Mothering & Infertility / by Martha Keyes

"Give it another month and then come back."

That's what the reproductive endocrinologist told us. The status of "infertile" is granted by the reproductive specialist gods after 12 full months of trying to get pregnant, and apparently we were being overly-anxious for coming in after only 11. Despite that, I had instinctively felt like something wasn't quite right after only 3 months.

It's been 21 months now, and I've learned a lot about infertility since that visit with the RE. The world of infertility is like a planet that most people catch only far-away glimpses of. You know it exists, but, if you haven't been there, it's difficult to imagine what life there is like. It has its own lingo (I defy anyone who hasn't struggled with fertility to visit an online infertility forum and understand all the acronyms and medical lingo), its own social network, and its own unique landscape. Some pass through as seeming tourists for a short stint with infertility. Some have wandered the landscape for over a decade. Everyone has a different infertility journey, and I can only speak for my own. 

Our trek through infertility has tested us emotionally, physically, spiritually, mentally, and financially. It truly reaches into every aspect of life. Despite that, we are thriving and happy, enjoying life as it comes to us. My personal experience with infertility has been much more manageable than the experiences of many I've encountered. There is a lot of intense pain and heartache in the infertility community, and I have felt grateful and unaccountably lucky that my experience has been different from many I read about and discuss with women. I haven't had heartless comments from strangers, friends, and family; I haven't experienced miscarriage; I haven't received devastating news about my ability to conceive or carry a baby; I haven't gone through multiple financially-crushing rounds of IVF; I haven't even felt much sting by the pregnancy announcements of close friends and family. I don't know what it feels like to go through those things. I don't even know what it would feel like to continue as we are now with unexplained infertility for a few more years. All I know is that someone is at the helm of this ship, and I trust Him to guide it where it needs to go, when it needs to go there. 

After we'd already been trying for 7 or 8 months, two of my best friends got pregnant immediately after their weddings. Neither of them was hoping to become pregnant--in fact, one of them had really wanted to hold off and was struggling both emotionally and physically with a very difficult pregnancy. As the two of us discussed the irony of the situation and joked about trading places, we came to the conclusion that we were both experiencing soul-stretching experiences--the trials we both need in order to grow and become more Christlike. Sheri Dew--someone who can truly empathize with anyone's unfulfilled desire to have children--phrased it this way: “If you're serious about sanctification, you can expect to experience heart-wrenching moments that try your faith, your endurance, and your patience.” My friend went on to experience an incredibly difficult pregnancy which tragically ended in a late miscarriage. She has since, however, become pregnant again and is praying for a healthy, full-term pregnancy.

Though we have been going through seemingly-opposite experiences, our friendship has grown immensely as we have sympathized with and listened to each other's struggles, defeats, and successes. I remember reading the rant of a woman on an infertility forum one day. She mentioned how she couldn't stand to hear women complain about morning sickness and spending time over toilet bowls when she would give anything to have that experience. Though perhaps understandable, her reaction seemed to me unfair and short-sighted. It is easy to minimize the trials of others when they are different from our own. Just as it is easy for someone not experiencing infertility to pooh-pooh or ignore the hurt of someone aching for a baby, to pat her/him on the back and say, "Just relax. It'll happen;" it is easy to downplay the struggles of pregnancy and motherhood when we ourselves aren't experiencing them daily.

Our individual experiences may not always be unique, but they are always authentic. God will even take into account our perceptions of, as well as our responses to, our trials. For those of us who do not, for instance, find claustrophobia a challenge, it is difficult to measure the terror that comes to those for whom it is such a challenge. Thus, a friend may seem to struggle unnecessarily long before finally prevailing with regard to a particular principle of the gospel. But for that individual, the struggle was real enough! We need, particularly, to understand with kindness those who are asked to go out to do battle again on a familiar field—on the very battleground where they have already suffered defeat several times. Yet some of our most difficult victories will occur on new terrain—like Joseph’s in Egypt—when we do not have the equivalent of a “home court” advantage. We must remember that, while the Lord reminded the Prophet Joseph Smith that he had not yet suffered as Job, only the Lord can compare crosses! [Neal A. Maxwell]

All trials have their blessings, and a trial is not any less difficult because we haven't yet personally experienced it and yearn to receive its blessings. As I spoke almost daily with my friend, and even though I wished to be carrying another life inside me, I felt completely unequal to the experience she was going through--constant nausea, vomiting multiple times a day every single day for 5 months, only to discover that the baby had not survived. We can never really judge how we would react to someone else's struggle or claim we would be "grateful" to go through it compared to what we are dealing with. 

What can you ever really know of other people's souls--of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands. [C.S. Lewis]

I know that my struggle has been tame relative to that of many others who experience infertility. However, it has still been a struggle. There are certain things that have made it much less emotionally damaging than it might have been, though. One of those things is due to my personal history with God's timing and will. I had a very long and difficult struggle with those two principles in my late teens and early twenties, in particular. As the story often goes, I really thought I wanted something, and I pursued it relentlessly for years--far past the time most people might have done, long after it was clear that it was not the best thing (or even a good thing) for me. That was a very hard-learned lesson, and the reasons for the "no" answer I received from God were not completely apparent to me for a couple of years after the experience ended. Those reasons have since become very clear, and continue to become even more so, as time has passed. Looking back now, I shudder, quite literally, at what my life would be like if God had gone along with my plan for myself. 

If God were not only to hear our prayers, as he does ever and always, but to answer them as we want them answered, he would not be God our Saviour but the ministering genius of our destruction. [George MacDonald]

That experience, along with one other in particular, has changed the way I view the times when reality doesn't meet up with the ideal I have envisioned.

If God would concede me His omnipotence for 24 hours, you would see how many changes I would make in the world. But if He gave me His wisdom too, I would leave things as they are. [M.L. Monsabre]

Even though I don't understand why we're experiencing infertility, even though I don't know how long we will continue to struggle with it, I believe that God is in control. And since He has a reason for making us wait, I will gladly put our lives and the lives of our future children in His hands because I have seen what life is like when I "kick against the pricks" instead of doing all I can to accept His will for me. If it is not happening now, there is a reason. Perhaps I need more preparation before beginning the journey of parenting. Perhaps my child needs to come at a specific time and place for reasons I won't understand for years to come. We can do all that is in our power to welcome children into our hearts and homes--and I believe that He wants us to do so as part of acting in faith--but ultimately His is the power to grant life. 

The other principle that has, ironically, helped me cope more joyfully with the struggle is that of Motherhood. I remember reading Sheri Dew's pamphlet "Are We Not All Mothers?" before I was dating my husband and being so touched by it. One of my favorite passages from that book says this:

While we tend to equate motherhood solely with maternity, in the Lord’s language, the word mother has layers of meaning. Of all the words they could have chosen to define her role and her essence, both God the Father and Adam called Eve “the mother of all living” —and they did so before she ever bore a child. Like Eve, our motherhood began before we were born. Just as worthy men were foreordained to hold the priesthood in mortality, righteous women were endowed premortally with the privilege of motherhood. Motherhood is more than bearing children, though it is certainly that. It is the essence of who we are as women. It defines our very identity, our divine stature and nature, and the unique traits our Father gave us. [Sheri Dew]

I love that. The world, using events in mortality as their sole guide, grants the title of "mother" only once a child is born. The Lord, however, sees us in all our eternal, timeless glory, and knows us as mothers and fathers before we have even contemplated raising children; before we have even entered mortality. Those who can't, for whatever reason, bear or raise children in this mortal life are still eternal mothers, and their mothering nature and influence is present in this mortal existence as well. To mother is to care for and nurture, and we have all felt mothering influence from various women in our lives, including but not limited to the mothers who bore and/or raised us.

Even though I understand this, there are still times when my heart aches to have a baby and wonders when I will have that opportunity. And that is a good thing! It is a righteous desire, and it will be fulfilled. The more I learn about motherhood, the more I desire it, even though it terrifies me at the same time. 

In the premortal world, when our Father described our role, I wonder if we didn't stand in wide-eyed wonder that He would bless us with a sacred trust so central to His plan and that He would endow us with gifts so vital to the loving and leading of His children. I wonder if we shouted for joy at least in part because of the ennobling stature He gave us in His kingdom. The world won’t tell you that, but the Spirit will. For mother is the word that will define a righteous woman made perfect in the highest degree of the celestial kingdom, a woman who has qualified for eternal increase in posterity, wisdom, joy, and influence. [Sheri Dew]

My life has been enriched by so many types of mothers. My life has likewise been enriched by helping to nurture and care for others as part of my eternal mothering nature. While I wait for my turn to bear and raise my own children, I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in mothering others and in influencing the rising generation of mothers and fathers through how I interact with them. It is not only okay but a very positive indication of character to yearn for children and motherhood; but while we wait for the will of God to unfold and while we do all we can to pursue that yearning, let us not neglect the opportunities we have to mother others and to, as Sheri Dew put it, "heal the souls of men" as part of our divine and eternal calling.

Every time we build the faith or reinforce the nobility of a young woman or man, every time we love or lead anyone even one small step along the path, we are true to our endowment and calling as mothers and in the process we build the kingdom of God. [Sheri Dew]