“Heartbreak prepares you for motherhood.” My mentor said something like this to me as I was coming to terms with the end of a relationship. I do not remember her exact words, but I remember the point: Motherhood would involve suffering, and this heartbreak was helping me learn how to work through loss and come to the other side better able to love.
I have to admit: it was not a comforting thing to hear at the time, but now, as a mother who has welcomed life and grieved its loss, I can attest to her wisdom.
Why both life and loss? We live in a world marked by original sin. Death is a consequence of this reality, and the implications are personal. In “Three to Get Married,” Venerable Fulton J. Sheen wrote: “As all love tends toward an incarnation, even God’s, so does all love move toward a cross, even Christ’s. So long as love has a body, there will never be any other way to prove love than by sacrifice.”
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My husband and I have encountered various losses of different magnitude in our six years of marriage. These losses have taken on different forms. We’ve lost opportunities to be intimate due to health concerns. We’ve chosen to devote money and time to pursuing medical assistance for fertility struggles. We’ve experienced the loss of miscarriage and secondary infertility. These are real losses, and they are not unique to our marriage.
In the beginning I found myself turning to my husband saying, “I feel like a burden to you.” Without missing a beat my husband replied, “It isn’t your fertility or my fertility; it is our fertility.” Fertility struggles can feel isolating, but my husband continues to remind me of the comfort a spouse can bring to this struggle. The call to be open to life and loss is a joint project.
Still, it looks different for men and women. For a woman, it means literally offering up her body to the possibility of the formation of another human being. For a man, it means turning his attention onto his wife and possible children. For both, it means a sacrifice of self and an openness to the other.
Marriage may be a common vocation, but it takes extraordinary and heroic living to succeed. Husbands and wives need to be united in their understanding of sex and fertility and how these can take shape in their lives. If there is no unity in understanding this joint project, there will be tension, such as when periods of needed abstinence call for redirecting desire, or if it is not understood that there is the possibility of a child any time a couple unites in the sexual embrace. Fertility, for both men and women, involves a surrender.
The gravity of this reality begs a question: Who is responsible for helping couples understand what they are undertaking? Mothers and fathers are the primary educators of their children. In an act of subsidiarity, the Church relies on parents to teach their children about sex and fertility. Parents should not leave this education up to schools, religious education programs, or even popular speakers or books. It is also up to parents to help their children learn to grow in their capacity to love when they experience suffering. It is not as though parents can or should predict the specific crosses their children will carry, but it is their responsibility to help their children be prepared to carry them. This is no easy task.
Parents may be the primary educators of their children, but their communities should help them in this task. As children grow, marry, and live the call to life and loss, their family, friends and neighbors should be attentive to ways to help alleviate some of the isolation couples may feel when they experience suffering related to their fertility.
We all have a responsibility to support the people God places directly in our lives. Here a few of the many ways that we should be supporting couples in the call to life and loss:
- Participate in meal trains for families who are welcoming life or grieving its loss.
- Offer to babysit or spend an afternoon with an overwhelmed parent.
- Offer to listen to a friend who is struggling to find ways to love his or her spouse during periods of abstinence.
- Send messages of support to couples struggling with infertility and help them feel welcome at events for families.
- Send flowers to the couple grieving the loss of a child and mark the date on your calendar to continue to support them in their grief.
- Consult your parish’s (or diocese’s) list of resources for couples who are experiencing postpartum depression, infertility or hyperfertility.
Fertility is a gift, a responsibility and a reflection of unity. We need to support couples in their journeys to live heroically as they strive to be fruitful and multiply in the way that God intends.