The Double-Edged Sword of Infertility

The pain of infertility or impaired fertility comes in more than one form. The first is the obvious suffering of the couple who wants so badly to have a child but, for whatever reason, is unable to.

The second is the judgment of others in their Catholic community.

I’ve experienced this first-hand, despite having three children—an amount that’s considered large by the world’s standards, but, “My gosh, what’s wrong with you?” by Catholic standards. In the Catholic community, five children is barely skating by, six is marginally acceptable, 7-8 is a passing grade, 9-10 means you’re a model Catholic, and at 11+ you’re being fitted for your halo. One’s place in the Catholic hierarchy becomes dependent on the size of one’s family.

So what of the family of one or none? Even though this semi-tongue in cheek ranking is never spoken about in polite Catholic society (at least society polite enough to not do so when I’m around) Catholic couples, men and women alike, intrinsically know it and fear it, that is, if they don’t measure up. They automatically qualify their family size.

One woman said, “I have one child, but we really want more…” She then proceeded to explain her difficulties conceiving. Upon. The. First. Meeting.

One man said to me: “We have two, but we wanted more. We love kids!” as though I would think otherwise.

Or modestly with a qualifier, “We have one child. We’re grateful God has allowed us to have one,” the second sentence speaking volumes of, “So don’t think we did this on purpose.”

Why the need to explain?

One woman told me that on the first day of Kindergarten at a Catholic school, another mom said, “Why do you only have one?” She felt compelled to tell this stranger her history of miscarriages and other fertility struggles.

I’ve even fallen prey to this need to explain myself to total strangers. Here’s the typical situation: I’m at a Catholic mom’s group, and, as is typical, there’s at least a half-hour of chit-chat before we all get down to the business of the Bible study, Catholic book discussion, or Miles Christi document review. I’ll exchange names with someone and the small talk inevitable leads to family size. Quite often, “How many kids do you have?” is what immediately follows, “What’s your name?” Like so:

Newly-Met Woman: “So, how many kids do you have?”

Me: “Three.” Watches wheels turn behind the woman’s eyes as she processes this information coupled with my apparent age. I look old enough to have at least six by now. Her face softens as she gives me the benefit of the doubt, thinking I may have gotten married later in life. She tests this theory by her next craftily-worded question that will reveal all she needs to know about me.

NMW: “How old are they?”

Now the jig is up. There’s no hiding my apparent crime now.

Me: “11, 8, and 6.” I hold my breath in anticipation of her next move as I see the corners of her eyes crinkle ever so slightly.

NMW: “Ah,” she says shortly. Her smile seems a lot less natural now. If she doesn’t move on to speak with someone obviously pregnant with triplets, I’m left to flounder my excuse involving an ectopic pregnancy that evidently left me handicapped in the fertility arena, not being able to get pregnant for five years now, etc. I’ve usually lost her by this point, as she sees someone more worthy over my shoulder, ie, a young mother of seven.

I remember a mom of half a dozen at least telling me about a mutual friend pregnant with her fourth, all of which had been two years apart or less thus far. “She’s on track to have a nice big family,” she says to me in approval.

Dear Catholic women and men of large families, we all have our struggles. For some of us, having a large family, or even any children at all, isn’t in the Capital-P Plan. Please don’t assume that those of us slow out of the fertility gate are doing something wrong like using NFP without serious cause, or, heaven forbid, contracepting. Please don’t expect us all to be baby-making machines like the rest of you.

The day I arrived back to work from my honeymoon, a mom asked me if I was pregnant. Another mom told me her husband asked if I was pregnant yet. It took one miscarriage and then another year to have my first child. After which, it took a long time to get pregnant a third time. I suffered endless comments after that first child reached six months (six months!) about how she needed a friend and, “You want to have them close in age so they’ll get along well.”

And here I thought I’d get a reprieve once I’d finally had a child. It didn’t last long. I had to explain to those who had no business knowing, that my cycle took forever to return, after which point, we did indeed conceive right away, but apparently a spacing of more than two years is unacceptable.

My husband has long since stopped telling me when people at his Catholic workplace have asked if we’re expecting again. I suspect that as the years have rolled by, people have long since given up asking too.

More recently, I had the misfortune of commenting how sad it made me to see my husband holding someone’s infant child knowing that I wasn’t able to give him another baby. A father of eight said to me, “That’s on you, Betsy.”

“No, it’s not,” I said, knowing full-well that I was doing nothing to inhibit pregnancy. He apparently begged to differ.

“That’s on you, Bets,” he insisted, with a bob of his head for emphasis, having worked out in his mind that I have no more children because I, and I alone, have decided it that way.

“I have literally no control in the matter,” I told him.

He shook his head sadly, apparently in sorrow at the denial of my own selfishness. It was at that point that I walked away and avoided eye contact with him for the rest of the night. I managed to compartmentalize this encounter until I got home and was ready to cry, rather than have it spoil my evening out with friends.

“So this is what people apparently think of me,” I told my husband. He had no answer or consoling words for me. He, too, understands that this is life in the Catholic bubble. I love my Catholic community, and am so grateful to have it, but, ladies and gentlemen, God does not will large families to us all. Please know that it’s not possible for all of us to keep up with the rest of you model Catholic citizens. Also, note that this is not like Biblical times where women’s apparent infertility is a sign of sin and disfavor from God. On the contrary, He gives each of us suffering as our path to Heaven. For some that cross is more obvious to the outside world, which only adds to its weight.

So the next time you meet someone with only a few children or no children at all, who launches into her fertility history just to prove its not her fault, please put a hand on her shoulder and say, “It’s okay. I know it’s rough, and I’m sorry. I’ll pray for you.”

You have no idea what a breath of fresh air and salve to the wound that would be for women, and their husbands, to hear.

Betsy Kerekes is co-author of 101 Tips for a Happier Marriage (Ave Maria Press 2013) and 101 Tips for the Marrying the Right Person (Ave Maria Press 2016). She also blogs at Parentingisfunny.wordpress.com.

  • Jennifer Roback Morse Phd

    Betsy, I am so sorry this happened to you. I cannot believe people would be so unkind. I’ve learned over the years that I never really know what other people have to deal with. So it is best to handle people with grace and withhold judgment wherever possible.

    • Betsy Kerekes

      Thank you, Jennifer. It reminds me of a meme or something that said be kind to everyone you meet, even if they don’t seem to deserve it, because we have no idea what they’re going through.

  • Shelby

    I’m so sorry you’ve had to endure this, B. I know exactly the kind of judgement you’re talking about, and I probably did some of it myself before I got married. And then three and a half years of infertility taught me that we have absolutely no idea what’s happening in someone else’s life/mind/heart/body. I agree with Jennifer: we could all handle to treat everyone with more grace and less judgement.

    • Betsy Kerekes

      Thanks, Shelby. So nice of you to read this. I remember when a guest at my house said something thoughtless to you. I felt so bad.

  • PurePracticalReason

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am very sorry you had to go through the heartbreak of a miscarriage and infertility and insensitive comments on top of it!! You are absolutely right about bearing one’s cross, because THAT’S what it means to follow Jesus, not the number of children one has.

    • Betsy Kerekes

      Thanks, PPR. I appreciate it. ~B.

  • Claire

    As the mother of three in Heaven and one on earth, who we adopted 9 years ago as a newborn, I feel your pain. Even in secular circles, starting from the time my son turned 2, I got comments about him not having a sibling. I can’t fathom why people don’t realize that not everyone has control over their fertility.

  • Silvina Leonnetti

    Hasn’t it ever occur to people that have kids only to be rewarded the “best catholics of all times” rewards that if that is their motivation, they are being very, very selfish? To use any human being as means to an end is not good. I suspect people that judge other people on the size of their brood as belonging to that club. They are the ones that ask the weird questions when you “only” have three children. .. I never explained, because it is none of their business, nor do I need their validation.

    • Pax

      I really don’t think anyone has kinds for the reason you stated. Mostly people jump to the conclusion you are using immoral means to suppress your birth rate as that is much more common then infertility. It is natural human prejudiced and judgmentalism. People forget that some people don’t because they can’t. All Catholics are called to generous in the begetting of children. What that means is different for each couple of course. Infertility is always a cross.

  • RoodAwakening

    I guess some people make stupid comments no matter what one’s family size is. I am married, but have never been pregnant, and not because we did anything to prevent it. The father of a friend of ours questioned me about our childlessness at church one Sunday after Mass, noting that I wasn’t getting any younger, and when I said we were going to look into adoption, he said, “But you’re too much woman to do that!” I was speechless with shock–I was too much woman to NOT do that! But I guess, in a twisted sort of way, that just meant he liked me…? (We never adopted, either, but not because of his lack of approval.)

  • Pax

    wow, I’m shocked you live in a community where people actually care.
    I guess I’ve been in a few places like that.

    However, I usually explain my low child count because I don’t want to make people believe and especially if they’d be perfectly find with it , the reasonable assumption now days, that we are using birth control. I explain this to protestants as often as Catholics because while my family isn’t as large as seems an ideal to me. It is exactly what God has given me. I did have someone once ask why we didn’t adopt more. The only answer I really have, is that after investigating in completely we didn’t feel we were in an emotional or financial place to deal with that just yet.

    Still, evey community has it’s sins and you have highlighted one I’ve seen from time to time in certain catholic communities.

  • Jason753

    Betsy, do you recommend any books, talks or other resources? I’m painfully aware of the stigma/pain involved and sometimes it can be overwhelming.

    • Betsy Kerekes

      Jason, I wish I knew, but I’ve heard of nothing along these lines. : / So sorry for your struggle.

  • clb

    Amen! Thanks for writing this, Betsy. We have three as well – one biological and two adopted – with 5+ years between 1 and 2. We’ve experienced multiple times everything you mentioned, especially when we “only” had one. It’s not like dealing with infertility isn’t a huge enough cross without having those who should know better make it soooo much worse.

  • Martin

    And may I add: You folks who DO have large families, watch what you consider “humor” in groups where you may not be aware of the fertility issues of others. When someone attempts a joke with, “We have nine kids. We’re a ‘good Catholic family,'” I restrain myself from responding, “Due to my wife’s poor health, we were only able to carry one to term, so we’re a BAD Catholic family.”

    • Betsy Kerekes

      Ugh. Maybe you should respond with that, just so they know better. : /

  • Juju Buttons

    I’m so sorry and I can relate. When my two children were younger, newly-met fellow homeschoolers would automatically look at my belly to see if I was pregnant. Now they just assume I’m a selfish monster lol. I’ve even been to Catholic moms events where people start including their babies in Heaven in family size, to bump up the number.

  • Struggles

    “God does not will large families to us all.”

    Even more that than that, for some of us, we can’t even have one. Imagine THOSE looks from the large-family-pews. It’s very lonely in our Catholic community.

    • Struggles

      Sorry, comment posted before I was done.

      Thank you for posting this, Betsy. I will be praying for you and for all of us.