Mother's Day: A Story of Unrequited Love

This essay was originally published at Art House America

No one ever tells you what it’s going to feel like to walk into a fertility center.

They don’t tell you because you don’t ask, and you don’t ask, because your mom had you and her mom had her. The normal way. Why would there be any problem? But if you’re like me, you wish you’d asked. And you wish someone had told you. So I will. 

The room is going to be painted some awful color, like green or beige. The television is going to be on, but the volume won’t be loud enough for you to hear anything the CNN anchor is saying. And there will be other couples there, sitting side by side. Some will hold hands, in solidarity. Others will ignore each other and stare at their phones, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. At first, you’ll be thankful for them. They’re like you. But be prepared, because after a few minutes, you’re going to hate them. All of them. Because they are your greatest hope and greatest fear and you don’t want to be like them, but there you are, sitting in the seat, waiting.

“Mr. and Mrs. Gibson?” 

The nurse will call you by your last name. She’ll smile and lead you to a scale and ask if you’d like to take your boots off. “No need to weigh those,” she’ll joke. After she writes down a number, your husband will step on the scale, assuming it’s his turn. But then, she’ll shoo him away, because no one is really interested in him anyway.

Then she’ll close you two in another, smaller waiting room. There will be a desk. Somewhere in the room, there will be a plastic replica of a perfect female uterus. A lot of time will go by, and you’ll read an outdated House Beautiful and inspect the plastic fallopian tubes, wondering what in the hell is wrong with you that everyone else gets to be at work when you have to be sitting in this damn office waiting. Still waiting. And you’ll see a red button near the door that says “Call for Nurse.” You’ll get up to press it, but your husband will try to stop you.

“We’ve been waiting for more than an hour,” you’ll say. He will give in, let you press the button, but it will do nothing but light up like Rudolf’s nose. Don’t be surprised if you press it a few extra times, just for good measure. Still, nothing will happen.

“Sorry,” a nurse will say, finally, when she pops her head into the doorway. This nurse will be skinny, with glasses. “Ice on the roads.”

You’ll groan. You’ll wish you’d canceled the appointment, and though he won’t say it out loud, your husband will wish you had too. 

And just when you’re ready to stand up and storm out of the clinic, the doctor will walk in, all smiles and apologies, holding a folder full of results and promises. She’ll be tall, with dark hair. Old enough to be trusted. She’ll pull out your medical files and go through them page by page. At first, you’ll think she’s thorough, but then you’ll realize this is the first she’s ever heard of you. And then she’ll stack the papers together and invite you to take off your clothes from the waist down. 

When she comes back in the room, you’ll have a paper-thin sheet over your legs. The doctor will take a wand and cover it with lubricant and put it inside you and turn off the lights. The screen will turn on, showing nothing. Black and white, and empty. And your husband will hold your hand, and though you’re not alone, you will feel it. 

You will feel it.

photo by Richard Welter

Infertility is a story of unrequited love.

When people ask how it feels, I say it’s kind of like having a fountain of water inside of you, with nowhere for the water to go. I have so much love I want to give, but no one to shower it upon. The object of my affection is just out of reach. And the love I want to give has nowhere to go. That’s a scary thing. Because love, bottled up, ignored and unused, can morph into all kinds of wild emotions. Sadness, of course. But it can also transform into grief, anger, and jealousy.

Love can so easily become bitterness.

C. S. Lewis put it perfectly in The Four Loves:

"To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable."

To desire anything at all is to be vulnerable, too. Though not everyone has experienced infertility, every single person knows how it feels to want something and not have it. Pain exists in the time between feeling a need and having that need met. So rather than feel the pain, I normally find a way around the wait. In fact, I live in a society that profits off my inability to endure even minor suffering. You can see it everywhere: Google answers any nagging question with a few clicks. Netflix serves up 13 episodes at a time because I can’t wait seven days for the next episode anymore. Amazon keeps warehouses running 24 hours a day simply because I will pay a premium for next-day delivery. There is nothing wrong with convenience. But when I get to the really difficult times in my life — times like this — I find that I’m really out of practice.

Several people have asked me what I am learning through all of this. First of all — before I answer that question, know that I hate that question. Why do I have to be learning something when everyone else seems to be getting along just fine without the school of infertility? (Insert groan.) I’m learning exactly what I’ve been learning my whole life: that I’m not in control, I’m flawed, and despite all that, I’m deeply loved. Those three hard truths are difficult to swallow.

I am not in control. This statement is the opposite of what I normally hear from the culture around me. The world tells me that No One is out there with a plan for me, so I better make one up for myself. The world tells me to take back the reins. The world says I can find happiness in seven easy steps. Worst of all, the world says I can “plan parenthood,” which I can’t. (Believe me, if I could, I’d be a parent already.) I’m constantly brushing up with my desire to be in charge. If we try IVF or start down the road to adoption, those plans are just as uncertain, but for a time, they at least feel like plans. I swing on a pendulum between earnest effort and complete powerlessness.

I am flawed. On an anatomical level, my body is not doing (or won’t yet do) what I know it is supposed to do. This is a rough pill for me to swallow not only because we can’t get pregnant, but also because for years, I’ve liked to think I’m a pretty healthy person. I could nod my head theoretically, and agree that I am flawed — as in, I have character flaws. Sure! We all do! I’m a lying, cheating, prideful thief just like the rest of you! But to see evidence of brokenness in the world in my own body is a new sensation, and it’s painful. It shatters everything I thought I knew about sin. Sin isn’t just in my heart. It affects my body, too.

Next to these two is a third truth: I am deeply loved. This is the hardest truth of all.

The way it goes in my mind is so different. I am not in control. I am flawed. So I am doomed. That’s how it feels. That’s the logical progression of thought. That’s what I feel on the inside. But if what the Bible says is true, then my powerlessness isn’t the end, but the beginning of God’s mercy. In my weakness, He is strong. In my brokenness, He is drawing ever closer. Yes, the world is chaotic and wildly tragic — but I am at the center of God’s affection through it all, like He’s placed me perfectly within the eye of the storm. I may be thrown about and bruised, but I am not destroyed. He has His eye upon the sparrow. And He has His eye upon me, too.

Infertility is a story of unrequited love. But God wrote that story. A parent who deeply desires a relationship with His children? Yeah. He gets that. He loves us. He desires to place all of His love squarely upon our heads. He is waiting for us to awaken to the truth, for us to take our first spiritual breath.

The yearning I feel for a child is deep, painful, and raw. And if that is so, how much more must God yearn for His children? I can’t fathom it. The earth couldn’t contain His shouts of sorrow for the ones lost. The earth couldn’t contain His joy for the ones brought near.

So I will draw near to Him. I am a mother, without a child. He knows.

If He stayed dead.

Easter weekend always reminds me of just how absurd Christianity must sound to the outside world. This whole group of people believe this one man at this one point in history wasn't just a man—He was also God. Crazier still, we believe he was murdered at the hands of one of the most powerful civilizations, was buried, then rose again. Like. Stood up. Walked around. Ate some meals. If you're a Christian, you have to understand how absolutely bonkers that must sound.

italy dream big

Or maybe it doesn't sound so crazy any more. We live in a time of heart monitors and life support, and people who spend years in a coma only to wake up again. People have "died on the table" and been brought back to life. So what's the big deal if a man that was dead came back to life? What's so radical about resurrection?

I've been thinking about this question a lot today. This is the day, more than 2000 years ago, that Jesus was executed as a criminal. A rebel. He was whipped. Stripped naked. Cut. Beaten. Nailed to a piece of wood, and displayed like a piece of raw meat for the rest of the Jewish nation to look upon as an example of what would happen if you called yourself King. He died.

And what would have happened if he had stayed dead?

If He stayed dead, the Romans would have won.

If He stayed dead, the Jewish Pharisees would have felt thirty pieces of silver was money well spent to keep their power.

If He stayed dead, he lied.

If He stayed dead, the Disciples would have fled, knowing they'd been duped in the longest Con ever recorded.

If He stayed dead, the only hope we have is in the goodness of each other.

If He stayed dead, the only fear we have is of the evil in each other.

If He stayed dead, the only love we have is what we can manufacture.

If He stayed dead, the only pleasure we have is what we can hoard for ourselves.

If He stayed dead, joy in life is tied to our circumstances.

If He stayed dead, there is no reason to deny our base desires, because this life is all there is, there is nothing to come. Why not do what I want?

If He stayed dead, there is no bigger plan. We are on a deserted island in the middle of a vast Universe with no one coming to save us.

If He stayed dead, suffering wins.

If He stayed dead, so will we.

The Cover Up

For Christmas this year, my sister gave me a book by Dr. Larry Crabb called 66 Love Letters. The book walks through each book of the Bible—all 66—as if each one is a love letter from God. And when I sat down to read the first part of Genesis this morning, I was skeptical. I've read it, okay? I've heard it. It's old news—the oldest, actually. I stopped when I got to the part where Eve (and Adam, soonafter) both eat from a forbidden tree. I've always been stumped by this story. What's the big deal with eating that fruit? And what's the big deal about knowing good from evil? And why, after what must have been a very juicy bite, did they immediately put on clothes?

Before fruit: naked and happy.

After fruit: someone get me some clothes.

cooper in the sunWhy hide their nakedness first? Why was that their first reaction? I tried to think as if I were Eve. Why would I reach for a leaf, even as I wiped juice from the corner of my mouth with the back of my bare arm?

She was ashamed. She was no longer safe to be fully herself, because she was finally aware of good and evil, and she was fully aware to which side she fell. If we know good and evil, then we know we are not good. And we begin the cover up. How much time and effort do I spend on the cover up? How much glitter and how many jewels and what fine jackets and shoes and hairstyles (and jobs and achievements and success) can I conjure to hide the truth that I am on the wrong side of God? 

They put on clothes. They must have been shoddy. Ripped leaves, wet with rain. They must have fought over the largest leaves. Did bugs crawl from the creepies onto Eves arms and legs? Did they bite?

And the cover up continues. Adam blames EveEve blames the serpent, and the serpent thinks he's won. But God sees through their shoddy clothes and poor excuses. He says the serpent may have won for a short time, but in the end, he'll be crushed. He says women will have pain in childbirth and in marriage. And he says men will only survive through suffering and sweat and thorns and weeds. He returns to say He was telling the truth all along.

The serpent lied when he said to Eve, "You will not certainly die." God returns to say, "You certainly will."

But he doesn't walk away. He lays out this horrible news—this sad and frightening news. And the next thing God does is incredible. I'd never seen it before. I'd never stopped to notice what happens next.

He covers them up. He makes them clothes.  

We're not talking LEAVES, people. We're talking LEATHER. Not the stuff from Florence or the pleather I buy because I can't afford the real stuff. Like, virgin, perfectly tanned leather sewn by the hands of the most creative Designer that has ever walked the planet. Can you imagine the clothes He made? Do you think He killed an animal to make those clothes? Do you think blood was shed? Can you imagine how soft and warm they must have felt falling across Eve's shoulders?

It almost brings me to tears.

He knew they needed to cover up. And He made the covering.

I want clothes like that.

Hanging Up the Eagle

christmasIt was the Christmas my dad turned into a full bird. My mother and I were in a department store at the Garden State Plaza surrounded by bows, glitter, and faux firs decorated from tip to trunk with lights and glass-blown ornaments. I was eleven, a sixth grader with snaggly teeth, bangs and the patience of a newborn squirrel. But I knew my mission. "Something gaudy," my mother instructed. "It's got to be huge."

"I think we're in the right place," I replied, looking over the sea of drums, meaningless balls, gingerbread men, and fat Santas. I gave my bangs a puff of air with a protruding lower lip. "Does dad know you're doing this?"

"Of course not," she snapped. Turning another carousel of ornaments, my mother laughed. "He's going to hate it."

A Matter of Rank

In the Army, a full-bird grows within a cocoon of service and emerges with two-dimensional eagles pinned on its epaulets. A full-bird is a Colonel—an officer selected to climb to the ranks of the U.S. Army. When the good news came that previous summer, my mother popped a champagne bottle and invited the family to the promotion ceremony that overlooked the Hudson River. All that was done and over, and now it was Christmas and my mother was determined.

"This bird is putting you through college," my mother shouted from across the store. I shrank in embarrassment and rushed to her side.

"No one makes eagle ornaments, mom," I whispered. Why were we looking for an eagle ornament when my father wore two on his shoulders every day? There was no sign of an eagle. Not even a dove.

I didn't understand the importance of that ornament. I didn't understand that removing LTC from the doorstep and replacing it with COL was a feat that required an entire committee to select my father's name and pass over someone else's. I didn't know that if his name hadn't been chosen, it would have meant the end of his 23-year Army career. It would have meant leaving West Point, the cocoon of my own making. I couldn't contemplate that even though my father's career had been extended, there was still an expiration date, and that it was fast approaching.

I didn't understand that when he took the uniform off, the ornament and the memories and the man would be all we had left.

And then I saw it.

"Mom," I shouted across the store. "I found it!"

eagle ornament