One Bible verse never fails to spring tears to my eyes.
It is as full of longing as it is of jubilation.
I first saw it framed on the wall of the immaculate home of the dressmaker who was used by my oldest daughter to fit her wedding gown. When I saw it again, six years later, for my third daughter’s wedding- dress fitting, happy tears came because her oldest sister was there with us, cradling a baby daughter just three months old.
“For this child I have prayed, and the Lord has granted the desires of my heart.” (1 Samuel 1:27)
In our tightly knit Catholic community near Dallas, big families are the norm. At the University of Dallas, where I work, a large number of our students come from big families. It’s not uncommon for a student to have seven, eight, or nine siblings. Honeymoon babies are celebrated among the newly married, and alumnae often gather at UD’s outdoor coffee patio with nursing babies and toddlers who delight in running circles around the big tower or playing frisbee with the big boys and girls in the mall.
Yet this fullness and richness of life can seem like a mortification to women who struggle with infertility. The woman who cannot conceive is often caught in a cycle of loneliness, like Hannah, the speaker of the verse in Samuel I, who was tormented for her empty womb by her “sister wife” Peninnah and accused of drunken mutterings by Elkanah (her insensitive husband who saw her silently moving her lips in prayers to conceive a child).
My daughter’s years-long journey to get pregnant was almost as hard on me as it was on her, as I began to see the blessing of fertility through her eyes. As, one after another, her close college friends had babies and she went to showers, my daughter was happy yet full of yearning. Then, as these same women joked about their periods of abstinences after having two or three babies, she tried not to feel bitter. She withdrew more and more, and I felt my heart breaking. A move to the East Coast with her husband’s job seemed to help, as she met lots of older women who’d waited for marriage, and then for children. She and her husband looked for help in their new parish and, unfortunately, came up empty-handed. “You could always adopt,” she was told, over and over. “I know that,” she told me over the phone one wintry day. “And we are open to that. But in the meantime, where am I supposed to put this longing?” she asked, her voice cracking.
There were doctors, there were tests. Moons waxed and waned, and still no baby came. There was a surgery. I began a 30-day novena. On the morning of the twenty-seventh day, the Feast of the Incarnation, the phone rang. “I am PREGNANT!” she shouted.
For this child I prayed. I prayed hard, so hard, and this time the Lord granted the desire of all of our hearts.
But what if he had said no?
I started thinking: “Are we here, in our bursting and close-knit Catholic communities, so busy with our families and the cares of motherhood that we fail to notice the childless among us?”
But it’s so personal.
Yes, it is definitely personal. How do we approach the people among us who remain childless, or have very small families? Not everyone talks about their sore heart and the empty womb. About their miscarriage or disease or history of abuse or even their loneliness in old age when the children are gone and no one visits anymore—any number of sad ways that make them who they are. Let us look to the Lord to be open to all the life he wants to bring into our lives. Let us trust that other holy women, although they may be childless, are walking closely with God in his divine plan.