When I was little I used to run around with a pillow under my shirt, pretending to be pregnant while also pushing a doll in a stroller, with another doll on my hip. Pregnancy was always part of my plan. I also wanted to love other people’s kids. I didn’t always know what words like “foster care” or “adoption” meant, but I knew I was built to love children and I would embrace whatever way they came to me.
And then at age 22 my husband and I got our infertility diagnosis.
I guess I’ve always known the Biblical story of Hannah, but after our infertility diagnosis, her words began to feel very personal. She begged God for a son. She was so moved in her prayers that Eli the priest thought she was drunk. I knew what those prayers sounded like. I had prayed them myself.
I had cried out to God for a child, but he didn’t seem to remember me the way he remembered Hannah. I was sad and confused and desperate, which is not a great way to begin a journey toward motherhood.
Pursuing adoption meant coming to terms with my own grief. I was ready to jump into the adoption world with both feet, but it took some time to realize adoption is not a band-aid for the wound of infertility. An adopted child didn’t need to enter my life with a job to do– to heal my hurting heart. I needed to be able to love him for who he was, not expect him to fill the infertility hole in my heart, but the first step was acknowledging that there WAS a hole in my heart.
Something struck me as I read through Hannah’s story that I hadn’t initially noticed. Hannah does everything “wrong.” She bargains with God: “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.” (1 Samuel 1:11) Infertile women aren’t supposed to do that. We’re supposed to pretend we’re fine and “content” with our infertility. We’re supposed to trust God with the outcome. We’re supposed to hide our pain and shame. And we definitely aren’t supposed to make vows to God about what we’ll do if he gives us a child.
I also realized Hannah didn’t really ask to be a mother in the way I generally think about it. She didn’t ask to raise up a son, to watch him grow, to see her grandchildren someday. She just asked to experience a very short window of motherhood: pregnancy, breastfeeding, infancy and maybe toddlerhood. This was a window of motherhood I was potentially giving up by becoming a mother through adoption. It is a loss worth grieving.
After he was weaned, she took the boy with her, young as he was, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour and a skin of wine, and brought him to the house of the Lord at Shiloh. When the bull had been sacrificed, they brought the boy to Eli, and she said to him, “Pardon me, my lord. As surely as you live, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the Lord. I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” (1 Samuel 1:24-28)
But for all that Hannah did “wrong” God still remembered her and blessed her. This infertility struggle must not be as cut-and-dry as I thought. I thought I was supposed to pretend I didn’t want to be pregnant and then God would give me what I secretly wanted. Maybe instead the best thing we can do is be honest with God and let him know what’s in our hearts, even if it’s painful.
I am thankful I was eventually able to experience pregnancy, but the moment my son was placed on my chest after a difficult labor wasn’t the moment I became a mother. That happened five years earlier in a West African orphanage office. I didn’t need to give birth to become a mother, but I did appreciate the unique experiences of pregnancy because I had prayed for it for so long– honestly, openly, passionately. And others had prayed for it for me, long after I had given up hope.
Infertile sisters, it’s okay to grieve your infertility losses. Even if you plan on adopting, it’s okay to be sad for what you won’t experience and to be sad for the losses your child will experience in not being raised in his birth family. Let Hannah’s request validate your struggle– it isn’t wrong to desire pregnancy, childbirth and all that comes along with it. Fully grieving that loss will make it easier for you to accept motherhood in whatever way it comes.
For those supporting infertile loved ones, let them grieve what and how they need to. Some days grief may look like sobbing over a diaper ad, but some days it may look like obsessive researching of adoption options. We all find our own ways to cope and your support can be a big help. Maybe we’re ready to talk about adoption, but maybe we need some time before it’s healthy for us to think those thoughts.
Infertility is a struggle. It’s a struggle in your marriage, in your friendships, in your own heart and body, and even in your relationship with God. Hannah’s story tells us we have the freedom to honestly express our desires to God and leave it in his hands. That may not mean we will get to experience the pregnancy we so long for, but it will mean we are building a relationship with our God that can sustain us if that desire is never met.