I often tell people that my two children were “born of prayer.” What I mean is that getting pregnant took longer and required more prayer than I ever imagined before marriage.
Each month brought a new wrestling match between the hope of pregnancy and the anguish of deferment. And hope generally lost—but twice.
I’ve now been mothering for nearly a decade with 9- and 6-year-old daughters. The birth of my youngest didn’t quench the desire for another, and the battle to conceive has continued for six years with no further victories.
What’s Secondary Infertility?
Technically, I struggle with what doctors call secondary infertility—a nebulous term that attempts to distinguish between commonly known infertility (where there’s no pregnancy or child) and infertility after childbirth.
According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, more than 6 million women of childbearing age “have difficulty becoming pregnant or staying pregnant.” Of these, approximately one-third face secondary infertility.
This means your church most likely has women (or rather, couples) walking the thorny road of infertility after childbirth.
A woman in the grip of secondary infertility lives in a peculiar space. In all likelihood, someone at home calls her “Mommy”—and this brings an awkward sorrow. Like Rachel, holding her child can inspire both joy and a ceaseless ache for another (Gen. 30:24).
A woman in the grip of secondary infertility lives in a peculiar space. . . . Like Rachel, holding her child can inspire both joy and a ceaseless ache for another.
Couples—and those called to love and serve them—are often tempted to mask or trivialize the pain of secondary infertility. After all, to someone longing for children who remains childless, a couple with secondary infertility appears to be living the dream. But distinctions between types of infertility don’t justify minimizing the pain of either one.
When we fail to acknowledge the reality of our experiences, we fail to look for what God may be teaching us in them (James 1:2–4). Secondary infertility can be a useful instructor, reminding us—and our church families—of at least three truths about our God, our pain, and our hope.
1. Children are not born of the will. They are graciously given.
When a healthy couple of childbearing age welcomes a baby (or two), we naturally assume they can do it again. But the surprising condition of secondary infertility reminds us that children are not born of the will but graciously given by God.
Whether it’s for the first child or the seventh, a husband and wife may try to conceive, but it’s God who gives life (Gen. 2:7). Human reproduction, like spiritual regeneration, is ultimately his sovereign work (John 1:12–13).
Our children are lavish gifts from God—a fact that highlights their preciousness and his generosity. Every descendant of Adam and Eve is evidence of divine mercy. He owed our first parents nothing but death, yet despite their brazen rebellion, they lived to see many days (Gen. 2:17; 5:5).
Even more, Eve was named “mother of all living” and was promised a coming, conquering offspring—the Serpent Crusher (Gen. 3:15, 20). This promise sustained and taught her that all her children were God-wrought, not products of her own strength or merit (Gen. 4:1, 25).
God is good to us. His gift of children has never been offered on the basis of our goodness. My struggle to conceive another child reminds me to praise him for the kids around my table, for they are rich rewards I could never earn (Ps. 127:3).
God is good to us. His gift of children has never been offered on the basis of our goodness.
It also frees me from acting like having additional children depends on me or my husband. It keeps me from feeling I have to consult every doctor, explore every medical option, or research every method that promises to boost fertility. My striving can rest when I remember that God gives children according to his perfect will.
2. Mothers bring forth children in pain.
Human reproduction is God’s idea. His plan from the beginning was to fill the earth with his image-bearers (Gen. 1:26–28). After the fall, his command to be fruitful and multiply didn’t change (Gen. 9:1, 7; cf. Jer. 29:1–9). But now, something else would also multiply—pain.
God multiplied the woman’s pain in childbearing. He told her, “in pain you shall bring forth children” (Gen. 3:16). The word “pain” in this passage is best understood as a “painful toil” that can be applied to the entire physical and emotional process of conceiving, bearing, and rearing kids. In other words, labor contractions don’t account for the full brunt of Genesis 3:16. Women bring forth children in pain, whether it be the travail of delivery, the agony of miscarriage and infertility, or the heartaches of adoption, foster care, and spiritual mothering.
Secondary infertility . . . has its place in Genesis 3:16. Don’t silence its cry.
Secondary infertility, along with these other pains, has its place in Genesis 3:16. Don’t silence its cry. Rather, let the pain drive you to honest lament, leading to comfort in the One who will someday deliver us from all pain (Rev. 21:4).
3. We await God’s full and complete family.
We live east of Eden in a world where infertility comes for different reasons, at different times, for different couples. Even a womb that has borne a child might suddenly close. But secondary infertility can serve as a faithful teacher, warning us against an idolatrous form of natalism that defines the ideal family by its size.
God promises only one perfect family, and it comes at the eschaton—the fulfillment of all things at the return of Christ. He is gathering the full and complete number of his children to bring them home (Rev. 7:9). In the meantime, we inhabit a wilderness—before the Promised Land—where the good desire for conception and children may be deferred, and mothers like me sigh and groan with the feeling of “missing children.”
But in truth, no additional babies can satisfy our deepest groan as we, along with the rest of creation, await the revealing of the sons of God and the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:18–23). On that day, the living God will dwell with all his children (Rev. 21:3). And nobody born again in Christ will be missing from that family.