Longing for Children: Facing Infertility in Marriage
- 2010 9 Nov
Elkanah her husband would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”
1 Samuel 1:8
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
Elkanah was exasperated to find her crying yet again. No doubt, she and Peninnah had just had another spat. Their rivalry was tiresome, but what bothered him most was his inability to provide Hannah with the one thing that would erase her misery. Whenever she got like this, he felt like such a failure. “Is it the baby thing again? We’ve talked about this before. I would give you children if I could, but it’s out of our hands.”
It was a devastating blow to realize that his love alone would never be enough to fully comfort his precious bride. “We have each other and that’s what’s really important anyway. I married you for you!” He had tried so many things to bring her joy, but nothing seemed to help. Maybe if he could just get some food down her she would feel better. As he piled her plate with a double portion of the choicest selections from the banquet, he prayed that the way to this woman’s heart might be through her stomach.
One of the biggest challenges we face in our journey through infertility is maintaining the unity in our marriage. It is rare for couples to experience emotions in unison. I often hear, “My husband says that if God wants us to have a baby, He will make it happen when the time is right. He has such peace, and it’s driving me crazy!” Rick was the one who initially came to me with the desire to have a baby, so I couldn’t understand why I was the one who seemed so driven to get pregnant and frustrated when it didn’t happen.
For Rick, there were times to focus on the heartache and longing, and times to turn our attention to other parts of life. He could analyze and compartmentalize while my every thought was consumed with the desire for motherhood. We would go to a ball game and he would passionately cheer for the team or shout instructions to the coaches. I would sit in the bleachers and count the little children in attendance.
Unlike my husband, I found that infertility defined me. Someone would ask, “What do you do?” and Rick would answer with a description about his job, while I hoped no one would aim the same question my direction. “Stay-at-home mom” was a socially acceptable answer. “Stay-at-home nonmom” never went over so well. I used the code word homemaker, but figured everyone could see through my disguise.
Sometimes it feels like your partner is sleeping through a crisis. He may never seem to take the struggle of infertility as seriously as you do. A failed adoption or your baby’s death can be like being caught in a burning house. The two of you run in different directions, tripping into and over each other, trying to escape the terror. As the suffocating heat closes around you, part of the panic comes from lack of assurance that you are still together in this darkness. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing that there is only one right way to grieve—“my way.”
Submission—Even in Grief?
While their barrenness was beyond the control of either Elkanah or Hannah, God ordained Elkanah to guide his family through the process. The apostle Paul gives this admonition: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything” (Ephesians 5:22-24).
Ladies, I know red flags start going up here. Submission can be an unsettling concept. Since sin first entered the world with Adam and Eve, it’s been hard to let men lead. We know, from heart experience, that one of the results of Eve’s sin was pain related to childbearing. But what was the other part of Eve’s curse?
As a direct result of our sin nature, we have an impulsive drive to run the show. Though Genesis 3:16 is usually translated as a woman’s desire being for or toward her husband, many Bible scholars believe against to be the intended contextual and linguistic application of the conjunctive. While my desires often conflict with Rick’s, God set him in authority over our family. I’m still learning that I need to trust Rick and let the Lord lead our family through him.
If you are married to a man who is not striving to live for God, seek the Lord’s guidance to find the balance between submitting to your husband’s wishes and making God-honoring decisions. Your attitude toward your groom may become the very tool God uses to lead your husband closer to Himself.
When married to a man, Christian or not, who is pushing you to do something immoral (perhaps insisting on an abortion because of your baby’s birth defect), clearly and lovingly share your concerns. If he is open to Scripture, show him directly from the Word of God why you are troubled by what he is asking of you. When it comes down to a choice, you must obey God rather than man (see Peter’s story in Acts 4).
Presuming you aren’t being asked to participate in anything morally objectionable, it is imperative to consult with your husband before you commit to anything that will impact your family and future together. When my doctor presents a medical course that offers me hope, it is hard to hold back when Rick gives a flat-out no, or even when he wants to just take time to prayerfully seek more answers. But my marriage vows are to my husband, not to my doctor or anyone else.
For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. They were submissive to their own husband, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham. . . . You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.
1 Peter 3:5-6
I can point to definite times when, had I given Rick’s concerns more credence, I would have saved us both a lot of heartache. An example that immediately comes to mind is the adoption lead I pushed hard to pursue, even when Rick repeatedly, though quietly, stated his discomfort with certain aspects of the situation. It turned out to be a scam. I could have prevented much grief by listening to Rick’s misgivings early on.
In the very week I am writing this chapter, I’ve spoken with three women about regrets over past choices in their fertility journeys. These were choices they pushed for that will carry lifelong painful consequences. In each of these case their husbands had mentioned some level of concern with the given pursuit, while the wife felt it to be the “right thing.” Each woman longs to be able to turn back time and give her husband’s comments more prayerful consideration. Here’s one such example:
I didn’t realize how much having a child had consumed my life. It’s so easy for women to take the lead in managing the infertility situation.
My husband wanted to please me, and I think some things he went along with because he wanted to make me happy. . . . I realize now that I wasn’t being submissive.
He still needs to be the leader in my family, and he still needs to be part of the decision-making process. There are so many decisions to make. We’ve been struggling with infertility for over three years, so it’s not like we rushed into our decision. But with his personality, I think he was afraid to make the decisions, so he let me take the lead.
Does this mean our husband’s decisions are always the “correct” ones? Not necessarily. But we are called to trust God by allowing our husbands to lead us, even in the face of their very human fallibility.
Wives, I challenge you to allow your husband to take the leadership role God has given him. If he doesn’t guide your family in this process, resist the temptation to make all the decisions, but gently encourage your husband to help you with them.
Actively pursuing family growth is not sinful. But an obsessive drive that rushes you ahead of God’s leading is. If God is convicting your husband about something while striving to build your family, be open to hearing his concerns. Your husband is treating you with honor and love when he is honest with you. The Bible is clear that your marital relationship is to be a gentle, loving partnership in order to maintain clear communication with God.
While yielding to conviction is imperative, it is also important to note that just because something seems unnatural or uncomfortable, it isn’t necessarily outside God’s plan for your family. One of you may be ready to apply to an adoption agency long before the other is even ready to consider the possibility. One might not feel any peace about taking another step down the medical route, while the other wants to go as far as humanly possible in pursuit of a biological child.
The marriage passage in Ephesians 5 actually starts with instructions to all Christians: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (verse 21). Many times the concept of “mutual submission” is overlooked within marriage, but we need to remember that our spouse is also our brother or sister in the Lord. The Holy Spirit may speak to either one of your hearts. On a regular basis, take time to truly hear what your spouse is thinking, and give fair and prayerful consideration to all the feelings and desires.
Husbands, leading your wife in a godly and loving marriage is a weighty responsibility. Because you love her, you must seek hard after God’s best and make wise decisions together with her. Carefully research the options and bathe each choice in prayer. Where either of your hearts or bodies are involved, do not unilaterally mandate the course you will follow.
For Further Thought
Wives, are there areas where you are taking a leadership roll without listening to your husband’s insights? Ask the Lord to help you put your journey to parenthood under His authority, through submission to your husband.
Husbands, are you regularly expressing your love and support to your wife during this time of heartache? Ask the Lord to show you creative ways to treat your bride with honor and to work with her in godly decision-making processes.
1 Corinthians 7
1 Peter 3:1-7
Burden Bearers - Ways to Lighten the Load for a Struggling Couple
Sexual tensions often run high during infertility. After the death of a baby, physical intimacy is emotionally entangled with the creation (and loss) of life. Statements such as “Do you guys know how babies are made?” or “At least you can have fun trying!” cut me to the core.
Please pray for every aspect of our marriage to be strengthened through this time of trial. Send us on a date night (a dinner gift certificate, a packed picnic basket, an offer to baby-sit our living children) or give us resources to strengthen our marriage (tickets to a marriage conference, a subscription to a Christian couples’ magazine, marriage devotional books).
Originally posted January 3, 2006.
Jennifer Saake and her husband, Rick, are the founders of Hannah's Prayer Ministries (www.hannah.org), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help women who are infertile or have suffered miscarriage or adoption loss. Excerpt taken from Hannah’s Hope and reprinted by permission of NavPress. To order a copy of Hannah’s Hope, go to www.navpress.com or www.christianbook.com.