FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) -- In a recent Huffington Post article, Melanie Notkin writes about her "secret grief" of being single and childless. There, Notkin -- who wants to marry -- references the seeming difference in response a single woman receives and a married woman receives. Similarly, Courtney Reissig posted a blog about her current infertility journey and the challenges that come with it. Both articles are telling. Even though they are on this journey for different reasons, both Notkin and Reissig refer to the pain and grief that seem to be traveling partners on the road of childlessness.
According to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is estimated that 15 percent or 4.3 million married women in the United States have impaired fecundity. That is, they either have problems getting pregnant or have difficulty in carrying a baby to term. Of those women, 2.1 million are, by definition, infertile. Assuming that these statistics hold, as many as 15 percent of the women sitting in our church pews, Bible studies and small groups could be dealing with this secret grief.
As one who is walking this road and now finds myself at a point in life where the biological clock has put a period on the label "infertile," I can attest to the fact that the grief is real. I can also proclaim with all certainty that God's grace is just as real and infertility can be a vehicle to the cross where grief meets grace.
The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel is often the place women start when dealing with infertility. Many women, however, wonder why their stories did not end as Hannah's -- holding a baby in her arms. Look closer, however, at the first 18 verses of 1 Samuel. When Hannah had poured her grief and pain out to the Lord, it says in verse 18, "Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad." At that point, Hannah did not know how her story would end. She did not know if she would ever be pregnant. But, when her grief met the grace of the Lord, her uncertainty became hope. There is hope for you as well. Romans 5 declares that since we have access to His grace, our sufferings lead to hope that "does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:5).
WE GRIEVE THE LOSS OF AN IDENTITY, BUT GRACE ANCHORS OUR IDENTITY IN CHRIST
We live in a performance-based world that tends to define identity by the things we do and the roles we fill. This sets us up to question who we are if our lives do not look the way we think they should. We grieve the loss of a key source of identity for women ... motherhood. But when this grief meets the grace of God, we learn that our identity is not anchored in the roles we fill, but in the saving work of Jesus Christ. My identity as a woman is not whether or not I bear or rear children, but whether I am faithfully following God and living my life as He has directed it. My primary desire cannot be for children but my primary desire must be for God and to allow Him to fill in the blanks. Because of God's grace I am saved (Ephesians 2:8), a slave of righteousness (Romans 6:18), a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), chosen of God, holy and dearly loved (Colossians 3:12) and a part of the Bride of Christ making myself ready (Revelations 19.7).
WE GRIEVE THE LOSS OF BEING A MOTHER, BUT GRACE RETAINS THE ABILITY TO MOTHER
God has given women an innate desire to mother. The grief of childlessness is often connected to wanting to fulfill one of the purposes for which we were created and believing we have lost that possibility. However, not having children of her own does not discount a woman from mothering. Rather, it is just the opposite. Scripture commands in Titus 2 that the older woman is to teach the younger woman. The curriculum that follows in Titus 2:5-6 are the things that any mother would teach her daughter. Notice, though, this command does not limit by saying only "the mother must teach the daughter." There are many girls and young women in this world who need spiritual mothering and long to have an older woman who loves, teaches, nurtures, corrects and protects them. God's grace propels us to nurture, mother and invest in the lives of young women and, often, it is when we answer this command that we run headlong into God's grace and our grief is replaced by purpose.
WE GRIEVE WHEN THE WORLD JUDGES, BUT GRACE ALWAYS REDEEMS
The world will judge and place motive on the life circumstances and decisions of others. As Notkin writes in her article, "People assume I never wanted kids because I don't have any. Or act surprised when I reveal that I do. Or worse, presume I am happier for being childless or more fortunate for not having to 'worry about kids.'" When it comes to childlessness, this seems to be even truer in the Body of Christ. Many women will attest to the feeling that they have been judged as a "lesser woman," questioned as to "what is wrong with you?" or indicted because they have been unsuccessful in fertility or adoption, often leading to guilt and shame. God's grace always redeems. He forgives past sins. He restores completely.
But also, if you are living as God has asked you to live and He has chosen not to crown your marriage with children, what is there to feel guilty about? Galatians 1:10 reminded me that if I "were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ." While it appears God intends for our family to be a family of two, His grace has allowed me to release the judgment I have felt and to rest in the assurance that I am exactly where He wants me to be. Allow God's grace to redeem the time you that have held on to guilt, shame and judgment that He never intended.
Childlessness, whether by life circumstance or physical limitation, is a loss experienced by millions of women. It is a real loss and a real grief often borne by real women in silence and shame.
If you are a woman who is experiencing the grief of infertility, God has made a way for you to meet His grace. You need simply to pour your heart out to Him, just as Hannah did (Psalms 62:8). I won't tell you He will take your sadness away, but He can transform it into hope, redemption, peace and a grace that will eclipse your every grief.
If you are serving in a church, how many of these women are sitting in your pews? How are you meeting them in their grief? Are you intentionally leading them to Christ?
I am grateful someone once led me to the foot of the cross ... the place where I laid my infertility down and my grief met His grace.
Terri Stovall is dean of women's programs at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She co-authored the book "Women Leading Women." This column first appeared at BiblicalWoman.org, a blog of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.