We invite our longtime married readers to share the experiences that have marked, refined, and anointed their marriages; months and years that, by grace, transform the mundane, the bitter, and the incomprehensible into the fruits of holy wisdom. A purification and a clear vision for the path to heaven that lies ahead. The Sophia Series.
Jessi Caruthers, married since 2011, discovered the sorrow that unexpectedly lay beneath the thought of openness to life. And through the grace of her marriage, she learned to sit within that sorrow and find its redemption.
It was on our first real date that my future husband told me there was a good chance he would never be able to parent children. We were sitting in this overpriced little Italian restaurant before going to an awful opera where Tim held my hand for the first time. We had known each other for a couple of years, and I knew he was a childhood cancer survivor. Before we began any sort of serious relationship, he wanted me to know that the treatment which, by the grace of God and modern medicine, saved his life, had the possible--even likely--side effect of causing infertility.
I thought very little of infertility that night. I was too busy worrying about what to do with my hands and if there was something in my teeth.
A little less than a year later on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, on a shared kneeler in our beautiful parish, Tim asked me to marry him. I said yes. Six months later, we were married in that same beautiful church. We vowed openly to accept children as gifts from God. We were also vowing to accept that our marriage would not be given that gift; at least not in the normal way.
While it is true that from the very beginning of our relationship I understood we were unlikely to conceive children, somehow I didn't really think that would be our cross.
We are good people. We would be good parents, I thought. Surely, God does not want us to be childless.
Doctors were pretty hopeful, too, since there were no other indications of underlying problems. So, we hoped.
We were eager to start our family when we married. I drove myself and my dear husband a little crazy each month when the signs I thought pointed to pregnancy actually pointed to quite the opposite. I was a wreck. I cried a lot. What made it worse was that I knew Tim felt responsible. After a year, Tim convinced me we should seek a diagnosis or prognosis to determine whether there was any hope of conception. Over the phone, we received the medical answer: zero chance. No clarification was needed. No explanation was given, just "not going to happen."
Once one has a ring on her finger, everyone from her hairdresser to her aunt, the nice lady who sits in front of her at mass, even her social media ads start wondering when the children will start coming. If it has been a couple years, some ask. Others simply assume that perhaps a couple isn’t really open to life.
Infertility is invisible and so isolating.
I remember sitting in the choir loft of our parish, looking down on all the women who stood for the priest's blessing, on the first Mother's Day after we found out with some certainty that we wouldn't have children. Sitting there, looking down, I wept bitterly. I was angry with God and I was angry with myself. Children are gifts from God--truly "the supreme gift of marriage"--but one that I would not have and that, I knew, was not owed to me. How dare I be angry with God for withholding a gift I don't deserve?
So, in shame and fear I hid myself from my husband, from my friends, and from my Creator. It was precisely in my desire for children that I neglected my vow to give myself totally and freely to my husband. Instead of leaning into my marriage by leaning on my husband; instead of leaning into my faith by embracing our cross; instead of allowing my friends to share my burden, I hid myself in work and pity. I busied myself, but I stopped praying. I felt all the feelings, and I tried to feel them alone. And at that I failed.
During one of our monthly confession dates, a priest told me that in withholding this darkness from my husband I was failing him as a wife. I was not allowing him to be what he vowed to me: to be my husband, my rock, "in sickness and in health." It was a valuable lesson, a lesson that is unique to every marriage, but one I have realized all marriages need to learn in some way. For it is precisely in the hard things that we learn to love.
What we’ve learned is that marital love is a total and complete gift of self. And sometimes the gift of self that you would like to give--that gift of the self that has it together and is in control--is not the one you are able to give. Christ emptied himself on the cross. We are called in marriage to empty ourselves to our spouse, trusting that they will not leave us empty. That is precisely the icon of God's love that is found in marriage.
So, I became vulnerable before my husband. In allowing myself to be vulnerable, I allowed my husband to be who he vowed to be to me. And I allowed my husband to bring me back to trust in God.
I would not wish infertility on anyone. But as with any suffering, there are things to be learned and graces to be gained that could not be learned or received without that suffering.
I learned why the Church teaches children are the supreme gift and fruit of marital love. From an abstract, theological perspective, I understood, but it wasn't until it was suggested to me to get a sperm donor that I really got it. "You can even get a family member if biology is important to you," someone said.
I realized viscerally what I had only understood intellectually before that day: that I didn't just want to be pregnant and to have children. I longed for children precisely as an outpouring of our love. I wanted children that had my husband's nose and my eyes. Not for stupid aesthetic reasons, but because it is precisely out of that kind of love that children are gifts, and that children deserve to be born out of that love.
We might have been able to "fix" my not being able to be pregnant and my desire to have children, but it would have been without the only man I wanted to be their father. This is why only couples, not individuals, are infertile. My husband's cancer and his diagnosis might be the reason for our infertility--but precisely because we are married, if he is infertile then so am I.
I also learned to allow myself and others to grieve. I felt that because I hadn't lost a child, and we aren't owed a child by God, we had no right to grieve. We have this desire (especially Americans, I think) to fix people rather than embrace their sufferings. Suffering is uncomfortable, and we want to get over it as soon as possible.
When my husband and told others about our infertility we were often told that it was God's will--as if taking away the right to be sad; if it is God's will then I should just surrender to it and even be happy about it. Even more often, we were given the ubiquitous advice that "you can always adopt". But adoption is not a replacement for fertility. And despite the myth, it doesn't cure it, either.
In Catholic theology we learn we are called to beget children as the gift and outpouring of marriage, but both in infertility and adoption, something has gone wrong. If we allowed ourselves and each other to grieve the fact that we would not have children by nature, that I would never feel the kick of a child in my womb, that Tim would never have children that look like him, we would be treating the children we adopt as replacements rather than the unique and unrepeatable individuals they are.
Infertility also taught us about grace. In the Easter Vigil liturgy we hear the proclamation "O Happy Fault that merited such and so great a redeemer!" It is precisely in our brokenness that God is able to fulfill us and to bring about an even greater good than we could have expected.
We are his children by adoption. It is through our brokenness that we are his, by grace.
It wasn't until we were able to accept our brokenness that we were free to suffer our inability to have children by nature, and that we were really ready to become parents by grace. And adoption is always from a place of brokenness. Something has gone wrong. We aren't there to fix that brokenness, but to redeem it in love. Love for expectant mothers in fear and crisis, love for birth parents who love their children more than themselves, and especially for those children, who enter into the world of brokenness and are placed in our family to be our children by grace. And like our redemption, it is truly a beautiful grace.
We learned to trust in God and listen to his desire for our family--to rely solely on him. Adoption is expensive and, as two teachers with student loans and small salaries, it seemed hopeless that we would be able to bring children into our home. My husband and I relied so heavily on each other's strengths: I relied on his ability to trust, and he relied on my ability to plan every eventuality. By relying on each other, and especially through the incredible generosity of our friends, God made adoption happen for us. We pray he has other children in mind to become part of our family.
Through our struggles with infertility, I learned that the yoke of selfishness and control is so much heavier than whatever cross Christ asks me to take with him. I learned that my husband is here to share that burden. And that, really, is what marriage is: carrying our cross together.
Jessi’s words of wisdom for brides:
Tell your husband what you need instead of making him guess: You need to hear that he thinks you are beautiful? Tell him. You need to feel appreciated? Tell him. You need him to do the dishes? Ask him to do the dishes! In the first couple years of marriage, I wanted my husband to just intuit what I wanted and needed, until I realized I was setting him up for failure in my mind. My husband is a great man; he wants to bring me to God and help to make me happy, but I was expecting him to be a mind reader, too. When I tell him what I need, he exceeds my expectations.
Find a prayer life and time that works for you and your spouse, and pray together. Make it a part of your shared lives, so that even when you don't feel like it your husband can move you to prayer, even when he isn't feeling it you can help him, so in your life you are always both pointed toward God, together.
Try to outdo your spouse in service and forgiveness, and try to outdo yourself each new day.
About the Author: Jessi Caruthers is a wife to a really good man and a mother through adoption to an adorable and busy toddler. She puts her degree in Thomistic philosophy to good use teaching high school Ethics and Religion in a suburb of Houston. She aspires to shabby hospitality in her little yellow house, living a simple liturgical life and making beautiful things.