I was recently contacted by someone saying that their experience of Christian culture and Scripture suggested that women were only valuable if they had children. She asked me if I knew of any resources about this. And the first person that came to mind was Karen O’Donnell, who is an extremely wonderful woman! I asked her if she’d be up for writing a guest blog for me and she agreed. Karen blogs at Verum Corpus and is on Twitter @kmrodonell.
“You give and take away. My heart will choose to say, Lord blessed be your name.”
I remember hearing Matt Redman sing this song at a Christian festival, surrounded by the youth group I led. They were loving it and I was too. It was months later that I discovered this song had been written by Redman and his wife in response to reproductive loss. I remember thinking that it was incredible that they could say this after such an experience. Little did I know that their experience was about to become mine.
In my twenties, I experienced repeated reproductive loss whilst trying to have a baby. I was a worship leader and youth leader in a lively, evangelical church. After the first miscarriage, so many women comforted me and told me stories of their own loss. These stories were, unanimously, stories that led eventually to them giving birth to living, healthy children. No one blamed God for my loss. But children were clearly a blessing from God and having a family was taken for granted.
But that first loss led to more. A four-year period of my life was constant peeing on sticks, appointments with doctors, and regular heart-breaking loss. And this church, that I had been part of for fourteen years, didn’t know what to do with me. People avoided me because they just didn’t know what to say. The leadership team (all male, all fathers, of course) barely spoke to me. Sometimes, well-meaning women prophesied that I would have a baby by this date or that year. Those dates and years came and went. No baby. I couldn’t worship because I couldn’t sing about God’s love and faithfulness without bursting into tears. Over time I started arriving at church late to avoid the worship time (and the dreaded risk of the “you give and take away” song). Then I started avoiding church all together – I couldn’t handle seeing more pregnant women. Eventually, I just never went back to the church.
Lots of good has come from this. I don’t have any children. But I do now have a PhD, and academic career, a new life and some objective distance from these events of my twenties. There are two issues to highlight in this experience of mine. First, it’s really hard to know what to do with reproductive loss theologically. Lots of the things that are written are sentimental and don’t take the horrific experience of such loss seriously. Lots of the literature around this issue from a Christian perspective, assumes that eventually you will have a living, healthy baby. And that’s just not true. Culturally, we are not good at handling reproductive loss. It’s caught up in taboos around acknowledging early pregnancy, taboos around bleeding, and sex. So, we don’t talk about it.
The second issue is that having children is taken for granted for Christian couples in many churches. We have few narratives of the Christian life that do not include children for married couples. There is an expectation that, once married, children will follow in reasonably quick measure. Again, this just isn’t the case! Infertility is common in both men and women. Tommy’s charity estimates that anything between 20-50% of all pregnancies end in reproductive loss. Not all of those who are infertile will want to go through the intrusive and fraught adoption process. And, let’s be honest, not all people want children. This can be difficult to admit in churches that are orientated around the family, where children are seen as a blessing from God, and the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ command is taken literally.
No two situations of reproductive loss and childlessness are the same and people feel very differently about their experiences. So, what helped me might not help you. But these are things that I found healing and restorative.
- If your church can’t (or won’t) support you through the experience of reproductive loss and/or childlessness, then find some support elsewhere. For me, that meant leaving not just the church I had been part of all my Christian life but leaving the whole evangelical tradition. I worship in a liberal Anglican church now which isn’t perfect but has a broader understanding of the varieties of Christian life. Whilst it is welcoming for families, it also has many activities and experiences that are not shaped around the family. And no one has ever asked me when I plan to have children.
- Seek out places where you can tell your story. This is especially true if you have found your experiences to be traumatic. It is vital that you can tell your story to witnesses who can hear it and love you. This might be an online forum like Saltwater and Honey, a support group, or a group of friends who love you and have experienced similar things themselves. If you can’t find one, start one.
- Don’t go to church on Mother’s Day.
- Read theology that gives you life. For me, it was Serene Jones’ “Rupture” in Hope Deferred: Heart Healing Reflections on Reproductive Loss that helped me reflect on my experiences and come to terms with them. It helped me be whole again. It helped me pray. And eventually, it led me back to Church. You might also like to read the brilliant Dawn Llewellyn’s work on voluntary and involuntary childlessness. Or Nicole Johnsons reflection on Invisible Grief in reproductive loss.
Over the last few months I have been working on a theology of reproductive loss. My research revealed that very little has been written on this topic, and very little research has been done with people who experience such loss. So, I’m seeking to rectify this. This is the outworking of my own recovery – engaging with the world and offering something out of my experience. I’m working towards a theology of reproductive loss that begins with the miscarrying body and offers hope, not in the form of a future baby, but in the form of a future life in all its fullness.
Karen has created Reproductive Loss Reading List that you might find helpful.