Let’s face it: infertility is awkward for everybody involved. Friends and family members often don’t know whether to broach the subject at all, let alone know what to say. Childless couples want some help and support, but they are often silent about their struggle. Churches know the issue exists, but often don’t quite know what to do about it. What we’re left with is the proverbial elephant in the room. Well, let’s talk about that elephant.
We dealt with infertility for about 9 years before we adopted. We now have 2 children, and while we’re still technically dealing with infertility, that issue is mostly behind us. We cannot speak for all infertile couples (we welcome additions, subtractions, or other comments on this post), but we wanted to use our own experience—with the input of friends who have experienced infertility as well—to be very straight-up about what infertile couples want their family, friends, and churches to know.
You probably know someone who’s dealing with infertility, even if you don’t know it.
How common is infertility? One in ten couples of childbearing age face infertility, according to The American Pregnancy Association. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides a similar statistic, saying that over 6 million US women age 15-44 experience infertility. Since many infertile couples suffer in silence, you need to trust the statistics. We’re not necessarily urging you to seek to identify these couples; we’re simply saying that in all likelihood, you do have some infertile couples in your life.
Your church can–and should–minister to couples struggling with infertility.
Some very simple decisions make the difference between your church helping infertile couples or pushing them away. To determine how you’re doing, consider these questions:
- When you celebrate events like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, do you acknowledge—briefly—that while this is a day of rejoicing for many, it’s a day of mourning for others? These events can be brutal for infertile couples, since the purpose is to celebrate the beauty of a wonderful relationship that they are constantly being denied. To be clear, we’re not suggesting that the presence of a few childless couples in your church should drag down the entire celebration. We just think this is a great opportunity to follow Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:15 to rejoice with those who are rejoicing, and mourn with those who are mourning. Our pastor does a fantastic job of striking an appropriate balance. He focuses on the celebration, but he also reminds the congregation that there are people for whom this day is difficult, and he prays for such couples. Just a few words can go a long way toward making infertile couples feel like part of the church family on those days. It’s appropriate for infertile couples to obey the first half of Romans 12:15, especially on days designated as celebrations; but it’s equally appropriate for the rest of your church body to obey the second half in some small way.
- Are infertile couples welcome in the classes and/or small groups that their peers attend, or are they encouraged to attend elsewhere because they’re “not a family yet?” Don’t exclude these couples from family-oriented classes. They may have some of their closest Christian friends in those classes; but also, these couples may have children any time, and can therefore benefit from your family-focused lessons. Maybe they’ll ultimately decide to try a different class, but why not let them decide?
- Are you providing ready counsel and classes to address the weighty moral questions these couples will face? It’s likely that their doctor will strongly suggest things like implanting several embryos with the intent to “selectively reduce if needed.” The couple may have to make decisions about whether to use donor eggs, sperm, or embryos. They may be asked whether they want to freeze some of their embryos. They may wonder whether setting out on a treatment path costing tens of thousands of dollars is good stewardship. The opportunities to help these couples make biblically informed decisions and solidify their beliefs are tremendous; don’t miss them. In addition to counsel and classes, these couples may need to talk with others going through similar challenges. Has your church done anything to facilitate such a group? If a couple struggling with infertility started attending your church, how long would it take for them to find others who share their struggle, and get the biblical help and Christian camaraderie they need?
How to be a blessing to infertile couples.
- Give them truth, not just sympathy. This point comes from Debbie Costa, a biblical counselor and member of our church who is dealing with cancer. When asked how others can minister to hurting people, Debbie said, “I need more than sympathy; I need truth.” She quoted Psalm 61:2: “From the end of the earth I call to You when my heart is faint; Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” Sympathy is nice, but it doesn’t change us. Truth can help us think and respond differently.
- Pray for them. If you know them well enough, ask how you can specifically pray for them. They might tell you that they’re waiting on test results, or deciding on treatment options, or making some difficult financial decisions, etc. On their behalf, appeal to the One who is truly in control of the outcomes (Ephesians 1:11).
- Be careful when asking people “why don’t you have kids yet” or “when are you finally going to start your family?” If you’re thinking about posing those questions to a couple in their late 20s or older, understand that there may be some very private answers behind the questions. Are you close enough to this couple to have this conversation? If you are, consider having it (again, it’s often the elephant in the room). If not, let them bring it up if they choose.
- Maintain your friendships with them. Infertile couples can feel left behind as their friends and family members have children and begin new lives. Don’t be afraid to invite them to activities that involve children. And don’t assume that they won’t want to go out to eat with you if you’re going to bring your kids, or if you’re pregnant again. Whether they come to activities or not should be up to them. Don’t make the decision for them by choosing to not invite them.
Infertile couples are not completely clueless when it comes to children.
My wife was an early childhood education specialist who had worked with hundreds of children over several years’ time, and dealt with an amazing variety of behaviors. And yet, when she simply joined in a conversation that some young mothers were having about children, she was asked, “and how many children do you have?”—not in a way to invite her into the conversation, but as if to imply that she couldn’t relate since she didn’t have children of her own. Sadly, this wasn’t an isolated incident.
Such comments are almost certainly born out of ignorance more than malice, and we understand that. And developing a thick skin is part of handling this trial well. Insensitivity on the part of some does not justify over-sensitivity on the part of others. So the point here isn’t to say “shame on you if you ever hurt someone’s feelings.”
The point is that you should never assume that childless couples (infertile or not) are unloving or completely inexperienced. You don’t need to be afraid to leave your children with us in the church nursery. Don’t assume we don’t know how to feed a baby from a bottle or change a diaper. Don’t automatically think we can’t be effective Sunday School teachers. We can be as compassionate and competent as anyone else. (Just to be clear: we know that there are indeed things we can never completely understand without having children in our home day in, day out for years.)
Infertility can cause severe financial and marital strain, in addition to the emotional strain.
Infertility testing and treatment can cost thousands of dollars per round, and each time, there’s no guarantee of a positive outcome. Worse yet, it’s common for these tests and procedures to not be covered by insurance.
You may have heard of couples trying a procedure like in vitro fertilization—or similar procedures like GIFT (the latter was our choice). Did you know that such procedures cost about $15,000 and offer only a modest chance of success? On top of that, couples are recommended to commit to multiple cycles of some of these treatments.
So now we get to the kinds of financial questions infertile couples have to answer: how much money are we willing to spend to try to have a child? Should we sell our house? Take out a second mortgage? Move to a state that mandates that insurance covers infertility treatment? Skip vacations? How many rounds of procedures can we afford? Are we being good stewards of our money by spending tens of thousands on procedures, or should we be investing that money in savings, retirement, or charitable causes? It’s easy to say that a life is priceless, but would you say that about just the possibility of life?
If you think the adoption path is much better, think again. Domestic and international adoptions can easily cost $25,000-30,000. And while this may be more of a ‘sure thing’ than infertility treatments, the very decision of when to change paths from treatments to adoption can cause a lot of strain as well. How do you both agree to stop trying to have children?
Combine the difficulty of these financial decisions—which can recur for years—with the emotional rollercoaster of getting your hopes up and having them dashed, over, and over, and over, and over. Is it any surprise that some marital strain can result? The unifying desire of starting a family can eventually become a source of conflict when emotions are running high and decisions are not clear.
What can family, friends, and the church do about this? Simple: pray, encourage, exhort.
If you have a close enough relationship with the husband or the wife, keep them accountable. Ask questions like, “how are you and your spouse doing? Are you praying together about these decisions (Philippians 4:6)? Are you showing submission to one another in the ways outlined in scripture?” Help them remember that God has a plan—not simply for their own temporary satisfaction, but for his glory and kingdom (Isaiah 55:8-9). They may need to take a hard look at whether their shared desire is indeed what God wants for them. Infertility isn’t a blank check for self-pity or lack of accountability. We need to be encouraged, but also exhorted
Join the Conversation
What additional words of counsel would you suggest for churches and individuals as they minister to couples facing infertility?
Note 1: Contributions by Beth Nicholson.
Note 2: This article was first posted at Counseling with Confidence and Compassion and is re-posted with permission. You can also read the original post, with links to additional articles in this series, at 5 Things Infertile Couples Want Friends, Families, and Churches to Know.