EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series. The first piece can be read here.
In my previous column, I argued that procreation and spousal unity are the natural, organic purposes of human sexuality. If this is so, what about the infertile couple? Our moral intuition, as well as the long-standing practice of our society, dictates that the law make no distinction between infertile or post-menopausal couples and young, fertile couples.
The problem of the infertile couple is often treated as an afterthought. Those who defend the organic concept of marriage sometimes treat the infertile couple as a rare occurrence that requires little attention in the overall scheme of things. Those who defend the consumer-based approach to married life, raise the infertile couple as a counterexample designed to silence all talk of “natural” purposes of sexuality.
As a matter of fact, the law, at least the law of divorce, tacitly recognizes a difference between divorcing couples with or without children. But how the law views the infertile couple isn’t what most interests me. I am more interested in how the infertile couple should view itself. I am convinced that understanding the natural, organic purposes of marriage provides the key insight for helping them navigate the difficulties ahead of them. For merely having sex is not the measure of their marriage, and neither is successful procreation. Appreciating spousal unity, the other natural purpose of sexuality, has the potential to direct them toward a fruitful love, even if children are not among the immediate fruits.
In this light, the question of the infertile couple becomes much more than a throw-away argument, or an afterthought. The infertile married couple faces tremendous challenges, and indeed a heightened probability of divorce. Their openness to each other, and their willingness to let go of controlling outcomes largely determines whether they are going to stay married, even in the legalistic sense, much less in any deeper emotional or spiritual sense.
THE INFERTILE COUPLE
My husband and I experienced infertility, after years of contracepting. I was one of those career women who planned to wait until I got tenure and have a baby during the summer. Imagine my surprise when a year went by with no baby.
For me, infertility created a whole spiritual crisis. This was the first time in my adult life that I couldn’t achieve my goals by working harder and longer. In fact, as every sensible Old Wife knows, trying harder to conceive is counterproductive. I was not going to achieve my reproductive plans on my own terms. And I didn’t like it one bit.
Infertility turned out to be only one of many ways in which I was not in the driver’s seat as much as I had imagined. My husband had thoughts and feelings of his own. While I was frantic for a baby, he was basically content with our child-free life.
This baby project was our first truly joint project. We weren’t doing very well with it either. Our lives had been built on our separate identities. No self-respecting modern career woman could allow herself to lose her identity in marriage. We had two last names, two jobs, two bank accounts, one house, one bed and a few shared activities. Even the dog was privately owned: Newton was my dog. I was becoming dimly aware that parenthood couldn’t be like that, although I didn’t have a clue what the alternative would look like.
Then we found that we did have a possible explanation for not getting pregnant: a low sperm count. He was devastated. All at once, I was concerned about him and his feelings in a way I had not been before. I had never seen him so vulnerable. I felt like an idiot for being hysterical, because I finally saw that my grief had an impact on him.
He was lukewarm about adoption, which for me had always been the back-up position. But he was willing to support me in a sperm-donor pregnancy, if it would finally shut me up. Through our infertility support group, I had a phone conversation with a woman who had had sperm donor pregnancies. She was an ecstatic stay at home mom. I could hear the chattering of her children in the background. But in the course of the conversation she said, “my husband loves the kids, but he is still sad. Every once in a while, he says wistfully, ‘the kids don’t look like me.’” She resolved her infertility issue, but her husband didn’t.
I didn’t like the sounds of this. I had a visceral, negative reaction to the idea of sperm donation.
I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but in the years that have passed, I came to realize that a sperm-donor baby would have changed our marriage relationship in a fundamental way. The baby would have been my baby, with my husband as a bystander. He would have been supportive, like a good Sensitive New Age Guy. But he would have been a wallet and an assistant mom.
What about the baby? She is person; she has the right to be loved as for her own sake. I was reducing a Someone, the baby, to a Something, a project that satisfies and gratifies me. In the process, I was using my husband, a Someone, to get Something I wanted.
LETTING GO OF THE OUTCOME
As we went through the infertility process, my husband and I saw other couples struggling with the same issues. Watching them made it clearer how tight a rein I had been holding on my life. I saw women obsessed with pregnancy, and who in the process, became obsessed with themselves. Instead of being drawn out of themselves into concern for a new baby, their thwarted desire sucked them into themselves. They had to have their own way.
I became dimly aware of how my “self-actualization,” and “self-esteem” was really just garden-variety selfishness. My self-esteem depended on getting my own way, to a far greater extent than I had ever realized. I wasn’t much fun for my husband to be around. Every disagreement took on life and death dimensions, because my self-worth was always on the line.
Some of our friends finally made peace with infertility, came to accept it and moved on with their lives. Some never found peace. Some divorced. One of our dearest friends ultimately committed suicide.
The key to whether they found peace was not whether they eventually had children. The key wasn’t whether their children came through assisted reproductive technology, or by adoption. The crucial issue was whether they let go of controlling all outcomes. The need to “have it your way,” so deeply imbued in our consumer culture, is positively destructive to married life.
In our case, we became parents after four and a half years of infertility. I had finally let go of ever getting pregnant. We filed our papers for a Romanian adoption at Thanksgiving time in 2000. We received a phone call in January, “we have a little boy for you. We know his name, his birthday, and that he is in good health. What do you say?” We said “yes.” Ten days later I went to the doctor with a head cold and found out I was pregnant. Our daughter was born six months after our son arrived from Romania. In the years that have passed, the children have taught us even more about loving and letting go of the outcome.
More recently, we opened ourselves in another way: we became foster parents. Part of the reason we wanted to become foster parents is that we admired our Catholic friends with large families. We were long past the age when we could have the size family they have. But they had one thing we could have: open heartedness. We would have gladly accepted children lovingly from God. Since he hasn’t been sending them directly, we accept children from the San Diego County Department of Child Welfare.
WHAT MARRIAGE IS
What does this have to do with the meaning of marriage and sexuality? Just this: We are more married now than when we were contracepting and keeping separate checkbooks, even though our sexual drive was more intense. Our sexuality is directed toward the unity and fruitfulness of our family. We don’t fulfill those purposes perfectly; we never did. But at last, we’ve gotten out of our own way so we can finally make some progress.
Of course, the law does not recognize the concept of “more married.” The law believes we were married in the State of Connecticut, on February 25, 1984. Yet most experienced adults can easily understand me when I say “more married.” More married means more willing to give, and more willing to ask for help; more willing to listen, and more willing to tell the truth; more appreciative of his strengths and more tolerant of his faults. We quit asking ourselves, “what’s in it for me?” and started asking each other, “how can I help?”
The question isn’t whether the law can create life-giving, self-giving love, because of course, it can’t. The question is whether it will point us in the right direction. Redefining marriage to include homosexual unions will actively lead us astray.
The natural purposes of sexuality exist independently of our wishes or definitions. It is no disrespect to infertile couples to say so. Indeed, they are more painfully aware of it than most married couples. Yet the natural, organic reality of marriage is still open to them. A lifetime of self-giving, fruitful love has a life-transforming power of its own.
–Jennifer Roback Morse is author of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work.