Embracing the Cross of Infertility:
An Interview with Marie & Joseph Meaney
Embracing the Cross of Infertility:
An Interview with Marie & Joseph Meaney
By John Mallon
This article appeared in a condensed version under the title “Childless Couples” in the November 2007 issue of Messenger of Saint Anthony, of Padua, Italy. It is published here with their kind permission.
A vibrant young Catholic couple turns their pain of childlessness into a guide to help others.
Dr. Marie Meaney received her doctorate and an M. Phil. in Modern Languages from the University of Oxford. She also obtained an M. Phil. in philosophy from the International Academy of Philosophy in Liechtenstein and a D.E.U.G. from the Sorbonne in Paris. Dr. Meaney is a specialist on the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil. Currently, she is an Arthur J. Ennis Teaching Fellow at the University of Villanova in Philadelphia.
Dr. Meaney has been active in the pro-life movement for many years, attending various U.N. Conferences among other things. She brought out the CD The Da Vinci Code: A Violation of Women, for Human Life International, regarding the controversial book by Dan Brown.
Her husband, Joseph Meaney, is director of International Coordination for Human Life International and has visited more than 59 countries of the world in a decade of service to the cause of life. at HLI. The Meaneys have been married since 2000 and have been unable to have children so far. Her talk Embracing the Cross of Infertility, is available on CD as is a transcript of the text through the HLI website at http://www.hli.org/infertility/
Messenger of St. Anthony: Dr. Meaney, in your talk, Embracing the Cross of Infertility you discuss infertility on many levels. First and foremost, you speak of it as a cross. Could you give us some of the background that you came to realize you had this cross, or how you came to accept it as a cross?
Marie Meaney: Yes, of course. My husband and I have been married, actually to the day, for seven years; we got married on September 9th, 2000.
Marie: Thank you. We were looking forward to having a family, and we had no reason to think this would be a problem; every young couple goes into marriage thinking children will simply come along. We were very open to life and willing to embrace the number of children that God would give us. So I guess most couples who suffer from infertility are surprised when they suddenly realize things don’t go as they expect…
When pregnancy is not happening, the temptation is to go into denial. “This can’t be happening to me”, one is tempted to think! Furthermore, one wants to think positive and not make matters worse by getting stressed about the issue. Looking into the medical side of the issue means having to admit that there is a problem – and this is very painful, especially for the woman. If the husband is not encouraging her to go through the medical tests and if he does not take things in hand to get himself checked out either, then the woman feels very alone in this situation. These are the beginnings of this difficult journey during which one realizes just how hard and painful infertility is. It took me by surprise. I had never thought that the suffering would be that great.
Children are the fruit of the spouses’ mutual love for each other. They desire them therefore as a gift from God and as a gift to each other. They want to launch together on that great adventure of raising children, and when that doesn’t happen, it is really terrible. First you are standing at the foot of the cross, and after a while you realize that you’ve been nailed to it. I think this is particularly true for the woman. Of course, the man suffers from this too, but he experiences this differently than the woman. Giving life is so intrinsically bound up with the woman’s being that it is absolutely agonizing for her not to have children.
MSA: So in embracing this cross, I think one of the things in your talk that impressed me the most, was the way you addressed the well-meaning insensitivity of people, in how they respond to you. I would like to recommend your talk, even beyond the scope of infertility, as a guide to how not to speak to a suffering person.
Marie: (Laughs) You’re very kind. Yes, I think it is applicable to all people who are suffering, whatever their crosses are. All people who are undergoing great pain, as we did, are further wounded by the insensitivity of other people. Insult is added to injury. However, when one is bearing a cross one can distinguish quite well between a simple blunder, when the other person does not know what to say, and the failure of the other person to want to enter into one’s suffering, to want to stand under the cross, to be like the Virgin Mary and St. John. This is a huge challenge and I think the men and women suffering from infertility have to be aware of that fact – that they’re asking a lot of the persons around them. But the people surrounding the infertile couple, family and friends, have to realize that the only way to relieve this suffering is to be willing to enter into that pain.
Marie: Only then can those surrounding the couple avoid the different traps they might fall into, for example, curiosity, when others only want to find out what’s wrong — if it’s you, if it’s your husband who has the medical issues. Then you begin to feel like an object of voyeurism, you realize that the other person is not really caring about you, or is simply impatient with your suffering. It is hard to see someone suffering, and one wants this suffering to end. But if the other person wants to force it, wants to force you into being in that better place, and to have gotten through that dark night, then unfortunately, all this does is make that cross harder and more difficult to carry.
This insensitivity and lack of compassion can express itself furthermore in comments like, “You really should get over that,” “Oh, I know other people who by this point are content,” or “the moment I accepted my infertility, that was when I got pregnant.” In other words, the other person is insinuating that you’re not pregnant because you haven’t yet been able to accept God’s grace and God’s will. So all of this, instead of making things better, makes it worse. And the couple, instead of simply having to deal with the cross of infertility, now has to struggle with a lot of pain and anger that comes from these wounds inflicted by other people.
It’s the typical story of Job and his friends. Job has a lot on his plate, but I find the worst part of the story is when his friends come and tell him that it’s all his fault, that God must be punishing him for something that he did, otherwise he would not have to suffer that much. They are thereby avoiding to enter into his suffering, to be compassionate. The people who are telling the woman “Oh, you know, at this point you should be over it and then it wouldn’t be so painful anymore” are doing the same thing. They are telling her implicitly that it is her fault that she’s suffering. If she had her act together, then she would be feeling all right about it now.
MSA: Yes, so in a sense they’re worried about their burden, of watching her suffer, rather than her actual suffering.
Marie: Yes, unconsciously. However, the couple at that moment is also challenged and called to respond with charity. We don’t know what crosses the people who are responding badly may be carrying themselves. They may have had an abortion, they may have suffered from infertility themselves. They may have some pain in their lives they haven’t addressed. Therefore they have hardened themselves towards the suffering of others. When they see you going through pain, they want to shake you up instead of entering into the cross with you, because it means for them to have to face their own pain.
Marie: So I think we also have to be aware of their difficulties and we’re called to grow in grace and charity ourselves.
MSA: Yes, it is quite surprising – we had spoken before and I mentioned to you that I’m a cancer survivor, of cancer of the prostate, and in that process I lost my fertility, and I was startled by people who would just say, so glibly, “Oh well, you can adopt.” And I’m feeling, “I don’t think you get it – Yes, adoption is a beautiful thing, but there’s a real loss here.
Marie: Yes, I think it’s very true what you’re saying. Again, it depends on how that suggestion of adoption is made. If the person enters into your pain and says, “Well, why not consider adoption?”, then this is fine. For it is true that adoption is a beautiful option for the couple. But if the implication is: “Oh, therefore you won’t be undergoing such pain any more”, then this simply misses the point. Now, my husband and I have simply not felt the vocation to adopt so far. Adoption, I think, is a call in and of itself. But other couples that I’ve talked to who are infertile and have adopted, love their adopted children just as much as they would love the children that they might have biologically fathered and mothered. But they still feel the pain of not having children of their own.
Let me just say a few more words to those surrounding an infertile couple: from what I have said, it may sound a bit daunting. But it is not as if you have to walk on eggshells around infertile couples; it’s really not such a big deal. It’s simply a matter of being sensitive, of wanting to enter that pain. If you’re dealing with people who are suffering greatly, don’t feel like you have to fix their problem. Furthermore, don’t bring up the issue, if the infertile couple does not raise it of its own accord. Perhaps the infertile couple doesn’t want to talk about it; perhaps talking about it would make it worse; or perhaps at the moment the couple is not suffering and it is therefore better to let the matter rest. But if it is the infertile couple that brings it up, then to respond with sympathy is a work of mercy. Express your sympathy in simple terms: “I’m so sorry you are undergoing this. I had no idea it was so bad.” A statement like this, if it is heartfelt, really helps. You don’t need to have a degree in psychology in order to be able to do that.
MSA: You also spoke about two levels of temptation. On one level the woman may be the tempted to avoid the cross and or go into self-pity and so forth. Could you expand on that a little?
Marie: Yes, absolutely. One temptation would be, especially for good Catholics or Christians, to say, “Okay, I’ll manage; I’ll handle this as I have handled other difficulties in my life. I’ll be stoic about it.” They are trying to do the right thing, be courageous, but are not realizing that they’ve actually chosen the wrong path which will only bring them more sorrow. Instead of being stoic, they have to say, “I have to mourn this incapacity to have children”. Only then will they find true peace. If they try to be stoic, they are actually running away from their cross and will only suffer the more. What they are saying is: “Yes, God, You are giving me this cross, but I’m not going to carry it, shoulder it myself; instead I am going to run away from it.” I have made that experience myself. Only once I embraced the cross, did I find greater peace.
I would also say to the men and women suffering from infertility: don’t be too hard on yourselves. When you see other couples who have children, this will be painful for you. The temptation is to scourge yourselves, to accuse yourselves of envy. Other people might accuse you of envy in those situations which makes matters worse. But what you are experiencing might not be envy at all; it might simply be the pain that is surfacing. However, if you are experiencing envy, it is not by beating yourselves up that it is going to go away. What you may have to do in these circumstances is to put yourselves in the presence of God, try to accept that cross which He is carrying with you, and realize His great love for you which is there even if you don’t understand why He is giving you this difficult path to follow. Furthermore, you have to realize that you need the grace of God to embrace this cross as well as all great crosses in your life; until that grace is given to you, all that you can do is struggle on, ask for it and try not to run away from the pain.
MSA: The other level of temptation you spoke of were cultural temptations: in vitro fertilization and artificial insemination.
Marie: Yes, this is a further dimension of suffering that is added on to the suffering of infertility. My husband and I are very lucky in that our families are very faithful Catholics. So both our families have never put pressure on us by telling us, “Oh, if only you did in vitro, then you could fix the problem.” But when this happens, then an extra burden is put on the infertile couple which wants to do the right thing and is left alone in its sorrow. Again, the implication is to go for an “easy fix” and if the couple is not willing to use that option, well then it only has itself to blame.
In vitro fertilization (IVF) can be a terrible temptation because it would give one that baby one desires so much. Furthermore, it seems to be so pro-life. Bringing another child into the world seems to be such a positive thing. But unfortunately, it’s an easy fix and goes against the dignity of the human person, and is therefore not God’s way.
A child is a gift, and though God wants us to explore all licit and ethical possibilities to make it feasible for couples to conceive on their own, He does not want children to be brought into existence outside of the context of love, like a product in a Petri dish, outside of the spousal act. Thus using IVF means sinning against the child who deserves to be the fruit of the gift of self between the spouses. Similarly, the child who has been conceived outside of marriage, or in a rape has also been sinned against. Of course, once these children have been conceived, they are of infinite value, and they are loved infinitely by God no less than children who came into existence in another way.
Another reason why in vitro fertilization is unethical is that in the process quite a few children are created who are then thrown out or frozen and killed sooner or later. Furthermore, the survival rate of these children, even those that are implanted in the woman, is very low. So, simply, as the Church reminds us, it is not something we can do. We can’t devalue life. And even if the procedure didn’t require that – if it were enough to produce only one child, and that would be enough to make the woman give birth to it, still the Church in her wisdom cannot accept the procedure because it means producing a child.
The Church in her great wisdom proclaims the truth about the dignity of the human person which means that such methods are illicit. She understands that the couple in its pain is tempted to use that option. But apart from the fact that, unfortunately, these children have a lot more medical problems than other children, and psychological ones too – apart from that, it is never a good idea to go against the laws of life that God has given us; for this is what the moral law is, it means respecting the laws of life.
MSA: Yes, You mention something in your talk that was just overwhelming – the story about the little girl who told her parents she dreamed she had seven siblings in a freezing cave crying to be rescued.
Marie: Yes, the prenatal psychologist Karlton Terry described the case of this little girl: one day she told her parents that she dreamt she had some siblings, three sisters and four brothers, who were all were freezing in a cave, were crying and needed to be saved. The parents confirmed that this was the case, that seven embryos remained frozen after their in vitro procedure. So, obviously, these children who come into existence through IVF sense at some level, that something is not quite right, that life is not valued in their family and that it is pure luck that they were chosen rather than their siblings. I think we can probably compare this to the stories of children born into families where an abortion has taken place. Those children often have psychological problems and show great insecurity because they know they could have been the ones to have been aborted. They don’t feel safe and they often know deep down about those siblings that have not survived even though they have not been told about it. When hearing about it later, they often say that they knew all along that there was someone missing.
MSA: Yes, and you spoke of how to deal with infertility, especially from a spiritual point of view, and also a practical point of view with proper medical care.
Marie: Yes, it would be the wrong spiritual response to infertility to say “Oh, God will take care of it and I don’t need to address the issue”. It would be like saying, “well, I’m suffering from appendicitis and I’m not going to have surgery because God will take care of it.” It’s imprudent; it’s absurd. And the same thing holds for infertility. Again, I would greatly encourage couples who suffer from infertility to get a proper diagnosis. Find out the reason for your infertility. It’s very helpful to know. And then once you know, you might be able to address the problem. Not knowing keeps you in a state of continual suspension. Knowing already gives a certain amount of peace even if the news is bad, if the infertility is final. Yes, so avoid that kind of wrong spiritual approach of saying, “God will take care of it.”
What I would also say to those who become obsessed with their infertility (and one very easily does become obsessed with it), who are suffering from depression because of it, is not to remain alone in that situation. Find a good priest who can help you spiritually so that this suffering becomes a spiritual journey and does not simply remain a human disaster. And if you have to seek psychological care, then I would suggest that you find a good Catholic therapist who can help you embrace the cross so that you can find true peace of heart.
I think that it is very helpful for you to realize that God is with you in this suffering, there, at its deepest and most painful point. He is not simply standing under the cross, he is hanging on it with you – right there. You will probably go through phases were you are angry with God for denying you the children that you would welcome so lovingly. You have to wrestle with God in this situation like Jacob who wrestles with the angel during a whole night - and it will seem like a long, long night. God will probably not give you an answer that you can formulate as to why He is not giving you children (and it is a temptation and wrong to try to construct answers along the lines of “I don’t deserve children”, “I would have been a bad mother or father”, for they are false and contradict God’s love for us), but He will give you an inner peace which will satisfy your heart without necessarily taking the pain away.
Another way of dealing with this cross in a spiritually fruitful way is realizing how you can use it in this battle of the culture of life against the culture of death. I think that God will bring great fruit out of the acceptance of the cross by an infertile couple. It may be helpful if we offer our suffering up for children who are in danger of being aborted. We won’t know the spiritual fruits we are bearing on this side of eternity; we don’t know how many children we will have saved through this. But on the other side, we will meet all the spiritual children that were born to us.
MSA: Could you say something about bearing the cross as a couple? Certainly you have a wonderful husband and naturally a husband is going to have his own version of this pain and I’ll speak to him about that, but, not just how can a husband be supportive, but how does the couple support each other and how can it bring them closer?
Marie: I think it’s important for the couple to realize that men and women experience this cross differently. This does not mean therefore, that the one suffers more than the other; men and women have simply different ways of dealing with it. The temptation of the woman would be to think that her husband is not suffering from their infertility since he does not express his sorrow like she does, since he not break down crying. On the other hand, the temptation for the man is to keep it all in, not to show his wife that it is difficult for him too. What he does not realize is that he makes his wife thereby feel very lonely in her pain. If husband and wife use this experience to be united more deeply, to console each other, to share their pain, then this experience can actually become a means of greater unity. A new level is reached when husband and wife accept each other with their infertility as part of the other person. Husband and wife are telling to each other in their spousal acts that they love each other, give themselves to each other and love each other, not only despite the fact that they can’t have children together, but with their infertility.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is simply embracing that cross together. There is probably nothing that binds one together as much as the cross, and in particular this one, since it is so challenging given that it goes to the very heart of the couple’s relationship, its fertility.
MSA: Yes, well the vow, I think, comes into play: in sickness and in health and in good times and in bad.
I’d like to have Joseph add something. Thank you, Marie. Joseph. Could you give us a few words on embracing the cross of infertility from the husband’s perspective? I just asked Marie how the couple copes as a couple to this cross, and certainly there are, let’s say we have men reading this article when it comes out, this interview. What would you say to them to help them in their marriage and help them deal with their own pain and also support their wife?
Joseph Meaney: The suffering of infertility can drive a wedge between the couple, especially when one person is infertile and the other isn’t. There is an unconscious temptation to blame the other, especially if one member of the couple has made mistakes in the past that led to infertility such as contracting certain STDs or using artificial birth control. It can be devastating for couples that used contraceptives for years, and then, when they want a child, find out they’re infertile. The most important thing to realize is that one of the greatest gifts and commitments of marriage is the couple’s mutual love and mutual help. Husbands have a special responsibility to provide emotional support to their wives as they face infertility together.
Let her know not only that you love her, but also discuss the pain and positive options that exist. At the same time the temptation to allow infertility to dominate your entire life must be avoided. One of the husband’s contributions can be to help maintain a balance between sorrow and the joyful reality of married love.
As Marie said, I think it’s important to get good medical advice when infertility is suspected-usually after a year or more of not conceiving. I would add that it is especially important to take great care in which doctors you pick because a great number of “fertility” doctors put pressure on couples to submit to in vitro fertilization or other unacceptable practices. We know of many couples who were insulted by doctors for refusing IVF, and this added to their pain. A blessing in the United States is the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Nebraska ( http://www.popepaulvi.com/ <http://www.popepaulvi.com/> ) and Catholic doctors like Dr. John Bruchalski in North Virginia (http://www.tepeyacfamilycenter.com/ <http://www.tepeyacfamilycenter.com/> ). There is a whole network of doctors and health care professionals who follow the Church’s teaching and try to help infertile couples in a moral way ( http://www.aafcp.org/ <http://www.aafcp.org/> ) .
MSA: Yes, so it would be a good idea to find, for example, an NFP only doctor who would be sensitive to that.
Joseph: That’s right. The aspect of natural family planning (NFP) that is rarely discussed is that it’s actually one of the most effective ways to overcome infertility. Those couples using it for this purpose actually have higher success rates than those using IVF. There is no comparison in terms of the cost and medical risks. Using NFP is not only inexpensive and risk-free, it can help women to detect gynecological health problems at an early stage.
MSA: Yes. Now we often hear when people speak about NFP, the aspect of it which creates great communication and brings the couple closer together. I asked Marie this, and I’d like to ask you, if the cross of infertility can have that effect of being turned into a blessing, at least to the degree that it brings your own unitive love and compassion for one another.
Joseph: Facing a common hardship together and coming through it does increase the bond and closeness of friendship. There are always challenges in every marriage, and infertility is one of the special challenges that can make the couple stronger if both husband and wife have compassion and understanding for each other’s sufferings. God can bring good out of evil if we cooperate with him.
John: Since both individuals have their pain and they have their shared pain, how can the wife support the husband in his pain and infertility?
Joseph: That’s a good question. I would say one of the best ways is spiritually. She can often help him to pray for understanding and serenity. Most men want to look for solutions, to try problem-solving. When the wife cooperates in this process, he doesn’t feel quite so helpless-one of the worst feelings a man can face. Mutual love and support is what the couple needs most regardless of the situation. Men have to accept their pain and to overcome inhibitions to sharing it in their marriage.
MSA: There must be something that being in it together can bring them closer. Most of us go through life bearing crosses alone, but this one is born together.
Author’s Note: About a year after this interview took place I ran into Joseph and Maria and they informed me that they had a baby!
© 1985, 2008, 2020 by John Mallon