I do not wish to offer any facile answers or consolations for those suffering from infertility. The cross for those having none or less children than they would wish is a heavy one; it takes much grieving and it is a long process to accept this suffering and to find inner peace in Christ. This is no sign of moral weakness, but simply the consequence of intense pain.
To tell infertile couples that they can be parents in other ways may accentuate their suffering, if they feel that their mourning-process is being shortened. However, if they are emotionally and spiritually in a place where they are ready to look forward and explore other ways of becoming parents without thereby shortcutting their mourning-process, the following thoughts might be helpful.
The most obvious answer seems to be adoption, and for many infertile couples this is their way to parenting, bringing them much joy and fulfillment. However, adoption is a vocation and not everyone is called to it. My husband and I, who suffered from infertility for nine years before being blessed with a little girl in 2009, didn’t feel called to adopt though we weren’t sure that God would give us a child.
Friends of mine tried to adopt, coming close to it five times, but it fell through each time; their pain was immense, hoping each time they would hold a child in their arms, only to hear that it was not to be. Then they realized that they were not called to adopt. It was a hard lesson. God was not telling them that they would have been bad parents (on the contrary, they would have been excellent parents), but simply that this was not part of His plan for their life.
Our longing to become parents points to something fundamental about human nature: we were created man and woman, and God told us to populate the earth “to be fruitful and multiply.” The latter is not given to everyone in the literal sense. Yet it says something essential about our vocation, of which our bodies are only the expression, namely to be fruitful through our love. As Blessed Pope John Paul II showed so clearly, we are made for gift of self. This gift of self, whether it expresses itself in marriage or another vocation, manifests itself in fruitfulness.
We are meant to be mothers and fathers, first and foremost in a spiritual sense. For one could be the biological parent of ten children, and yet be a spinster or bachelor at heart, being turned in on oneself; vice versa one may not have any biological children, but be a true father or mother. This implies having engendered one’s children in spiritual pains, helping them on the way to Heaven.
The infertile will still be mourning their lack of children this side of the grave, but – as C. S. Lewis made so clear in his writings – everything in this world is just a pale reflection of the realities of Heaven. The biological motherhood and fatherhood, that we are missing in this life, will be given to us a hundredfold in the next. This is not an empty promise, but a reality we can taste here at moments, though it remains opaque in its fullness.
How this spiritual motherhood and fatherhood manifests itself depends on the couple’s vocation. They may be involved in teaching, or saving babies’ lives through their pro-life work, or helping single mothers; they may be doctors, nurses or be giving themselves in other, less visible ways in a Carmel; even picking up a pin-needle out of love for God, as St Thérèse of Lisieux said, can be a salvific act. Hence spiritual parenthood is in reach for everybody.
Finally – and paradoxically – childless couples can be making decisions as parents regarding reproductive technologies. Today, couples often turn to IVF with the hope of obtaining the much-longed-for child. Even if they are well-informed (and they often aren’t) about the risks and dangers to themselves (the danger of the Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome, for example, or only having a 30%-chance of a child after three attempted IVF-cycles with the trauma of many miscarriages to boot), they may be willing to take on this pain and these risks for themselves.
The most powerful argument, if they do not understand or accept the teachings of the Church on these matters (that every child is a gift and because of her infinite dignity deserves to be conceived through the mutual gift of her parents rather than in a lab by technicians), would be to appeal to them to act with the best interest of their child at heart. Studies have shown the potential physical risks for IVF-children (i.e. being six times more at risk for the Beckwith-Wiedemann syndrome), and also emotional ones, especially for those conceived through gamete-donation and who therefore often don’t know one of their biological parents.
As the study “My Daddy’s Name is Donor” has shown, heterogously-conceived IVF-children struggle much more with their identity, with meaning in their life, are worried about falling in love with a sibling without knowing it, and have trust-issues. As one of them stated: how can I know what the meaning of my life is if I was only used to satisfy my parents’ needs? Nothing is more contrary to the dignity of the human person than to be used; yet this is precisely what is happening in the case of IVF.
Therefore the infertile couple has the choice between their own pain and that of their child; but whereas their pain is a human tragedy, the suffering they could potentially inflict on their IVF-child is the result of sin; it is a form of rejection (though in disguise), for it means using another to fulfill one’s needs rather bearing the pain which comes with the absence of children. Once these children have been conceived in IVF, however, they are infinitely precious, and the way they were conceived does not diminish that. But it is precisely because of their dignity, that they should not be used in this way in the first place.
Human beings deserve to be loved from the moment of their conception; being conceived in a lab is contrary to this. Infertile couples who understand this and therefore decide against an IVF-child, act in the interest of their (though, alas, non-existing) children. Consequently, they have paradoxically become parents in a spiritual sense for they have actualized their parental love. Again, this does not diminish the pain of their infertility, but it allows for spiritual fruitfulness. “Blessed the poor [in children], for they shall inherit the kingdom of Heaven.”