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Health: Blessed, but not with a child

01 May 2015

Is the Church a welcoming space for those who face infertility and childlessness, asks Rachel Giles


LIZZIE LOWRIE and her husband, Dave, have been trying to have a child for seven years. They have had six miscarriages. Of the last baby that they lost, Mrs Lowrie recalls: "At eight weeks, the scan was really good, and showed a heartbeat. But the baby died at ten weeks." Having been booked in to hospital for a medically managed miscarriage, Mrs Lowrie found herself sharing a ward with women having early abortions.

Of all the women who are investigated at the Recurrent Miscarriages Clinic, at St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, 50 per cent will not have a cause identified even after detailed investigations. "We're in that 50 per cent," Mrs Lowrie says about her and her husband'ssituation. "There's nothing wrong with either of us medically, and there's no answer. Sometimes you wish there was a pill you could take, or something you could do."

Mrs Lowrie has found going to church hard during her struggle with childlessness. "It feels as though the family unit is something that is celebrated a lot, and it makes you feel as though you're lacking in some way.

"I found secular environments so much easier to be in. At work, I felt quite normal: a lot of people get married later, and don't have children. Work was often like a retreat; church was stressful."

Her experience led her to set up a blog in 2013, Saltwater and Honey, with a friend, Sheila Matthews, while their husbands were training as ordinands at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. Mrs Matthews and her husband, Elis, have struggled to conceive owing to azoospermia (a lack of sperm in the semen).

In setting up the blog, the friends imagined creating a space where they could "grieve for the losses of hopes and dreams, but also gain new hope, new dreams, and new encouragement," Mrs Matthews says. "We didn't want to live negatively; we feel like we're people of hope. But, also, that doesn't negate the legitimacy of our grief. We didn't want to hide that."

The blog provides a safe place for those going through infertility to tell their stories. Contributors, both male and female, can submit short blog entries about their experiences of infertility and childlessness; and they can remain anonymous - although some choose not to. So far, nearly 28,000 people have visited. Poignantly, their Mother's Day post this year had more than 1000 unique hits.

"The thing we pin Saltwater and Honey on is: 'Rejoice with those who rejoice, and mourn with those who mourn.' As a Church, we're really good at rejoicing; but can you mourn?" Mrs Matthews asks.

Church leaders can do a great deal to help, she says. "It's in your rhetoric, in the illustrations you use in sermons. It's talking about brokenness - not just calling it brokenness, but naming the ways we [can be] broken." 

ABOUT one in seven couples in the UK - approximately 3.5 million people - will have difficulty conceiving, according to the NHS website. In response, Alex and Rebecca Stewart, from Holy Trinity, Brompton, have been running a five-week course, now called "Waiting for Children: Living fruitfully with infertility," since 2011.

Next week, the first pilot of an adapted course will take place at Liverpool Cathedral. The course, starting on 6 May, will include modules on ethical issues of fertility treatment, and adoption, and it is hoped that the course may then be rolled out to other areas of the country.

The Revd Sonya Doragh, a Curate at St Peter's, in Woolton, Liverpool, who is heading up the Liverpool course, knows how painful infertility can be.

Mrs Doragh knew when she got married that she may struggle to have children. When she was 17, she was raped on two separate occasions, and, by the time she had the courage to see a doctor, she discovered that she had chlamydia. By then, it had spread, and affected her fallopian tubes.

After nine years of trying for children, the Doraghs fostered. They now have three adopted children.

Adoption is often seen as a next logical step for infertile couples, Mrs Doragh says, but she goes on to say that it does not resolve infertility: "I've got three children; I'd still love to get pregnant, and breastfeed, and all of that."

Stories about female infertility in the Bible need to be read carefully, she says. "Sarah and Abraham had a unique promise of children - which means there isn't a global promise that everyone will. . . Yet our culture, and sometimes our Church, colludes with it, and acts as though somehow it is a right."

So what happens when the dream dies, once and for all? The writer, speaker, and broadcaster Sheridan Voysey calls the ten years that he and his wife, Merryn, spent trying to have a child, their "wilderness journey". Having pursued adoption, and after multiple failed rounds of IVF, the couple finally gave up, "simply because psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally we couldn't live in that limbo space any more," he says.

"Proverbs 13.12 is very true: hope deferred makes the heart sick. And when it goes on for years and years, your heart does get sick." The couple moved from Australia to the UK for a fresh start; their story is told in Mr Voysey's book Resurrection Year (Thomas Nelson, 2013).

What does hope for the childless look like? "The Christian faith says that my identity is primarily as a child of God," Mr Voysey says, "[which is] much deeper and more enduring than any of the roles that we can fulfil, including parenthood. Not that these roles aren't important, but they're secondary".

Jesus presented an alternative model of family, he says. "He was teaching a whole bunch of disciples, and he said, 'Who are my mother and my sisters and brothers - aren't these?' He expands the concept of family to take it beyond the bloodline to the faith line.

"We've lived in four major cities now; it's been the Church that has provided community and foundation for us to find our feet in a new place. We're very grateful that that Christian family is everywhere." 

CHILDLESSNESS can be especially hard to cope with in the church if you are single. Kerry Thomas is 38. She was engaged, but the relationship broke down because her fiancé had two children already, and did not want more. She also underwent a full hysterectomy last year, owing to severe endometriosis.

Events at church, such as women's breakfasts, she says, can be painful if they seem geared only to mothers. "Why do these things have to start at a quarter to nine?" she asks. "The answer given is: women with children, that suits them better.

"At a recent breakfast, the speaker said: 'Those of you with young children, this is such a sacred time away.' I work really hard all week, and I'm really tired, and this is a sacred time for me [too]. It's just an assumption in church that everyone has children. It's not [one] I see anywhere else in my life."

Mother's Day can be especially hard. "Nearly every childless woman I know who goes to church, they don't want to be given flowers on Mother's Day. They're like 'pity flowers'. You're sitting there, waiting for someone to nudge their kid and say 'Go and get that lady flowers'," Ms Thomas says.

She is grateful for the church community, however; when she had urgent surgery, some of them looked after her - visiting her in hospital, texting her, and bringing her meals. "It's the older people in the church, mainly, but I have got a few people who are very much family for me, which is great."

Sue Jones* was 38 when she discovered that she had endometriosis. It has affected her ability to conceive, although there is a small chance that she could have a child with IVF.

She feels that she has paid a price for not having sex before marriage. If she had, she would have experienced pain, and been diagnosed sooner, and the damage from the disease would have been less severe. "I wasn't ready for a relationship, probably, and chose other things. . . It just didn't happen. Is that my fault? Have I been punished?"

She worries about ageing without children, and feels that relationships at church need to be strong enough for her to rely on. "I have to trust that church is going to be there, if I end up in a nursing home."

The director of singlechristians.co.uk, Dr David Pullinger, says that there are twice as many ABC1 (educated and professional) women than men in the Church in the UK. This is causing a crisis of singleness, and, by extension, involuntary childlessness. The disproportion between single men and women in churches across the UK is not that great, he says; the key is the difference between education and social status.

In addition, three recent pieces of research about singleness in UK churches (a survey of 3000 single Christians run by the dating website Christian Connection, a survey by Christian Research Ltd, and a YouGov survey) all reveal that the Church is often failing singles in terms of being the "new family" of which Jesus spoke, Dr Pullinger says. "The attitudes we actually receive mostly in church [are about] the old kind of family - inheritance through offspring, and 'You're doing all right if you can own a nice house' - all the old values that the prophets and Jesus came to overturn. That's one of the main issues really to address as a Church." 

IN RESPONSE, many involuntarily childless men and women are forced to look outside the Church for a real or virtual community in which they can feel truly at home.

Four years ago Jody Day set up a non-religious global friendship-and-support network, Gateway Women, after her own experience of childlessness. "It's quite hard to even hear that things like Gateway Women exist until you're ready," she says. "It's more taboo than AA. It's the club no one wants to join, and which no one'll tell anyone they're a member of."

In 2012, one in five women born in 1967 in England and Wales were childless, compared with one in nine women born in 1940. Gateway Women is responding to this demographic shift.

Its website has had nearly 623,000 views worldwide, and its private Google+ community has 617 approved members. Social events facilitated via the app Meetup take place in Britain, the United States, and Australia. Ms Day says that Christians, including clergy, are part of the community.

Ms Day also set up workshops based on her experience of peer-to-peer support from Al-Anon, which helps the friends and family of addicts. "This was the beginning of being able to have a dialogue with other women about what I was going through . . . which, up until that point, nobody had let me have: not within a therapeutic setting, not with my friends, not with my family. Whenever I would try to talk about it I would be closed down . . . with 'helpful' statements like 'Have you tried IVF?' or 'Why don't you adopt?'"

The workshops continue today: "That's been the biggest experience for me, and many others, of experiencing deep healing and connection around childlessness."

Ms Day, a training psychotherapist, also runs one-to-one support, and assembled the steps she went through towards healing her grief in a book, Rocking the Life Unexpected: 12 Weeks to your plan B for a meaningful and fulfilling life without children.

Currently, there is no equivalent to Gateway Women for men, but Ms Day says that one is likely to appear soon. While no forum currently exists exclusively for men, there is the website Mensfe, with information for men pre-, during, or post-infertility; and More To Life is an online support group for childless men and women, which also runs social events. 

ALTHOUGH there is currently a lack of ritual in the Church for men and women who are experiencing infertility, or involuntary childlessness, others, outside the Church, are harnessing ritual as a way to express grief.

"Give Sorrow Words" is a free, non-religious ceremony for people of all faiths and none, married or single, that has been developed to help men and women grieve for their childlessness. Run by a counsellor, Gill Tunstall, at the Bonnington Centre, Vauxhall, the services are based on a model developed by the transpersonal psychotherapist Meredith Wheeler.

Participants send suggestions for readings and music to Ms Tunstall, who plans an order of service. Others can choose to participate by just reading out one line of a poem on the day. "It's like a funeral," she says. "The whole thing is very, very moving to be involved in."

Speaking about grief has a powerful healing effect, she says: "There's something about being in a room with a group of people who are all sharing a similar experience. . . Just feeling accepted and understood."

The "Saying Goodbye" services for baby- and child-loss, and miscarriage and stillbirth, held in UK cathedrals, have helped some Gateway Women members, Ms Day says. Similar services could be held in churches to include the involuntarily childless, to mourn the loss of something hoped for that was never physically realised, she says.

"I think it would be an amazing way to empower Christian childless women. [To create] a template for running those groups, those rituals - it's not about being an expert, but it is about creating a safe space."

The next "Give Sorrow Words" service will be held at the Bonnington Centre, Vauxhall, London, on 28 June at 4.30 p.m. For details visit










Rachel Giles can be contacted by email on rachel.giles@zen.co.uk 

David's story

"WE [were not able to] have children naturally. We deferred fertility treatment, and then, [when] we did it, it was a bit later in life, and it wasn't successful. We did consider, at one stage, [that] we might adopt, but we weren't of a common mind on that.

"In some ways, there is no end. There is no public point [to mark] that something that happened is no longer. It's not like you had a broken leg, or you even had a stillbirth . . . you're grieving what you haven't got. You put it behind you, and move on, which [makes it] harder to get over in a deep way.

"Underneath, there's quite a lot of loss, which can be triggered, in our case, in small ways. If someone's talking about the challenges and joys of their family, or [they] reach various family milestones, you realise [that] you won't have that milestone, because you haven't got a family.

"At conferences, they'll say how many children a speaker has. Quite often, clergy will have three, four, or five. . . It's almost, 'What a blessed person this speaker must be.' What's it telling us? It's just a little poke to the heart when I read that."

Deborah's story

"WE WERE about to start trying for a family - I was 32 - when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I lost both ovaries, but the hospital was able to save egg cells, which were successfully fertilised. So we had eight frozen embryos. 

"After I'd recovered, I had three separate embryo transfers. They all failed, [the fourth] embryo didn't survive being thawed. We found a known egg-donor, and three embryos were created last summer. One was put back, but I miscarried at nine weeks. 

"My priest has said some unbelievably clumsy things, like, 'Gosh, isn't it a shame you didn't just get pregnant by someone when you were in your early twenties.' I met my husband when I was 30.

"I had tea with the priest's wife, and told her I'd just had my fourth IVF fail. She whipped out her mobile phone, and said: 'My daughter has three under three! Look, her twins were born last month.'

"We left that church because we know that other clergy can get this. Our new church has an older demographic, and we're the youngest there. I feel what's happened to me, it's broken me open, and made me more open to God." 

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