In the heady first days of engagement and marriage, it’s hard to imagine the possibility of anything but lifelong joy.
Though the head knows marriage calls spouses to suffering and purification, the heart is frequently focused only on the blissful--and in many ways, rightly so.
Where, then, does that leave you and your spouse the first time you face a major cross or struggle? How can we live in the tension of suffering and hope while seeking to support and understand one another?
Marc Sherman and his wife Erin struggled to conceive for nearly a decade after their wedding day. With all glory to God, they are now parents, yet their personal journey illuminated a deep need: while science and medicine offer a wealth of physical support, where were emotional and psychological resources for spouses experiencing infertility?
Marc and Erin set out to meet this need, working with research psychologists to produce qualitative and quantitative research pertaining to husbands and wives’ individual and interpersonal experiences of infertility. Their business, Organic Conceptions, was founded in 2015, offering online education designed to develop couples’ emotional awareness, communication, healthy thought patterns, and understanding of the holistic relationship between mind and body.
Whether infertility is or is not a part of your current season, the principles of communication and understanding are relevant to all couples. Marc chatted with us to share his advice and perspective for spouses-to-be and newlyweds.
Organic Conceptions is rooted in you and your wife's personal journey with infertility. Can you share a bit of your story, and how your struggles impacted your marriage and spiritual lives (for better and for worse)?
We often see life evolving and sequencing in a particular way, and “struggle” is such an understatement in terms of what’s happening behind the scenes. Within just several months, that anxiety, worry, and concern over did we wait too long? And what’s wrong with my body? Becomes so emotionally difficult.
For my wife and I, after many, many years struggling, we were prepared to adopt and then conceived naturally--not once, but on two occasions. When you’re struggling, these are the most frustrating stories to hear. Friends and family try to encourage you, but it’s such a sensitive space.
After living this twice, it was very clear that things were different in each of our experiences. For my wife, it changed her perception of herself, her body, our relationships, past decisions leading to this journey...that led to the start of Organic Conceptions. We hired research psychologist Dr. Kate Webster to look into the patterns that emerge in [couples’ experiences of] infertility. From a marriage perspective, this is potentially one of the first major [challenges] you face as a couple. Everything you do is called into question, including your faith.
Dr. Webster’s research ultimately showed every couple’s story would map to the same set of emotional transitions through grief, pain, and worry. These emotions are validated through the research, and then we can start to empower and support couples to stay married and close through these difficulties.
There is a way in which a woman experiences this differently than her husband. We tell our couples, neither is right nor wrong. It’s about emotionally coming closer together and leaning on each other. Like any issue in a marriage, there’s middle ground that, through this research, can bring them to that place. Couples begin understanding how to engage and stay connected in the light of uncertainty--and there are other instances of pain and uncertainty in marriage [in addition to infertility; this provides a solid foundation for future difficulties.
For recently married couples bearing this cross of infertility, what practical advice you can share?
I want these couples to know: your emotional health and well-being matters. Research speaks to what happens in the month-to-month devastation of hope to despair.
At the highest level, our emotional and reproductive health aren’t entirely separate systems. We are physical, emotional, and spiritual beings.
[I encourage couples to not be] be too quick to jump only to fixing the physical and seeking answers; give meaning to emotional processing and experiences, as well.
Individually, couples need to make sense of this journey, but it does need to be entered into together. At the root, it’s about building a marriage, family, and life.
What about engaged couples? How can they work through fears or preexisting fertility issues in a productive way?
Erin and I often say, Wouldn’t it be great if someone got to us sooner and made us feel we matter as individuals and as a couple; that our faith matters and that [conception] is more than a to-do list item? This is a wonderful time in couples’ lives, and for some it might not go exactly as planned--wouldn’t it be great if a couple actually puts on the table early on, asking, if this doesn’t go as planned, what options or treatments are we open to as alternatives? What a healthy conversation to talk about the timing and methods you each are open to. It’s a conversation that needs to happen earlier on than it typically does.
Marriages are damaged by the journey, not the outcome.
If a couple’s journey wasn’t made in a connected, intimate way while making decisions together throughout an infertility experience, it can carry over into family life.
The ache for children and family is a natural and human desire. How can Catholic couples respectfully, lovingly answer friends and family who suggest they pursue infertility treatment options not in line with the Catholic faith?
I suggest couples focus on connecting emotionally, share their thoughts as a unit, and remember their faith. IVF and fertility treatments emphasizes the physical, treating it as a problem to be solved, and leaves out the emotional and spiritual pieces [of who we are]--we need to make room for all three.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with so many NaPro doctors about getting to the root of what the body is telling us: are we brave enough to listen to what our bodies are saying? In my mind, these are the most logical first steps: learning and having confidence in our bodies. Rather than leaping over and dismissing it, let’s pay attention to it. Couples can use this language of the body and the logic of fertility care in their conversations.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Her Witness Photography
An exclusive offer for Spoken Bride readers
If and when you feel called to sign up for Organic Conceptions’ programs, fill in “Spoken Bride” at checkout in response to “How did you hear about the program?” to receive the program workbook and journal for free. Questions may be directed to Organic Conceptions.