I barely remember my doctor telling me that he would try to save my uterus since I was so young, still in my child-rearing years. At that point, he had seen cancer on only one ovary. I remember less the form I must have signed giving them permission to remove whatever organs they needed to. What stuck very clearly in my mind, however, was waking up to the news that they had taken it all—my ovaries, my uterus, even some lymph nodes, and my omentum (an organ I didn’t even know I had). Radical hysterectomy.
I realized even then that I would never give birth to a child of my own, but at the time, I was thankful just to be alive. I couldn’t think about bringing another life into the world when I felt my own was destined to be so brief. Before cancer, I don’t know if I could have had children. I was unmarried at my diagnosis and had never tried to conceive. After cancer, I knew for sure I couldn’t.
It wasn’t until recently—after I was still alive more than seven years later, after I had married and become a stepmom—that I thought about myself and the void that exists where there used to be a womb and considered the word “infertile.” I’ve had my share of awkward moments when a radiology technician or presurgical nurse would review my medical history, confirm that I had had a hysterectomy years earlier, then still ask me if I was sure I couldn’t be pregnant. I’ve been tempted to say, “Really?” with the same look of incredulity I always feel inside. Instead, I say “no,” reminding them again of that impossibility. I’ve also been in the same room when people jokingly refer to a spayed female dog as an “it.” Often I ignore the comment, sometimes I correct it. Occasionally I feel the sting of the comment. I’ve even asked God why he made me an “it.”
But when I encountered three different books in the space of a few weeks all dealing with the topic of infertility, I knew it was time to make my peace with my own inability to bear children and to understand in a new way the pain that often accompanies others’ journeys as well. My story represents just one path. The writers of these three books offer three more stories, as well as insights and encouragement for the millions of men and women who are living their own stories of infertility.
In Plus or Minus: Keeping Your Life, Faith, and Love Together through Infertility*, Matt and Cheri Appling combine their infertility story with two other couples’ experiences. Two of the three couples eventually have children using medical treatments for infertility. One couple does not. But as they tell their stories, all three couples learn important things about themselves, their families, and their faith.
It seems that the world of infertility overlaps quite a bit with the world of faith. Maybe that is because we are hoping for something. We are trying to attain something we cannot see. Month after month we have hope, a twinkle of faith, that our wishes and desires will be granted.
One of the things I liked the most about Plus or Minus was its serious consideration of parenthood, not just having a baby but raising children, along with the social, emotional, and spiritual implications of being—or not being—parents. The Applings and the couples they interviewed wrestled deeply with grief, loneliness, rejection, fear, idolatry, and condemnation. They wanted what lots and lots of people want—children—but their desires were subjected to intense scrutiny because the process didn’t happen easily or naturally for them.
In her book The Process The Promise: A Journal for Infertility Prayer*, Lisha Epperson also tackles the heart-wrenching process of coming to terms with infertility and deciding to both adopt and seek fertility treatment. For Lisha, seeing herself as a mother regardless of whether she birthed children was important in the process.
I believe all women mother, spiritually if not physically. Women nurture. Before walking into motherhood through marriage, adoption, and birth, I mothered as an aunt and godmother. It was always natural for me to give voice to my inner mother. She spoke and I transformed. From girl to woman, I tended and took care of. Mothering was always in me.
So it’s hard to write about living child-free, to properly represent the women who didn’t choose but find themselves still childless. It’s also difficult to express the hard truth behind the decision to live without children. I want to honor the women who walk in this space. Their bravery astounds me. But I wonder? What lies on the other side of this choice, this reality. As with any decision, is there a possibility of regret, and what does that look like?
Lisha’s beautiful book comes full circle in many ways, especially when she writes about a recent discovery while observing a young infant with its mother. “The months-old baby was in a sling. Tender, soft, and new. The woman, flushed with life and the busyness of motherhood, glowed,” she writes. “Sweet right? Negative. My first thought? Not feeling that stage again! After decades of longing, I no longer wanted to have another baby.”
I read these two books about infertility because they were written by friends. I knew what they were about when I started them. I was surprised, however, when a memoir I picked up off the sale table at Barnes & Noble, My Sisters the Saints*, also was about this tender topic. Author Colleen Carroll Campbell, a journalist and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, writes about a fifteen-year period in her life when she came to terms with her Christian faith by learning more about several women saints from throughout the centuries of church history. During a season of her own infertility, Colleen found solace in the writings of Edith Stein of Germany, a Jewish-born philosopher turned Catholic convert and Carmelite nun in the first half of the twentieth century.
“Edith’s insights resonated deeply with me, opening my eyes to truths I had intuited for years but never put into words,” Colleen writes. “I found them especially helpful in making sense of my maternal desires and sorrow over infertility. Finally, I had found someone who took seriously my desperation to conceive a child in my womb, who saw my yearning for biological motherhood as a reasonable response to the way God had fashioned me, physically and spiritually.”
Yet Edith’s teaching about womanhood and femininity challenged Colleen’s thinking about motherhood even further. Weren’t all women mothers, regardless of whether they had birthed a child or not?
“Even as Edith’s views validated my suffering, they challenged me to rethink my fixation on getting pregnant,” Colleen writes. “If motherhood is more about what’s in your heart than what’s in your womb, I needed to stop waiting for a baby to use my maternal gifts.”
It’s hard for me to think of my own infertility in the same way as other men and women who still hope to have a child and continue to feel the pain and disappointment of “no” month after month. I am filled with gratitude for the many “yeses” God has answered for me: to life, to marriage, to stepsons, to nieces and nephews, to scores of spiritual children over the years. I will be always be grateful.
At the same time, reading these books has helped me move into a healthy period of grief over the loss of possibility. God said “no” to children born from me. And for now, I will consider anew all that that means.
Read and Respond
I love to read words almost as much as I like to write them. Sometimes, I get to do both by reading a book and writing about it: read and respond. It starts when a book captures my imagination. Usually I write about the books that change my life, or at least my heart. They are reviews, recommendations, and ways to connect with what I read.
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*This website uses “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” Also, I received a complimentary preview copy of Matt and Cheri’s book, and I served as the editor of Lisha’s book, but any endorsements, reviews, or comments about the book are my own opinion and were not influenced by the authors.