A conversation about childlessness
Today’s post is a transcript of a conversation my friend Andy and I had about my book, A Pastoral Theology of Childlessness. Andy and I create content about exploring faith under the branding 'Life and Soul.' You can watch our conversation with captions here.
ANDY: So, you may be a regular to Life and Soul videos, a follower of Emma's blog, or interested in Emma's book because of the subject matter that we're going to discuss. Here it is, folks, I've got my own copy here, 'A Pastoral Theology of Childlessness' by the great Emma Nash. Emma, nice to see you again.
EMMA: And you, Andy.
ANDY: So we're going to go through some questions here, and just really to get a view, to give people a flavour of what the book is all about, but also to explore a few issues... questions I've got, rather than issues, I think, about what's been said here. So, first of all, how did you come to write this book? Because it's... well, I mean, the title itself is awesome.
EMMA: Well, I wrote the book because I needed a pastoral theology of childlessness and I couldn't find anything out there that quite met my need. So, in 2017 my husband and I finished two rounds of IVF... total failure, we didn't have a baby, and we were told there was no point carrying on. In early 2018 I was lucky enough to be granted a sabbatical from work, and I used that time to be sad and to try and process my grief and I spent a lot of time reading. I spent a lot of time in the British Library and I was searching for anything I could find about infertility and childlessness, particularly from a faith perspective. And I just couldn't find there was that much out there.
I found some memoirs of people, mostly women, who wrote about their experience of infertility and childlessness, but for the most part they didn't for me quite get to the depths of grief and anger that I was feeling. It felt like a lot of the time they were trying to justify God, trying to, you know, trying to say, "but it's really okay, you know." With one exception: there's a book that was published while I was writing my my book actually which was Salt Water and Honey by Lizzie Lowrie. She is one of the authors of the Saltwater and Honey blog and her book is very honest and and really engages with the pain that she and her husband felt. But there wasn't that much out there and there wasn't much that was theological, there wasn't much that really sought to to ask the question, "So how does our faith interact with this? How do we understand our relationship with God in the context of all of this? Why is this happening, or not happening? How do I make sense of it?" And so I ended up reading what I could find. There wasn't much out there.
I found a couple of good articles. There's a really good Grove booklet called 'Christianity and Childlessness,' which is great. It's very short, and so I needed a bit more; I needed to reflect more deeply on the experience I'd been through, and my husband had been through, but in my book I talk about my experience because it's not for me to speak for him. So I needed to reflect on what I'd been through and make sense of it in the light of my faith, and that's why I wrote the book.
ANDY: Wow. So my understanding from the book is that first of all they were your thoughts you wrote down and just gradually evolved into a book that's obviously now been been published. So, Emma, how common is infertility?
EMMA: Well, it's hard to say exactly, but as a rough guess, in a number of different places you'll see the figure of one in seven couples being quoted. So as a very rough guess roughly one in seven couples will have trouble conceiving. The medical definition of infertility is failure to conceive after a year of trying. So if you've been trying for a baby for a year and you haven't got pregnant, that's infertility. It doesn't mean that you'll never be able to get pregnant; it just means that you're finding it more difficult, because the vast majority of couples will conceive after a year of trying and so that's how they classify infertility. So, about one in seven couples will not conceive within a year, might need to try for longer, might need some kind of medical intervention. In some cases, medication can help; in some cases, surgery can help; and some people end up going down the line of fertility treatments like Intra-Uterine Insemination and IVF - obviously the most well-known intervention. So it is quite common -there are a lot of people out there who may have children now but may have had difficulty having children. And obviously single people and same-sex couples, it's much more difficult for them. When I was writing my book I was writing as a married woman but I was trying to be mindful that it's not just straight married people who who struggle with finding it difficult to have children.
ANDY: So I must be honest, I've had friends for many years, some with kids, some without children, and you never really know why people have or haven't had children. Folks in our family have chosen not to have children for whatever reason, so I never quite know what to say or what not to say to somebody who is childless. Can you give us some helpful ideas of what we should and shouldn't say or what we shouldn't ask, possibly, or what we should ask?
EMMA: I guess the main thing is just to be mindful that if you're going to ask someone "Why don't you have kids?" or "Are you planning to have kids?" it's a minefield. You know, there have been people who've asked me that question and it's been okay, either because they're someone I know very well, because I sense that they're asking out of love and out of curiosity - it feels appropriate - but for the most part, especially if you don't know someone very well, it's best not to ask. Because you have no idea what what they're going through.
You know, I follow a number of people on social media who write and blog and talk about childlessness and infertility and it's just astonishing the number of people that will just be asked, you know, "Why haven't you got kids yet? When are you planning to have kids?" and it can be incredibly painful. You know, you could be talking to someone who's just had a miscarriage. You could be talking to someone who's been trying for five years, you know, you have no idea, or whose partner doesn't want kids and therefore it's a really, really painful subject. So that's one thing I would say, be very careful, be very cautious about asking anything at all and about making assumptions. I think most people probably assumed that I didn't want kids because I didn't have any. I was a minister in a church while we were going through infertility. I think people - if they see a woman who has a significant job, who loves her job, or who works long hours or whatever, you know, sometimes there can be the assumption: "Oh, she's chosen a job over kids." Well, you don't know that. You have no idea. I think also it can be quite galling when people joke about: "Oh, you're lucky you don't have kids! Oh, I've been up all night! Kids are a nightmare!" You know that people are just joking, and I accept having kids is incredibly hard work, but again, even if it's said as a joke it can be really hard for someone to hear if they're finding it difficult to have children.
ANDY: There's a few things people won't talk about in life. I used to say "Don't talk about politics and religion with people!" I think that maybe is a minefield now with a certain Prime Minister in certain countries. But one of the things that I know people don't talk about are things like miscarriages. I say this with permission that my daughter had a miscarriage some years ago, which was very difficult, and we were on holiday at the time, and she phoned us up and said, "I think I just had a miscarriage, my husband's working away at the moment" and it was just...I didn't know what on earth to do. Because her experience after that was people don't talk about it, so she talked about it, being a real extrovert, and suddenly out of the woodwork come all these people who have had miscarriages or have had difficulties and all the rest of it. Her being the kind of person she is, she was helping people to explore those kind of things. So, why do you think people don't want to talk about childlessness and infertility particularly?
EMMA: I think it's complex, but I think it has a lot to do with shame. The first chapter in my book is all about the isolation that I experienced as an unhappily childless person and you're right: a lot of people experience miscarriage; a lot of people experience problems conceiving; but they don't talk about it and it is taboo. And yet, when one person does start to talk about it, as you say, others will will open up as well.
People don't make eye contact in fertility clinics. They don't talk to each other, they don't make eye contact, they don't look at one another. I remember sitting in a fertility clinic and I was so unhappy and I was so angry and I didn't want to talk to anyone because I might find out that they had a better chance than I had. I might find out they were younger than me, I might find out they had more embryos than I had. Now, you know, the fact is, them having a baby doesn't make it less likely that I will, but I was just so, so unhappy.
And then I think also, infertility and childlessness, it's about sex, isn't it? You know... you don't talk about sex in polite society. So there's a bit of a shame there. And there's a sense that you can't do something that most people find it so easy to do. You know, six out of seven couples at a rough guess will not have trouble conceiving. People get pregnant by accident, don't they? And that's really galling if you've been trying to conceive perhaps for some time and someone just accidentally has a baby. It's hard to accept that you can't do something that's so easy for most people. It feels very unfair. And it's also related to your gender. It can make you feel like less of a woman or less of a man. For a man, to not be able to father a child can be very, very painful; for a woman, not being able to get pregnant or not being able to carry a child to term can be very painful. It kind of undermines your sense of femininity or masculinity, so there's a lot of issues there. Meghan Markle spoke about her miscarriage, didn't she, and there have been other famous people that have had the courage to speak openly, and I think it is so important. When people are given permission to speak, then all of this pain comes pouring out. The NHS won't investigate a miscarriage generally until a woman has had three miscarriages in a row, and that's because it's so common. But yet how much pain is in that statistic? There are a lot of people who've been through this, like your daughter, been through this terrible experience, and how sad it is that we can't comfort one another by talking about it.
ANDY: It is interesting, not just childlessness but also things like mental health, over the last couple of years, are now talked about far, far more than they used to be, and especially men talking about their mental health. It seems men have almost got permission now to talk about their feelings and what's going on with anxiety and issues and all the rest of it because of what's actually happening.
So, you've been a Christian since mid-twenties is that...?
EMMA: Early 20s, yeah.
ANDY: So how did all this experience of childlessness and infertility affect your faith?
EMMA: It was really difficult. It was really, really difficult. I knew, before this happened to me, I knew that God didn't answer every prayer. I knew that sometimes really awful things happened to people and God didn't intervene. I knew that in my head, but it was different when it happened to me. Personally, I never stopped believing in God, but I was very, very angry with God. Some people do stop believing. Sometimes people go through terrible experiences in life and they lose their faith, and I don't judge them, because I can see... it can be very hard, particularly if you have a view of God as all-loving and all-powerful, and yet you're going through such a painful experience. It's such an obvious question, but God, why aren't you doing anything? You know, you can see how much this hurts: why aren't you doing anything? So my view of God was undermined and my spirituality, my prayer life, very badly damaged, and I found it very difficult to pray, and I still find it very difficult to pray, because I'm not sure what happens when I pray anymore. And that's kind of why I wrote the book, because I had to try and make sense of it. My view of the world and of God and of how God works in the world was really undermined. I sometimes think it would have been easier if I hadn't been a Christian, to go through this experience. Because the experience itself was bad enough, but then trying to make sense of it in the light of a faith which teaches that God cares about me and and wants to hear my prayers - that was very difficult.
ANDY: Certainly, I've had to rethink all kinds of things again, reading your book. In fact, you ask the question on page 86 - let me just read this out - 'What do we mean when we tell each other to trust God?' What do we mean when we tell each other to trust God? I thought that was a really, really interesting question, and in fact you've even done a little chart, which I'm just going to show now, that one there, which I spent a load of time looking at and thinking about and questioning... How would you answer that question about what do we mean when we tell each other to trust God?
EMMA: Well, the chart that you showed on the screen there... I spent some time thinking about this, because I felt like I was always being told to trust God and it made me crazy! It made me furious when people told me to trust God... and so I ended up asking myself, okay, let's finish the sentence. Trust God to do what? Or trust God for what? What are we trusting God for? And so, on the left column, you know, when everything is okay and the world makes sense, the world is orderly, "trust God" means trust that God will sort it out; trust that God is in control of what is happening to you; trust that everything will work together for good. But when you're in pain and things don't make sense anymore, maybe "trust God" could mean trust that God cares. Trust that God is still there. Trust that God is with you. Trust that God will bring good things in the future...maybe. So... on the one hand, I had to move away from believing that ultimately everything would work out okay because God was in control of it, to maybe "trust God" means trust in the character of God; trust that God is loving; does care; that God is there... But "trust God" couldn't mean anymore that things would work out okay because things weren't okay. People go through much worse things than I've experienced in life and it's never okay... you know, when when you lose someone you love, that's never gonna be okay. So I guess I'm trying to move towards a sense of... what can we still trust God for, and for me it ended up being about trusting in the kind of person that God is and that God hasn't gone away and that God does still care.
ANDY: That's interesting, because I'm sure I'm one of the people who's told you to trust God for all kinds of things over the years because it's something, again, which I've been very challenged about in my own life, about what does it mean to actually trust him when things are crap? Let's be honest... because life is not good. One of the things my daughter said after her miscarriage was people keep saying to me "all things work out for good blah blah blah... be some reason in all of this" and you just want to punch people, don't you, when they say that, because you haven't lived it, you haven't been there... maybe they have, maybe they haven't, but I think you're right. I hate to say "I'm on a journey" because I just hate that expression, but I'm still working through what it really means I think to actually trust God. And I like what you're saying there about trusting in the character of God. And although we can't see where it's actually going, still we are going to believe that he knows what is happening... and it's just so, so difficult... so, so difficult. And people can quote verses to each other - that one particularly you mentioned, 'all things work for good for those who love the Lord,' [Romans 8.28], but we're not necessarily going to see that in our lifetime. We just don't necessarily know those things and it can become quite glib I think, can't it, if we're not very careful.
EMMA: One of my Methodist colleagues explained it quite well. She talked about how, you know, cosmically, God is in control, you know, everything will work... will be all right in the end, at the end of time, at the end of all things, when God creates the new heaven and the new earth, everything will be okay. But, as you say, we don't see that in our lifetime. So there's a sense of, yeah, it is going to be okay in the end, but not my end, you know, I'm not going to see it in my mortal life, necessarily. So there's a now and not yet kind of tension there.
ANDY: So, in that case, there's still a... trust in God even though you're not going to see in your lifetime that actually he does know what is best even though... I'm not trying to justify when the bad things happen, I'm trying to, as you say, put a cosmic thing on it... because sometimes I have to hang on to that, when I just see what is going on, especially over the last 18 months or so with some folks.
EMMA: I think trusting that God knows what is best is a bit of a dangerous one, because you know you talked about people saying "oh, everything will work out okay," you know, we can sometimes use spiritual platitudes to shut each other up, and to tell someone who's in pain "trust that God knows what's best," it kind of sounds like you're saying "God thinks that what is best for you is this awful situation that you're living through" and I don't believe that. I don't believe that God's plan for my life was that I wouldn't be able to have children. I don't believe that's something that God planned for me because God had some kind of ulterior... you know, purpose or motive or something that God was trying to teach me. I just don't believe that God is like that and I don't actually believe anymore that God is involved in the minutiae of our lives quite in that way.
I think, if I had to nail it down, I'd probably say, God created our human bodies that are frail and fragile, and as women, our fertility is finite, you know... I was trying to have children in my mid-30s and, you know, in your mid-30s your fertility starts to decline, and sadly for some women it declines sooner than it does for others. Most women can still conceive within a year in their late 30s. The vast majority of couples, even where the female partner is in her late 30s, will still conceive within a year. But people are different, you know, and so I would say God gave me a frail human body that has limitations and I reached the limit of what my body was able to achieve, and God doesn't intervene in the laws of nature... if that makes sense. I think we have a compulsion as human beings to try and make sense of things, to give reasons for things...
I just recently finished a book called: 'Everything Happens for a Reason and other lies I have loved'. It's by Kate Bowler, who is an American theologian, but the book isn't particularly religious... I think it was a New York Times bestseller, and you wouldn't have to be a person of faith to enjoy the book. She talks about a number of significant medical issues that she's had, and at the moment she is living with stage four cancer and she's in her thirties, you know, so she's facing a really, really awful situation. She talks about... so she wrote an article for the New York Times and then got thousands of letters through from people and she says "everyone was trying to give me a reason, everyone's trying to tell me the reason why this was happening to me." We have this compulsion to say, "well, the reason is this," or "God gave you that terrible situation for this to happen" or, you know, "God knows what God's doing." Or "at least you..." You know, "at least you have this, at least you have that." And it's not just people of faith that do that, that have that compulsion to to make sense of things. I''ve talked with people who wouldn't describe themselves as Christians who talk about "oh well, everything happens for a reason, there must be a reason why this happened to you" or "there must be a reason why this happened to me." I don't think there is always. You know, the reason is we're finite, broken, limited human beings.
ANDY: I think that phrase 'broken human beings'... I''ve become more and more aware... As I was growing up, I needed to have answers and I liked to have things very pat... "Okay, these are the 11 reasons why God does this or doesn't do this," those sort of things. I remember doing a talk once about 'does God heal today?' for example with the '11 reasons God doesn't heal today' in my back pocket just in case anybody asked me, which sounds completely mad.
It was interesting because again on page 120 I was... just to prove I have actually read your book!... and it talks about IVF and people from maybe different strands of the Christian faith, how they view it. The Roman Catholics would just not go with IVF at all, because they say "we just gotta...it is what it is." The Christian Medical Fellowship you talk about them and them saying, "yes, okay, within certain parameters, we think IVF is okay" or trying to help someone become pregnant. Then The Methodist Church again was saying something else a bit more that it's okay and they were talking very much about about the time when somebody actually becomes a human being as opposed to the foetus, which again is a minefield. So, my question is, some people have said to me, "well, Christians should just accept what God has given them." Why don't Christians just say, "well, God's in charge therefore I'm just going to accept it, however good, bad or ugly it actually is." What would you say to those who actually say, "you should just accept this, Em"?
EMMA: [laughs] Well, firstly I'd ask, "have you been in that situation?" Because it's very easy to tell other people what we think they should do when we we haven't walked in their shoes, isn't it? I mean... fertility treatment is an ethical minefield...I'm not trained in ethics but I felt the need to write something about ethics in my book, because there just was so little out there to help me make those decisions. Again, I say "me" - obviously my husband and I talked together, but I don't speak for him when I talk about infertility, I just talk about my own journey. Very, very difficult to make ethical decisions, because on the one hand, doctors will do anything that's medically possible to help you conceive for which you can pay. And so, if you've got the money to pay for it, they'll do anything that's permissible by law to help you conceive. And then you've got the Roman Catholic Church that would take quite a firm ethical line on fertility treatment. Some fertility investigations I think would be permissible for Catholics, but for the most part, any assisted reproduction is not allowed for Catholics, for a number of reasons. Roman Catholics would say that the act of procreation between man and woman is something that we shouldn't interfere in, and so anything that separates conception from the sexual act they would see as wrong. And so, for the most part, most fertility treatments are not permitted for Catholics.
I'm not a Catholic, I wouldn't take such a firm line, but if you're looking for something in between, you know, to help you figure out the grey areas - very, very difficult. The Christian Medical Fellowship has written some stuff, and they come from a very conservative evangelical point of view. I strongly disagreed with a lot of their material, but at least they were trying to engage with it... at least they were trying to engage with the ethical issues. And then, the Methodist Church doesn't have one view, but the Methodist Church presented a really helpful paper to Conference about 15 years ago that I found, in which they were talking about different views of 'when does an embryo become a human being?' [The paper is entitled: Created in God's Image: Early Human Life and can be downloaded here.]
There's a number of views. So, Roman Catholics and very conservative [evangelical] Christians would say life begins at conception: as soon as the sperm meets the egg, that's it, you should treat that embryo as human and treat it with the same dignity as a human baby or a human adult. Others would have more of a gradualist view, that the moral significance of an embryo increases as it develops. And I mean, in law, you're not allowed to... fertility treatments are not allowed to keep embryos beyond two weeks of development. So after two weeks... so, the sperm meets the egg: two weeks later, that's the cut-off point in law, you're not allowed to do any kind of scientific experiments on embryos at that stage; you're not allowed to to keep embryos beyond that stage. And it's because that's when the nervous system starts to develop: before that stage, some of the cells within the embryo will become the placenta and not part of a human body. Beyond that stage, the central nervous system starts to develop, and that's a legal cut-off point.
Andy, you asked, "shouldn't we just accept what God has given us? shouldn't we just accept the situation we're in?" Well, I guess I would say, we seek medical treatment for all kinds of things, don't we? You know, you break your leg, you seek treatment, you don't just say, "oh well, God's given me a broken leg, I'll just accept that," you treat it. If you're ill, you go and seek medicine to make you better. And fertility treatment is there, is available: God-given intelligence has allowed us to develop these techniques to help people conceive who would not otherwise be able to conceive naturally. But there are lots of grey areas and it's difficult, because no one can answer the question: 'when does an embryo become fully human?' No one can answer that question. And so, as a person approaching treatment, and particularly if you're a person of faith, and you want your faith to help you make those decisions, it's not easy. It's not easy at all.
ANDY: Okay, one more question for you before we end. Is there one thing your experience you've been through over the last number of years, and then writing this book, that you'd like us just to remember, or just think, 'I remember that from Em's book'?
EMMA: I think the one thing I have learned above all is that we need to allow ourselves and allow others to feel what we feel, regardless of how difficult, awkward, uncomfortable those emotions are. And so we need to make space in Christian communities for people to be deeply sad, despairing, angry, including angry at God. That we need to make space for them to feel those feelings and not try and argue them away or cover them up or feel that we need to hide them.
I believe that God accepts all the things I'm feeling. I believe that God is okay with all of that. I think it's okay to be angry with God. I think it's much better to express our anger and then work through it with others and with God than to just pretend. I mean, for a long time I would say, "oh, I'm not angry with God, I'm just angry at other people who seem to be able to get pregnant so easily." And then I finally realized, "no, I am angry with God, I'm really angry with God." And after a lot of reflection, I came to the conclusion, actually I'm not angry with God anymore, I'm angry with the kind of superficial theology that shuts people down, that says: "If you're a person of faith you need to just suck it up, you need to just deal with it and just trust God. God knows what's best, stop crying, how dare you get angry? Deal with it." I don't think we need to do that. And so I would love to see more space in public worship, in Christian communities, that enables people to feel really difficult emotions and help them start to understand those in the context of faith in a loving God.
ANDY: Great, thank you. Well, can I just say, thank you for this book. I love the way you got the balance between your personal story, some theology, but also some questions and some very practical things, and the last chapter I think can be used by many people. I think pastoral workers need to read this book, and especially the last bit, and those who are doing services need to read it, and some of the the illustrations and examples and ideas you've got for services I think would help a lot of people. So thank you for writing this.
EMMA: Thanks for reading it!
ANDY: Absolute pleasure. I can't say it was a joy reading it, it wasn't easy reading, but it certainly was illuminating and very helpful for my own particular view on life, shall we say?
EMMA: That's great. Thanks Andy, thanks for the conversation.
A Pastoral Theology of Childlessness is available from Blackwells and Amazon.