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Every Day Catholic - May 2010

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Open Hearts, Empty Arms—The Private Pain of Infertility
By: Julie Irwin Zimmerman

The year after our wedding, I sat in church on Mother’s Day and daydreamed about how joyful the holiday would be the following spring. My husband and I had decided to have a baby, and I imagined we’d have our newborn with us the next Mother’s Day. But the following May, and the one after that, we went to church with empty arms. To our dismay, we’d been diagnosed as among the 25 percent of married, childless couples in the U.S. who have trouble conceiving or carrying a baby to term.

It wasn’t only Mother’s Day that was hard to bear. Baptisms and baby showers were also difficult. Sometimes, merely seeing a pregnant woman or a couple with a baby sent me into despair.

The months developed an unwelcome rhythm, beginning in hope, proceeding through anxiety and ending in tears. My prayer life had taken on the same rhythm: first, optimistic appeals for pregnancy; then, frantic pleas for help getting through the month; and, finally, silent anguish when I felt my prayers had been ignored again. I wondered: What have we done to deserve this? Why hasn’t our simple wish for a child been granted? Is there a lesson here, a reason we must suffer to have what comes so easily to others?

Although infertility is fairly common, it can be isolating to those suffering from it. Often friends and family don’t know what to say and make awkward jokes or avoid the topic altogether. There are moral, ethical and financial minefields to navigate, and it’s easy for spouses to disagree about what to do.

But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless…?” —Genesis 15:2

Couples facing infertility have three primary options: seek medical treatment, pursue adoption or live without children. While it’s understandable to want to end the ordeal of infertility as quickly as possible, these decisions are important ones that deserve prayer and discernment.

Catholic teaching on infertility treatment is often misunderstood. While the Catholic Church encourages couples to welcome children, not all medical options for infertility are considered acceptable. Surgeries and treatments that restore or enhance a couple’s ability to conceive naturally or which assist the conjugal act are encouraged, while procedures that involve a third party and replace natural conception or replace the conjugal act—procedures such as artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy and donor eggs or sperm—are considered unacceptable.

A recent document by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Life-Giving Love in an Age of Technology, reiterates the long-standing position of the Church. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of physicians using NaProTechnology, which treats infertility in harmony with Church teaching. The Pope Paul VI Institute is a leader in the field, and an Internet search can help couples find local providers.
Adoption is also a path to parenthood that’s filled with many blessings. Seeking out adoptive parents and hearing their stories can affirm for infertile couples the role God played in bringing them together.
Other couples find that, by forgoing parenthood, they can channel their energies to their marriages, careers, friendships and volunteer work on a level beyond what many parents can manage. Spiritual direction can help couples find their true calling. In this way, infertility becomes  an opportunity for growth rather than a problem to overcome.

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And, of course, even in the midst of infertility, couples should take time to nurture their relationship and acknowledge that they’re already a family. A weekend away, a walk in the woods, even setting aside dinner hours free from talk about infertility helped my husband and me remind ourselves of our love and how satisfying our marriage was, with or without children.

“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”—Jeremiah 29:11

The most difficult aspect of infertility was how it affected me spiritually. God, who felt so near when we began to plan for a family, suddenly seemed absent. My desperate prayers appeared to fall on deaf ears. We begged, pleaded, bargained, scolded—and every month, it felt like wasted effort. I wondered: Where is God? Are we being punished? Why must we suffer like this?

It helps to remember that the struggle to have a child is a chance to grow in faith, understand God and ourselves better, strengthen our relationships and prepare for the road ahead. As my husband and I struggled to have a child, we were weighed down by frustration and confusion. But during this time I came to know God better and speak with God more freely.

The experience of infertility helped me understand what Jesus did when he willingly accepted his cross. Before encountering infertility, I still believed that, if I worked hard enough at something, I could achieve it. Those years taught me a difficult but valuable lesson about giving up control over my future and trusting God to reveal a future that was beyond my hopes and fears.

Infertility also taught me that we can find consolation all around us, if we only learn where and how to seek it. By our fourth Mother’s Day, I was an infertility veteran, dreading the red roses and applause for the mothers in the assembly. I was all set to skip Mass when I decided instead to call our priest and ask him to acknowledge the infertile that Sunday.

I was nervous when I made the call; I quickly blurted out a request that the prayers of the faithful include some mention of infertility. He expressed his sympathy for our plight with a sincerity that set me at ease, and he promised he would do something. That Sunday I paid close attention as he asked our community to pray for all mothers present and far away, living and dead, “as well as those women who long for motherhood.” I felt relief, triumph and no small comfort from those words.

To learn more about Catholic teaching on reproductive technologies, visit

Permission to Publish received for this article, “Open Hearts, Empty Arms—The Private Pain of Infertility,” by Julie Irwin Zimmerman, from Rev. Joseph R. Binzer, Vicar General, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 1-06-2010.

Making Connections

■ What is your personal experience with infertility—your own or that of a family member, friend or co-worker?

■ How well does our family-oriented Church support those struggling with infertility?

■ How can you respond more sensitively to those challenged by infertility? If infertile yourself, how will you reach beyond your private pain to support others?

Movie Moments

Infertility at the Cinema
By: Frank Frost

Infertility figures in the plot of a number of recent movies. In last year’s celebrated Julie and Julia, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and her husband are strolling along, marveling at their Parisian life, when a woman pushing a baby carriage passes by. A shadow crosses Julia’s face and her energy drops a notch as she momentarily becomes wistful, before bouncing back to her usual joie de vivre.
Later, when Julia’s sister writes with the news that she is pregnant, Julia has a meltdown. The implication is that Julia channels all the love she longs to shower on a child, but cannot, into positive engagement with life, and ultimately into her love of cooking.

Infertility triggers different reactions in other movies. In Baby Mama (2008) Kate (Tina Fey) has been content to defer having a child as she pursues a successful career. But at 37 she decides to have a child, married or not. When she learns she can’t conceive, she hires a surrogate mother. The complications that arise make for a lively comedy. Juno (2007), another hip comedy, approaches the issue from the angle of a pregnant teen looking for suitable (infertile) parents for her baby.

An older film, Immediate Family (1989), provides a more straightforward approach to infertility. A couple (Glenn Close and James Wood), desperate to have a baby, try every medical solution, from plotting ovulation to in vitro fertilization, before they finally turn to open adoption. The resulting drama reveals not only the anguish of infertility, but also the pain experienced by the person giving up her baby.

The common lesson of all these movies is that infertility is a complex reality, and every effort to deal with it is fraught with emotional complications.

Next time you watch Infertility at the Cinema, ASK YOURSELF:

■ What tensions arise between Linda and Michael as a result of their repeated frustrations in trying to have children, and their attempt at adoption?

■ Do I come away with a more sympathetic understanding of infertility?

Putting Shoes on the Gospel

Ann and David Wertz
By: Joan McKamey

 “Not all of us are able to bring children into the world. In our marriage, we’ve found other ways to live in God’s love,” says Annie Wertz of her 35-year marriage to David.

“David and I worked through our infertility together without outside involvement. I think I struggled more than David. One of my sisters-in-law would let me hold and rock her babies whenever I was feeling blue. We’ve also been part of a prayer/faith-sharing group for about 20 years. We’ve supported and nurtured each other along life’s journey.

“David worked with many young people in his orthodontic practice, and his compassionate care created more than beautiful smiles. I am pastoral associate for a two-parish cluster in downtown Dubuque, Iowa.

“Because we didn’t have children, we were more available to care for family members with health concerns. Another avenue that opened for us was service. We began with chaperoning youth mission trips and progressed to weeklong dental service trips to Belize. These opened our hearts and minds in many ways.

“David and I both love English springer spaniels and have raised three litters (17 pups). Our goal in this adventure was to raise dogs that would enrich human and family life. Our neighbor kids love to help us care for the puppies. This has brought us many blessings.”

Jeanette and Edmund Gieske

“When Edmund and I married, we prayed for a ‘honeymoon baby.’ After a year of improving our nutrition and making other efforts to overcome cycle irregularities, we realized we were facing infertility that would require medical intervention,” says Jeanette Gieske of Austin, Texas.

“For me, each month passed with difficulty as we waited expectantly to see if we had conceived. As I read through Scripture, I identified with Hannah’s pain regarding her own infertility and was comforted by her faith.

“Edmund and I had accepted that, while we would do all we could to improve our fertility, a child is a gift from God and we had no right to one. In mid-2007, we consulted Dr. Jason Mattingly, who is trained in NaProTechnology. After five months, he recommended we contact the Pope Paul VI Institute for an infertility evaluation. In March 2009, Dr. Catherine Keefe performed surgery for endometriosis. Our daughter, Rose, was born in January 2010.

“Our advice to couples struggling with infertility: Pray and grow more deeply in love with God as a couple. Be grateful to God for each other and express that gratitude through acts of service and generosity. Learn what the Church teaches regarding marriage and family and be aware that there are many moral options for improving fertility, with and without medical intervention.”

Passing On the Faith

Secondary Infertility
By: Jeanne Hunt


Marybeth gave birth to Angela just 11 months after she and Will married. That was six years ago.

Now, they yearn for a second child, but the medical experts offer little hope. Will and Marybeth dreamed of a houseful of children, but it looks as if it will just be “we three.”

A Response

Secondary infertility is a common but less acknowledged form of infertility. It’s often difficult for couples experiencing primary infertility to feel compassion for those who have what they so long for—a child.

Yet those challenged by secondary infertility struggle with strong feelings unique to their situations: despair of the lost hope of growing their family, guilt for feeling disappointed since they do have a child and a longing for their child to have siblings. How can these couples prevent their struggle from being a destructive force in their family lives?

Informal networking through a local or online support group is a beginning. Knowing that other couples share the pain and can offer encouragement brings healing.

Adoption can bring resolution to the unfulfilled desire to grow their family. Adoption must, however, be a choice based on a desire to welcome life unselfishly, not a quick fix for unmet personal needs.

This can also be a time to consider one’s identity. We must think of ourselves as more than “Mommy” and “Daddy”; it’s time to look at who we are as God’s creations and become those persons God calls us to be.

At the core of our discontent may be a desire to have control over our lives. As we confront our willfulness, we can become angry and bitter with God. Peace comes in surrendering to God’s will and allowing God to write the chapters of our lives.

Marybeth opens a baby shower invitation, rips it to pieces and collapses on the sofa, sobbing uncontrollably. Will sits next to her, tears rolling down his cheeks. As they hold each other, Marybeth says, “God, help us. Help us.”

In this moment of darkness and emptiness, something changes in them. They decide to contact their local Catholic Charities agency to learn about adoption, seek out a local or online support group of other Catholic couples who share the same struggle, and meet with their pastor for prayer support and guidance. A glimmer of hope has entered their hearts. In this time of deep sorrow, it feels like radiant sunshine.


I Will Never Forget You
By: Jeanne Hunt

(for praying alone or with others)

Preparation: Set a prayer table with a red rose, a candle, an open Bible and a bowl containing a small amount of scented oil. Have recorded music ready to play.


“Isaiah 49” (or similar hymn)


Dearest Father, take my hand in this darkness and let me know that you have not forgotten me. I feel abandoned. I need to know that you are with me. Guide my spirit into your heart where there is mercy and consolation. Amen.


Isaiah 49:13-16a


(Play some quiet music.)

I invite each of you to come forward to the bowl of oil. Dip a finger in the oil and write your name on the center of your palm. Imagine that it is God who is writing your name on his palm. Then, rub your hands together and let the oil soak in. Smell the sweet aroma and allow God to heal your broken spirit. Then, return to your seat.

When all have returned to their seats, pray:

O God, I lift my open hands to you. They are wide open. I release my disappointment for a child that has not come. My open hands are ready to take your divine hand. Lead me into peace, healing and resolution.


Let us now greet one another with an embrace and say, “Peace be with you.”


“Isaiah 49” (or similar hymn)

Hilarion: Despite his best efforts to live in prayer and solitude, today’s saint found it difficult to achieve his deepest desire. People were naturally drawn to Hilarion as a source of spiritual wisdom and peace. He had reached such fame by the time of his death that his body had to be secretly removed so that a shrine would not be built in his honor. Instead, he was buried in his home village. 
<p>St. Hilarion the Great, as he is sometimes called, was born in Palestine. After his conversion to Christianity he spent some time with St. Anthony of Egypt, another holy man drawn to solitude. Hilarion lived a life of hardship and simplicity in the desert, where he also experienced spiritual dryness that included temptations to despair. At the same time, miracles were attributed to him. </p><p>As his fame grew, a small group of disciples wanted to follow Hilarion. He began a series of journeys to find a place where he could live away from the world. He finally settled on Cyprus, where he died in 371 at about age 80. </p><p>Hilarion is celebrated as the founder of monasticism in Palestine. Much of his fame flows from the biography of him written by St. Jerome.</p> American Catholic Blog Therefore if any thought agitates you, this agitation never comes from God, who gives you peace, being the Spirit of Peace, but from the devil.

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