Our Private Pain

National Infertility Awareness Week is April 22-28, 2018

According to Resolve.org, 1 in 8 couples have difficulty getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy.1 As painful as it is to talk about, my wife and I are that one couple. As I write this, my wife and I have been married for 17 years (it’ll be 18 in September), and despite our best efforts, we were never able to have children. Both of us are now in our early 40s and have accepted that fact that it’s not going to happen.

Disclaimer: My opinions and thoughts on this subject are very raw and I won’t hold back.

Just like any marriage or relationship, my wife and I have had our share of ups and downs- the occasional argument, financial problems, health issues, deaths in the family, career frustrations, and the like, from which we always recover. However, our infertility represented a fundamental shift in our relationship with each other and with God. Through this experience, my wife and I have drawn even closer to each other, while our faith has been radically altered,which I’ll explain in a bit.

Now, I’m not the most socially outgoing person, but our struggles with infertility give me anxiety concerning small talk. I know people are trying to be friendly, but I always have to have an answer ready when the conversation turns to kids, it usually goes something like this:

“Are you married?”

“Yes.”

“How long have you been married?”

“We’ve been married for X number of years?”

“Do you have any kids?”

“No.”

At this point, I have several fall back responses,which may include:

“Not right now, but we’re hoping in the next year or two.”

“Just the four-legged furry kind.” (As of now, we do have two dogs, a guinea pig, and a turtle, so that gives me a chance to change the subject to talk about the pets. It’s my “Hey, look over there” tactic).

If talking about the pets doesn’t work, there seems to follow what I consider to be a hurtful and insensitive question:

“Do you want kids?”

This is where I battle my silent mental rage, because in my mind I’m saying, Of course we want children, more than anything in the world. You don’t know how many years we’ve been trying, everything we’ve gone through, the unanswered prayers, the pain we feel at Christmas, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day, so please don’t ask that question.

Kids come so easy for certain couples that many people may not think or understand that some couples have great difficulty. For the record, yes, my wife and I have considered adoption- it’s very expensive. We have also considered IVF, but we never had health insurance that would help pay for such treatments. Even with IVF treatments, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, there’s not a 100 percent guarantee it will take and we could be out the equivalent of a college education with no results.

However, both of us did undergo surgeries in order to help fix the problem. In my case, I had varicocele surgery, which removed a varicose vein in my reproductive area. I also had to change the medication to treat my Ulcerative Colitis because the sulfasalizine I was on drastically affected my sperm count. A few years after that, my wife underwent an ovarian diathermy to help alleviate the symptoms of her Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). During my wife’s surgery, the doctor discovered and corrected a deviated uterine septum, which was a congenital defect and would have possibly led to miscarriage had my wife became pregnant. We did everything we could do from our standpoint, it was time to “let go and God” as they say.

For 14 years, we attended what is called a “Full Gospel” church. For those unfamiliar with the term, a Full Gospel church is a church that beliefs the spiritual gifts- healing, miracles, speaking in tongues, prophecy, etc, are just as alive and available to us as they were in the days of Jesus Christ and the Apostles. We came to believe in the doctrine of the gifts, as we took it on faith that God was going to give us a miracle. While we were engaged, we received a “prophetic” word that we would have a child. Over the years, several more of these “prophetic” words or prayers came forth claiming we were going to have children.

Nothing. God must have been out of the office on those days.

During this time, we did everything we knew to do- we spoke in faith,we prayed, we asked forgiveness for any sins that would have stopped God, we talked about children as if they were on their way,we encouraged each other when we doubted. We even attended an infertility support group. Still nothing.

What’s going on?

Month after month, year after year, no response from God, no babies. We would smile and be happy for relatives, coworkers and other church members as they received their blessing of children. During this same time, we were blessed with our nieces and nephews, whom we love dearly, yet, we still longed for our own.

When you want to believe in something with every fiber of your being, you hold on for so long and it doesn’t come to pass, you naturally question what you believe and what you’ve been told. During this time, I sought out deep spiritual answers, but found only platitudes and cliches.

“We’re praying for you.”

“Maybe you just need more faith.”

“God’s always on time.”

“God has a plan.”

“Prayer works.”

“If God did it for so-and-so, He’ll do it for you.”

We are well familiar with the biblical stories of Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth, all women who had difficulty having children,but eventually conceived, some even against medically impossible odds, such as being 90 years old or post-menopausal. We felt such guilt and shame during this time and questioned everything about ourselves and why were we deemed so unworthy. This was and still is a deep, private pain, that we have tried to push away, but it always comes back.

Besides the shame, I feel cheated and deceived. We will never know the joys of holding our own newborn baby, watching that child take his or her first steps, the first day of school, prom, graduation, marriage, and becoming grandparents. My heart also breaks for my parents, as they too have been robbed of grandchildren. It is not fair. It is not right. I have doubted my abilities many times during my life, but I know I would have been an excellent father and my wife an excellent mother. We would have done everything I could to love and care for a child, but we didn’t get our chance.

For 20 years, my wife worked as a social worker, where she saw countless cases of child abuse and neglect, and it broke her heart everyday. If God is all-good, all-powerful and all-knowing, why would He give a child to someone to who had no interest in loving that child? Why would God allow that innocent child to suffer such things as sexual and physical abuse, trauma, being born addicted to drugs, falling through the cracks of a broken system, their innocence being taking from them so their drug addicted parents can get another fix? Unfortunately, these same children will grow up and relive the sins of their parents and perpetuate the cycle of brokenness. Sounds like a great plan to me! Why would God allow the most vulnerable and innocent to suffer when there is a loving Christian couple who desperately wants a child of their own to love? Once again, faith offers no answers.

“God’s ways are above our ways.”

“We live in a fallen world.”

“God must have something special for those children or He wouldn’t allow what they’re going through.”

“We’ll get our answers in heaven.”

What kind of sick and twisted logic is that? That’s the grand and glorious plan? I call BS.

As I mentioned earlier, my wife and I have grown closer to each other because of this situation, but we are estranged from God because of these failed so-called prophesies. After several years of wrestling with the decision, we left our church, and have yet to join another one. I don’t doubt the sincerity of everyone who “spoke over us” or prayed for us, but after so long, it just becomes a noise you get used to hearing. We’ve attended several different churches, but it’s not the same, our relationship with God is broken. My wife and I have done our best to live fulfilling lives by focusing on each other, while enhancing our education and careers. We have also sought to be additional parental figures to our nieces and nephews.

Our infertility has left a scar on my heart that will never heal. I know my wife has been deeply hurt by the whole experience. I only wrote this post with her permission because I know this is a still sensitive subject. Our faith has been shaken and it will never be the same. On the day I stand before God, He should give an account to me as to why my wife and I never had the chance to have children. I know we are not alone in our struggles, that’s I just wanted to share my story. I’ve accepted the fact I will never have children, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it worth a damn.

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More of the Same

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By Michael W. Raley

Unless someone has walked your same path,

They can never fully understand

What you’re going through

And the struggles you face.

The fatigue you fought just to get out of bed.

The pep talk you gave your anxious self just to leave the house.

The chronic sickness that fights you every step of the way.

The inflammation that reminds you of the pain.

The thoughts that you suppress and fight

As you try to live life as a fully-functional person.

You try to enjoy the present moment,

Only to be haunted by the past

Or receive a harbinger from the future.

You have faith, you hope, and pray,

But the silence lingers day after day.

You know you need to make a change,

Yet remain in the quicksand of malaise.

You seek to make today a better day,

However, the forecast looks like more of the same.

A Little Wisdom from Dogs

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“The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs.”

– Charles de Gaulle

I love dogs, as my wife and I refer to our dogs, Maggie, Henry, and P.J. (who passed away in 2013), as our “fur babies.” I’ve often looked at my dogs and wondered how awesome it would be if they could talk and converse with us. What would they say? “Hey, we’ve been through this-I don’t like the brown triangles in my food.” “You gonna let me out or can I just go on  the rug?” Or maybe they would vent their frustration by saying,  “That little yapping dog next door gets on my nerves.”

If I may engage in a bit of whimsy, dogs already teach us a lot without saying a word. As evolved from their wolf ancestors, dogs, even as domesticated as they are, consider themselves as part of a pack. Besides the protection that comes from being a pack or family offers a place of acceptance and unconditional love. For me, the unconditional love is what is best about having a dog.

-Dogs don’t care what you do for a living or how much money you make.

-Dogs don’t care who you voted for or get upset when there’s political disagreement.

-Dogs don’t discriminate because of your skin color, age, background, religion, orientation or anything else we use to divide each other.

-Dogs teach us not to take things so seriously- just throw the ball, tug on the rope, go take a walk.

-Dogs are grateful for life’s little pleasures-some good food, clean water, a warm bed, and good company.

-Dogs teach us to stay alert to our surroundings.

-Dogs teach us the importance of frequent naps.

-Dogs use their limited years to get the most out of this life.

Maybe, just maybe it was the dog who domesticated us and not the other way around.

The Power of Acceptance

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Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.” – William James1

It is what it is,” is a popular American saying, which means “accept it because there’s nothing you can do about it.” While in the moment the expression sounds like a cop out of resignation, but within this cliché is a nugget of wisdom.
There is power in acceptance. Acceptance helps you come to terms with what happens in life, no matter if it is death of a loved one, divorce, job loss, or our own looming mortality. Acceptance allows us to grow. For example, I am perfectly fine with the man I am at forty-one and I do not grieve about not being the man I was at twenty-one. I have come to embrace who I am and what I have been through in this life. However, this does not mean that I have liked everything that has happened,but I have used these building blocks of character to form the foundation of who I am today.
Acceptance can also help bring us peace of mind and process life’s events, as my favorite philosopher, Epictetus, put it succinctly: “Don’t demand or expect that events happen as you would wish them to. Accept events as they actually happen. That way peace is possible.”2
In fact, Epictetus put down a good foundation for us to follow concerning the power of acceptance.

Manage your expectations

Circumstances do not rise to meet our expectations. Events happen as they do. People behave as they are. Embrace what you actually get.”3

Be weary of attachments

Open your eyes: Seeing things for what they really are, thereby sparing yourself the pain of false attachments and avoidable devestation. Think about what delights you- the tools on which you depend, the people whom you cherish. But remember that they have their own distinct character, which is quite a separate matter from how we happen to regard them.”4

Attitude goes a long way

When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it.”5

Manage your perceptions and judgments

What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance. Stopscaring yourself with impetuous notions, with your reactive impressions of the way things are! Things and people are not what we wish them to be nor what they seem to be. They are what they are.”6

Life will never be perfect and as Epictetus pointed out, will turn out according to our expectations. One of the most important lessons I have learned is to be happy with who I am. Don’t waste your time trying to make everyone happy, because you won’t. You are the one who lives this life with your mind, your perceptions, your experiences, your genetic makeup, and the consequences of your choices.Therefore, embrace this life because it is the only life we get. God bless you.

2Epictetus, The Art of Living, A new interpretation by Sharon Lebell. San Francisco: Harper Collins (1994): 15.

3Ibid, 7.

4Ibid, 7.

5Ibid, 7.

6Ibid, 7-8.

A Place at the Table

By Michael W. Raley

If we are to live in a new Age of Enlightenment,

We must not look to dividing religions or morally insolvent governments.

Each and every woman, child, and man

Must do the work with their own hands.

Each of us must realize that we are free

To choose how to live and what we shall be.

The hurts of the past we cannot change,

Yet we allow them to eat away at us like a mange.

As long as we have today, it is not too late

To turn away from this deep-seated, barbaric, and tribal hate,

Which has hindered and encapsulated our kindred spirits,

For the time has come to do away with it.

We must hold ourselves to the highest accountability,

Question the institutional authority and use our own rationality.

Do not be afraid to question long held beliefs,

Because learning a new truth can bring you joy, peace, and relief.

Do away with the prejudices and the fables

Because everyone deserves a seat at the table.

The Scars of Abandonment

By Michael W. Raley

I prayed for miracles, but they never came

While singing songs praising your name.

The greater lesson I tried learning,

Only to feel the blade of agony twisting and turning.

I believed for me you had a great and glorious plan,

But all I see is a trail of heartache and a broken man.

These scars of abandonment I can no longer hide,

For they go deep and wide.

They say your ways we can’t understand,

Yet, how is that a comfort to every hurting child,woman, and man?

I often wonder if you are there

And if you are,do you really care?

Yes? No? Maybe?

Have we’ve been left defenseless as a newborn baby?

It is your will, they say, for all of the pain and misery we go through,

Yet, we’re the ones who will have to give account to you?

Seneca, Solomon, and the Happy Life

Lucius Seneca and King Solomon were two men who lived centuries apart, in two different parts of the world-Solomon in ancient Israel, Seneca in First Century Rome. Solomon was King of Israel and Seneca is considered to be one of the pillars of Stoic philosophy, along with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. Though over a thousand years of time separated Solomon and Seneca, both men posed to themselves the question,  What makes a happy life?

Everyone wants to be happy. Everyone deserves a chance to be happy. However, defining happiness is as diverse an answer as there are people on the planet. Some people define happiness with such things as love, possessions, a successful career, good health, faith, or family. Just as happiness means different things to different people, it meant different things to Solomon and Seneca.

The Book of Ecclesiastes is attributed to Solomon, (though it could have been written at a later date) and details Solomon’s pursuit of happiness. Solomon denied himself no pleasures as he literally had it all- wisdom, knowledge, political power, gold, silver, property, servants, singers, a harem of women, all of the wine he could drink- everything one might have at their disposal if you were the king or queen. Despite all of this, Solomon wasn’t happy, as he called his pursuits “meaningless,” “vanity,” and “chasing after the wind.”

Seneca, like the other Stoics, did not believe that “the externals,” i.e. fame, fortune, good health, reputation, are not what makes us happy.

“…the happy life depends solely on our reason being perfect. Only perfect reason keeps the soul from being submissive and stands firm against Fortune; it assures self-sufficiency in whatever situation. It is the one good which can never be impinged upon. A man is happy, I maintain, when no circumstance can reduce him; he keeps to the heights and uses no buttress but himself, for a man sustained by a bolster is liable to fall. If this is not so, then many factors outside ourselves will begin to have power over us.”1

If only Seneca was around at the time of Solomon! Solomon searched for happiness in external things- the money, the power, the women, that he lost sight of what was important and his heart was turned away from God. Solomon allowed his spiritual life to be compromised as he worshiped the foreign gods of his many, many, wives.

Please don’t misunderstand, I am not shunning material possessions, we must be careful not to allow the possessions to own us. What we have- our families, our homes, our money- can be taken away in an instant through death, disaster, bad investments, job loss, sickness, and a myriad of other circumstances which may beyond our control.

Ecclesiastes reads like Solomon is telling his story from the perspective of old age, essentially saying, “I’ve had it all, I knew it all, I did it all, and it didn’t make me happy.” Solomon became shortsighted because of his pursuits of pleasure, to which Seneca states:

“…Pleasure actually unstrings the soul and blunts all its force.” (pg 241).

“But it is our vices that reduce us to despair, for the junior partner in reason is of lower rank, too unstable for surveillance over choice wares, with judgment still unsteady and unsure.” (pg 245).

Solomon later came to realize that no matter if you were rich or poor, wise or foolish, the same fate would overtake everyone, the same as the animals: death, thus we must follow God and enjoy the life we’ve been given. In the following verses, Solomon echoes a lot of Stoic ideals concerning the pursuit of the happy life:

“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them-for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil- this is the gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.” (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20, NIV).

Seneca teaches us that the happy life is also determined by our reason and sound judgment:

“What is the happy life? Self-sufficiency and abiding tranquility. This is the gift of greatness of soul, the gift of constancy which perseveres in a course judged right. How can these attitudes be attained? By surveying truth in its entirety, by safeguarding in every action order, measure, decorum, a will that is without malice and benign, focused undeviatingly upon reason, at once amiable and admirable.” (Pgs 239-240).

Happiness and contentment come from within, thus we cannot passively expect, possessions, people, or even God to make us happy. Think of time that you wanted a certain gift and received it for  Christmas or birthday. How did you feel about the gift a few days, weeks, or months later? Don’t wish away your life for the things you don’t have, but rejoice over what you currently have. Don’t let someday or the promises of heaven and the afterlife to dull your senses about living life in the hear and now. God has given you everything you have, enjoy it. Exercise good reason and judgment, so that you will be the same person, despite your current circumstances. God bless you.

1Moses Hadas, The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca. New York: W.W. Norton & Company (1958): 239.