Sister Oscarson’s talk in the General Women’s meeting, “Rise Up in Strength, Sisters in Zion” sparked a lot of dialogue within the women of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The entire talk was full of powerful council, warnings and doctrine; yet the quote that seemed to garner the most amount of attention was this one:
I truly believe that motherhood is of utmost importance, despite the fact that I experience infertility and will likely never have the blessing of motherhood in this life. Yet, sadly, there are some who murmur when leaders testify of the importance motherhood and eternal marriage. I deeply empathize and mourn with those that mourn as they suffer through the grief of infertility and not being able to have children. And yet, I am unable to murmur with those that murmur against our Church leaders for boldly proclaiming Christ’s doctrine of motherhood and the family.
I deeply understand what it is like to not have the “ideal” family because my husband and I have never been able to have children. Undoubtedly, it can be painful to be childless in a very family centered church. And yet through it all, I have a great love for the doctrine of motherhood and the family. For me, this came by engaging in intense study and prayer. Through this process, I discovered that Christ’s Atonement heals and takes away deep pain in our hearts. His power to replace heartache with hope, peace and joy is nothing short of miraculous.
Infertility in a nutshell.
In her autobiography Spoken from the Heart, Laura Bush provides the most accurate and haunting description of infertility I have ever read:
The English language lacks the words to mourn an absence. For the loss of a parent, grandparent, spouse, child or friend, we have all manner of words and phrases, some helpful some not. Still we are conditioned to say something, even if it is only “I’m sorry for your loss.” But for an absence, for someone who was never there at all, we are wordless to capture that particular emptiness. For those who deeply want children and are denied them, those missing babies hover like silent ephemeral shadows over their lives. Who can describe the feel of a tiny hand that is never held?
This quote paints a vivid picture of women who long to be mothers. Yet, when viewing it through the lens of an eternal perspective, it is incomplete. There will be children one day, even if it is not in this short life. The teachings of the church are a beautiful assurance of this. While I acknowledge this wasn’t always helpful for me during my numerous medical treatments and attempts at adoption, it has now become a hopeful, future reality.
The Atonement heals the pain of infertility.
Years ago, I remember sitting in several Mother’s Day Sacrament meetings with tears in my eyes because of the stinging reminders of what I lacked. My husband and I had gone through the difficult process of being diagnosed with infertility and had limited time to have children. We also had experienced the rigors of submitting our papers for adoption, knowing that it would take a miracle to be placed with a baby in the country where we had been living. We had done everything we could, and I felt helpless. While my husband never doubted or wavered in his faith, I still felt sad, confused and disappointed. Not at the church or our leaders (it wasn’t their fault), nor at the doctrine of motherhood (I knew it was true.) I was left wondering why the most important part of Heavenly Father’s plan was being withheld from us.
Yet through it all, the Spirit was telling me that I still needed to go deeper and be tutored by this trial and to not let it consume me. There had to be a reason for all of this and I needed to find it out for myself. I needed to do the intense spiritual work to find out how to utilize the Savior’s Atonement in this deeply painful life circumstance. That was a pivotal decision for me and I embarked on a process that was absolutely necessary for my path to becoming a better disciple of Jesus Christ and a more trusting, believing daughter of God.
The answers came gradually. While some are too personal to write about in this setting, I want to share how I received some powerful answers as a result of watching this clip by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland. It cut to the center of my heart and spoke to my soul:
We are not in a pain competition.
A valiant friend who has gone through 15 years of infertility once remarked, “We are not in a pain competition. We will not win some prize at the end of this life if we’ve suffered the most or the quietest. Your trials are yours, not mine. You’re allowed to struggle with them without it being a commentary on my life or trials.”
Heavenly Father doesn’t want us to isolate ourselves and suffer alone. Everyone has the right to feel sorrow in their trials, big or small. What may seem easy to us and not worthy of complaint may be very hard for someone else. We are all different.
Yet I cannot see how our Heavenly Father is pleased when He sees us using our pain as a weapon against other church members—including prophets, seers, revelators and general auxiliary leaders. It is disappointing to see murmuring and criticism on issues relating to motherhood and the Family Proclamation. As a fellow blogger once said:
When someone is in a situation where their personal circumstance doesn’t meet the ideal gospel circumstance, they might feel conflicted. They might struggle with feelings of pain, loneliness, or internal discord. A counterfeit solution to resolving feelings of conflict might be to either not strive for the gospel ideal, actively speak against it, or even speak against those who advocate the ideal. This “false solution” consists changing external things, such as insisting others change the way others teach doctrine or talk about their blessings, or expecting God’s plan or standards to change — in other words, trying to change external conditions in order to find peace.
When we allow our pain and trials to have power over us, they can unfortunately become part of our identity, consume us and draw us away from the Spirit. However, when we turn towards the gospel, we not only gain valuable perspective in our trials, but we also gain power over them and they stop defining us. This is sustainable spiritual empowerment.
The Church isn’t the problem.
I have been in the childless minority at church for nearly two decades. Mother’s Day, baby blessings and primary programs were often the most difficult during the early years of infertility. It has been hard. I suppose that it would have been easier for me to say that it was the church and my ward that needed to change the way they talked about eternal truths so that I wouldn’t be uncomfortable. Yet minimizing or silencing the most crucial part of Heavenly Father’s plan isn’t how He would want us to work out our personal trials. It would have been so easy to fall in to the trap that Elder Maxwell describes here:
Perhaps when we murmur we are unconsciously complaining over not being able to cut a special deal with the Lord. We want full blessings but without full obedience to the laws upon which those blessings are predicated. For instance, some murmurers seem to hope to reshape the Church to their liking by virtue of their murmuring. But why would one want to belong to a church that he could remake in his own image, when it is the Lord’s image that we should come to have in our countenances?
I didn’t want to become that person. I knew there had to be a better, more empowering way that could give me sustained healing. I discovered that it wasn’t the church or the doctrine that needed to change. I needed to change my heart. As difficult as it was, I realized that I had not wanted to do the hard spiritual work required to truly understand the Savior’s Atonement in this particular trial. Perhaps I felt it would be too painful and difficult to “go there”. Yet I am thankful that I finally chose to do so because the alternative would have been far more destructive and stunting to my personal and spiritual growth. Healing finally came when I laid my will and heart on the altar. My husband and I worked together on this and came to the understanding that if it were the Lord’s will that we never be blessed with children in this life, we were still going to be okay. We came to know that He would take care of us, no matter what.
While I will never forget the pain and overwhelming grief of infertility (we don’t forget so we can minister and empathize with others) and I still long to be a mother, I would not trade what I have learned for anything. Gradually, the feelings of not fitting into the family-centered Church and the angst of infertility went away. I can’t explain exactly when it happened, but the icy feelings of injustice, pride, offense, marginalization and jealousy melted away. The hole in my heart has been filled with peace from the Prince of Peace and my grief is gone. This process deepened and cemented my testimony of the doctrine of motherhood, the family and the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
Murmur not. Seek the good. Assume nobility of intent.
During the beginning of my most difficult years of painful and often traumatic fertility treatments, I remember receiving frequent, gentle warnings against pride and taking offense (particularly in regards to my ward because it was hitting so close to home each Sunday.) Pride and offense, I quickly learned, go hand in hand. That is why the gentle but firm promptings of the Holy Ghost cautioned me to not “go there.” For me, this meant being mindful of myself whenever I started going nearing the line of looking for marginalization, exclusion, offense, injustice or inequality at church (real or imagined). Anyone who has experienced infertility knows how difficult this is. It is a battle of a woman’s mind, heart and soul. Yet Elder Neal A. Maxwell teaches us that there is a better way of living, despite our circumstances:
Of course our … circumstances … matter very much, and they shape us significantly. Yet there remains an inner zone in which we are sovereign, unless we abdicate. In this zone lies the essence of our individuality and our personal accountability. (Link)
This is remarkably insightful and true. Our power to overcome trials lies in our inner zone; the place in which we are sovereign. Not abdicating in this inner zone might mean assuming nobility of intent in others and having a forgiving and charitable heart. We all desperately need and want charity and compassion extended to us, and we need to be willing to extend it to others as well. The Savior taught that we are required to extend it to others, even when we feel like we are among “the least of these.”
The adversary is working overtime in our world and he and his servants have issued a direct and bold attack on the family and motherhood. Whether mothers or not, we need all the faith, love, kindness and charity we can get and give to one another. We need fewer critics and more defenders of mothers and motherhood. We need less of looking for offense and more of looking to God. We need more champions of women, the family and motherhood from our single and childless sisters. We need each other!
And, as Elder Christofferson said:
Much that is good, much that is essential—even sometimes all that is necessary for now—can be achieved in less than ideal circumstances. So many of you are doing your very best. And when you who bear the heaviest burdens of mortality stand up in defense of God’s plan to exalt His children, we are all ready to march. With confidence we testify that the Atonement of Jesus Christ has anticipated and, in the end, will compensate all deprivation and loss for those who turn to Him.
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