By Camille Hawkins, LCSW and Whitney Barrell, LCSW.
“The reason infertility cut so deep was that I believe with every fiber of my being that I am made to be a mother. I don’t feel that the LDS church is amiss in teaching that. I feel that is the reality I must face as an infertile Mormon. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t spend the time, energy, and money in an effort to become a mother.” This woman isn’t alone in her feelings of experiencing infertility while navigating her faith.
Mormons facing infertility have a challenging task, one that asks them to balance their faith and commandments as Mormons while being unable to conceive naturally. Mormons are commanded to “multiply and replenish the earth,” but what happens when attempts fail? How does one navigate infertility as a Mormon, which parts of one’s faith help, and which aspects complicate such grief? How does infertility impact a man or woman’s role or identity in the Mormon faith?
Utah Infertility Resource Center, a nonprofit organization providing education and emotional support for those struggling to build their families, performed a needs assessment in 2015 of those struggling with infertility in Utah. 75% of respondents said infertility is the most upsetting event of their lives, compared with the national average of 48% (Domar). Why are Utah residents reporting significantly more distress than the national average? Are cultural factors at play?
In order to better serve our community, we wanted answers to those questions. We developed a simple, anonymous survey directed to individuals struggling with infertility who self-identified as Mormon, and asked for responses in online infertility groups. We asked one question only: “How has your religion, spirituality, or the LDS Culture impacted your infertility journey?” Over a few days we received 68 responses; we poured over what respondents had to say. It appeared from the responses that simply answering the question was therapeutic: many spent thoughtful time putting their experiences to paper. After reviewing all responses we identified several themes.
Isolation – Many respondents report feeling displaced or left out while attending church. They reported that so much emphasis on family and children makes it hard to feel at peace. One respondent writes: “It is very hard to figure out where you fit in with your ward family. The entire culture is all about family, and when you can’t have children you feel like you are on the outside looking in.” Respondents reported feeling second-class or left out because others were blessed with children while they were not.
Avoiding Church – Everyone Around me is Pregnant! – Similarly to feeling isolated, many respondents felt their experience of being childless was amplified at church. Experiences such as seeing pregnant women in Relief Society, multiple baby blessings, and the annual Primary children’s singing program left many feeling uncomfortable, conflicted and out of place. “I could not escape infertility and my unmet desire to have a family while I was surrounded by the sounds of tittering children, happy large families, and songs about ‘love at home.’ It was only a matter of time before I had a complex relationship with the Sabbath Day.” Although children are what couples who experience infertility seek, being surrounded by them can be a painful reminder of what is missing in life. Couples struggling with family-building often find church to be unbearable and may take a “sabbatical.”
Intrusive & Insensitive Comments – “You’re 30 with no kids?” or “No kids? Oh, you must be newlyweds.” Many respondents report insensitive comments from their faith community. “It is an environment that should be welcoming, accepting, nonjudgmental, sensitive, etc. but it was actually one of the hardest places for us to be.” Although comments are usually well-meant, they often leave individuals feeling invalidated and unseen. “One thing we did struggle with is the people…We learned to keep the people and the church separate. I wish people would understand that everyone’s journey is different.”
Questioning One’s Faith – Respondents shared experiences of questioning their faith and having doubts about their God. “I have personally questioned my God, my value as a human, as a woman, and as a wife. I have to deal with continued stress that I am a failure as a ‘Daughter of God’ because I haven’t been ‘blessed with a family.’” Additionally, respondents wondered if God was punishing them because they were not faithful or worthy enough for children. Some respondents felt as if God doesn’t care about them or that God was teaching them a lesson.
Conflict between Divine Role and Infertility – “Getting married and having babies is THE plan!” A majority of respondents wrote about their distress in not fulfilling the “divine role” of motherhood as set out by LDS church doctrine. Women felt purposeless and worthless if they couldn’t fulfill their role as a mother. This caused an identity crisis for many who were unable to achieve what they were taught and believed to be, “the pinnacle of womanhood.” Many wondered, do I fit in the church? If so, how and where? Women wrote about being offered platitudes such as “you will be with your children in the afterlife,” or that being an aunt or teacher are important roles as well. Although they were well-intentioned, comments left respondents feeling that their experience of infertility wasn’t being acknowledged.
Must Mask Feelings – Respondents felt pressure by the LDS community to put on a happy face. When individuals chose to share their experience of infertility, they were often subtly encouraged to revel in “the good news of the gospel” instead of feeling sad. One respondent writes, “I felt constant pressure to get over my infertility.” Individuals felt like they could not express their feelings about infertility, and when they did they were misunderstood. “I feel a lot of people in the LDS church have a hard time dealing with negative feelings because we tend to think that we don’t have to be sad because we know it’s all part of God’s plan.” Individuals walk a tightrope of wanting to share their internal experience of infertility in the hope of receiving support and acknowledgment, but also fearing judgement, or being encouraged to “get over it.”
LDS Church Stance on 3rd Party Reproduction – “Confusing handbook policies are an aspect of being an infertile Mormon that can be distressing. I have heard varying accounts of bishops advice toward the handbooks’ stance on third party reproduction. I feel this is an area that needs to be cleared up.” The LDS Church Handbook Policies on Moral Issues states, “The Church strongly discourages [infertility treatments] using semen from anyone but the husband, or an egg from anyone but the wife. However this is a personal matter that must ultimately be left to the husband and wife. Responsibility for the decision rests solely upon them.”
When traditional treatments are not recommended or fail, 3rd party reproduction is often suggested. Egg donation, sperm donation, gestational surrogacy, or embryo donation (sometimes referred to as embryo adoption) are all 3rd party methods. LDS couples look to their leaders and church handbooks for policies on these family building methods. Couples are left wondering how to proceed when they receive mixed messages and confusing guidance. Women reported an internal conflict between building one’s family and following the Church’s recommendations.
Comfort in God and Religion – Finally, respondents reported that despite or in addition to their experiences with faith as outlined above, many also felt heard by God and strengthened by the gospel of the LDS church. One respondent states, “I have felt my Savior’s love for me so strongly in my darkest moments and he has carried me throughout this trial. I don’t know that I could make it through infertility without the gospel.” Many felt comfort in the idea of having or seeing their children in the next life while others felt grateful for their relationship with the Savior and felt that God was aware of their struggles and sorrow. Respondents found comfort in scripture, prayer, the prophets, and temple attendance.
Grief and loss are hallmark symptoms of infertility, and these feelings can undoubtedly be complicated by one’s faith and relationship to her or his religious community. As with any experience, individuals will assign meaning to it which may be derived from their faith traditions or personal journeys. If you are invited to discuss one’s experience of infertility, let him or her define the crossroads of spirituality, meaning, and the struggles to build a family. Many respondents commented that validation and empathy from others went further than silver linings. One respondent said it best when she remarked: “What I craved was someone to say, ‘Even if you know that God has a plan for you, it must be so devastating to struggle to build a family.’”