LDS and Infertile: An Introduction

It had never been difficult for me to be a member of my church. That changed when I experienced infertility.

I loved attending church and interacting with the other members. I enjoyed having responsibility; I recall my time in the relief society presidency (the women's organization of my church) with fondness, even though it required a great deal of my time and effort. I felt, and still feel, that my church was and is an integral part of my life. However, since infertility, being a dedicated member of the church has become complicated, to say the least.

Let me preface by saying that this article was difficult to write, and even harder to share. In fact, the day after I finished the first draft, I felt some apprehension about publishing it. I anticipate that some people will not agree with the content I have chosen to share, but ultimately I felt that it was too important of a topic to go undiscussed. I have heard too many LDS women with infertility yearn for support from the church, and I cannot be silent.


A Woman's Divine Role

In the LDS church, women are taught from the time they are very young about their divine role as a mother. Motherhood is presented as the ultimate expression of womanhood, and even the most important thing that a woman can do with her life. Girls are raised to prepare themselves to be mothers. Members of the church tend to get married and have children at a much younger age compared to the rest of the population.


On our wedding day.

My plans were not very different from many other young women in the church--before infertility, I imagined myself being a stay-at-home mom with six children. I grew up in a predominantly Mormon community and attended BYU Provo. I had seen, and continue to see, many friends and family members take this path.

The simple act of attending church as an infertile woman can be difficult. In my current congregation, which is composed of a younger, mostly married demographic, it seems that most couples are either pregnant or have one child. All three hours of church, especially the first hour, are filled with babies and young children.

The simple act of attending church as an infertile woman can be difficult.

Every Mother's Day, mothers are given special recognition and all the children of the congregation perform a special musical number dedicated to their mothers—"Mother I love you, mother I do. Father in heaven has sent me to you." After the musical number, mothers are often gifted a small token of appreciation, perhaps a flower or chocolates. Usually, even women who are not mothers are included. This past Mother's Day I received no gift, while everyone around me received one. I know that it is such a small thing, maybe it was even an oversight, but something about that experience broke my heart a little bit that day. It was a sharp reminder that in a sea of dozens of mothers, I was the odd one out.

Sitting in the pews can be especially difficult when there is a sermon or lesson given on the importance of having children. Not long ago, a woman in my congregation gave a talk about the importance of not delaying childbearing. She admonished couples who had been delaying parenthood to "repent." While I am sure it was not her intention, sermons like these can often make couples struggling with infertility feel like they have done something wrong or aren't worthy enough to have a child.

These feelings are brought to the surface again when newborn babies are blessed in front of the congregation, a practice that occurs at least once a month. The blessing is almost always accompanied by remarks by the parents, expressing gratitude that God blessed them with this child. Often the words, "I am so grateful that God trusted us enough to bless us with this child" are used. It never bothered me before, but since my struggle with infertility, these words carry the painful thought, "Does that mean God does not trust me with a child?" I do not believe this is true, but it still hurts. It also makes me wonder if some church members think that God does not trust infertile couples with children, or that they are in some way "unworthy" or not faithful enough to be parents.


"Second-Class" Citizen

Being an infertile woman in the LDS culture is a unique experience, and can feel especially isolating when there are babies and pregnant women literally everywhere you turn. The isolation deepens when you attend church events and all the women seem to talk about are pregnancy, maternity clothes, morning sickness, and a lack of sleep from having a baby.

I recall taking a break from my Master's studies one evening to attend a book binding activity at the church with other women. I think I had just about reached the year mark since my husband and I had been trying to have a baby, and knew something was probably wrong. I enjoyed the activity itself, but all that the women around me seemed to want to talk about were their pregnancies and their babies. It made me feel a deep sadness. In my mind, I thought, I was supposed to already have a baby by now, or, at least, be pregnant. After about 10-20 minutes of politely enduring such talk, I awkwardly and hurriedly left, to the notice of no one.

It is easy to feel like a "second-class" citizen in a culture where motherhood is so emphasized, and it often feels like the one thing you lack. Women dealing with infertility talk about how going down the baby aisle at Target is painful. Going to church can feel like the baby aisle at Target for three hours times a thousand.

Unfortunately, there are few, if any, resources in the church for LDS couples who are dealing with infertility. The church itself only has a handful of articles on the subject, most about couples who have shared their infertility stories after having success. As far as I know, no general authority of the church has ever given a talk directly addressing infertility, even though it is something that affects 1 out of 8 couples, with LDS women and men being no exception. I believe the church can and should do more to help individuals dealing with infertility.

We can first acknowledge that it is a life-altering challenge that many couples face. The impression I have received from my years as a church member is that the church has a singular vision of what is good for its members, and the act of acknowledging that there are extenuating circumstances that might carry people outside of that vision can be perceived as dangerous.


Blood draw before church.

In a recent talk to LDS members everywhere, Bonnie L. Oscarson, the president of the Young Women's organization, chided church instructors, saying, "We fail to teach our young women that preparing to be a mother is of utmost importance because we don't want to offend those who aren't married or those who can't have children." I believe it is still possible to teach the importance of motherhood, but also acknowledge the pain and suffering felt by many faithful women who yearn to be mothers, but who struggle with infertility or recurrent pregnancy loss. I do not believe that speaking to the "edge cases" (i.e. infertility) will weaken the church's focus on families and motherhood; in fact, it may even strengthen it, sending the message to couples with infertility that they are not forgotten.

I believe it is still possible to teach the importance of motherhood, but also acknowledge the pain and suffering felt by many faithful women who yearn to be mothers, but who struggle with infertility or recurrent pregnancy loss.

Women faced with infertility, and all childless women in general, should not be treated with any less value because we are not mothers. Sometimes, church members will equate the priesthood with motherhood, which can make women who cannot have children truly feel like they are "lesser." If a man in the church is denied the priesthood, it is usually because he is considered "unworthy." Does this mean that a woman who struggles with infertility is unworthy to be a mother? Absolutely not.

Personal questions from other church members like, "When are you going to start a family?" are often especially hurtful for couples trying so hard to have a child without success. Infertility is a silent journey for most couples. I have decided to share my story publicly, but this is not the norm for most people. Even so, it still took me 21 months until I made my story known to most people in my social circles, and before then I felt terribly misunderstood by many of those around me, including other church members.

On one occasion, a woman in my congregation asked me what I was doing while my husband was finishing his Master's degree. I told her about my new career. She did not seem to care at all, in fact, it seemed for a moment that she scoffed at me. I felt that she was judging me because I did not have a baby bump, nor did I have children. I felt like she assumed that I was putting my career over family, and that I was making a terrible mistake. I know that she would have been kinder if she knew I was dealing with infertility.

Unfortunately, even as I have become more open about my infertility, the unsolicited remarks or advice of others can sometimes be hurtful. A frequent phrase I have heard has been, "If you don't become a mother in this life, you will be a mother in the next life." I believe that people are well intentioned in their use of this phrase, but to me it feels like they are minimizing my pain. I am actively going through expensive and invasive fertility treatments right now, and I am really rooting and hoping for the treatments to work. I am not ready to face the possibility that I will not reach my goal of motherhood in this life. As Mormons, we often talk about "the next life," and how much better it will be, but to be told that I might have to wait a lifetime to be a mother is, quite honestly, a very dreadful thought.

As Mormons, we often talk about "the next life," and how much better it will be, but to be told that I might have to wait a lifetime to be a mother is, quite honestly, a very dreadful thought.


Changing Perspective

I am currently working on two more articles on this topic of being LDS and dealing with infertility, which I will share in the upcoming weeks. The goal of Part II is to help LDS church members and leaders better understand infertility in the context of the LDS religion, as well as how to help alleviate the emotional burden of infertility. Part III will explore how my experience with infertility has changed my perspective on women's roles in the church and society.

In the church, there is a strong narrative for how a woman's life should unfold, the two main components being marriage and motherhood. However, that narrative is not going to go "as planned" for many individuals for a variety of reasons—infertility being one of them. After infertility, the narrative of one's life is permanently changed. For many, the pain of infertility does not go away after you have a child. Infertility is a reproductive trauma, and just like other traumas, they will often affect you for the rest of your life.

The pain of infertility does not go away after you have a child. Infertility is a reproductive trauma, and just like other traumas, they will often affect you for the rest of your life.

It is easy to sit at the pews on Sunday, see other people, and question their life choices even though you do not have their full story. The experience of infertility has made me more sensitive to the struggles of the people around me. Even though I am grateful for my church and community, seeing it from a different perspective has changed me. I feel like I have a responsibility to speak out and share this new perspective.