Saturday, July 21, 2012

Catholic Infertility: Separate but Equal?

I am having a hard time wrapping my mind around an interesting phenomenon that I have started to notice.  It would appear that being infertile, or more specifically, being a childless married couple, is not seen as a big a tragedy as it is made out to be in non-Catholic circles.  I am strictly going off my own experience here, of course.  For years I participated in a secular online forum for adoption and then infertility.  Towards the end of last year, when our journey took us to a new option, I found it necessary to seek a forum where life is appreciated as starting at conception, and human embryos are recognized as distinctly and fundamentally different from the gametes that they are conceived from.  So for almost a year now, I've also been involved with an online community for Christian women struggling with infertility.  And while I found exactly what I was looking for in terms of their Pro-Life stance, and it has been wonderful to have our shared faith in Christ central to our decision-making process as well as dealing with grief, I've noticed something that wasn't much of an issue before.  Most of the women on this forum are Protestant, and I've found that when I bring up a uniquely Catholic view, it is not received the way I would hope.

For instance, I will not find encouragement in turning to Mary for her intercession.  At best, my comment will not get picked up.  At worst, I will have opened a can of worms regarding how asking Mary to pray for me is idolatry (while asking friend to pray for me is not ;) )  Also, when it comes to making certain decisions regarding what treatment options to pursue, there is a lot of freedom of conscience on the Christian forum, which I applaud.  In fact, there have been some controversial subjects discussed, and for the most part, everyone is able to say their piece but agree to disagree.  But if I'm trying to be in line with a Catholic teaching, it doesn't do me much good to hear 20 different opinions on whether or not it would be morally appropriate to use a surrogate, for instance, when all I really need to hear is the opinion of Christ's church.

Don't get me wrong; I have no qualms about either forum.  However, neither is a Catholic environment, and as I have grown deeper in my faith, I'm finding that it does make a difference whether or not the company I keep or the books I read are Catholic or not.  That's not to say that I will now shun my non-Catholic friends and burn all secular books, by any means!  But it does mean that when it comes to something as personal and intertwined with my identity as the unfulfilled desire for a child, then it does matter where I find my support.

So what's the problem?  Aren't there Catholic forums out there?  Yeah... this is where my dilemma comes in.  I have tried on multiple occasions to become involved with one such forum, only to find the posters there completely unconcerned with being sensitive to others' feelings, and God forbid you actually question a Catholic teaching.  I am of the opinion that questions are healthy, and they help one grow in one's faith.  I am not unique in this.  I once attended a talk by a Catholic priest, Father Joe Breighner, author of a book called "Does it all Make Sense? 10 Best Guesses about the Meaning of God and of Life", who encouraged spiritual seekers to ask the tough questions. But I digress.

On the Catholic forum, first of all I found there is no separate place for discussion of infertility.  It's a hodgepodge where everyone can comment on every which topic you can imagine.  This is fine and dandy, except that what inevitably ends up happening is that everyone thinks they can share some pearl of wisdom on a topic they have zero personal experience on, and then they get upset with you for trying to steer the conversation to a more appropriate angle and accuse you of only wanting to hear what you want to hear.  Yeah, I only want to hear comments that are respectful, relevant, and sensitive.  I thought that was a given.

The other handful of people I've "met" there who indeed have struggled with infertility or are even childless after 40+ years of marriage, don't seem to consider it as big a part of their lives as the posters I've met on the secular or Christian sites.  I've started a group for married but childless couples, yet no one feels the need to join.  And frankly, this extends into real life as well.  At our parish, we ran an ad for a month trying to start a support group for people going through infertility, and did not get a single taker.

I have to wonder - is there something inherently different about being Catholic and infertile?  Is there a stronger faith?  Is there less focus on the self?  Is there a better ability to join one's suffering, grief, and disappointment with Jesus on the cross?  Does the fact that Catholicism includes vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, not just family life, make being married without children seem less obvious, less hurtful?

And then the elephant-in-the-room question arose in my mind; Have I allowed this one aspect of my life to completely take over everything else in my life?  Have I allowed infertility to define who I am in the sight of God?  Have I forgotten everything else that kept me going in life before I became fixated on having children?  Is my inability to find an ideal niche of a support group, one that would join Catholicism and infertility, a gift from God?  Is this perceived dilemma God's way of telling me that I seriously don't have anything to complain about?

One of the classic faux pas in infertility support circles is that you do not tell someone grieving the loss of their fertility to look on the bright side.  You do not compare their suffering with the suffering of others.  You do not point out all the blessings they could be grateful for.  This is considered belittling a person's feelings, and everyone has a right to their feelings. Hmmm... and now as I reread that, other thoughts come to mind... political correctness, enabling, short attention span.  Let me explain.

Political correctness is all about being tolerant about other people's opinions, because you don't want to hurt their feelings.  I was very "PC" at one time, being careful not to step on any toes.  But what ends up happening if you take this to the extreme is that right and wrong become relative.  There's no moral truth anymore.  You can't correct someone's action for fear of it hurting their feelings, even if the action hurts their soul.  I never understood why anyone would be against being "PC", but now I do.  Certainly, one ought to be civil and respectful towards even those one disagrees with, but this should not involve compromising one's beliefs or withholding one's own opinions.  Proper civil conduct is truly an art that not a lot of people master.

As for enabling, this involves the idea that you can love someone too much.  For instance, say a loved one has an addiction problem, and in order to help them feel loved, you allow them to continue down a dangerous path when you could try to speak up, prevent access to the source of the addiction, or even insist on them getting help.  You think you're helping them because they continue to "feel good", but in the long term, you're just perpetuating the problem.  The antidote to enabling is "tough love".  Not terribly popular because it creates uncomfortable feelings, but very useful in terms of life lessons and long term goals.

Finally, by a short attention span I am not insinuating ADD or ADHD, since I don't know enough about the condition.  I mean that in general, we in the US are a culture that thrives on being entertained and/or challenged.  If we aren't being entertained or challenged, we get bored and give up.  Passive entertainment such as television watching tends to be preferred over reading a good book.  The average American will go through 5 career changes (careers, not jobs), often because they get bored at their current job and seek a new challenge.  Now, there is nothing wrong with that, unless you cannot sit still long enough to reap the rewards of patience and perseverance.  Yes, even mundane tasks have the ability to be rewarding if one is looking for solitude, reflection, mediation. But as a culture, we are not encouraged to do so because we are not taught the value of "slow living".

A quick anecdote - for over a year, I church hopped and could never be satisfied with a place of worship that "felt" right to me.  I was looking for an emotional paradise, but I had no idea how to find it.  When I finally realized that there was always going to be something I didn't like, I returned to the Catholic church for better or for worse, and chose to serve God by going to church instead of going to church to be entertained.

At any rate, as I sit here thinking about how our fixation with making everyone feel good has contributed to my expecting to have my feelings over infertility validated, I am starting to consider that perhaps reverting back to Catholicism was one of the best things I could've done on my infertility journey as well as my spiritual journey.

I've realized bits and pieces of this truth before, especially courtesy of my mom (whom I've blamed for being too insensitive to my feelings!), but only now am I starting to see how this can have a life-altering impact on a person's perspective on life.  Infertility is my cross to carry.  Others have different crosses.  If we all isolated ourselves and moped around about our lot in life, not only would nothing constructive get done about it, but we'd also fail to look for the hidden blessings God has placed among the obstacles.

I'm not talking about the sort of annoying things that well-meaning fertile people tell infertile people: you can travel! Or, you can sleep in on the weekends!  I'm talking about much more important blessings.  In my case, our 9 years of marriage without children has allowed Alex and me to grow in our relationship in a way that few people do.  We are realizing the joy of the Sacrament of Marriage more fully by not having children, because we have had to find meaning in our marriage outside the stereotypical purposes given: to procreate and educate children.  Also, the hurts along the way, and there have been many, have forced us to our knees, quite literally.  We each have a closer relationship with the Lord than either of us did when we first married.  We pray together regularly.  We enjoy attending church activities together.  We are able to get involved with causes like the Green Team at our church (an environmental effort that is part of an organization called GreenFaith) because we have the time.  That is not to say that people with children can't or don't experience these blessings.  The point is that WE, by being the people that we are, with our particular personalities and preferences, wouldn't be who we are today had we been blessed with children early in our marriage.

For the first time, I'm looking at our infertility through the lens of Catholicism, and I see that they're not two separate aspects of my identity, like being Polish and a woman.  Rather, being Catholic is paramount, because through our faith we are able to reach God, to serve Him, and to seek His will.  There is nothing about being a parent that can compare to being a child... of God.

Luke 9:23

Then [Jesus] said to everyone: “If anyone is willing to come after me: let him deny himself, and take up his cross every day, and follow me."

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