Sandra’s husband, Rick, clutched her hand as they walked down the hall to meet with the fertility specialist. After over two years of trying to have a baby unsuccessfully, they had been referred here and had completed the required physical examinations to see what might be preventing them from conceiving.
The doctor invited them in. “We have not found any medical reasons why you have not been successful in getting pregnant,” she explained. “While that is good news, unfortunately between 15 to 30 per cent of the couples we see have no explanation for their inability to achieve a pregnancy. Let’s talk about your options.”
Sandra and Rick are among the approximately one in six couples in Australia who experience infertility, but that statistic is of little comfort to them.
Rick and Sandra were young professionals when they met and fell in love. After a year of dating, they planned a beautiful wedding. They spent the next two years saving for a home and upon moving in, decided they were ready for the next step: starting a family. In their early thirties, they expected this to happen relatively quickly and were only a little alarmed when the first year went by with no pregnancy.
All around them, friends and family were welcoming little ones. They were among the last in their circle to begin their family. Sandra was beginning to feel stressed and dreaded hearing another friend announce their first – and then second – pregnancies.
Each month when she did not conceive, she became increasingly disheartened. Month after month was another loss, one piling on top of another. Rick tried to support and understand her, but she felt the brunt of the pain, feeling like her body was letting them down. She felt responsible, deficient, disappointed and guilty that her grief was beginning to interfere with her rejoicing in her friends’ excitement over their babies. It was also starting to cast a shadow over their previously enjoyable sex life as they researched ovulation cycles and timing.
The fertility specialist gave them some hope again. They did their research, decided what interventions felt comfortable to them and embarked on some reproductive technology. Additional tensions began to arise as invasive treatments, more exacting timing and hormones took their toll on their relationship. Again, the higher their hopes, the deeper the disappointment when it took several more months to finally conceive.
But the day finally came; the test was positive! Sandra and Rick celebrated, called their family, told a few close friends and believed that God had finally blessed them. An ultrasound where they heard their baby’s heartbeat was an amazing highlight – so incredible!
At about 10 weeks, though, Sandra noticed some spotting and a little bit of cramping. Initially she resisted the thought that anything could be wrong. “This is normal, right?” she would ask herself. After a few days, she called her doctor who told her to go to the lab for an ultrasound just to be sure.
There was no fetal heartbeat. It took two days for her body to expel the baby they had longed for – two days of physical and emotional pain like nothing she had ever experienced. Rick took time off and supported his wife the best he knew how, bringing her medication, making warm drinks, rubbing her back and holding her hand. He was grieving as well, but the pain was different for him. He felt helpless, wishing he could ease her pain, doing what he could but fearing it was not enough.
When it was over, they both felt numb, not sure what to say to each other, not sure what to do, how to tell others, how to move on. Their faith was shaken. Both experienced some anger at God, wondering why he allowed this to happen, after all the pain they had already been through.
They both struggled with feelings of inadequacy. There were days when one wanted to talk and the other did not and the next day they switched. It felt like their lives were at a standstill. Hearing that these issues can be damaging to marriages, they decided to see a counsellor.
The counsellor was a tremendous help to Sandra and Rick. She encouraged them to focus on:
1. Validating each other’s grief. Some great listening skills helped them to share what they felt and recognise that while their individual grief looked different from one another, their underlying pain was similar.
2. Making their marriage a priority. They committed to being a team. For a decision to be a “win,” it needed to be a “win” for both of them, not just one of them.
3. Evaluating the importance of biological children. For Rick, having a child that was biologically his was of far greater significance than it was for Sandra. As they unpacked that, Sandra came to understand more deeply why this was significant for him and she was able to empathise more.
4. Considering alternatives. In a safe setting, Sandra and Rick explored the implications of either remaining childless, continuing with fertility treatments or pursuing adoption. After long, sometimes hard conversations, they concluded that they could be OK with any of these options if that was what God had planned for them.
5. Leaning more fully on the Lord. Sandra and Rick developed a stronger bond through taking this burden to the Lord together.
Sandra and Rick left counselling feeling strengthened in their faith, in their marriage and in their confidence that they had gained important tools for facing grief and loss together. They were able to once again find comfort in one another and in trusting God that his grace was sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9), even though they did not know when, how or even if he might bless them with children.