LDS and Infertile: Mourn With Those That Mourn, Comfort Those That Stand In Need of Comfort

This is Part II to the LDS and Infertile series. 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.

Infertility is an excruciating experience. The pain and isolation felt by infertile couples are often magnified in an LDS church setting, where the importance of families and child rearing is emphasized on a regular basis. Our inability to "multiply and replenish the Earth" can often make us feel like we just do not fit in the church, whether we've dealt with infertility for one year -- or ten.

Infertile couples often feel misunderstood by family, friends, and fellow church members. We often feel inadequate, and some of us might even feel like we must have done something wrong in order to "deserve" this "punishment."

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for some couples going through this ordeal to stop going to church consistently, or at all, due to the emotional turmoil and anxiety caused by church attendance and the overall feeling that they do not belong. As a church community, we can do better in providing a warm environment for families dealing with infertility. I too often hear the following explanation from fellow church members for why someone chooses to stop attending church, "They were offended; it's their fault for being offended." Instead of distancing ourselves from the pain felt by these couples, we can do a better job at trying to understand their actions and their feelings. We can do more to make church a welcoming environment for everyone, not just those who "fit the mold".

For church members, leaders, families and friends wondering what you can do help ease the burden of infertility, I have compiled three recommendations.

1 - Empathize

An Alternative Universe

Even if you do not suffer from infertility, it is still possible to empathize with individuals that do. Practice putting yourself in their shoes. Perhaps you have children—how would you feel if in some alternative universe, you were not able to conceive your children the way you had always planned, and that there was only a possibility of pregnancy through expensive and invasive treatments? Or, perhaps you would have to settle for having 1-2 children, even though you always wanted a big family, because of the prohibitively high cost of treatment or health risks?

On top of the reality of not being able to conceive on your own, you are told by other church members, maybe even family members, that perhaps this is a sign from God that you are not meant to be a mother or father. Even worse, someone who barely knows you remarks that there is probably some sin or misdeed in your life that caused God to punish you with infertility. Someone else tells you that if only you and your spouse had more faith, you would have children. Some people actually imply that you are not qualified to be in your position within the church because you have been married for years and do not have any children.

You tell the bishop about your struggles with infertility, and he says, "If you are not a mom in this life, then you will be in the next life." He tries to bandage your wounds, but really he does not understand the added pain this statement causes you.

A single woman you barely know remarks, "At least you are married and have the priesthood in your home", even though being married does not heal you or your spouse's broken hearts from infertility. In fact, your marriage might even be on the line with all of the trauma you are both experiencing from infertility.

An acquaintance with four kids jokes to you, "It must be nice being able to have sex without worrying about birth control!" Another mother says, "Be grateful that you can actually focus during the sacrament." At work, a man who just found out you do not have children tells you, "You can have one of my kids, they drive me crazy!"

Perhaps you struggle with secondary infertility—you had your first without much trouble, but you have been trying to have a second child now for years, and are not sure why it is not happening for you. Your friend with five children says, "At least you have a child, some have none." Yet, your heart feels incomplete, and your greatest desire is to have another baby.

After a devastating miscarriage, others tell you, "Maybe it just wasn't meant to be", "At least you got pregnant", or "At least you lost the baby now instead of later in the pregnancy." All you want is comfort and support, but instead it feels like people are just looking for every opportunity to minimize your pain and tell you to get over it.

Lastly, after sharing your infertility story, someone tells you, "If I found out I had infertility, I would just move on with my life." Would you? After trying for months, after picking baby names, after choosing cribs and baby clothes, after deciding how you and your spouse would alter your schedules to accommodate a new family member, after several doctors' appointments and diagnostic tests, you would just forget about it? Note that in almost all cases, infertility is only diagnosed after at least one year of actively trying to conceive and failing to do so—it is not easy to let go of something that's been at the center of your life for a year or more.

This "alternative universe" I've shared is the reality for couples with infertility. In fact, each of the scenarios above comes from either my own experience, or the experiences of other women and men who have shared their stories with me.

We are tired of wearing a "mask" to cover our pain from infertility. Please try to understand why we do not feel like congratulating every single person in our lives on their pregnancy or new baby. Try to understand why we often do not want to attend baby showers and put on a face of fake happiness. Try to understand why we sometimes get up and leave the church building to avoid another baby blessing. Try to understand why this whole journey hurts so much, and why we often feel like black sheep in a community that seems to worship motherhood.

Brené Brown offers an explanation of what it means to demonstrate empathy in a short clip that is well worth your while.

Try to understand why we often feel like black sheep in a community that seems to worship motherhood.

2 - Educate yourself

A Medical Condition

Even if no one has ever personally told you about their struggles with infertility, chances are you know someone with an infertility condition. Infertility affects 1 in 8 couples, and can be caused by a plethora of conditions. For most of these couples, it is not as simple as starting a new diet, losing weight, "relaxing", or ovulation charting. Infertility is a medical condition. Many infertility conditions, if not most, do not have cures. Some of the most common conditions that cause infertility include endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), diminished ovarian reserve, and male factor infertility (i.e. low sperm count, abnormal sperm morphology). There is even a condition called unexplained infertility, where the cause of infertility cannot be identified, that affects around 20% of couples with infertility.

Endometriosis affects approximately 10-15% of reproductive aged women, and is a lifelong condition with no cure (no, endometriosis cannot be cured with a change in diet). 30-50% of women with endometriosis have infertility, and 25-50% of infertility patients suffer from endometriosis. There are four stages of the disease, with Stage IV being the most severe and invasive. Yes, not all women with the disease have problems with conception, but researchers do not yet fully understand what causes the disease, and all the ways it can affect fertility. Besides infertility, endometriosis can cause severe pain during menstruation (for some, chronic pain), endometriomas (complex cysts on the ovaries), and can even invade other regions of the body besides the reproductive organs.

Many of the conditions that cause infertility affect women and men in other ways than just the ability to procreate. And no, just because your friend's brother's wife got pregnant naturally after years of infertility, does not mean that is most people's experience—in fact, your friend's case is rare from a statistical standpoint.

Gambling for a baby

Even though infertility is a medical condition, only 15 states have laws requiring insurance coverage for fertility treatments like intrauterine insemination, in vitro fertilization (IVF), or what you would think would be the bare minimum: consultation with a reproductive specialist and diagnostic tests. For most infertile couples, fertility treatment presents a huge financial burden and sacrifice that couples without infertility problems will never have to face.

My husband and I recently spent more than $15,000 on one round of IVF treatment—our insurance company denied us any coverage because we had only been trying to conceive for 2 years, not their required 3 years. People sometimes ask, if you were to get pregnant, would this cost also cover obstetrician appointments, including labor and delivery. Nope. For us, it covered 59 injections (administered by my husband), numerous blood draws and monitoring ultrasounds during IVF treatment, a surgical procedure to retrieve eggs, intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) to fertilize the eggs, embryo culture, embryo biopsy for genetic testing, and embryo transfer. If you are not pregnant at the end of that, you do not get your money back, and if you do not have any other embryos that successfully made it to the blastocyst stage of development, you will most likely have to do the entire process all over again.

For most couples, IVF feels like an expensive gamble—there is no guarantee that dishing out a ton of money means you will get pregnant, let alone take home a baby. Many couples will need to do several cycles of IVF before having a successful pregnancy. Due to the lack of fertility insurance coverage for most people, treatment like IVF is cost prohibitive. Many are not even able to do a single IVF cycle before spending months, or even years, to raise the funds necessary to afford the treatment.

For most couples, IVF feels like an expensive gamble—there is no guarantee that dishing out a ton of money means you will get pregnant, let alone take home a baby.

"Just" Adopt

After explaining the enormous cost and uncertainty associated with IVF to family members and friends, someone will undoubtedly ask, "Why don't you just adopt?" Couples are fully aware of the adoption route, but for many, their biological connection to their future child, including the ability to form a connection to their child via pregnancy, is still important to them. For many couples, this often-unhelpful suggestion, "Why don't you just adopt?" can be painful to hear, as if their infertility can be cured, or their childlessness can easily be solved by just adopting.

Adoption is a wonderful option that many families choose to pursue. However, that does not mean it is for everyone, nor should infertile couples have some sort of altruistic responsibility to society to always choose adoption (yes, I have heard people, without infertility, express this sentiment). In fact, adoption can often be even more expensive than fertility treatment, with the average cost of domestic adoption through an agency being about $40,000. Internationally, the cost tends to be even higher. Adoption through the foster care system is a less expensive option, but comes with its own set of unique challenges which need to be carefully considered by each couple.

Like fertility treatment, there is not a guarantee with adoption that you will get a baby, even if you are matched with a birth mom, and even if you do take home a baby initially. A poll of families who adopted newborns in the United States in 2014 found that 36% of respondents experienced one or more "false starts" with expectant mothers, which is when a family is matched with a birth mother who ultimately decides not to place her baby with them.

The next time you think of suggesting adoption to an infertile couple, please consider that it is a very difficult process that is not as easy as just adopting. I am sad that I have to mention this as well, but no, adoption is not a cure for infertility—women do not magically get pregnant after they adopt a child. Yes, this might have happened to your friend's sister-in-law's cousin, but a couple's odds of getting pregnant do not magically go up after a successful adoption.

A couple's odds of getting pregnant do not magically go up after a successful adoption.

3 - Talk about it

Many women and men with infertility feel so alone in their struggle, and some feel the most isolated at church. Why do we not ever talk about infertility at church? We talk about other hardships—divorce, cancer, singleness, financial struggles, marital problems, pornography. We hear about these issues not only on a local level, but in church-wide meetings and publications. Although there is an endless supply of sermons from general authorities on the importance of families, motherhood, and fatherhood, there is no more than the mention of the word "infertility" when it comes to couples who yearn to be mothers and fathers and enjoy the blessings of raising a family, but cannot conceive through no fault of their own.

Imagine how the many men and women with infertility struggles would feel if this upcoming general conference, someone spoke specifically to the challenges of infertility. That it is not a punishment from God, that they are not unworthy to be parents, that they are dealing with a medical condition (not a lack of faith), that we can do more to help them feel part of the church community, and that they are loved and not forgotten.

I long for the day when relief society and priesthood classes include lessons that talk about how the road to parenthood can be extremely difficult for many families. We often discuss past general authority talks that chide couples who choose to delay starting a family—how about the 1 out of 8 couples who try so hard to have a baby but struggle because of their own biology? We can sometimes be quick to harshly judge a couple where both the wife and husband have careers, and no children after being married for years, but what do we know of their personal struggles?

Although there is an endless supply of sermons from general authorities on the importance of families, motherhood, and fatherhood, there is no more than the mention of the word "infertility" when it comes to couples who yearn to be mothers and fathers and enjoy the blessings of raising a family, but cannot conceive through no fault of their own.

I hope that one day, couples with infertility will be able to get the support they need from our church. Just like how the church sponsors groups that deal with addiction recovery, it would be incredible if support groups for members who are challenged by infertility existed within the church.

If someone has told you about their challenge with infertility, chances are they want to talk about it. It takes a lot for someone to share something so personal and vulnerable, and they probably decided to share it with you because they trust you. I hope that the information I have shared with you can help you better understand what your loved one is going through. Remember that what they are experiencing is a very real medical condition, one that might be difficult or even impossible to resolve. They have been brave in reaching out to you for support. Do not be afraid to talk to them about it and try to understand their perspective. Do not dismiss or minimize their feelings. Be the friend that they need.