But I think I've been wrong in calling them that. Over the past few years, I’ve come to understand the true nature of these two selves. My Irrational Self is Fear; my Rational Self is Faith.
My years of living and surviving in an imperfect world built up an unfaltering part of me that believes there is purpose in suffering, nobility in enduring, and life after death. Even during times of crisis, in my deepest self, I’ve felt a benevolent God directing my life towards a great purpose. I would mourn, yes, but never for long, and never with absolute despair.
When my grandfather died, even as I grieved, I knew that I would see him again. But the diagnosis, The Answer, meant mourning the loss of children who never lived, and I didn’t understand what solace I could find. My mind could not fathom a heaven without my children. But how would they get there if I didn’t bring them into the world first?
During my time at the university, I always felt in control of my destiny. If difficulties arose, I could fix them. If I struggled in a class, I could study harder and find a tutor. When I decided that I wanted to be a writer and not a singer, I changed my major from pre-music to English. I faced hardships but always felt strengthened by the encouragement of Faith. With that help, I came off conqueror. I felt so confident in my ability to work my way toward my goals—so confident in my ability to control my destiny—it never occurred to me that my plans for the future might be thwarted. Not until about a year after Trent and I started trying for children. With the diagnosis, my goal felt like it rested an insurmountable finger’s length out of reach. I couldn’t even get close enough to fight, let alone conquer. Worse, my goal was no longer as insignificant as a grade or even a career. Motherhood had always been my ultimate purpose and I felt powerless to achieve it.
When the doctor told my husband and me why we weren’t getting pregnant, the two of us managed to hold our emotions back until we got home; then it was like we melted. I cried. He cried. And nothing could make us stop.
Faith told me the same things I’d always known in a voice strong and urgent as ever. It also cried right along with the rest of me. Always before this, Faith had been removed from the grieving process. Before this, Faith felt no pain; it gave comfort and consolation without any damage to itself. Always before this, my undamaged, unshaken, tearless Faith pulled me from my grief. Now, even the most faithful part of my soul shook with devastation.
And why shouldn’t I feel such deep desolation? Both my husband and I knew we wanted to have children. We knew from the time we were children ourselves. Part of why my husband fell in love with me was that he knew I would make a wonderful mother. I fell in love with him in part because I knew he would be an excellent father. We had both chosen our separate careers because we believed they would be most conducive both to our happiness and to having a large family. The first question my husband asked me after I said yes to his proposal of marriage was how many children I wanted. We decided on six before we even announced our engagement to our families. Even before we could become parents, our lives revolved around bringing children into a safe and loving home.
With that plan threatened by our own bodies, we were thwarting ourselves. True, neither of us ever picked over a list of physical infirmities to select the perfect cocktail against fertility, nor did any of our previous life choices cause the damage blocking our path to parenthood. It didn’t matter. Our lack of fault couldn’t restrain our feelings of guilt and devastation.
I believe that there is a point where sadness causes physical damage. It creates a sickness as destructive as any fever. Day to day life became exhausting. I especially remember the dishes being a source of great fatigue. Just looking at them made me want to cry. Doing the dishes made me tired, hot, and angry. My anger always hid just under that prime layer of guilt, blistering and uncomfortable.
My husband, still a student, found his homework to be an insurmountable obstacle. Pencil in hand, he sat at the table for hours, writing, then erasing. He didn’t get angry like I did. For me, the diagnosis had triggered a kind of fight-or-flight response, and I fought. My husband just got quiet.
The previous year, we had hosted game nights almost every week. We invited neighbors over for dinner. We were even asked to plan activities for our church congregation. The year of our infertility diagnosis, our social circle shrank drastically. We found it difficult to go out among friends who we felt sure must be happy. Their apparent comfort and our certain misery made a mortifying comparison.
In short, I believe we were experiencing despair. For the first time in my life, I felt like my suffering wouldn’t end. To make things worse, it was torture to watch my husband give in to discouragement. My attempts to cheer him up, my efforts to show increased love, and my continued research into fertility treatment could not bring him the solace he craved. Even doing everything in my power to help, I failed to stop his descent into despair. I could offer comfort, but not a resolution to our problems. I felt powerless in so many ways. No, I felt infertile: unable to produce a child or a miracle to save my husband or even a cupboard of clean dishes. All of my united impotencies felt like accusations. I suffered a roiling guilt. Nothing I did made the infertility go away. Nothing I did made the pain go away, either. The guilt and the sadness often paralyzed me, sometimes in the middle of a task. My capacity seemed to shrink, and that made the guilt bubble ever hotter in my stomach.
As the months passed, I made valiant attempts at being happy. Sometimes I succeeded, passing a whole week without thinking about what was wrong in my life. There are some who might even be surprised to see how unhappy I sometimes felt. I tried so hard, not just to show a brave face, but to actually be as brave as I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be angry. I didn’t want to be sad. I wanted to want to do the dishes and clean the toilet.
When the sadness returned, so did my guilt. I felt like my expressions of sadness amounted to nothing more than whining at the universe, at life, and even at that benevolent God I love. Of course, my expressions of sadness amounted to much more than that, but even the mistaken thought that my grief might be just a tantrum made me feel ungrateful, selfish, even childish.
When we reached the utmost extreme in misery, my husband and I decided to talk to our church’s minister and share our situation. We knew him. Trusted him. And we needed to hear someone other than a doctor tell us it would be okay. The minister listened to both of us together. Then he spoke to each of us alone. When my turn came, he asked how I felt about everything. I started by saying I felt like I was doing a little better than I had at first. Which was true. My times of happiness stretched longer every time I reached that longed-for state-of-being. Then, because the need to say it just seemed to burst out of me, I said, “But sometimes it’s just hard.”
As I tried to control my face and keep it from crumpling into tears, the minister just nodded.
Well, that sounds about right,” he said. “Facing infertility, that’s not an easy problem.”
He let me know I wasn’t experiencing exaggerated grief. He reminded me that even Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, Zacharias and Elizabeth, and many other faithful couples, when faced with these trials, struggled. God knew the depth of our plight and didn’t expect me not to feel grief. I had made all these points myself when trying to comfort my husband, or even comfort myself. But to hear them from the minister felt like permission to struggle: to be fighting the good fight, but not be done yet. I felt relief settle on me like a mantle. My responsibility wasn’t to be impervious to grief. My responsibility was, and is, to become a better person. Just like it was before I was aware of our infertility.
The grief didn’t dissipate after that conversation. I still mourn the loss of a very dear dream. Rather, I grasped that God didn’t expect me to transform into a minute-made saint. Saints take time to develop over years of struggle. Even during my most despairing moments, I had known it wasn’t faithless to grieve, but I’d not yet understood that it wasn’t faithless to still be grieving.
I let myself feel the sadness with no guilt. No guilt for the wiring of my body. No guilt for the fact that I can change nothing on my own. No guilt for my need to mourn. The loss of my guilt gave me a sort of small redemption. The semi-paralysis began to lift from my muscles as if I were being cured of emotional tetanus.
I still tried to fight against the sadness, and that fight helped me reach a good equilibrium. Rather than gaining instant, unrelenting optimism, I understood that sorrow means sorrow, not failure. I no longer thought of myself as a whiner, but as someone recovering from a physical and emotional injury. Sometimes it’s just hard. Sometimes I don’t know how things will ever be okay. Sometimes I cry into a suds-filled sink and leave the dishes unfinished. That’s about right.
Heartbreak is not a sin.
This article is an excerpt from Emily Harris Adams’ Empty Arms: A Compassionate Voice for Those Experiencing Infertility