Building Empathy for Those Experiencing Infertility and Child Loss
It has been a hard month for some of the dear women of my life. As I write this, I can hear my children clattering merrily through the house with their friends. In this Covid world it has been nearly a year since we have had friends over for inside play and the children have made the most of it, sliding down the stairs on cushions into mounds of stuffed animals and stirring up sugar cookies in a cloud of flour and heart-shaped sprinkles. Coronavirus is as transmissible as ever but my friend needed someone to watch her girls during the first and last maternity appointment of a long-hoped for pregnancy. Sadly, at 9.5 weeks along, my friend is at the doctor's to discuss how to move forward after a heartbreaking spontaneous miscarriage. I will be keeping her girls through the afternoon so she can process and grieve in peace. Ironically, today is the anniversary of my own miscarriage, lost at 13 weeks two years ago.
These two losses - my friend's and my own - happened rather early in the pregnancy, though that doesn't negate the reality of the pain, both emotional and physical. Other losses have happened further along. Earlier this month a close relative delivered her sweet son stillborn at 21 weeks. He came at the end of a long line of miscarriages and broken dreams. At least this one was carried long enough that she could hold him and name him. Knowing her love of flowers, we sent a rosebush in his memory that she can care for and cultivate, using her hands to plant, weed, prune and beautify when they ache to soothe, change, bathe, and swaddle. Sadly, next week I will be taking a meal to a woman in my church congregation whose daughter died just before delivery, with the nursery ready and waiting and empty at home.
I know that these are not easy stories to hear, but that very discomfort has been on my heart lately. Why aren't stories like these told more frequently? Completely coincidentally, in preparation for a series of talks I am giving on women in the Old Testament, I have been reading Reconceiving Infertility: Biblical Perspectives on Procreation and Childlessness by the University of Manchester's Candida Moss and Yale's Joel Baden. In it, they outline an ongoing stigmatisation of infertility, citing ancient and modern sources that betray an undervaluing, sometimes callously so, of the experiences of infertility or pregnancy and infant loss. In the religious arena, extreme (though admittedly marginal) examples include rabbinic theories that the extraordinarily beautiful biblical matriarchs needed their vanity humbled through infertility or, on the complete opposite hand, needed to withstand the beauty-destroying effects of childbearing as long as possible for the benefit of their husbands. Some Christian commentators have been no better. One reverend, as late as 1903, claimed that "barrenness leads to immorality [...] breeds brazenness; makes heartless".
More commonly than merely misunderstanding maternal grief, though, is the more common blame placed on women for barrenness. For many centuries, Western cultures have believed that God curses wicked women with infertility. Moss and Baden evaluate what they call biblical "case studies" to moderate and rethink common perceptions of infertility, hoping to build nuance, sympathy, and more correct understanding. One such case study specifically refutes the belief that the Bible shows barrenness to be a divine curse. Even in modern, secular arenas, though, women can be made to feel blame when, in the absence of a specific diagnosis for infertility or pregnancy loss, the best medical advice often given is to eat "more healthily" or exercise more or less.
Thus, stigma is perhaps one reason why women, even today, are largely quiet about their own experiences with infertility. The prevalence of miscarriage even in my own immediate circle hints that these are tragically common experiences for women. The NHS estimates that 1 in 8 known pregnancies ends in spontaneous miscarriage and 1 in 7 couples experience some form of difficulty conceiving. In other words, it is highly likely that someone you know, and even know well, has experienced one or both of these things. And yet there's a very good chance that you are unaware.
Stigma of all sorts is only one reason why women are hesitant to talk about their experiences. Internal hesitancy might be even more powerful than external stereotypes. Often the desire for a child feels deeply personal. Cherished dreams often begin before pregnancy occurs and come fully alive even in the earliest days of a pregnancy. Especially if pregnancy never happens, or if the pregnancy is lost before announcements have been made, it can be almost impossible to know how to bring others into your grief. There are very few natural spaces where it is safe to bring up such deep hopes and to admit such deep sorrows when there was never anything visible for outsiders to ask about.
If anything has become clear to me in the reading of Moss and Baden's book, though, it is that the West's most foundational text - the Bible - should have led to a spiritual heritage of compassion and grace for grieving mothers. Of the well-known women of the Bible, most of them experience some kind of infertility: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elisabeth all suffer primary infertility - the inability to conceive at all - until the hand of God intervenes in their advanced years. Leah, usually known for her "fruitfulness", actually also appears to experience a period of secondary infertility, or the inability to conceive for a time even though she has previously borne children. There is the lesser-known infertility of Samson's mother. Then Bathsheba, mother and grandmother of the kings of Judah, gives birth to a sickly son who does not live longer than a week. If we add any premature child-loss to the list of mother sorrows, we might add many more: Eve, Naomi, the widow of Zarephath, Job's wife, the widow of Nain, and of course, the biblical woman most remembered for her maternal mourning, Mary mother of Jesus.
Though scripture is rarely concerned with the inner emotional state of its characters, the authors are clear about the anguish of the barren. Hannah "was in bitterness of soul...and wept sore", so depressed that she couldn't eat. Rebekah pleads with Isaac to petition God for a child. Rachel's distress is the most visceral. The text tells us that she cried to Jacob, "Give me children, or else I die".
Muslims also recognise their own legacy of maternal heartache. It is in remembering Hagar's distress on behalf of her dying Ishmael, and her frantic attempts to pray and race to find water for his salvation, that Muslims run back and forth between the hills Safa and Marwah during the Hajj.
Together, these stories should help break down callousness and stigma and allow safe space and context for living with maternal grief. As we talk more about the women of our scriptural heritage, seeing them as women experiencing real hurt and sorrow in ways common to the experiences of many women today, we might begin to break down barriers, whether internal or external, to talking about infertility and loss.
Like Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah, there was life for me after infertility. My son, Reid, named for my paternal grandfather and his mother who died giving birth to him, was born last March, one week after Covid-19 shut down the world. He's reached the mischievous and mobile stage, when I spend half of every day chasing him out of cupboards and off the stairs. But somehow the satisfaction I have in his exuberance doesn't completely eliminate the sting of the fledgling life lost two years ago. It's not a sting I want to bury, though. That loss helped me know how to talk to my friend without awkwardness or embarrassment when she told me her sad news. My hope is that step by step, as we recognise how common the sorrows of motherhood can be and share our stories, we will be building a culture of empathy and visibility. My hope is that every grieving woman can be swept in an embrace of compassion, and experience healing through openness and acceptance.
Note: The World Health Organization has published stories and resources related to infertility and pregnancy/child loss. To see more of the work they have done on this topic, follow this link: https://www.who.int/news-room/spotlight/why-we-need-to-talk-about-losing-a-baby)
Amy Fisher is an alumna of the Woolf Institute and the University of Cambridge having undertaken the MSt in The Study of Jewish-Christian Relations. She now lives in the US with her husband and four beautiful children.
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