I’ve been asked to write a bit more on how churches can help those who are struggling with this issue. This is tricky, for a number of reasons.
Every person’s struggle is unique: there can be hundreds of reasons why a couple cannot conceive – many of which are deeply personal. And whilst we can support them, we can’t make the problem go away. So, though I’ll make a few practical suggestions (based only on my experience), I’m not speaking for others in a similar position: what helps us may not help them. Much is common sense and applies to any pastoral situation. But here’s a few thoughts;
As a Christian, I am part of a family that is called to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 15:13). This goes for whatever is going on in my life – from how I’ll pay the gas bills to the end – and beginnings – of new relationships.
If for example, you have a friend who’s unemployed and you get a new job, you’ll want to share it with them (and hope that they can rejoice with you). At the same time, you’ll hopefully be sensitive to their situation – and able to mourn with them.
In the same way, if I can’t have children and a friend gets pregnant, hearing their news might hurt. I don’t want to hear about 15 new pregnancies in church this week. I really don’t. It makes me feel sad and squashed and jealous. I hope you’ll understand that, and have some sympathy for why. But I also hope you won’t leave me in my sad isolation.
Much as I might like it, I can’t be shielded from relationship or from life . I’m called to engage with the blessings of others, just as they share in mine – and to mourn with others as they mourn with me. What’s more, this is actually for my benefit as well as theirs. I need to be in community, even when I tell you – and myself – I don’t want it. What binds us together are not identikit blessings, but a Saviour who unites us across our differences. As I pray for my pregnant friend and she prays for me, both of us are strengthened. As we reach out – falteringly – to each other, our friendship is deepened instead of severed. It’s impossible for me to do this alone, but by the Spirit I can genuinely rejoice in her good news, just as she can weep with me.
Churches are an especially hard environment in which to be childless (and single). Scripture talks a lot about the blessing of children and it’s a gift that is rightly given a very high status. But this also means that there are lots of pregnant women and lots of families at a typical Sunday service. If you’re Not Pregnant and you want to be, then there’s no-where to hide. Plus, some events (Mother’s Day, Family Services, Christmas, Parenting courses) are geared to families.
So what’s the solution? To avoid family fellowship or segregate sections of the congregation? This can’t be right. Painful though it is, we need community and we can’t airbrush our relationships (in the same way as someone recovering from an ED can’t avoid food). It’s tempting to deal with our pain by isolating ourselves. But gospel balm comes through God’s people as well as direct from Him. The diversity of our fellowship is one of the markers of gospel community – we share our lives and the gifts that God has given us. Here is a place where the childless can share in the families of others, where the widow finds many husbands and the orphans many parents.
One of the interesting things about 1 Samuel 1 is that Penninah envied Hannah’s relationship with her husband and Hannah envied Penninah’s children. But neither children, nor a husband’s love actually satisfy on the level we deeply desire. When we’re isolated, it’s easy to think that X or Y – a wife or kids or a car or a job – will make everything better. But by sharing our lives with honesty and grace, we can fight the lies which isolate us and make our struggles unbearable. If we foster genuine and honest relationships, we’re less likely to idealise what we don’t have.
Childlessness brings a whole raft of emotions from guilt and shame to anger and desperation. This is frightening and I need to know that God and His community are honest and strong enough to handle these. Childlessness is not a special kind of pain that (unlike others) needs kid gloves – but neither does faith mean smiling through tears and saying ‘I’m fine’, when you really aren’t. More than verses on childlessness, I need to be pointed to the God who understands suffering and is big enough to handle all my pain and rage and sadness. To the Saviour who shares in my struggles and may not take me out of the furnace, but will be with me in it. To Bible stories of real people facing real losses and crying out for help. To a people who fight for me by praying for me, even if I can’t speak.
Some other practical thoughts:
When it comes to childlessness, don’t assume anything. That it’s the woman’s ‘problem’, that infertility is a simple biological issue or that the woman feels it more deeply than the man. (In fact, don’t assume that all women want to be mums either – this is often not the case).
Last year Glen met a minister who asked whether we had kids. When he said no, the minister joked “Ah, you’ve got time and money instead.” Glen smiled and responded quietly: “We’d trade it all for kids though.” The minister was slightly lost for words, but I think Glen was right to make this point. There can be an assumption that men don’t particularly want babies and need to be talked (or seduced!) into it by their wives. Not true.
Please don’t speak for God either – by saying you feel sure God will give X two baby girls in a year’s time. How wonderful if this happens – and please pray that it does – but God will do what God will do. In those 12 months, where will the couple be setting their hopes? Fully on the grace to be revealed? (1 Peter 1:13) or uncertainly on the prophetic powers of their friend?
Do recognise when speaking and preaching that not everyone can have children (estimates are one in ten ) and that miscarriage is an ongoing pain for many couples, including those who may now have kids. Do provide information on counselling (sex, marriage, relationship) and a factual and straightforward account of the different kinds of fertility treatment that are available.
Christian websites such as www.hannah.org can be useful, both for those who are childless or who have lost children. Make an effort to run events for singles or couples without children as well as family ones. And be especially sensitive on occasions like Mother’s Day – e.g; if you’re giving out flowers, give them to all the women there, not just the ‘mums’.
Most of all, be available to talk and pray. And keep praying.