Another Mother’s Day has recently come and gone—a day of happiness and celebration. Many churches honor mothers by inviting them to stand and by giving special recognition to the oldest mother, the youngest mother, and the mother with the greatest number of children.
But this happy day is not a happy day for all. Along with those who are mothers, there are also women who have discovered, perhaps again, that they will not be mothers. Another cycle of fertility treatments has failed, or they have suffered another miscarriage.
Whatever the case, we have many Rachels in our congregations—women who are “weeping for (their) children because they are not” or “are no more” (Matthew 2:18 quoting Jeremiah 31:15). These women, and men too, find difficulty in joining in the joy of this day. They may be inconspicuously absent because it hurts too much to be reminded of empty wombs, empty hearts, and empty hands.
The single greatest step toward empathizing and sympathizing with childless couples is to understand what they are feeling. People express their feelings differently, but often feel inferior when they cannot have a child of their own. Even in the Bible, infertility is often a painful, undesired experience (Genesis 16:1–2, 30:1–24). The Bible describes a barren womb as “never satisfied” (Proverbs 30:16).
We can sense the anguish caused by infertility in both the angst-ridden prayer of Hannah, who cried out to God for a son (1 Samuel 1:8–11), as well as the cry of Kate, age 40, who, following numerous attempts at conception through in-vitro fertilization, wrote in her diary:
Dear God . . . . You created me with such a strong desire for children, and then made me unable to have them. . . . What is the point of living, God, if you won’t grant me a child? I can’t bear this feeling of ever-empty arms. Is there any worth to this fruitless life I’m living? I am a withered tree. I am a plowed field, without seed. I am an empty jar, without purpose. I have forgotten what it really means to live.
Kate’s lament is similar to Rachel’s: “Give me children lest I die!” (Gen 30:1).
Women are not the only ones who experience this anguish. Men may also experience similar feelings of grief describing themselves as feeling weak, powerless, or somehow broken.
Infertility, defined by the Mayo Clinic as “not being able to get pregnant despite having [tried to conceive naturally] for at least a year,” affects an estimated 10–15% of couples in the U.S. Many of these couples are our church members and friends—aching to become pregnant and wondering whether they will ever parent their own children.
What can we say and do for the Rachels in our churches crying for their children?
Enter into the suffering of childlessness. While all of us suffer, the suffering of infertility is particularly poignant. A couple who has walked through suffering with grace can be an encouragement and mentors to others who are struggling. Childless couples may be more willing to share personal and intimate details with those who have deep understanding of their suffering.
Assure them they are not alone. In light of the rates of couples struggling with infertility in our country, every church should be aware of the prevalence of infertility struggles and consider how they might support them. Perhaps a sensitive way to handle this is to use childlessness, among other things, to illustrate suffering. This lets the childless know they are not forgotten.
Encourage them to minister to other peoples’ children. Parents are usually very grateful for other adults who are willing to pour into their children’s lives. One church I know of has a children’s program led by a husband and wife team who have no children of their own, yet are beloved and appreciated by their extended church family.
Encourage more adoption. Adoption can be a long and difficult process, but it is one way to build a family. Jeff Cavanaugh and his wife experienced several years of unsuccessful in-vitro fertilization. They wish they had been encouraged to adopt. The more emphasis on adoption, Cavanaugh says, “the easier and more natural it will be for Christians struggling with infertility to choose it.” He also acknowledges, “Infertility has its own particular grief, and adopting doesn’t magically make it go away. But as an alternative to the heart-wrenching treadmill of assisted reproduction, it can spare those who want to be parents some of the pain.”
Acknowledge them on Mother’s Day and when other opportunities present themselves, with simple words to assure them that they are not forgotten. I saw an example of this in a Facebook post. A woman announced her pregnancy, but also sympathized with her friends who were struggling to conceive. In response, she received comments congratulating her and expressing appreciation for her sensitivity to childless couples.
Provide counsel for those considering technology to help them conceive. Reproductive technology is usually a long and hard road with huge financial, physical, emotional, and relational costs and consequences. If couples choose this process, they need to be aware of potential pitfalls and perils before they begin. Churches should provide resources and wise counsel to guide their members in the ethical use of fertility treatments through biblical principles.
Create a compassionate environment to the childless for those struggling with a sense of lost humanity.
The church must “weep with those who weep” in the case of infertility. God has given us the design and desire to procreate, and since the fall, some women and men cannot. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” Proverbs 13:12 poignantly states.
We must tenderly and compassionately address the issue of childlessness in our churches. Helping couples with “ever-empty arms” cope, giving them a sense of significance, and guiding them into alternative ways to “parent” through ministry and adoption should be our mission. As needed, we should guide them through the ethical use of fertility treatments.
We must do all we can to defeat the notion that the inability to procreate makes life meaningless or robs men and women of their identity. Our identity is not wrapped up in our ability to procreate but our ability to be obedient disciples of Jesus.
 Marlo Schalesky, Empty Womb, Aching Heart: Hope and Help for Those Struggling with Infertility (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House, 2001), 31–32.
 Mayo Clinic Staff, “Infertility: Overview,” Mayo Clinic, August 2, 2016, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/infertility/home/ovc-20228734 (accessed May 22, 2017).
 Jeff Cavanaugh, “Why My Wife and I Walked away from Infertility Treatments,” Christ and Pop Culture, September 20, 2013, https://christandpopculture.com/why-we-walked-away-from-infertility-treatments/ (accessed May 22, 2017).