compassionate discourse surrounding infertility and reproductive health. It prepared me to be bullied and misunderstood by the people in my own church.

Fast forward several years. I'm in my bishop's office. I asked him for a blessing because leaving my PCOS untreated for the sake of trying to conceive was unbearable. I'd spent my whole life being sick, and I wanted to know what it felt like to get better. To be normal. I wasn't willing to live on frustrated hopes anymore for something that wasn't going to happen. God was either going to cure my PCOS and allow me to conceive, or I was done giving any more of myself to the prospect of having kids.

Did I give God an ultimatum?

Yes, I did.

That blessing was the day I demanded a response from God because I needed one. And I got one. It was the same answer he'd been giving to me since I was 16 years old. Nothing had changed.

So, I let go of any hope or expectation that I would ever have kids. I stopped living my life in constant anguish over what I didn't and couldn't have. I started rebuilding and redefining happiness out of different materials than everyone else.

And you know what? There has never been a shortage of people in the Church who have found all kinds of reasons and occasions to tell me my life is wrong. That I'm doing happiness wrong. That my life should look more like theirs, that I should explain to them why it's different.

I tried so hard for so long to find happiness in the Church as a childless person. As a woman whose worth comes myself rather than external circumstances and conformity to everyone else's expectations. I tried until I had nothing left to give.

Being at Church felt like being held underwater. The environment wasn't made for me. To be in it, I had to hold my breath and find snatches of oxygen wherever I could. Take a gulp of air, serve in Primary. Take a gulp of air, sub in Nursery. Take a gulp of air, teach Young Women. A babysitter. That's what I felt like. A babysitter for other people's kids. Those were the jobs I was given to do because that's how the Church sees me as a women. Good to be a babysitter and not much else.

Part of why I served in the temple as an ordinance worker was because it was one of the few spaces in the Church where I wouldn't have to see any children. Even then, the workers and patrons were constantly asking me "Why are you a temple worker?" (i.e. Where are your kids?)

"How often could you have possibly been asked that question? Surely you're exaggerating."

My record was three times in one shift. I got good at pretending it didn't hurt, but that day I went home early and cried.

The idea of a compassionate, empathetic God is comforting. It does not, however, make it easier to live and worship among people who are, as a collective, very bad at this. You reach a point where you get tired of shedding tears because the people around you keep hurting you.

So, do we need Young Men and Young Women lessons on infertility and reproductive health? Yes. Because without them, they will grow into one of two kinds of adults:

  • The adults who hurt people because they don't know any better.
  • The adults who get kicked in the teeth when infertility happens to them.

If you never talk to your kids about the fact that infertility is normal and something that can happen to them, even when they "do everything right," you will send them into the experience thinking they did something wrong and it's their fault.
Infertility is not a personal failure. It's not a punishment. It's not a curse. It's not a reason for people to babysit your kids, or to have more responsibilities at church. It's not your narrative. You don't get to assign meaning and value to it.

For me in my life, I decided that infertility was a blessing. A gift. The road less traveled. The opportunity to lay aside everything old and ill-fitting from the way I saw God and the world around me. Infertility has given me freedom and independence from the constraints I would have as a parent. My time belongs to me, and I get the rare gift of deciding for myself how I want to spend it.

If someone, just one person, had been able to talk about infertility as an opportunity instead of a tragedy, the last ten years of my life could've been so different. 

Infertile people deserve that in all their interactions, but especially at church.

The People You Meet in Infertility

Let's take it from the top and have a conversation about Hannah, and all the people around her who aren't making her life any easier.

Person 1: Peninnah, the sister wife

This heifer taunts and makes snide comments to Hannah about not being able to get pregnant. For years, she does this incessantly until it gives Hannah anxiety and makes her openly cry in public. Now, this is just about the most extreme, hurtful example there is. But encapsulated in Peninnah is a lot of hurtful behavior that many with infertility do experience.

Relatives that make your infertility about them and their feelings? People with better luck passing judgment, asking impertinent questions, or making stupid comments that show how little they understand about what you're going through? Hannah's got that in spades.

Person 2: Elkanah, the husband

"Why weepest thou? and why eatest thou not? and why is thy heart grieved? am not I better to thee than ten sons?"

This line makes me laugh every time I read it. He's trying so hard, and he has no idea what to do. Infertility is something couples experience together, while experiencing differently. It's not up to one partner to save, fulfill, or change the way the other partner feels. And because he has children with another wife, he isn't even fully experiencing Hannah's infertility the way she is.

Elkanah. You can't fix everything with the magical gift of your presence. You're not chocolate.

Person 3: Eli, the priest

I'm sorry if this is news to anyone. But walking up to a woman he doesn't know, interrupting her when she's praying, and telling her to go home because she's drunk is not at all helpful. And in that spirit, let's talk about strangers giving unhelpful advice and feedback on reproductive health. Because that has not changed at all.

If you've ever started any sentence to an infertile person with "why don't you just" or "have you tried," you weren't really doing that person any favors. They had to educate you, against their will, about why your behavior was not okay. Anyone who has been experiencing infertility for longer than five minutes will have already explored any option the average person can think of off the top of their head. Trust me on that one. They don't want or need uninvited input from a random stranger who is not a doctor, no matter who that stranger is.

And of course, because Eli is actually the priest, he gets all the credit for "fixing" Hannah with his super special priesthood. I'll pose you a question. Does he though? Point to me in 1 Samuel 1 where Hannah is cured of her infertility because of Eli and the absolute bare minimum he does, after he extracts his foot from his mouth? I'll wait.

Hannah, in my estimation, did everything that was required of her when she prayed to the Lord from the depths of her soul. He doesn't deserve credit for what she did, just because he holds the priesthood. Especially since he's not even good at it. See literally every other chapter he's in.

Person 4: Herself

The most powerful verse in this entire story is when she finishes her prayer, dusts herself off, ignores these wearisome people, gets something to eat, "and her countenance was no more sad." 

She left that moment having absolutely no idea if, when, or how her prayer was going to be answered. She wasn't sad anymore because she decided she deserved to go on living, even if it never was. She accepted that she might never have children. I know that because that was the exact moment I stopped being sad about my own situation, which I did after I read this story for the first time and truly understood it.
Now you may be thinking, why would God do this to her? Shutting up her womb like that. Why wouldn't he do it to the heifer to teach her some humility? Why do it to this very awesome lady?

My awesomeness is debatable, but let me hazard an answer to that one.

Infertility is not the end of the world. It feels like that at times. But that's because of how much of our personal worth and self-perception are wrapped up in eventually being able to have and raise kids. I am not sorry that I experience infertility anymore. I've been going through it long enough that I'm grateful for it. I'm glad this is how my life turned out. I don't live in a constant state of wishing for this part of it to be different anymore.

I've lived with infertility long enough to see how liberating it can be. I've gotten the chance to know and love myself in a way I couldn't if my entire being was wrapped up in taking care of tiny humans and giving them the things they need. That's why one of the things that still bothers me is when people say "you'll never know love until you have kids." But parents don't get the monopoly on true love. It may be true for them to say that those without children can't understand the love they have for their kids. However, it would be equally valid for me to say that they don't know the love infertile people have and develop for themselves because it's something they don't get to experience. There are many kinds of love in this world, and none of them are more valid or valuable than any other.

The fact is, "shutting up my womb" was the best, most loving thing God has ever done for me. It's what I needed and he understood that. Sometimes I feel like he's the only one who does. It's not a mistake. It's not his plan gone awry. It is his plan for my life. It's what the plan of happiness looks like for me.

I'm glad Hannah's story is in the scriptures. I don't know where I'd be without it.

What would I do if my husband couldn't be happy without having children?

Something is currently knocking around in my head that I realize I should probably shake loose.

Someone recently asked me what I, an infertile woman, would do if my husband couldn't be happy without having children.

My husband and I would never be in the position where we would be having that conversation because our relationship and personal satisfaction in life doesn't rest upon us being able to conceive. His mother had to receive fertility treatments to even bring him into this world, so he knows better than that. He also doesn't expect me to be responsible for his feelings and emotions. But if through some cartoonish series of events he was hypothetically coming to me with such a dilemma, there is only one thing I could say at that point.

"That sounds like a You problem."

It is not my job to make my husband happy. It is not the job of me and my body parts, such as they function, to fulfill every expectation he has in life. He's an adult who is responsible for his own feelings, emotions, disappointments, and the redirections we each get handed by life. He still has to wake up and do those things for himself every day if we never end up having any children.

If I can wake up every day and confront the reality of what infertility means for my life, my health, and my ongoing happiness, so can he.

It is not my responsibility to shield him from the effects and consequences of the health conditions I've had for all of my life. 

I'm still trying to figure out exactly how I was supposed to answer this question. Be okay with him divorcing me? Allowing him to take a mistress? Stealing a baby from the Walmart parking lot? 

What was I supposed to say?

You are not entitled to have children!

Your spouse is not responsible for giving them to you. And if you find yourself in a marriage where you haven't gotten your way on children because of infertility, let me tell you a secret: 

Your spouse still has it worse than you. 

Infertility is hard for spouses with healthy fertility. No one is disputing that. 

It's still harder for the one experiencing the infertility, especially when the infertility is related to a chronic illness. 

Feel your pain. Feel your loss. Feel whatever you need to feel. But be half as strong as your spouse is by not taking that pain out on them. 

Do not make this devastating situation any worse by making it all about you.

What's it like having Infertility in the LDS Church

The high councilman's talk about the sacrifice of having and adopting a total of nine children was too much for me today. So I walked out.

The foyer was full of people with babies, which didn't help at all. I went to the bathroom to stifle my tears, only to hear his voice piping in through a speaker.

I figured out how to turn the speaker off and was in the midst of shaking my fist at heaven from within a stall when I was interrupted by a mother coming into the bathroom with her young son. She was unreasonably scolding him for not being perfectly reverent. They exit.

I was then asked to substitute in Nursery. I said yes before I could think of an excuse to say no.

Somehow, infertility didn't seem like a good enough reason.

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