God Is Present in Pain
Infertility is a deeply personal experience. From the earliest stages of writing Walking through Infertility, I felt it would be important to include an interview with a couple who themselves experienced infertility for a prolonged period—a period long enough to know the pressures, anxieties, absences, and losses that so commonly define the experience.
I wanted a couple to tell their own story and to reflect on what they thought and felt as the story unfolded. In doing so, I hoped readers would see they are not alone, and despite the range and depth of our hurt associated with infertility, God has purposes for his children that surpass our present understandings.
The couple to interview needed to be faithful and circumspect. They needed to be able to speak clearly to how God was with them in their struggle. It wasn’t really a question who I would ask to do the interview: it would be my younger brother, Patrick, and his wife, Jennifer. I was familiar with the adversity and power of their story, and I was confident they could empathize with readers and, at the same time, help expand any reader’s picture of what is possible with God through the experience of infertility.
The interview below is unflinching and honest. Patrick and Jennifer want you to know their story. But more than that, they want you to know the tender and unsurpassable love the Father has for his children. God is present with you. Read and take heart!
How long had you been married before trying to have children?
We married in August of 2007 and began trying to conceive in the summer of 2011. Like so many other young couples we know, our timeline was altered by external factors or life circumstances. We believed it was prudent, both spiritually and pragmatically, to wait until graduate school was at least partially completed before starting a family. There would be times when we would revisit that decision, wondering whether we’d actually perceived the Spirit’s leading clearly, or perhaps presupposed God’s favor. At the time, our hearts didn’t entertain the slightest hint of “when I’m good and ready” presumptuousness. But hindsight isn’t nearly so kind. It’s strange the way that frustrations and anxiety connected to infertility and miscarriage can alter memories or cloud recollections.
When did you first begin to wonder whether you might be experiencing infertility?
After our third miscarriage, what had mostly been an unnamed worry began to take shape and crystalize into fear.
Can you talk about your experience the first time you conceived and parallel it with the feelings you had after the baby miscarried?
They are the perfect antithesis of one another. As a couple, your hearts go from overflowing to desolate, elated to despondent, fleshly to inanimate, and vibrant to monochromatic. This dichotomy was much more pronounced and visceral to us, especially for Jennifer, because, due to the late stage of the pregnancy, the baby had to be delivered naturally, with all the attending risks, complications, and recovery. What was supposed to be this wonderful, life-bringing, and joyful unfolding of events became inversely terrible, spirit-crushing, and empty.
Looking back, what do you wish someone would have said but didn’t after the miscarriage? Any word or gesture that meant a lot to you stand out? What do you wish some folks, however well-meaning, had not said?
It is safe to say that, without our families and our brothers and sisters in Christ, the days following Gary’s loss would have been almost unbearable. Mercifully, we weren’t exposed to many cliché sympathies, though there were some. Regardless of how pure and well-meaning the intentions, the “God wanted another angel up in heaven” suggestion is really a tremendous disservice. Decontextualized Scripture comprised many misguided attempts at comfort as well. Citing God’s prophetic promise to the nation of Israel in Jeremiah 29:11 misses the mark at best and is confusing or guilt-inducing at worst. If people are thinking about employing Scripture as a grief-mitigation tool, I would encourage them to assess their ultimate aim. You’ll want to avoid—at all costs—any passage in which the chief message you’re pressing is: “Well, cheer up,” or “It will all be ok in a little while.”
Scripture, when it is rightly applied, offers comfort like little else. For example, when two weeks had passed since the delivery of our stillborn son, my mother and father shared 2 Samuel 12:15–23 with me (Patrick) as a subtle encouragement to return to worship and fellowship. I identified with David’s grief, his raw brokenness. Likewise, his kingly nobility and resolute leadership called me up and out of grief, to set my face against the prospect of being seen at worship in such a vulnerable, weak state. The following portions of that text became somewhat of a mantra to me: “And he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped . . . ‘Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me’” (2 Sam. 12:20, 23).
Nor can we overstate the comfort of a friend or family member’s “thereness.” One of the difficult things for me, and unexpectedly so, was answering the phone. It sounds so simple and ridiculous now, but the enormity of that task in the weeks after the miscarriage was staggering. Voicemails piled up unanswered, though not altogether neglected. I can’t express how comforting it was to receive the following sort of message from my brother or best friend, Keith: “Hey buddy. You didn’t answer. That’s ok, really. I’m going to keep calling because I want you to know that I’m here and that I love you. But, there is no pressure to answer the phone. When the time is right for you, ring me or answer, but not a moment sooner. I’ll keep leaving you a message every few days, because I just want you to know you’re on my heart and in my mind and prayers. I love you, pal.” It took me three weeks to slide my thumb across the screen to receive Keith’s call; but when I did, it was as though barely a day had passed.
Scripture, when it is rightly applied, offers comfort like little else.
Who was Gary, and how did he change your lives?
Gary was the first child we lost to miscarriage. It didn’t take us very long to conceive, which left us with the false assurance that everything was going according to plan. We were overjoyed. We started doing the silly-with-joy things that couples do when expecting. We had a song for Gary, a peculiar language we used to speak to him in the womb, all sorts of plans for the future, and the knowing glances of contentment and peace at the promise of his arrival. Before we knew it (in hindsight, we never felt like we had enough time), we were headed to the OBGYN for the gender reveal. We were nervous, but only about which gender we’d discover. As the final steps in prepping the ultrasound machine were completed, we held hands and our collective breath. We didn’t exhale until the next day. As the screen came alive, we could see Gary clearly, but something was off. It is hard to say what it was. I (Patrick) remember that we didn’t look at one another for quite some time, unable to admit, even by eye contact, that something was wrong.
The ultrasound technician, bless her, artfully muted the ultrasound audio. No heartbeat was present. She did not want to intimate that anything was amiss until an OBGYN could come in and attempt some different strategies. She said, “I need to go and find your doctor. I need him to double-check some things.” Our doctor, a believer and—throughout this situation—the picture of professionalism, entered and somehow sensed that we needed him to acknowledge the thick fear and anxiety in the room. He said, “I want you to know, they asked me to come in and take a look and a listen because they aren’t finding a heartbeat. We’re going to make absolutely certain, but I want you to know what’s going on. Hang in there for me ok, I’ll be with you through all of this.” He searched, in vain, for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, he withdrew the wand and sighed deeply. “Jennifer, Patrick, I’m sorry but I am unable to find your baby’s heartbeat and there are no signs of life.” He delivered that news with a tenderness that only comes from experience, compassion, and genuine empathy. He walked us step-by-step through what needed to happen, with haste, but it was all a blur. Only hours later we were at the hospital preparing for inducement. Our stillborn son was born the next morning. We were able to hold him, weep over him, and let him go.
We simply weren’t the same people after Gary. It would be easier to explain the ways in which he didn’t change our lives than to attempt to explain how he did.
After several more years of infertility, how would you describe your thoughts and feelings? Had you become more calloused or hopeless? Perhaps more mature? Describe your spiritual development during this season.
There were seasons in which we were probably calloused, our hearts chapped with grief from another miscarriage or failed attempt to identify the exact cause of our reproductive issues. There were, however, very sweet seasons in which the soil of our spiritual lives was all the richer for the tilling. Ultimately, we grew closer to God and in intimacy with Jesus. Our spirits deepened as we came to know Christ in his sufferings and treasure his Word all the more fully. Scripture became for us a fixed point of stability when all else was shifting chaos.
Did you have a good church family during this time? Do you feel you were pastored, encouraged, and prayed for? Did you belong to a church small group? Any memories here of a word rightly or wrongly given?
The church was absolutely essential to us. Our miscarriages occurred at intervals that saw us either attending or serving different congregations. We can’t say enough about the pastoral care we received. Though we weren’t, at the time of any of our miscarriages, involved in a small group (the churches we attended or served were traditional Sunday school and generational ministry-based), we were well-supported by our brothers and sisters in Christ. Some developed an online meal schedule, so that it was easy for those who wanted to bring us a meal to sign up and supply that need. We were incredibly grateful for that. We were visited, prayed for, prayed over, hugged, cried upon, and allowed to cry. Rather than a word rightly or wrongly given, what stands out—thinking back—were those who understood that words were not necessarily beneficial or even required. We remember well, and fondly, those who came simply to sit with us in our grief: to weep, to wipe away tears, to hold.
When did you first begin to contemplate adoption?
We received a call to adopt on a very specific date before we even started trying to conceive. Patrick was attending seminary at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he went to chapel twice a week. On this particular day, I (Jennifer) had the day off for Veteran’s Day. I was teaching in a local public school and was unable to attend any other chapel service due to my work schedule. On November 11, 2010, Dr. Tony Merida delivered a message on the parallels between the earthly love-act of adoption and foster care, and our adoption as children of God. Patrick and I left that chapel service and immediately began discussing how we felt the Holy Spirit at work in our hearts, calling us to adopt. I don’t think either one of us had any idea what that would look like, but God made it clear long before we began having infertility issues. This call was only ever reinforced and strengthened through Scripture.
How did the process unfold?
The summer after receiving what we believed was the call to adopt, we moved back to Tennessee. Patrick had completed a year of seminary on campus, and we moved to be close to family because we were ready to start a family. Patrick was going to keep working on his seminary degree online. He went back to teaching high school, and I continued to teach elementary school. While we knew we wanted to adopt, we both presumed we would have one or two biological children first and then adopt. However, that’s not the plan God had in mind. We started the adoption process, on and off, about a year after losing our son. Eventually we were informed about a local organization and decided to try it first. We were matched with a six-year-old boy whom we got to spend time with for about six months. That adoption fell through suddenly, and nothing else worked out with that particular organization. Meanwhile, Patrick accepted the call to vocational ministry, and we moved to South Carolina.
After settling into our new home, we were ready to move forward again with adoption. We began again the long paperwork process. I would say that we were a little stubborn when it came to actually committing to the process in its entirety. Although we knew that we were following God’s call, it was still somewhat scary. After finally coming to the conclusion that we were all-in, the process gets a little blurred. Unlike many families, we did not have to wait long once all our paperwork was complete. When we filled everything out for the organization, we were very transparent. We were open to a child up to two or three years old, and indicated no other limiting criteria. Once we were approved and placed on “the list,” emails began to come in. We received a few emails with opportunities, but none stood out like the email we received detailing very little information on the three blessings who are now our children.
Once it became clear that you were a good match for this sibling group, was there any lingering question of whether to proceed? What memories do you have of that intense period?
We both knew in our hearts that these three precious children were already ours, and the few lingering questions we needed answers for prior to meeting the kids didn’t dissuade us from proceeding. We remained guarded until everything was official, of course. There were lots of prayers, seeking guidance of those educated in the field of adoption, and many sleepless nights as we got closer and closer to finalization.
If you had thirty seconds to offer a word of advice to couples considering adoption, what would it be?
Do it! There are so many excuses for not adopting. Having the correct motives is important, but once that has been established, God will pave the way. It may not, and probably won’t, be easy. But just wait and see how he will lead and guide you. Finances are one of the major reasons people neglect to move forward. Grants are available to help offset the costs, as well as books providing ideas for fundraisers.
Were you still trying to have biological children? How had your thinking changed about this after adopting the kids, if at all?
We had not thought about trying to have biological children at this point. We were busy learning what it was like to be parents to twin five-year-olds and a two-year-old. As the year began to come to a close, we decided to stop preventing and just leave everything in God’s hands. If it was meant to be, we told ourselves, then it would have to be a miracle. We were not trying, but we were not preventing.
What counsel did others give as you were pursuing adoption? Anything you needed to hear—or didn’t need to hear?
One narrative in particular can be unproductive, if not altogether destructive. People say: “You know what happens when couples adopt, don’t you?” They proceed to inform you conspiratorially about the fact of your impending conception. “Everyone,” they say flippantly, “who’s had trouble conceiving or with miscarriage ends up having a baby after they adopt!” They say this, often completely unaware and oblivious to the pressure, despondency, and improper motivations for adoption this narrative can produce. Pressure ensues because the next pregnancy, if there even is one, bears a weight of expectancy it cannot sustain. Despondency sets in if God grants pregnancy, a miscarriage, stillbirth, or SIDS. Such events leave the couple feeling as if all hope is lost. Jennifer and I were heartbroken to meet a couple— they attended the first information meeting with the Christian adoption agency we worked with—who shamelessly conceded that they were considering adoption as a means only to acquire the post-adoptive “silver bullet.” Incidentally, this sort of comment leaves prospective adopting couples feeling shallow and not a little opportunistic. Are we, couples ask themselves incredulously, only doing this to somehow better our chances of conceiving or maintaining a pregnancy to full term? They ask themselves this even though it was in no way part of their adoptive call as received. Pregnancy is not an incantation!
The other comment to avoid is oversimplified assurance that a child-family match will happen “in no time.” Many couples wait for several years before being matched with a child or sibling group. Making a comment like this may cause the individual making it to feel better, but will only cause waiting families emotional distress.
In 2016 you learned you were pregnant. How was this similar and/or dissimilar from your previous experiences? What did you feel?
I will admit that my first thought was not one of elation or excitement, but rather “here we go again,” mixed with elation and excitement. We were guarding our hearts.
Describe how your thoughts and feelings changed over the course of the pregnancy.
Jennifer’s OB had discovered a protein shortage during routine testing he’d ordered while Jennifer was pregnant with the baby we last miscarried. The test had been done previously, but not while Jennifer was pregnant. Jennifer describes her state-of-mind as “cautiously optimistic.” I (Patrick) was perhaps more foolhardy.
Would you mind explaining how you felt at Ellie’s birth?
A small army of people was praying for us. The entire process could not have gone more smoothly. The inducement produced perfectly pitched contractions. The epidural was, according to the anesthesiologist, “textbook.” The birth was completely without incident. There was a calm present to and within us that could only be attributed to the Holy Spirit’s active ministry. We don’t mind explaining what we felt when we first saw and held Elliott Karis Arbo, but that doesn’t mean we’re able. There are simply no words to describe the indescribable.
What would you say to the couple who, like you, has gone many years without conceiving a child, but who, unlike you, has still not conceived?
We love you. “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24–26).
This article is adapted from Walking through Infertility: Biblical, Theological, and Moral Counsel for Those Who Are Struggling by Matthew Arbo.
- Help! It Feels Like God Is Far Away in My Suffering (Mark Vroegop)
- An Open Letter to the Church on the Issue of Infertility (Matthew Arbo)
- 10 Things You Should Know about Infertility (Matthew Arbo)