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Abbie Allison asks how we might expand our view of motherhood to be more inclusive of women struggling with infertility. 19/03/2020
Mother’s Day is first and foremost a wonderful recognition and celebration of women who give up so much of themselves for another: their time, their freedom, even control over their bodies. But for many, myself included, Mother’s Day is bittersweet.
For those who have lost a mother or a child, Mother’s Day can be a difficult reminder of what they lack. It can also be an extremely painful day for women who are infertile. For these women, Mother’s Day is a reminder of everything that they are not, and perhaps never will be.
Infertility is more common than we might realise. According to the NHS around 1 in 7 couples may have difficulty conceiving, and women can find themselves infertile for a number of reasons – due to endometriosis or polycystic ovaries to name just a few. A less well–known cause is early menopause. The menopause usually affects women between the ages of 45 and 55 but one in 10,000 women under the age of 20 are diagnosed with early menopause.
I was diagnosed with early menopause shortly before my twentieth birthday, during my first year of university. As someone who has always wanted (and had assumed that I would be able) to have biological children, this came as a devastating blow.
Being diagnosed with any medical condition, even one that is non–life threatening, takes adjustment: you have to come to terms with medication, side–effects and how this will affect your day–to–day. But in addition to that, infertility is a condition that hits you right at the heart of your identity. As a woman, it is subtly communicated to you from an early age that your ability to carry children is a central part of who you are. Women now have much more control over their reproduction which, while having positive effects, also reinforces this idea that having children is a “right” to be achieved when and how you decide.
The problem is that when this “right” is taken away in the form of a diagnosis of infertility, it feels like you have lost more than just a bodily function: you have lost a part of yourself. You grieve both for the future children you always assumed you would have, and the person you thought you were. You wrestle with the guilt of denying your partner his own “right” to have genetic children. Unsurprisingly, under the weight of these emotions, the number of people with infertility who struggle with anxiety, depression and low self–esteem is extremely high.
Within the Christian tradition, the family unit is valued highly and children are seen as a gift from God, or even as a reward. We are commanded in Genesis (more than once) to “be fruitful and multiply”. For those unable to meet this command, this can feel like a failure. Incidentally, this resonates with how some of my single friends describe feeling about the way marriage is often presented by the Church. Church communities can, unwittingly, reinforce the feeling that there is something “incomplete” about people who do not conform to traditionally held visions of family.
But there’s another side to the Church, which emphasises a different take on identity and family. A core Christian belief is that we are whole in Christ and Christ alone. This means that our fundamental identity is not found in being a biological mother, or in anything else, but in being a beloved child of God.
When churches move beyond preaching this message to modelling it through the way they talk about family, they can be a healing balm for the grief and identity crisis of infertility. For example, the Christian adoption charity Home for Good is taking a lead on expanding our view of the nuclear family. Home for Good is passionate about partnering with churches to encourage families to adopt, regardless of their own fertility status. For Home for Good, adoption is not a second–rate option for couples who cannot have their own genetic children, but a crucial response to protecting the vulnerable in our world. They demonstrate that caring for children can come in all different shapes and sizes so is inclusive of everyone. Over the pond, research in 2013 found that 5 percent of practicing U.S. Christians have adopted children, compared to 2 percent of all U.S. adults showing that the Church can be a positive role model for different visions of family.
Nor is the Church’s lead in this area something new. On the contrary, “Mothering Sunday” itself was historically an opportunity for people to return to their “mother church”. This notion of a “mother church” depicts the Church – indeed, the community – as a “mothering” source of nourishment and protection. An ironic and beautiful return to this original idea is that some churches now host “Mother’s Day Runaway” services. These services offer a safe space for people who find Mother’s Day difficult, allowing them to grieve, acknowledging their pain and reminding them that they are not alone. The church here functions as a comforting mother and reminds us that there are many ways to fulfil that role.
At best then, and in its widest sense, the notion of a “mother church” can be a subversive reminder that the nuclear family isn’t the only family that counts. And this model of motherhood offers lessons far beyond the Christian community: at a time of year when women of all faiths and none may be painfully reminded of loss and a sense of their own incompleteness, the community can serve as an agent of nourishing and caring relationships, and affirm that we are whole with or without biological children.
Image: Andrii Yalanskyi/shutterstock.com
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.