Before reading any further, you should back out now if:
- you are offended by frank discussions of explicit LDS Christian doctrine and/or society.
- you haven’t yet seen “Up,” Pixar’s critically-acclaimed 2009 motion picture, and don’t want to be exposed to plot spoilers.
- you just aren’t in the mood for a lengthy, personal blog post that borders on the self-confessional.
I write this for a few reasons. One is to clear the air on some matters for our friends and acquaintances, who are understandably curious as to how our efforts to have children are faring. Another is to be of service, even in some small way, to other couples in our situation. As we’ve lived through this experience, I’ve found that we’re hardly alone. More than anything, though, I hope this exercise will help me more firmly articulate a few things in my own mind; if it helps nobody else, maybe it will help me.
If you were the random, occasional visitor to my old blog, you might have read the following circa 2004:
A question for the guys out there: have you ever seen the woman you love cry?
I’m not talking about crying at the end of some romantic movie, or out of mere depression. I’m talking wailing, bawling, sobbing uncontrollably, can-barely-form-coherent-sentences kind of crying.
Some three years ago, after being off all birth control and not conceiving, we decided to visit specialists. Have the equipment checked out, if you will.
Since her freshman year in college, my wife has had difficult periods. And as it turned out (I won’t go into the gory details), we both have medical issues related to fertility. The verdict: we probably would never conceive naturally.
That night, I simply held her as she sobbed, “I can’t have babies!”
That scene occurred in 2001. The ensuing years of navigating the maze of infertility have not been fun or enjoyable, but they have been instructive. Because infertility really is a maze. Natural conception is fairly binary in nature – there’s one path, not much guesswork. Infertility, however, raises plenty of questions, a number of paths one might take.
Let’s start with medical treatments, the first place most couples go when facing infertility. Here we learned some bitter realities. The insurance we had at the time, generally considered the most generous available, refused to cover nearly every known treatment. Clomid, Serophene? Nope. In vitro? No chance. However, on a lark, I decided to check about the company’s coverage of birth control. And whaddyaknow? They would pay for the pill. They would pay for Norplant. They would tie her tubes, give me a vasectomy. And they would fully fund an abortion—including an elective abortion. Bottom line: with me still in college, fertility treatments at that point just weren’t an option.
So we started looking into adoption. Good news here: LDS Family Services, the Church’s social services arm, facilitates infant adoptions. Still costs a chunk of money, but it’s the best deal we would ever find (most agencies charge around $15k and up). Then we started filling out the forms. Do you have any idea what these people want to know?
- “Describe your childhood.” (Let’s not go there.)
- “Describe your relationship with your siblings. How is it different today?” (Where do I begin?)
- “Describe your relationship with your parents.” (I’d rather not, thanks.)
- “Name every job you’ve held since the age of 18.” (What?)
Very personal, invasive questions. Background checks. Letters of recommendation. The promise of thousands of dollars in fees. Waiting years living at the whims of troubled 16-year-olds. All because of our inability to get Mr. Sperm and Mrs. Egg to have a meeting of the minds. Move along, no irony to see here.
Try as we might, we just weren’t able to get the adoption train out of the station. Early on, I was still struggling with family-of-origin baggage, and it was just the wrong time to push for adoption. Later it was ongoing medical problems, as occasional surgeries were needed due to issues that contributed to the aforementioned infertility problems. (No, I’m not going into that level of detail in a public blog post. Connect the dots, if you feel inclined to try.)
Time passed. Months stretched into years. And we began to experience an arduous facet of LDS culture. At the time we lived in and around Mesa, Arizona (a.k.a. “lower Provo”), home to a large Latter-day Saint community, the largest we had ever lived in as native Southerners. And we found that not having children, regardless of the reason, results in additional difficulties for women. We lived in our first ward for nearly four years. Years after we moved, I found out later that my wife was asked, every Sunday, by a different sister in Relief Society, why we don’t have kids yet. One loving, caring sister made no bones about it, turning around in her seat to us behind her after a Sunday School lesson to inform us, “You guys have been married for a while now. Time for you to start having kids.” (Others weren’t quite as loving – I later found out that not a few sisters suggested to my wife that just a bit more faith and repentance on her part would bring her children.)
But we then discovered the bitter reality that children are a sort of social ticket in LDS society, especially for women. My wife had a hard time finding friends among the sisters at church. Part of that was no doubt due to her educational background. Understandable, as most people are intimidated by an aerospace engineering degree. But the garden variety LDS mother has rightly focused her life in the home and in her family. My wife – highly educated, professional, childless – was just too far outside the mean for most sisters to understand.
We hit upon a way to defuse some of this friction in our next ward. As most Latter-day Saints know, moving to a new ward will usually get you an invite to speak in church – sort of an introductory, pleased-to-make-your-acquaintance talk. In our new ward, my wife was asked to speak on faith. She took the opportunity to share, simply yet powerfully, what infertility had taught her about faith. I was told later that every sister’s eyes were glued to my wife as she spoke. Aside from taking the opportunity to clear the air on the whole “why don’t they have kids yet???” question, it was also a powerfully spiritual lesson.
There’s more to this soap opera that I won’t share. I’ve given more than enough to provide a backdrop to appreciate the revelations of the last few months, which came by way of “Up.”
I knew vaguely of the movie, had meant to catch it. I’ll see anything by Pixar; I honestly don’t think that studio is capable of making a certifiably bad movie. But while it has its comedic elements, it is by no means a comedy. I’m glad I didn’t watch it in the theater, because I likely wouldn’t have had Kleenex handy. And I don’t cry at much of anything.
It was my wife who suggested we watch it together. “It hits close to home,” she said. Close to home? Here we are, 12 years into marriage, which as I’ve intimated is generations in Mormon years to have no kids – and there, on the screen, is the animated edition of something approaching what we can expect down the road. It’s not “Up.” It’s us. (Although I don’t think my head is quite that square.) Those critics who have focused on the mostly silent beginning to the movie as a great piece of cinema are spot on. A loving couple, so close, a good relationship, expectations of creating a family together…derailed.
Watching the movie kicked off a discussion between the two of us. What would you like to do? What adventures would you like to have? And, eventually, where would you like to live? My wife’s answer was one I had expected – I want to go small town, live in the country.
You know, I said, the kids might not go for that. Last year we had, after going through yet another series of classes and stacks of forms, received foster adoption certification through the state. Nothing had really happened with it – we heard from our caseworker once in a blue moon, but, as with all our past attempts to adopt, nothing was going on.
And now, the curveball. “Kids?” she asked rhetorically, and exasperatedly. “What kids? Look. Forget adoption. I’m done. It hasn’t happened. It’s not going to happen.”
I was dumbfounded. And not a little heartbroken. Look, I said, we’re in our mid-30s. We’re still plenty young. But you’re not saying the window for children is closing – you’re saying it has closed?
“I’m putting this in the Lord’s hands,” she said. “I’m not going to keep living my life in an unending holding pattern, hoping for something that may never happen. I’ve had my time as Ellie, sitting in the yard, grieving. I’m moving on.”
She had hinted at this in recent weeks. For whatever reason – okay, denial – I had chosen to whistle past the graveyard. But she had never stated her feelings so bluntly until now.
But look at how Carl and Ellie ended up, I said. I didn’t want to end up feeling that I had gone nowhere, achieved nothing. “Is that what you got out of the movie?” she answered. “I didn’t get that at all.”
At that precise moment, all I was getting was pain. So I shared the story with a good friend who goes back some years and knows all the gory details, trying to get some perspective. And what he said gave me pause.
“It seems that with many of life’s trials, we go through three phases. The first phase is, at best, a modified denial, praying, ‘Oh, Father, fix it, fix it, make it better.’ The second phase is a sort of bitter acceptance: ‘Well, this is life, but it sucks.’”
“But then there’s a third phase: the soul softens. You come to understand that even though things aren’t what you had wanted or expected, that God loves you deeply, is there for you, has always been there for you, in all your imperfections and flaws. And that is peace enough.”
I shared this with my wife, and she said what I had expected. “Exactly. I’m in phase three. You keep trying to drag me back to phase two.”
So after a dozen years of trying, working and ultimately failing to bring forth posterity, this is where we’re at – looking at long-term life as childless Mormons. Understand, a lot of guys I grew up with or served with on the mission have at least two kids. Most have four or more. One has seven. Pair that with the expectations of LDS doctrine and culture, and it seems a pretty rough path to take.
But I’ve arrived at a realization that this isn’t nearly so bad as it might seem at first. I considered some of the consolations listed here. I began to think that if kids aren’t on the radar just now, it might be a bit counterproductive to continue pining for them and instead begin considering what we might do instead. We have been blessed in so many other ways. We’re both gainfully employed, we have some pretty cool extracurricular stuff going on, we’re able to do some things that couples with children can’t really do.
This still hurts, of course. We go back and forth as to how at peace we are with this. But we go on in faith. And we feel so very comforted.
With all that said, we have a few requests for our friends:
- Please don’t try to fix us. No suggestions to visit this specialist or try that infertility treatment.
- Please, no ideas on adoption. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt, didn’t fit, took it back. We’re not permanently ruling out adoption, but for reasons I’ll address in a separate blog post, our latest attempts at adoption have resulted in a lot of disappointment and pain.
- Most of all: please, no pity. There are so many other people in the world in far worse shape than us. We really are so very fortunate in many, many ways.
So it’s just the two of us for now. It certainly isn’t what we had expected life would offer, but we really do feel so richly blessed.