Complementarity & Grieving Infertility
One year after losing the man I thought I would be marrying to what is suspected to have been a massive heart attack at the age of thirty-six, I found myself on my knees in the handicap stall of a small restroom. I had run in seeking the most private place available, away from the fellow members of my grief support group. Even now I cannot remember who shared nor what was shared that triggered the reaction in me, but I knew without doubt I had to find a place to be alone so I could pour my heart out to Jesus. The privacy of the restroom was the only available space I could find.
A Decade of Vocation Uncertainty
As my tears flowed, I unloaded the burden of the last ten years of wrestling with my vocation. I had spent the better part of my twenties discerning the possibility of a call to religious life, only to end up in a place of unknowing. Having been advised by my spiritual director at the time to open myself up once again to the possibility of marriage and dating while also being open to the possibility of religious life, I had been dating again for a few years. This time I was on the dating scene in my early thirties. If you have ever tried dating in your early thirties while faithfully living out the teachings of the Catholic Church on sex and marriage, I know you are feeling my pain right now. It was awful. Men I was meeting seemed to expect physical intimacy as soon as the second or third date, which was how long they lasted in a dating relationship with me. After a while it became almost comical to watch their shocked expressions when they were alluding to “going back to my place” at the end of a date and I proceeded to explain that as a Catholic I was determined to live out the Catholic teaching on sex before marriage. Once the shock wore off, they ran away so fast it was like being on a date with the superhero, The Flash. The man who died was not like these men. He loved me for me and was willing to make a sacrifice of himself for me. He wanted to love and be loved. I remember finally feeling like the vocation crisis was over. Finally, God’s will was crystal clear. A short time later his friend and I found him deceased in his apartment when he failed to show up to meet me for Mass.
Now here I was a year later, the vocation woes back in full force and completely confused about God’s will for me and my life. I was miserable and I let all that misery unload as I kneeled on the floor of that restroom. I made a promise that day. I told Jesus that no matter what vocation He wanted me to end up in I would accept it if He would take away the pain. It did not matter to me anymore what happened. I would enter religious life, get married or live the rest of my life alone in my little apartment as a single person. No matter my choice I just desired God’s will. It was my only ticket to true happiness and I knew it. It no longer mattered to me how God chose to act in my life, only that He acted and when He did so I recognized it and could be at peace.
God Did Act
Two weeks later I met my now husband of nearly ten years. He is an amazing man who lives the passage read at our wedding, “Husbands, love your wives even as Christ loved His Church and handed himself over for her,” (Eph. 5:25). Having married at the age of thirty-six, we were eager to begin trying to have a family right away. We were hoping our first child would be a honeymoon baby, but since I was older, we knew conception might be difficult.
We were not too disturbed when the first year of our marriage passed and we had not conceived but when two years had come and gone, we decided we needed to investigate. That began a two year-long journey of doctor’s visits, tests, surgeries, fertility drugs and NFP charting (using it to conceive). Unfortunately, we found out that both of us were biologically unable to conceive.
Like many Catholic couples who struggle with infertility we were unwilling to go against our faith regarding fertility assistance, therefore we pursued our other options. We applied with adoption agencies and consulted with a private adoption lawyer. We also went to training meetings to become foster parents, hoping to foster to adopt. After a few more years and much heart break, none of these options panned out for us either. Slowly the realization that we would be a childless couple began to become painfully clear. Throughout our struggle in these years, we never seemed to be on the same page at the same time. When I was open to an option, my husband was not and vice versa.
Expressions of a New Grief
In the midst of it all we both experienced and manifested our grief in very different ways. Reflecting on it now, I see how my femininity and his masculinity contributed to the experience of this grief. I cried all the time and he was constantly trying to fix the problem by applying for loans, for which we were denied, and finding jobs that paid more. I grieved the relationships slipping away as childlessness became more and more our lived reality. The loss of the parent-child relationship, the loss of the grandparent-grandchild relationship, the loss of the parent-to-parent relationships, the loss of a person to care for us in our old age and ensure decisions would be made in our best interest when we were unable to make those decisions for ourselves- I was haunted by the ghosts of these relationships that would never be. He was at a loss that he would never be able to provide what married couples are made for and the unhappiness he saw in the experience of his wife that I know he loves “how Christ loved His Church,” (Eph. 5:25).
We rarely seemed to land on the same page in how we expressed our grief. I wanted him to show the sorrow I felt and he wanted me to let him know he was enough for me and could provide for my happiness. I could not understand why he handled our situation the way he did and I believe he could not understand the manifestations of my grief either.
Upon reflection and prayer, I came to realize the expression of grief after Jesus’ death also manifested differently for His male and female followers. Mary Magdalene, the first recorded witness to the resurrection of Jesus, went to His tomb and wept upon finding the tomb empty. I related to her response of wanting to cling to Him upon recognizing Him. It seemed to me her grief was conditioned by her femininity through a desire to cling to the relationship. One chapter later in the same gospel, after discovering the empty tomb, the male disciples are found fishing when Jesus appears to them on the shore inviting them to eat with Him. It seemed to me there was an expression of grief in the men that differed from that of Mary Magdalene. They seemed to immediately set to work, their way of providing perhaps.
I cannot remember now precisely what new loss prompted our grief response one afternoon, but we found ourselves lying side by side in the spare room bed. My tears flowed freely and as my husband comforted me, he cracked jokes about his own inability to conceive. As I laid on his chest, tears flowing yet laughing out loud at his corny jokes, it occurred to me we were finally on the same page. He was willing to let me grieve in the way I needed to and I was allowing him to grieve in the way he needed to.
Our mutual acceptance of one another by allowing one another to experience this deep grief in a way ordered to our individual genius…feminine and masculine, was a healing balm in each of us. That afternoon was one of the last times I cried over this tremendous loss in our marriage and together we have made conscious strides to direct our time, talent and resources to benefit children whenever we saw an opportunity to do so.
A New Journey
Several examples of our trying to live the call to fruitfulness in our situation of childlessness come to mind like donating to St. Jude’s hospital, buying Christmas gifts for children in need, and making future plans to teach a class for children in our parish school of religion program. But the most powerful way God used us in our situation of childlessness came in the form of the gift of teenager who lived with her grandmother. Since her parents lived in another city, we were blessed to stand in for them in some significant events of her life, like shopping for homecoming and prom dresses, being present for her senior ring ceremony, many meals bought and cooked together, and helping her purchase her first car.
She was and still is a great source of joy in our marriage.
Fruitfulness in Our Particular Situation
In Humanae Vitae, Saint Paul VI reminds married couples, “But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator.” Yes, we are not the masters, we are merely cooperators when it comes to conception, and although my husband and I cannot clearly see a reason the Creator has allowed childlessness for our marriage, I have discovered through our mutual acceptance of one another in our grief, I am called like all mothers, physical or spiritual, to cooperate with His will. Saint John Paul II reminds me of the sublimity of this call in Mulieris Dignitatem when he wrote, “the motherhood of every woman, understood in the light of the Gospel, is similarly not only "of flesh and blood": it expresses a profound "listening to the word of the living God" and a readiness to "safeguard" this Word, which is "the word of eternal life" (cf. Jn 6:68). “ This was after all, the greatest compliment Jesus paid to His own mother when He was told she was waiting to speak with Him and He replied, “For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother,” (Matt. 12:50). In the grief of infertility this is the consolation Jesus offers and what my husband and I can strive for as we carry the cross of childlessness in our marriage. Through our acceptance of God’s will and one another in our femininity and masculinity, we too can be parents to saints in Heaven even if we will never physically conceive them here on earth. May God bless all of us in this situation with many spiritual children, born from the fruit of our cross, who will someday stand beside us in our Heavenly home.
 John 20:11-17  John 21:1-12  Paul VI, Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), July 25, 1968, Vatican Website, https://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_25071968_humanae-vitae.html.  John Paul II, Mulieris Dignitatem (The Dignity of a Woman), August 15, 1988, Vatican Website, https://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_letters/1988/documents/hf_jp-ii_apl_19880815_mulieris-dignitatem.html.
Originally published at International Institute of Culture and Gender Studies.