One day recently, my husband came home from work and was cranky. Ordinary, run-of-the-mill questions were met with snippy answers. I followed my usual pattern of responses when this happens:
First, I heave lots of big sighs and demonstrate emphatic hand gestures, arms flying around like a drunk windmill.
I ask helpful questions like, “Why are you being so snappy? Do you think my day was perfect?”
Then I remember that part of premarital counseling where we learned, Don’t be an ass when your spouse is having a hard time. I then take a step back, suck in a deep breath, sit on my windmill arms, and ask with a modicum of compassion, “What’s wrong? You seem upset.”
He responded with, “Nothing’s wrong! It’s just….” and then lists 47 things that are annoying him, none of which meet my Criteria for Being Snappy While I’m Busy Burning Dinner.
As he continued, I half-listened and got to work on constructing my brilliant response. I had just about perfected my “mic drop” sentence when he trailed off into one heartbreaking line: “But really, I’m just so frustrated we can’t have a baby.”
Instead of a mic drop, my retort slipped out of my hands and tumbled like a limp noodle to the kitchen tile. I glanced over at him and saw the defeated glance of a man who wants so badly to build a family but can’t. I saw grief and confusion, and my heart broke with his. We had been battling infertility for over two and a half years. While this may not seem like an extensive amount of time, when you enter into the 35+ category, the Baby Making Clock seems to tic at double speed. We had done several rounds of fertility treatments and endured two miscarriages. We weren’t sure of our next step and felt paralyzed about which road to travel down next.
Infertility is hard. It’s hard physically, emotionally, mentally, relationally. You want to embark on the parenting journey together, but despite all your best efforts you just can’t make it happen. It’s like planning for your dream vacation, and the day comes when you finally get to go… and the car won’t start. So you try your best and use all the tools you have to fix the car, and you try and pray and cry and swear and sometimes swear while you are praying, but it doesn’t work and you can’t leave the driveway.
It’s like each of you is carrying 97 bucketloads of complicated emotions apiece. And sometimes, as you are stumbling through the maze of doctors’ appointments, tests, sticks to pee on, and awkwardly-timed intercourse, you accidentally dump one of your buckets all over the other person. So, in addition to carrying their own 97 buckets of emotion, they are now covered in yours as well.
It can get a bit messy at times.
It seems like this might be the point where I’m supposed to tell you the seven steps for strengthening your marriage when struggling with infertility. And while there certainly are things you can do that will both help and hurt your marriage, to lay things out in a simple formula feels cheap and like it misses the point. So, here is the summation of what that list would be:
Lean in to each other when you’re scared. Lean into each other when you feel flawed and broken. Lean in when the 47th person this week just announced their pregnancy at work. Lean in when you feel like your emotional capacity has been reduced to a toddler’s because all you can think about is No fair no fair no fair no fair no fair. Lean in when you’re mad because it feels like your spouse isn’t getting it or should be supporting you differently. Lean in when your spouse’s coping mechanisms are opposite your own. Lean in when the loneliness feels like it might choke you and there is no one on the planet who truly gets it.
Of course, this does not apply if your partner is in any way abusive, neglectful, or otherwise not a safe person to lean into. If this is the case, please seek help to guide you through that process. This also doesn’t mean you never take time for yourself or seek out other support. It’s important to have other people to go to, people who will feed you soul food and sit across the table from you, patiently listening without judgment while you vent with wild abandon.
But if you find, time after time, that your first impulse is to reach for support outside of your partner – maybe it’s time to stop that text and look across the room instead. Because your spouse is your Teammate. They are your Co-Captain. They are at the helm with you, co-navigating this journey and understanding the obstacles like no one else can. They won’t do it perfectly. They will guess wrong and say things that make you wonder Did you really let that one get adequately edited before it was ready for publication.
And, still, lean in. It’s hard, but when we come towards each other with our scars exposed, we give our partner an intimate and holy opportunity to serve us, and we are able to serve them as well. Rubbing lotion on each other’s wounds knits our souls together in ways that other exchanges fall short. Infertility can feel like a battle, but it is one you can emerge from united, resilient, and ready to embrace parenthood, even if it looks different than you imagined.