Acknowledging the Pain of Childlessness

by Lauren McAfee on April 28, 2019
Featured in Answers Magazine
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Our unsatisfied yearnings remind us that things are not always as they should be, but our grief can help us grow

You know those memories that stay with you in vivid color as if they happened yesterday, even after years have passed? Maybe it is your wedding day, the day you graduated, or some other significant milestone in your life. For me, one of those still-vivid memories is my husband Michael’s twenty-fifth birthday dinner.

To celebrate his turning a quarter of a century, I made a reservation and took him out on a dinner date after we both got off work. With his birthday in December, it was cold and dark outside, but we were bundled up and looking forward to enjoying time together over good food and conversation. I had planned a few intentional conversation points just to make the most of our quality time together.

Halfway through our meal, I decided it was time we talked about something we both had anticipated someday in our future: growing our family. More specifically, I wanted to begin the adoption process. Adoption has been a part of my family’s history for generations. This has fostered a passion in my heart for adoption since I was a teenager. My husband had also come to love the idea because of our church’s emphasis on orphan care. Before we got married, we knew we were both on the same page about adoption, though we didn’t have a timeline of when we would begin that process.

As I casually brought it up that night at dinner, I tried to play it cool. The reality was, I had already looked up international adoption programs, and I knew exactly the age requirements for adoptive families. At the time, most programs required that one spouse be at least 25 years old to begin pursuing the process. So, not even a full day into Michael’s twenty-fifth year, I was bringing up the conversation with my husband who, being slightly older than me, qualified us for these international programs.

Through the conversation, Michael suggested we pray about it for the next 40 days and then revisit the conversation. I agreed, and we both started praying that evening about the direction God would have for our family. While I knew my heart had been stirred for adoption, I was praying God would guide both Michael and me to feel peace before taking steps forward. It didn’t take long for those prayers to be answered. The next day, Michael was printing off the adoption application paperwork. We both felt God was making it clear that this was the path we would take.

Desiring a Family

Years into the journey, it felt as if every childless day were a reminder that our world is broken because of Adam’s fall.

That dinner marks the beginning of our intentional journey toward growing our family. Our desire for expanding had always included plans of both adopted and biological children. From the beginning, after creating Adam and Eve, God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). It is a good thing for families to have children. As we began this blissful season of anticipation, we had no idea we would soon be walking the painful road of unsuccessful adoption attempts and, during that same time, discovering our own infertility.

Years into the journey, it felt as if every childless day were a reminder that our world is broken because of Adam’s fall. Things are not always as they should be (Genesis 3:16–19).

Childlessness Is Common

It has been six years since my husband and I had that first conversation about growing our family, and as of now, we still don’t have any children to call our own. Neither adoption nor the pursuit of biological children has produced a son or daughter calling us mom and dad.

Failed adoption attempts. Infertility. The unfulfilled longing for children is a peculiar ache. It is to grieve something that has never been. Through the journey, we’ve been grateful to have our family and church community support us. We’ve also found support in the many friends and acquaintances who have also walked this road.

As we began experiencing infertility, it opened our eyes to the reality that it is much more common than we expected. One in eight couples will experience a season of infertility. Infertility is defined as the inability to become pregnant after a year of trying, or the inability to stay pregnant.1

Infertility is another sign of the post–Genesis 3 nature of our world. Our bodies don’t always work as they should. There are many factors that affect fertility, and research shows that nearly one-third of infertility cases are because of a female factor, one third are due to a male factor, and one third are either both or unexplained.2 My husband and I fall into the unsatisfying category of “unexplained” infertility. There aren’t answers or solutions—there is just the reality of our broken world. And regardless of who the infertility factor is attributed to, it inevitably affects both individuals spiritually and emotionally.

From the broken systems that affect the adoption process (despite good people working to support children) and broken bodies that don’t work the way they should, we’ve felt great disappointment in our dream of growing our family. And it is all so completely out of our control.

For Those Suffering

God’s Word gives us practical and helpful guidance on how to face extreme hardship. That includes examples like Job and the wisdom of Solomon. Here are three of the most basic tips for those in the midst of suffering.

It Is Okay to Grieve

In the book of Psalms, the writers give many examples of sharing honest laments before God. A lament is a passionate expression of grief. In grief, God will meet us (Psalms 23 and 61).

Find Support from Others

Find friends and family who can listen well and have empathy as you express your grief. Your support community may be a few people or many, but finding those trusted friends who will provide support is important (Ecclesiastes 4:9–12).

Cling to Ultimate Hope

Remember that because of Christ, we have ultimate hope. The book of Hebrews says that for “the joy that was set before him [Christ] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). Christ was able to have joy in the midst of preparing for suffering because he knew what was beyond that suffering. Beyond the cross was eternal life. Because of Christ, we have that same hope.

Living with Broken Dreams

What disappointments has life brought your way? While your story may not include the unfulfilled longing for children, there are other ways the reality of sin in our world is likely affecting you right now. For those who are in Christ, God’s Word shows us that suffering is unavoidable (Romans 8:18), but it can be used for our good to develop perseverance, character, and hope (Romans 5:3–5; James 1:2–4). God’s Word is filled with “precious and very great promises” that are specifically recorded to help us face our suffering with grace and peace (2 Peter 1:4).

God has taught my husband and me many helpful lessons from our disappointments. I would never wish such disappointments on anyone, but as Elisabeth Elliot says in her book A Path Through Suffering, “Who of us has not known the confusion, the ambivalence, the restlessness of pain?” Whatever our disappointments are in life, we can rest assured that God is with us and he is for us.

Walking Alongside

Job’s “friends” are a good reminder of how important it is to carefully choose the right words for an occasion. Here are three helpful tips if you are a friend of someone suffering.

Respect Our Differences

Understand that no one grieves or handles difficult situations in the same way. Have grace for the grieving person.

Don’t Try to “Fix” Everything Right Away

It is often in our nature to want to fix things when something has gone wrong. Often the grieving person just needs someone to listen and validate his or her cause for grief.

Continue to Check In

Often people can be afraid of bringing up a difficult topic. But the grieving person may be wishing that someone were willing to talk about it. Find out how your friend wants to communicate about it and follow up with him or her by checking in from time to time—especially on anniversaries or significant dates related to the cause of grief.

Lauren McAfee works at the Hobby Lobby corporate office and is pursuing her PhD in ethics and public policy from Southern Seminary. Lauren worked for her father, Steve Green, from the founding days of Museum of the Bible until it opened in 2018. Lauren is the author of Only One Life, Not What You Think, and Legacy Study.

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May–June 2019

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