"I needed a pastoral theology of childlessness, so I wrote one myself"
Emma Nash reflects on the journey that led to her writing 'A Pastoral Theology of Childlessness'
In the summer of 2017, my second round of IVF failed completely, leaving no hope that future treatment had any realistic chance of success. I had to start to come to terms with the fact that my infertility was likely to be permanent. My church granted me a three-month sabbatical on compassionate grounds and I spent much of that time in the British Library. It became my place of pilgrimage. I read all that I could find on infertility and childlessness, particularly pastoral and theological writings. I urgently needed to try and integrate the grief of my childlessness with my faith in a God who seemed to have forgotten about me. I found some gems, but generally speaking it seemed that childlessness was a pastorally and theologically under-resourced area of human experience. I needed a pastoral theology of childlessness, so I wrote one myself.
I wrote about my utter powerlessness in the face of my body’s inability to do what most others do naturally, without effort. I wrote about pain: the moments of acute pain I had experienced along the way, and the chronic, nagging pain of grief that was always there. I was drawn to the word ‘barren’, a word which encapsulated so well the hopelessness I felt in my body’s inability to bring forth new life. I wrote about the ethical decisions we had had to engage with through two cycles of IVF, and the guilt I felt about these choices. But the most distinctive feature of my experience, which formed the basis of the first chapter I wrote, was its loneliness. Involuntary childlessness, whatever the cause, can bring profound isolation.
There is social isolation, because most people can and do have children. The networks formed at the NCT class and the school gate are not open to childless people. There is emotional isolation, because news of other people’s pregnancies causes pain rather than joy, and it is hard to know where and how this pain can be expressed. Much of the isolation is undoubtedly self-imposed, as unhappily childless people avoid baby showers, christenings and children’s birthday parties, and keep their pain to themselves. Sometimes it is too painful to speak of what they feel. Sometimes they may fear that their pain will not be received and understood by others. People who can’t have children get used to being told miracle baby stories, and given pseudo-medical advice about what they can do to conceive. Often they are told that they are lucky because children are hard work, and that they have all that time and money they can use for themselves. If they are part of a Christian community, these attempts to cheer them up are couched in spiritual language. “Trust God and it will happen.” “God has other plans for you.” This may all be very well-meaning, but it is not very helpful. People struggling with childlessness learn that others cannot handle their pain.
I looked for consolation in the scriptures and I did find it, eventually. I found people like Naomi and the Teacher of Ecclesiastes, who were brutally honest about their pain. I found people like David and Paul whose prayers remained unanswered. I found the unnamed woman who bled for twelve years, her body healed and her shame overcome by Jesus. And I gazed upon his cross, dwelt for a time in the quiet of his grave, and watched him rise again on Easter day. It struck me that the promise of resurrection both affirmed the pain of people struggling with childlessness, and offered them real hope. Because Christ really died, we could accept that, for people like me, hope had been obliterated. We did not need to pretend that everything was okay. And because Christ rose again, we could affirm that our childlessness was being raised with Christ; that there was a future with hope.
The book is an extended reflection, but it is also a call to action. My hope and prayer is that those who read it will be inspired to create space in Christian communities for grief, pain, and unfinished stories. I do not believe it is only people experiencing involuntary childlessness who will benefit from this space. All people struggle; all people experience loss; and people who are seeking to follow Jesus need to be able to understand their most painful life experiences in the light of their faith. They need a biblical vision of hope that affirms the very real grief – and sometimes hopelessness – that they feel, while declaring that this is not the final word.
Death swallowed by triumphant Life!
Who got the last word, oh, Death?
Oh, Death, who’s afraid of you now?
(1 Corinthians 15.54b-55)
Emma Nash is a Mission and Community Engagement Officer for The Methodist Church