For as long as I can remember, I dreamed of having a large family. Five, six, seven, eight children — it didn’t matter; I was prepared to take as many children as God sent me. There was just one problem: My 20s came and went without God sending me a husband.
Another decade passed, and with my single status unchanged, reality set in. There would be no eight babies. Nor would there be five babies.
By the time I finally did meet a wonderful man and get engaged at age 40, I hoped for just two. The doctors assured me that was realistic. I was healthy, my hormones all checked out at optimum levels, and there was no reason I shouldn’t conceive. I believed them. After all, my friends my age or older were having babies. Why wouldn’t I?
Eighteen months later, I’m still asking that question, and the NaProTECHNOLGY doctor I’ve worked with has no answer. Even at age 42, he thinks I should be able to conceive. But, I can’t, and every minute of the day that passes, my heart breaks just a little bit more.
The grief of infertility is like no grief I’ve ever known. It is all-consuming — between the supplements, the hormones, the diet modifications and the tests, I can never get away from it. It also, quite literally, is frustrating. My body and soul were made for motherhood, and for reasons unknown, my body won’t cooperate; it won’t do what it’s supposed to do.
Above all, though, the grief of infertility is lonely. The loneliness comes, in part, from being surrounded by healthy, beautiful Catholic families who have babies seemingly with the ease of breathing. Around them, it’s hard to feel like I belong. When other women are chatting about babies and breast-feeding, I have nothing to offer. I don’t fit in.
For many women, that loneliness is only compounded by the choice to be silent about their grief. As I’ve discovered, talking about infertility can be its own cross. Almost everyone has a suggestion: “Just relax.” “Just adopt.” “Just eat this food, try this diet or take this supplement.” Those who don’t have suggestions have a reprimand (“You need to be more grateful.” “At least you’re married.”) — or a platitude (“God must be calling you to spiritual motherhood.” “God knows best.”).
It’s all well intentioned, but it cuts just the same, leaving you feeling both responsible for and unentitled to your grief.
Unlike many women who share my cross, however, I’ve been blessed with friends who have walked this path. I can talk to them about my pain, and that makes this cross a little less lonely. What has helped even more than their companionship, though, is the companionship of the saints.
If you’re looking for saints to accompany you in your journey of infertility, you’ll find no shortage. There is St. Jude, Jesus’ cousin, and St. Rita of Cascia, an Italian widow and mother. The pair of them are often referred to as the patron saints of “impossible causes,” and infertility can indeed feel like the most impossible of causes.
Sts. Anthony of Padua, Colette, Gerard and Philomena also have a reputation for helping infertile women and are considered special patrons of those seeking to conceive. So, too, are the biblical matriarchs who wrestled with God for the gift of a child: Sarah, Rachel, Hannah and Elizabeth. Alternately, if you struggle with frequent miscarriages, Sts. Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Sweden and Eulalia are known for their powerful intercession in that regard. Or, if male-factor infertility is contributing to your infertility, St. Nicholas (yes, the one who brings presents) is who you want in your corner.
There really is no shortage of saints to whom you can turn for companionship, prayer and help with infertility. For me, however, the most comfort and consolation has come from two women: the Blessed Mother’s own mother, St. Anne, and a Carmelite wife and religious sister, Venerable Mother Maria Luisa Josefa of the Most Sacred Heart (affectionately known as “Mother Luisita”).
Tradition tells us that Mary’s parents endured decades of infertility before being blessed with a little one. Sts. Anne and Joachim fasted, prayed and begged God for a child. Finally, in their old age, God blessed them with the most special baby girl the world has ever known.
That story is told in word and pictures on the dome of St. Anne de Beaupré, the largest shrine to St. Anne in the world. Nestled along the St. Lawrence River, just a few miles outside of Quebec, countless couples praying for a child visit there each year. My husband and I actually went there on our honeymoon. Now, a statue of St. Anne rests on the mantle in our bedroom, reminding me to turn to her for comfort and strength whenever my own strength fails.
On my bedside table is another sacred image: a picture of Mother Luisita. Born in Mexico in 1866 and wed as a teenager to a young doctor, Mother Luisita and her husband tried and failed to have children for many years. They wept, they prayed, and, finally, they decided that the poor would be their children. Together, they founded a hospital and dedicated their marriage to serving the less fortunate.
After 14 years together, Mother Luisita’s husband died, and she became a Carmelite religious sister. Then, in 1921, she founded her own congregation: the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart, now based in Alhambra, California.
In these two women, St. Anne and Mother Luisita, I’ve found friends for this infertility journey. They aren’t just holy women, but also women who have walked this same path. They know the pain, the frustration and the profound loneliness of infertility. They’ve cried the same tears and prayed the same prayers. They’ve experienced the same crushing cycle of hope and disappointment, and they’ve endured many of the same unintentionally foolish and hurtful remarks.
In their company, I don’t feel alone. Instead, I feel known and understood, supported and loved. They are my advocates and companions, securing for me with their prayers all the grace and strength I need to follow their example and accept God’s will, whatever it may be.
That, of course, is the beauty of the communion of saints. Each of us, whatever cross we carry, never carries it alone. We have a cloud of witnesses walking by our side, ready to bear the weight we cannot bear and pray the prayers we cannot pray. We can’t always perceive their presence, but they’re with us just the same, offering a help that is real and powerful and available at every moment.
For that, I am more grateful than I can say. In the darkest and most difficult months of my life, these heavenly companions have kept me on my feet and helped me keep on hoping and trusting in God’s plan. I am in their debt for that gift. And if I do ever hold a baby of my own, I know I’ll be in their debt for that gift, as well.
Emily Stimpson Chapman writes from Pittsburgh.