If I have to read the story of Abraham and Sarah’s miraculous conception of Isaac one more time, I will run screaming out of the pulpit. Because I know what it’s like to want a child. I know what it’s like to try everything under the sun to create one – frankly, if concubines were a legal possibility, I might go for that at this point. I know about barrenness. I do not, yet, know about the laughter which might follow.
I am an infertile pastor. As I write, my husband and I are undergoing fertility treatments, and have been for three and a half years. Thankfully, we have the resources to do this, and for that, I am deeply grateful. But they have not succeeded, yet.
In the meantime, I dread Advent. All those texts about babies showing up where they shouldn’t have: to Elizabeth, who thought she was too old; to Mary, who thought she was too young. And the hearkening back to the others whose barrenness broke their hearts: Sarah and Hannah, my sisters. It is hard to preach these texts. Some days, I dread baptisms; I worry that I cannot hold one more baby at the font and not mix my tears with the baptismal waters. It is hard to keep all of this a secret, but I do, because I cannot quite imagine another way.
Every pastor certainly encounters personal heartbreak which makes the pastoral role more difficult than it would normally be. Mine is no greater than others, I’m sure. To preach at the funeral of a beloved mother shortly after losing your own; to walk with a family through cancer when a diagnosis hangs over your own head; to preach the gospel of good news when all you can see for now is the darkness – none of it is easy. No easier than it is to sit in the pews and hear the gospel proclaimed when it feels terribly far away.
I haven’t spoken about our fertility struggles for some practical reasons. First off, let’s be honest: I really don’t want the congregation thinking about my sex life. Or asking about it, even in a roundabout way. Congregations love to give advice, and I’ve already discovered that much of the ‘advice’ given to infertile people hurts more than it helps: “just relax,” “why don’t you just adopt?” “my cousin’s neighbor’s best friend’s coworker stopped trying, and bing! She got pregnant right away,” that sort of thing. I try to avoid putting myself in situations where I might be overly tempted to tell a parishioner to SHUT UP FOR THE LOVE OF THE HOLY (this is particularly possible when one is hopped up on fertility drugs).
There are reasons of pride, as well. As much as I might know otherwise, it still feels shameful to be infertile. All around me women are getting knocked up. Celebrity magazines are full of movie stars with their “baby bumps” and due dates, reporting on the miraculous and mysterious arrival of twins to women who promise that they never, ever, ever tried fertility treatments. They double-pinky swear.
There are reasons of faith. Mine has been sorely tested these past years. I have spent much more time in Job-like prayer than anything resembling the Magnificat. The psalms of lament and I have become dearly acquainted, while God and I have suffered a bit of a separation. When the pain is fresh, it is simply impossible for me to reflect on it publicly. I believe this journey will, eventually, make of me a better person, and a better pastor. But I am not quite there yet.
There is concern about disagreement on fertility treatments. (As a side note, if I am innocently asked one more time for my opinion on the recent mother of octuplets, I am likely to lose it altogether.) Being infertile is itself a very vulnerable state, and the drugs given to treat it increase that feeling even further. Should I confess that we are doing in-vitro fertilization? Or will that result in a variety of opinions I simply do not have the capacity to hear: arguments about stem-cell research, and when life truly begins, and wasting money on slim chances, and those who say, “I simply could never do that,” when the fact is that they never had to consider it. My heart is fragile enough. For me, this is not an academic debate.
There is jealousy, of course. Listening to men and women complain – even jokingly – about the burdens of raising children, I find myself sometimes unreasonably angry. My clergywomen friends occasionally confess the burden of holding motherhood and ordination together, and although I know they are right and their struggles are valid, all I can think is: but don’t you know how lucky you are to get the chance to try it? Don’t you know how much I want to complain just like you? Hearing pregnancy announcements from parishioners and feeling the automatic dart of pain. Above all, detesting my own reaction at the joy of others, and yet finding myself unable to control it.
I wonder sometimes how many other infertile pastors there are out there. Men and women alike, struggling with their heartbreak, unsure of a safe place to speak of it, smiling at the children who arrive for Sunday School while they ‘pant like a deer at flowing streams’ for a child of their own. I suppose what I want to say and know, more than anything else, is that we are not alone. That the body of Christ helps bear our pain.
I will talk about this someday, I hope. For now, in this wilderness, some silence protects me. So that I can get up in the pulpit and proclaim, one more time, that “Isaac” means “laughter,” that Abraham and Sarah both chortled at the very idea of him, and that nothing is impossible with God. And then hang up my robe, smile at the newly baptized infant, go home and inject myself one more time with one more drug, and trust that audacious promise is for me too.