If there's one thing I've done a lot of in my life, it's church.
I’ve fidgeted through seemingly endless elementary school chapel services.
I’ve caught the short-lived fever of confession and spiritual renewal at youth rallies.
I’ve sung from my soul in the darkness at Vespers in college.
I’ve sweated through my sundress at four-hour gospel services.
I’ve joined my spiritual family to worship under a tent the week after our beautiful church burned to the ground.
I’ve worshiped in whispers with an underground church community in Turkey.
I’ve tucked my head around the thick curtain of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nepal and reveled in the intoxicating chants.
I’ve stood silently and breathed the wet, sacred air inside a ramshackle leper colony church outside Kathmandu.
I’ve visited the Vatican three times and have marveled at the mystery and majesty of that space.
I’ve spent many nights sleeping in the choir loft of a dear old London church.
I’ve been forever changed by witnessing Sabbath at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
And now…I attend a massive church with several campuses and thousands of attendees. A church where I couldn’t name more than fifteen friends and most weekends, I attend services without seeing a single one of them. A church with stadium seating and its own coffee shop.
It’s a far cry from some of the other places of worship I’ve visited, but I love it. I love taking Harriet there and entrusting her to the kind-faced grandmother in the nursery. I love the loud music and that irresistible urge to not only sing along, but to dance a little too. I love gleaning the wisdom of the Word and of those who faithfully study it.
But there have been times in my life when church is the very last place I want to be. When I was small, sunny days tempted me into praying that the pastor would forget his last few points and let us out early. But as an adult, I’ve dreaded church the most on Mother’s Day.
I’m not sure why but churches make a big deal out of these parent holidays. They give flowers to the moms, candy to the dads. They share messages about how wonderful mamas are and how men need to step up to the plate. (I’m not sure why this is, but it just is.) Women and their little daughters dress in coordinating outfits while guys don shirts declaring “#1 Dad” and “World’s Greatest.” And all the while, men and women who are in the throes of infertility sink deeper into their seats and hide their broken hearts behind bulletins and Bibles.
So the year after Ethan died, I sent an email to my church leadership. I got the main template off of the Resolve website and then altered it a bit to make it more personal.
Dear Pastors and Staff,
My name is Em. My husband and I are church members and have been attending and volunteering for about four years now.
As you know, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are quickly approaching, and I’m sure you’re busy preparing your messages.
Please consider the fact that 1 in 8 couples of childbearing age are struggling with infertility. My husband and I have been personally touched by this issue. We became pregnant with our son, Ethan Andrew, as a result of infertility treatments. Sadly, we lost him at about five months gestation. We started treatments a few months after his death and ended up losing a second baby very early in the pregnancy. We are still undergoing infertility treatments and after much prayer, discussion, and research, we are currently in the middle of the in vitro fertilization process. I never would have guessed that nearly two years after we first started trying to conceive, we would have two babies in heaven, and none here on earth with us. Infertility takes an incredible toll on families - emotionally, financially, relationally, mentally, and spiritually.
Infertility has stolen so much from us - financial security, relationships, even aspects of our personalities. Infertility affects couples for years after their infertility journey, even if they are able to have children on their own.
Unfortunately, church can be one of the most difficult places to be when you have lost a baby or are struggling with infertility. Walking by the nursery, listening to announcements about kids’ programming, seeing children everywhere, hearing pastors tell stories about kids, listening to a message series on raising children, attending parent/child dedications...it all can be painful and can make church feel like an emotionally dangerous place. Many religious and social events revolve around children, and couples without them sometimes feel uncomfortable or left out of activities altogether. Because the topic of infertility involves reproduction, it is an extremely personal problem that couples face. For this reason, it is often a very difficult topic to discuss, even with a trusted pastor.
Although infertility is rarely physically life threatening, it can be devastating to a person's sense of hope. Couples often endure monthly cycles of emotional roller coaster rides, ranging from optimism and excitement to despair and depression. Infertility sometimes lasts for years and people often go through this experience in isolation, as their desire for a larger family remains unfulfilled.
I ask that you keep these points in mind, particularly during worship services, and that you remember couples with infertility in your prayers just as you honor all the mothers and fathers in our congregation. Especially as you prepare your Mother's Day and Father's Day messages this year, please know that these particular holidays are two of the most painful days for those struggling to have children and those who have lost children. These days can also be incredibly painful for single people who have never had the opportunity to have children, parents who have lost grown children, and those who are estranged from their families.
One quick word about child dedications: Please always remember to announce them ahead of time so couples facing infertility and baby loss can either choose not to attend that service or can at least be prepared for it. Being surprised by a child dedication service is incredible painful. Our son Ethan would have been dedicated at the most recent child dedication service. Sitting in that service and seeing all of the other babies who would have been his peers brought me to tears. I am not sure if it would be possible to have flowers up front on child dedication days to recognize the babies who would have been dedicated that day if they would have lived, but I thought I'd throw the idea out there. I know that child dedication is a joyous time, and I do not want to take away from that. But up to 50% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, so chances are, there are many, many families in the audience who would be blessed by a simple gesture or recognition of their children in Heaven. My husband and I would be more than happy to contribute some money if that is an issue.
If you would like more information about infertility, please visit the RESOLVE website at www.resolve.org.
Before I close, I want to mention that one of the pastors contacted us the day after we lost Ethan, and two pastors came to our house with flowers and prayers. I have also sought prayer about this issue after services from the prayer volunteers and have been incredibly blessed by them. I am now an after-service prayer helper because I want to offer others the same encouragement the prayer volunteers have offered me. We love this church and have no complaints. But because we have been so deeply touched by this issue, I want to be an advocate for other childless moms and dads and those who want children but have yet to become pregnant. Even if you decide not to say anything from the stage or make any changes to the way child and parenting matters are handled, I think I speak for all of us dealing with infertility when I say that we will be very grateful if you keep us in your minds, hearts, and prayers.
Thank you in advance for your consideration in this matter.
Both times I sent versions of this email, it went unanswered. But a few weeks later, our senior pastor spent some time in his sermon talking about the many years he and his wife struggled to get pregnant. And since then, I have noticed infertility mentioned many times. I’m not in any way saying that this was a result of my email. In fact, they may have always been sensitive to this issue. Perhaps I just missed it when it didn’t yet seem to apply to me. At the time, I questioned whether I sounded whiny or self-focused, but in retrospect, I’m glad that I spoke up.
Feel free to cut and paste portions of the above email if you’d like to share it with your church leadership. But you might be better off visiting the RESOLVE website and using the templates they have written.
To all of my infertile friends out there, may peace follow you on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. May you find a way to honor yourself and your struggle. And may church someday feel like the safe spiritual home it was meant to be…for all of us.