Monthly Archives: January 2011

Infertile Sisters and Baby Wars

What is it about sisterhood that can make infertility so much harder to bear?  According to author and therapist Vikki Stark, M.S.W., sister relationships are naturally fraught with competition and conflict.  Regardless of which sister initiated the rivalry – or when, or why – it becomes extremely difficult to set aside feelings of envy and resentment when one conceives, and the other can’t.

“Research has shown that 10 percent of women have high-conflict relationships with a sister,” Stark reports, “and a much larger percentage have mixed feelings.”  Infertility feeds that friction, and it’s not a new problem.  As far back as Genesis, the Bible records the effect of one sister’s fertility on the other (infertile) sister’s mindset.

Jacob married Leah and her sister Rachel.  The marriage to Leah was forced and unwanted.  The marriage to Rachel – just one week later – was much-desired and long-awaited.  This unequal status set the stage for the rivalry.  “When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb….” and the baby wars began.

The names Leah chose for her first three sons revealed her inner turmoil.  They meant:  “The Lord has seen my misery,” “The Lord heard I am not loved,” and “My husband will become attached because I have borne him three sons.”  Every time her husband spoke his boys’ names, he was reminded of his wife’s unhappiness, and her longing for his affection.  So was her jealous sister.

She couldn’t stand watching Leah deliver baby after baby.  “Give me children or I’ll die!” she yelled at Jacob – and then she demanded, “Sleep with my servant.  She can bear children for me, and through her I, too, can build a family.”  No mention of Jacob, or thoughts of We.  It was now baby wars by proxy, and Me, Me, Me.

The servant’s first baby arrived and Rachel named him “Vindication.”  Then, a second son was born and Rachel saddled him with the name, “I have had a great struggle with my sister, and I have won!”  Once again, Jacob couldn’t miss the sisters’ feelings – about themselves, each other, or their ongoing competition.

Not to be outdone, Leah sent her servant as a surrogate to Jacob.  Two boys were born.  Rachel responded by offering Leah an extra night with Jacob in exchange for a fertility-enhancing herb.  Leah agreed… and promptly bore a son, and then another.

The Bible says, “Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and opened her womb.”  She finally had a son.  “God has taken away my disgrace” she named him, and as quickly as they began, the baby wars were over.

Here’s what I see in all that craziness.  Self.  Self.  Self.  It’s all about me, and how I feel, and what I want, and what she has, and what I don’t.  Neither wife was nurturing her marriage; they were too busy competing.  Neither wife was nurturing her children; they were too busy trying to have more any way they could.  And, neither wife was seeking God’s will; they were just seeking God’s ‘yes’ so they could beat each other.

Why share that story?  Because quite a few of you have confided in me about your own sisters:  “Both my sisters were pregnant at my baby’s funeral,” “My sister was going to be our surrogate, but then she got pregnant with her own baby,” “My sister and I had the same due date, but then I miscarried and she carried to term,” “My sister had the first grandchild the same week I lost my baby,” “My sister announced her baby news at my anniversary party,” “My sister asked — in front of all our extended family — if we were ever going to have a baby.”

And on, and on, and on….

Infertility is already so painful.  It seems almost unbearable to have the suffering compounded by someone who should be loving you through it.  Maybe she wants to, but she doesn’t know how.  Maybe she couldn’t even if she tried her best.  Whatever the story, let Rachel and Leah’s baby wars be a cautionary tale.  Competing with your sister will waste your life time.

So, don’t spend this time focused on her.  Instead, focus on this:  God has a plan and a purpose for your journey, and a child He intends to entrust to you.  Invest this time in being a woman worthy of such an incredible stewardship responsibility.  That is the path to peace.

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Secondary Infertility: Mourning vs. Hope

I know a couples counselor who experienced secondary infertility years ago.  He and his wife decided that one child was not a whole family, and that – for them – natural conception was the only acceptable road to parenthood.  They tried and prayed, and tried and prayed.  But it never happened.  They remained a family of three.

Years later, they still mourn the fact that their prayers for a second child went unanswered.

This therapist shares his story of unfulfilled longing with couple after couple – through his practice, through talks at churches and to groups like the one I led for several years.  My sense is that he means to offer comfort and commiseration from the vantage point of one who has shared in similar suffering and uncertainty.

When I’ve heard him speak, he’s included sobering statistics about infertility and stories about the stress it brings into relationships.  He’s clearly knowledgeable and very experienced.

So, why am I not a big fan?

Because I think he has the potential to do as much harm as good.  Not just because I’ve seen people reduced to puddles of tears by the undercurrent of resignation in his words, but because his messages never seem to reflect the light and life of the Holy Spirit.  They don’t reveal deep trust in God’s plan, His goodness and His purposefulness.  And they are not infused with Christ-centered hope.

But that’s what infertile couples need – someone to remind them that the truths of scripture are not for someone else, or for some other time or situation.  They are for us.  Now.

This counselor’s experience has taught him to focus on managing the downside – tackling the negative emotions and stressful issues inherent in the journey, and getting people prepared to deal with a life that may well be defined by their failure.

Is that practical?  In some ways.  Is it helpful?  I’m not so sure.

Here’s the problem I see… consciously or not, he sends the signal, ‘Your worst fears could be realized; your dream might never come to pass.; God might fail to deliver.’  That’s what he took away from his infertility journey.  But, God never fails us!  He longs to see His perfect will for us fulfilled in our lives.

Then why didn’t God give this man a second child?

I’m convinced that when he and his wife set strict limits on how God could expand their family, they closed doors He may have intended to open:  egg or sperm donation, IUI,  IVF, surrogacy, adoption, foster parenting….  who knows?  It could have been some combination of those, or all of them.

Was it wrong to set those limits?  No, it was their choice to make.  But,  the absence of a second child doesn’t mean God said ‘no’ to them.  They may have been the ones who said ‘no’ to God — by closing every door but one.

God’s permissive will gives us the freedom to close any doors, set any limits, and refuse any alternatives to our own will for ourselves.  But, with that privilege comes the risk that our choices will move us away from His best, instead of toward it.

Is that what happened with the therapist and his wife?  Only God knows for sure.  But here’s what I know… when we act out of obedience and trust, it honors God.  And scripture says He responds to our faith by drawing near to us and delighting Himself in blessing us.  That kind of interaction with God transforms people in ways that strengthen their faith, fill them with confident hope, and reinvigorate their belief in His faithfulness.

That’s not what I see in this man.  Instead, I see someone who’s made it his life’s work to walk infertile couples down the long, dark path that he and his wife walked many years ago.  Don’t get me wrong; I think there is a real kindness in his desire to give guidance and comfort.  But God calls us to so much more than a long walk down a dark path.

He calls us into the light.  He calls us to believe that He can do anything.  And He calls us to trust Him so completely that we are willing to put down our lists of terms and conditions, hold out our open hands, and say:

“Lord, I welcome whatever you choose to give, in whatever form you choose to give it.  I know that your will for me is always your very best.  Please help me wait for it patiently, confident in your goodness, and in complete peace.”

 

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Victory on God’s Terms

I’ve just finished reading the biography of Rees Howells, a Welsh minister from the early 20th century.  It arrived in my mailbox months ago, tattered and disintegrating, held together by a rubber band.  A gift from a reader of this blog.

I don’t remember exactly why the woman said she sent it.  I tucked it on a shelf thinking I might get to it someday.  When a snowstorm iced us into the house indefinitely, the book jumped off the shelf into my hand and I began to read.

What a story.

The book narrates Rees Howells’ decision to say ‘yes’ to every leading from the Holy Spirit – no matter how difficult, unnerving, or humbling – and the amazing life journey that resulted.  One particular story captured my imagination.  It was the only story of (apparent) failure….

Howells had been praying for weeks for a woman in a nearby village who was dying.  It was the first time he’d ever prayed so passionately for God to save a life.  Suddenly, he felt in his spirit that she would be healed completely. He joyfully shared this news with her, and they were both confident of victory.  But then, to his great surprise, she died suddenly.  It was devastating for him.  How could God have promised life, and yet she died?

According to Howells, the Holy Spirit revealed to him that God had responded to his prayers by healing the woman’s body just before she died.   And the woman knew it.  “She was shaking hands vigorously and saying ‘goodbye’ [to friends and family] with such excitement, as if she was going on a wonderful adventure.”  She knew she’d been fully healed; she also knew that she was going to be with God.  It was complete victory, and she was exuberant.

But Howells’ wasn’t.  When he heard she’d died, he felt true spiritual distress.  Why, if she had regained her health, did the woman have to die?  What was God’s purpose in this outcome?

The Holy Spirit revealed that if the woman had lived, Howells would have been tempted to bask in the glory – as if he had saved her himself.  Everyone in the village had known about his prayer campaign.  He would’ve received the glory; not God.  But he hadn’t cured her.  He couldn’t.  Only God could.  And He did.

By curing her just before taking her to be with Him, God received the full measure of glory (in both the woman’s gratitude, and her demonstrated eagerness to be with Him), and Howells received the assurance that his prayers were powerful and effective.

The world just couldn’t see the victory.

When I read that story, I got a text-to-self jolt of adrenaline.  That epiphany feeling that told me God was showing me something important.  Victory sometimes looks like failure …. The world can’t see or understand it….  There is temptation to bask in the glory of a desired outcome….  A promise can come from God and be fulfilled, yet not save the life that was prayed for….

I realized that I had felt like Howells – as if God had made a promise to my spirit, and yet what I saw was not life, but death.  It happened with our twins – the first children we conceived after a long battle with infertility.

Like Howells, we’d shared the good news when we’d received God’s promise (in our case, in the form of two beating hearts).  And, like Howells, we’d assumed we knew exactly how the story would unfold:  good news would be followed by good health, and good health by long life.

At the time, we didn’t think much about giving God glory.  We were too caught up in the excitement, and the anticipation of something amazing.  Were we tempted to bask in the glory of bringing the first grandchildren into the world?  Maybe a little.  But we would’ve said at the time that that was harmless.

When their hearts stopped beating – first Baby A’s, and then several weeks later, Baby B’s – we were consumed with grief and a spiritual distress much like Howells’.  We had succeeded, and yet we had failed.  A vision of the future as a family had come from God and been fulfilled (to a point), and yet the lives that were prayed for had ended suddenly.

Like Howells, we could see the failure… but not the victory.  Until years later, when our two children were born.  Despite being 22 months apart, people often ask us, “Are they twins?”  I don’t think that’s a coincidence.  I think that is victory… on God’s timetable, and on God’s terms.

To God be the glory. 

 

 

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What Infertile Couples Want & Need

What can you say to the people around you who want to love you through the struggle with infertility, but have no idea what to do or how to help?  Kathleen Parker, an Opinion columnist for the Washington Post, offered guidance in an editorial about gifts….

“Here is giving:  Listening.  Sparing time.  Not interrupting.  Holding that thought.  Leaving the last drop.  Staying home.  Turning it off, whatever it is.  Making eye contact.  Picking it up.  Take the room’s temperature.  Paying attention.  Waiting.”

That’s how you help an infertile couple.  That’s how you love us through this incredibly challenging, frustrating, stressful, heartbreaking journey.  That’s how you stop trying to fix it, and instead, bless us by being fully present in the moment with us.

By listening, not interrupting, holding that thought, and paying attention –  Sometimes, we need to voice confusion or wrestle aloud with our uncertainty.  Don’t give us “the answer.”  That’s patronizing.  If it were simple, we would have figured it out already.  Instead, keep quiet and give us a chance to blow off steam, rant without fearing a reaction, or cry without worrying you can’t take the drama.  Don’t.  Say.  A word.  You’ll be amazed how your attentive silence speaks volumes.

By sparing time, turning it off (whatever it is), taking the room’s temperature, and making eye contact – So much about the struggle with infertility is humbling and demeaning.  Don’t make us beg for your time or attention.  Don’t make us feel something else is more important.  Be attuned to our moods, and when the room’s temperature is too “hot” or “cold,” be sensitive to what that tells you about what we need:  time alone, or a hug?  Eye contact that invites a confidence, or a glance that says, ‘I know you’re hurting’?  Be.  Fully.  Present.  You’ll be amazed how your attentive heart radiates loving support.

By leaving the last drop, staying home, picking it up, and… waiting –  Infertility makes us feel incredibly vulnerable, wounded and fragile.  Your thoughtfulness can be an amazing antidote.  It lifts our spirits without making us feel guilty or indebted.  Don’t make us ask for kindness; we won’t.  Just know that the littlest kindness is magnified a thousand times by our need to feel that someone cares.  It doesn’t take much, and no words are required.  In fact, it’s better if you let your actions speak.  Not sure what to do?  Wait.  Pay attention.  You’ll see an opportunity.  And you’ll be amazed how your attentive action tells us you understand.

Parker concludes, “Do unto others…. The alternative is surely hell.”

That sums it up pretty succinctly.  There are moments along the infertility journey that are hellish.  When there’s no heartbeat on the ultrasound.  When the doctor’s office isn’t calling and the bleeding won’t stop.  When the baby comes too soon and can’t possibly survive.  When it’s time to tell everyone who thought there was a baby, “We lost it.”  When the dream seems to be dying, and hope is barely alive.

In that moment, do unto us as you would want us to do for you.  Would you want privacy?  Give us some.  Would you want kindness?  Extend it.  Would you need a shoulder to cry on?  Offer one.  Would you be angry at the world?  Understand our intense emotions.  Would you need wisdom?  Know that we will seek it when we are ready to internalize it.  Don’t try to force it on us if we don’t ask for it.  You won’t get the response you want.

“Here is giving….”  Parker began.  So, we’ve made it clear.  This is how you help us.  Now that we’ve told you what we need, please give us the gift of love in ways we will gratefully receive.

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The Prayers of the Righteous…

What do you do make of the verse “The prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective” when you’re seeing nothing but failure?  Does it mean you’re not in good standing with God?  That you’re unrighteous, and so your prayers are destined to be powerless?

I wrestled with this mightily when we were trying to conceive.  At the time, no one had the courage to confront the question with me, and the result was a lot of suffering and guilt.

I got an email this week from a woman requesting prayer.  She and her husband are about to start IVF – following six failed IUI’s and a miscarriage at 16 weeks.  She has prayed for a baby throughout her journey, but she sees no evidence that God is listening.  What does that mean — especially in the context of the promise, “The prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective”?

The answer is in the first infertility story in scripture, found in Genesis 15.  God promised a very elderly Abram “A son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.”  Despite any guarantee that this promise would be kept, the Bible says, “Abram believed the LORD, and He credited it to him as righteousness.”

Even though he knew the fertility statistic — not many wives conceive in their 80’s, Abram chose to believe God.  And God knew it.  The decision to trust God, despite what Abram knew about the present and expected in the future, delighted God – and God declared him righteous, by faith.

Not by action.

Soon afterwards, Abram decided to father a child with his wife’s maidservant.  As best we can tell, it was Sarai’s suggestion – but Abram went along with the plan because he, too, wanted a child.  Impatient to get the show on the road, they took matters into their own hands rather than waiting for God… and they gave birth to a mess of ruined relationships, resentment and hostility.

Not very righteous action.  Pretty profoundly lacking in trust.

But, that’s not the end of the story.  In the end, God’s grace led Him to forgive their impulsive decision to play God.  Once they made peace with the consequences of their actions and humbly accepted their failure to be God, He blessed them with a son – conceived by Sarah, against all odds.

What am I saying?  We’re all tempted to play God when we’re faced with infertility and the urgent need to conceive.  We may not take things into our own hands quite the way Abram and his wife did, but we understand the temptation to hurry things along when we don’t see evidence that God is at work.

Thankfully, God’s ready to forgive us, too.

If we choose to trust Him, then even if our actions sometimes betray our desire to believe, He is full of grace.  He declares us righteous by faith, not by perfect choices.  And, as the Bible promises, “The prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective.”

You’ll see.

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A Friend Who Understands Infertility

I saw a tweet yesterday that read, “infertile couples need infertile friends.”  At first, I thought, ‘I couldn’t agree more.’  Not because misery loves company; that concept has never made sense to me.  When I’m miserable, I want to feel better, not worse; other people’s suffering does nothing to fill me with joy.

I agreed because, when I’m struggling, I want to be reminded that someone understands.  As it turns out, I’m not alone.

According to blog stats provided by wordpress.com, people struggling, grieving, and agonizing over infertility typed in these search terms recently and were led straight to this blog:

  • What God wants to say to infertile couples
  • Sow in tears, reap in joy
  • Prayer for infertile couple
  • Can you trust God?
  • Words of encouragement fertility
  • Jesus gives children
  • Unbearable infertility
  • In the midst of despair and confusion
  • Infertility quotes for couples
  • A future with hope in God
  • Is egg donation what God wants?
  • Comforting words for an infertile wife
  • Bible verse for strength with infertility
  • God’s promises fertility
  • Infertility hope quotes
  • Number of infertile couples that did get pregnant
  • You got to trust that God
  • Website for infertile couples
  • Infertility loss of hope
  • Infertility insanity
  • Faith of Gideon ivf
  • Contextual Bible study for infertility
  • Ministries to help women getting pregnant
  • Fertility fundraising
  • Hope during infertility

The exciting news is that their searches didn’t find miserable company. Instead, they found the spiritual sustenance and confident hope they were truly craving.  Just as the Bible promises, “seek and you will find.”  That’s because God wants to be found by us.  He wants to accompany us on this difficult journey.

Scripture teaches, “Draw near to Him, and He will draw near to you.” I believe one way God draws near to couples during the infertility journey is through this blog.  I say that not out of hubris, but as an obedient servant who has delighted in watching God accomplish amazing things.

He has called me to listen carefully, transcribe faithfully, commit time and effort consistently,  and deliver every message confidently.  I’ve done my best; He’s done the rest.  Truthfully, I know I could never inspire people the way this blog does – but it’s an incredible joy to have a front row seat and see God at work.

If you are struggling through infertility, trust that God has a valuable purpose for this journey; none of it will be wasted. Know, too, that your choice of friends during this time can make a world of difference in your perspective, and that can dramatically alter your trajectory and the outcome of this journey.

Let Pregnant With Hope: Good News for Infertile Couples help you gain insight into God’s promises, and encouragement “for the road.”  Along with this blog, it can help you (re)discover God’s desire to transform your heartbreaking quest into life-changing good news.  Isn’t that the kind of understanding you’re really looking for?

 

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Surprised by Success

Kristi and Carlos met in graduate school and married soon afterward.  When they began actively trying to have a family, they had no success.  “I had a gut feeling something was wrong,” Kristi remembers.

She went to her Ob/Gyn and shared her concerns.  The doctor waved them off.  “She didn’t want to be aggressive about it.  We were young.”  So, Kristi saw another Ob who referred her to a nationally-renowned RE.  “She ran millions of tests, which she requires before she’ll do any treatment, and she discovered Carlos had a god-awful sperm count.”

They decided to try a round of Clomid with IUI.  Meanwhile, Kristi began researching male factor infertility.  “I read all these sobering statistics and thought, ‘It’ll never happen for us.’  I was convinced  ‘It only takes one sperm’ was a crock.  We wanted 30 million!”

So, anticipating failure and constrained by a very limited budget, they began researching affordable next steps.  They found CREA, an infertility clinic in Carlos’ hometown of Valencia, Spain.  They talked with CREA’s International Coordinator and discovered IVF there would cost 4,000 Euros, about 20% of the cost in the U.S.

They could combine their trip to the clinic with a visit to Carlos’ family, keeping costs at a minimum. Excited about the possibility, Carlos felt optimistic.  But Kristi hit a wall.

“I was so tired of the constant tug-of-war with God.  I was thinking about infertility all day long, feeling immense stress because I couldn’t see how this was going to work. That’s when a good friend gave me her copy of Pregnant With Hope,  The stories about people letting go and trusting God really hit home for me.  Especially the story about Michelle.”

A few days after finishing the book, Kristi went for a drive.  “I remember this moment so well.  All of a sudden, I realized how incredibly tired I was.  I wanted to give up the fight.  I said, ‘God, I’m finally giving you all the control.  If it’s in your will, I want to be a mom.  But I’m not gonna fight you any more.  I get it.  I’ve been so stubborn.  I’m sorry.  I’m done.’”

The next day, she and Carlos met with their RE and shared what they’d learned about CREA.  To their surprise, the doctor recommended it as one of the few international IVF clinics with state-of-the-art procedures and success rates comparable to her own.  Then, she mentioned her plan to travel there  for joint research into a new procedure.

“I started feeling better,” Kristi said.

A few days later, as they were heading out to celebrate Carlos’ birthday, Kristi decided to take a pregnancy test.  “I almost dropped to the floor.  I know what negative looks like, and this was not negative. Carlos  kept asking me, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure?’  I kept saying, ‘I know negative.  This is not negative.  This is not negative!’”

Baby Isabella came home on Christmas Eve — after a nerve-wracking pregnancy, a very eventful delivery (Kristi had a negative reaction to her epidural that caused uncontrollable seizures), and an extended stay at the hospital.

So, what did Kristi learn from this journey — which turned out to be briefer than what she’d braced for?  “I realized infertility makes you so grateful — and overprotective!” she said, laughing.  “I didn’t want to leave her at the hospital when they sent me home.  All I could think was that I needed to be with her.  I said, ‘God, I’m more nervous than ever!  How will I make it through a lifetime of worrying about her?  Please, let me bring her home soon!’”

Anything else?

“Have faith even when the odds are totally against you.  And don’t think you can control this.  I thought I knew IUI wouldn’t work; I was wrong.  I thought we’d have to go CREA for IVF; I was wrong.  I was sure I was going to have a boy; I was wrong.  I thought I could control how it all unfolded; I was wrong.

“I was wrong about everything.  God has the ultimate say on all of it.  And part of what He said to me was, ‘This is not about you.  You’re not in control.  Let go, and let me do it.  I’m glad I listened.”

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