Let’s Have an Uncomfortable Talk About Infertility and (I Guess) Grace

This moving reflection comes to us from Ben Maddison. Sitting alone in the doctor’s office […]

Mockingbird / 11.14.16

This moving reflection comes to us from Ben Maddison.


Sitting alone in the doctor’s office at a quarter past two on a Wednesday, I held out hope that I was still in control of my life. After a year and a half of trying—of home tests and office tests, and pills and vitamins and online tips, and all those pesky “lifestyle changes”—I waited for the doctor to come in and give me the news I wanted. I sort of knew I was grasping at straws. That didn’t stop me from hoping for the best.

It’s weird to anxiously wait for test results that aren’t life-threatening but are life changing. It’s a real-life Schrodinger’s Cat. Some diagnoses you fight. Others you accommodate. With some you begin to “make arrangements.” But with other diagnoses, you just—sort of—are. It’s almost better to stay in that world of possibilities, because once the diagnosis is given, many of those possibilities end.  And since it’s not life threatening, and because it’s more of a loss of what could be as opposed to a loss of what is, and because it’s more magic than science—the effects of the diagnosis are hard to quantify. This particular struggle doesn’t give you a battle scar to show or a personal victory to recall proudly over dinner with friends; it’s something you keep to yourself, hide away, so no one can see it.

So I wait.

The doctor comes in—he looks suspiciously like the Narcoleptic Argentinean from Baz Lurhmann’s Moulin Rouge!—sits down and quotes me some numbers. “They look the same as last time.” That’s not good news. “There are more tests that they could do, but we wouldn’t expect anything except maybe clarity about why you are experiencing this.” He continues, but I’m not really listening.

I’ve struggled with how to write about this, with how to say it, but it’s sort of just is what it is: I am “basically” infertile.

The hardest expectations to let go of are the ones you never realized you had.

My basic assumptions about starting a family evolved over time. From Coach Carr’s warning, “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die,” to avoiding a Juno situation, to intentionally foregoing a family to pursue graduate-level education and career, one assumption remained consistent: pregnancy is something that can be controlled and “managed.” Often, “managing” our future family came at the expense of my wife’s expectations and assumptions. I have always wanted between 2 and 4 children, and I always assumed that one day, probably in our 30s like all good middle-class Northeasterners, we’d just start having kids and stop when we get to the number we wanted (i.e. whatever number my wife wants).

muscle-jesus-broken-cross-artI never really felt the burden of masculine expectation. I’m not particularly athletic, handy, or aggressive; I’ve always been pretty artsy and had a lot of feelings (which was totally fine in my family). I’m definitely one of those men who want to have a daughter because I’m terrified I might have a son who is more interested in the Phillies than in The Lord of the Rings. But then I remember I could have a daughter who also loves sports and any relief from the law of gender-normalcy seems fleeting. My assumption about family planning and expectations were never really challenged, because, unlike women, randos don’t readily ask guys like me for intimate details about my reproductive capacity. Infertility has not just been a death to expectations; it has been a magnifying glass to just how extensive and controlling those expectations were. Forget sports or nerd-lit, at this point, I’d be happy with a child who looks a bit like me.

Sitting in the doctor’s office at half-past two on a Wednesday, while he talks about “options” and “outcomes,” my assumptions and expectations about having a family barrel into a brick wall, head-on, at 80 miles per hour. Maybe I do think the ability to reproduce is a defining characteristic of masculinity. Maybe I do feel like less of a person man because something is broken or flawed about me at more than a biological level. Maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long to try to have a baby. Maybe I should’ve listened to my wife and trusted God a little more. Maybe I do feel alone and isolated, unable to talk to other people about it because (1) it’s taboo, (2) it’s uncomfortable, or (3) it brings up something for others in their own lives. Maybe talking about infertility is rude somehow. Maybe my rock-solid belief in God’s sovereignty in this world isn’t as well-defined as I thought. Maybe I needed that sliver of hope—that tiny bit of unknown—to trust that God had not abandoned me. Maybe God hadn’t abandoned me, but I certainly thought He’d be easier to see in a situation like this.

After the appointment, I left the office and made it all the way to the car without ugly crying (thank God for the little things). I called my wife and told her the bad news (because misery loves company).

This isn’t a story with a satisfying ending. We have more tests to take, more doctors to see, more pills and shots to try, and a lot more money to spend. Who knows how it will turn out, or what it will cost, or if we’ll ever find out why.

Infertility is hard because the blame is IMPOSSIBLE to place, the loss hard to quantify. I find myself asking questions that I hate: why is this happening to us? Did I do something? Why are we the unlucky ones? Why would God let this happen to us? Why us and not them?

This is where I would say: “But wait, there’s grace!”  I know there is—and I know it comes from the cross. But that is hard for me to see right now. That faith and trust in God are distant at times. As we have invited others into our struggle, they have begun sharing their experiences. They help us see grace where we can’t.

The grace of couples whose births were punctuated by miscarriages.

The grace of couples whose adoption processes took years.

The grace of couples whose last hope is a pending IVF.

The grace of couples who choose that each other is enough.

It is here I find Christ. Not through the suffering; not in spite of the suffering. But present in the suffering—shared through the experience of others.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us, therefore, approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:15-16)

As I wait and pray for God’s grace, I thank God for the grace of others, and for eyes to see and ears to hear.

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11 responses to “Let’s Have an Uncomfortable Talk About Infertility and (I Guess) Grace”

  1. Phil Wold says:

    “Maybe God hadn’t abandoned me, but I certainly thought He’d be easier to see in a situation like this.”
    Nice. . .
    And true.
    Thank you Ben.
    Infertility is a strange journey. As one who came to parenthood via adoption, I still sometimes resent the journey some 20 years later. And I think a good part of that resentment was the oddness of the medical world, seeking to find a “reason” for not being able to achieve what seems so effortless for so many…
    One writer, who adopted, and her husband was adopted, quoted her father-in-law, who said that they had it easier when they simply found out they couldn’t have children, so they moved on…
    I have come to say that infertility is a strange sort of grieving over something that didn’t happen.
    And maybe, finally, there is this
    Apparently God doesn’t want to be easy to see.
    And maybe too, the perceiving of God’s presence is more precious for it all.
    Peace to you, and may God’s presence bring joy and healing.

  2. Tori says:

    Your words have pierced me to the core sweet Ben. I am grieving your painful news. I have been reading “The Broken Way” trying to help make sense of my own enormous loss. I am reminded by your blog and the book’s author that brokenness comes to us all. There is a brokenness that’s not about blame. It is a brokenness that makes a canvas for God’s light. That brokenness makes a window straight into our souls. You, my friend have allowed us to see a glimpse of the light. Thank you for your transparency and your vulnerability. You make the hope of Jesus real in a desperate world.

  3. Jason says:

    Great quote… and very apt and insightful.

    “The hardest expectations to let go of are the ones you never realized you had.”

  4. Patrick says:

    Ben, your words and emotions seemed to be my words as I read them. I felt those same things, thought those same thoughts and cried those same tears when I, too, received the same news about myself. I’m here if you want to talk. Love you brother.

  5. JP Marx says:

    Infertility is often a humiliating process, not one that anyone willingly shares (with outsiders) unless they’re at the end of the effort, and the answer is “no.” My husband and I received the most crass comments imaginable from people we thought were our friends. First assumed by infertility centers to be my fault, then my husband’s…finally, with no real answer either way, it was “both” and “neither.” The cost was horrendous. Not just the money.

    If a friend is undergoing infertility testing, and he or she has shared this with you: please remember, there’s almost no way to be supportive unless you’re praying for them or paying the cost of testing and treatment. This is a serious grief process that challenges what it means to be a man, or to be a woman, or to be human. With constant reminders of loss every time you see children.

    Thank you for posting this, Ben. You have tremendous courage to share it.

  6. Friend of Mbird says:

    JP – this is so true – “there’s almost no way to be supportive unless you’re praying for them or paying the cost of testing and treatment”

    I’ve considered sharing this since the day this piece was first posted.
    I wrote it years ago, and never shared it, even with my spouse…
    For those caring for people dealing with infertility, this might give insight.
    Something written in the midst of this process which, as JP says, “is often humiliating”
    And so I share it without my name…

    I Know What Barren Means
    what does this mean?
    to identify so concretely
    with Sarah in her distress
    to know the pain of Elizabeth

    without the happy ending
    the late in life surprise

    must it mean something?
    does this experience
    hold value
    in interpretation

    is there any value?
    what gain could there be
    and how might one count it

    “for who hopes for what is seen?”
    yet hope that is seen is fulfillment
    hope that is crushed
    is pain
    a sad and bitter cry

    to understand and define
    gives a sense of direction

    thus, off course?
    where can one turn
    to find a way or
    at least
    fill the void

    rather than this abandonment?
    what does this mean
    to identify so concretely

  7. JP Marx says:

    Dear Without a Name: Thank you; my sorrow for your sorrow. Your poem pierces my heart. “hope that is crushed/is pain/lostness/a sad and bitter cry” defines the loss so precisely. Where indeed can one turn?
    God answered Sarah and Elizabeth, but I find their stories almost cruel…God’s picks seemingly weirdly capricious.

    I am glad that you shared. This is such a lonely grief. Your message will help understanding of it.

    • Friend of Mbird says:

      JP, this was, in part, my hope, to aid understanding.
      Ben – you are so right. God does not give answers. In Jesus, God simply gives God’s own self. An answerer. Let me add this verse from the Psalmist:
      May those who sow in tears
      reap with shouts of joy.
      Those who go out weeping,
      bearing the seed for sowing,
      shall come home with shouts of joy,
      carrying their sheaves.
      Blessings to you all, and thank you so much, Ben, for sharing your journey with us. Peace to you.

  8. Ben Maddison says:

    I am touched beyond measure by the response to this post, especially your poem, Anonymous. Its a funny thing… in all the stories I’ve heard, in all the sadness shared, in all the news commiserated… your stories, your words are such an expression and reminder of God’s grace. Looking for an “answer” or “plan” might be futile, but I thank God y’all were brave enough, and gracious enough, to invite me into your stories.

    From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

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