There is a couple sitting in the pew on Sunday. You know they have been married at least one, two, three years now. No children yet.

If you’ve spotted me, or any of the thousands of local Catholics dealing with infertility, our childlessness is not by choice.

The desire for children is deeply rooted in our human nature. We see this in the excitement and hope of those trying to conceive. We see it most profoundly in the pain experienced by those for whom this desire is unfulfilled.

According to a recent study, one in six couples struggle with some form of infertility. Infertility is defined as the inability to conceive after a year of trying, or the inability to carry a pregnancy to term. Infertility can be primary (no living children) or secondary (unable to conceive or carry an additional child). Affecting men and women in equal numbers, infertility is a true medical condition and not the result of stress, “not doing it right” or “not relaxing.” Worse still, it is a real emotional and spiritual trauma that can potentially wreak havoc on a husband and wife.

The inability to achieve something so natural, so expected, so inherent to the dignity of marriage, cuts at the heart of our sense of self. Broken dreams serve as a painful reminder that children are indeed a gift; they cannot be created on demand. They cannot be earned. We are not the Author of Life, God is.

Emotionally, there is no way to “get over” infertility. It is a continual loss, day in and day out. Even years after acceptance, something unexpected can trigger uncontrollable tears. Baptisms, Mass readings mentioning pregnancy, pregnancy announcements and receiving a shower invitation are all situations that can re-open the wound. Holidays are hard. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day Masses bring a unique degree of torture. Why should all these happy events cause such grief? Simply this: the wound is too deep. The weight is too much to bear.

Part of this cross, unique to Catholics, is choosing to put God above our own desires. With some forms of infertility, the only way to fulfill the good, natural, and burning desire for a biological child is through illicit treatments. Laying down our God-given desires and freely choosing to forgo these technologies (sometimes out of pure obedience) is a tremendous sacrifice. Many friends and family cannot understand why we choose this. Instead of supporting our faith, they act as though we are bringing pain upon ourselves, and plead with us to try IVF. What keeps us going? We trust that in his wisdom, God does not give us these rules to make us miserable, but because he knows what is ultimately going to make us happy.

Learning to live in an infertile reality is like climbing a mountain barefoot in a blizzard. First things first, hold tight to your spouse and to God. No matter what is causing infertility, the important thing to remember is that this suffering, this pain, was not given to you by God. Suffering is a reality of our fallen world, as unavoidable as earthquakes and hurricanes. As much as we cry over infertility, God cries more. He loves life; he loves babies! He cries for those who are unable to conceive or who lose a child. The beauty of our faith is that we believe that our suffering itself is fruitful. We have hope that God can and will use our suffering to create something glorious. “Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).

Even in the cross, there are gifts to be explored. Infertility opens our eyes to the reality that fruitfulness in marriage takes many forms, and that our call to life and love is a daily occupation, regardless of our circumstances. Infertility, viewed from the cross, reminds us that the gift given in marriage involves a new life, even if it may not be expressed in the beautiful gift of children. All married love is fruitful. The light of Christ that comes out of the sacramental union shines forth into the darkness of our fallen world. “The vocation to love,” said Pope Benedict, “is a vocation to the gift of self and this is a possibility that cannot be impeded by any organic condition.”

When God calls us to marriage, he calls us to love and honor our spouse all the days of our lives. He calls us to be open to whatever life he has planned. Our vocation to marriage is as real and as serious as any other vocation. A family of two is no less a family. We are a visible sign of God’s love.

If you or someone you know is struggling with infertility, we would like to invite you to the upcoming Archdiocesan Morning of Hope and Healing, to be held on Saturday, April 25 at 10:00, at the Saint John Paul II Shrine in Washington, DC. Planned with all types of infertility in mind, we welcome all those who carry this cross, along with their friends, families and supporters. There will be simultaneous translation into Spanish for our Hispanic faithful. For more information, please visit http://www.adw.org/event/mass-hope-healing/ or email or call Mary Hamm in the Office of Family Life at hammm@adw.org; or 301 853-4499.  

(Connie Poulos is a local Catholic blogger at www.TalesfromtheValley.com . #Visible Sign is a column on marriage and family life produced by the Archdiocese of Washington’s Office for Family Life. For more information, see www.adw.org/visiblesign .)