December 9, 2013

Thought post: A humble reflection on the occasionally intriguing world of coupledom and - not…

Normally extremely reluctant to post on this area, a topic that requires more bravery and sheer undeterred 'chutzpah' than I'm typically willing to offer up, and one dangerously open to misunderstanding, but a recent incident gave me unexpected cause to reflect again on the occasionally intriguing world of coupledom and singleness, particularly in the Christian realm. 

I have to say it’s not an issue I ponder regularly, or as a matter of course, but unplanned life events have their way of sneaking up and pressing into stark reality things you've forgotten, seen as less important, or often simply chosen to just let go. Having shared this with a couple of married friends, they believed it to be an important area of relationship we all need to hear, consider & reflect on. 

What am I talking about?

Well, no major event, no ‘biggy’…a simple conversation: two people, both separately married, both my friends (though not friends of each other) chatting. As conversation drew naturally to a close, farewells underway, one of my friends extended a special invitation to their new acquaintance to come (with their partner) on a weekend away to meet his wife, and enjoy a moment of leisure together with a third couple. As my friend turned to leave they hastily added - of course, I’d be welcome to come visit any time. 

And suddenly, there it was...

Now, in many ways the incident itself was not really new, this hadn’t been an entirely uncommon experience over my life as a single woman, but as I’ve gotten older, friendships held longer, Christian fellowship grown deeper, and unimportant barriers done away with, it intrigued me that still, in this area at least, nothing seemed to have really changed. The defining status was still there. The social parameters still sharply marked out by this illusive matter of circumstance. The difference of ‘married’ and ‘single’ still somehow mattered and, in this particular instance at least, mattered more than relationship history or proximity.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I did not take this as a personal slight, they were after all -a friend. Nor did I perceive it as a deliberate or conscious ‘act of exclusion’ on their part; it was a delight to be so warmly reminded that I’d always be a welcome face in their home. But the message it unwittingly sent at that moment was maybe, in this instance, I wouldn’t quite ‘fit’, perhaps another context might be best.

I desperately hoped my cheerful response graciously concealed my unexpected surprise…my sudden sense of awkwardness…the imposed self-consciousness the moment had evoked.

So, I found myself reflecting once again on the possibility that, perhaps not everyone viewed their social-relational world through the same ‘open inclusive’ lens. For them, my marital status did (consciously or not) separate me in some important way, even at this stage of my life.

Now, I may just be an oddity here, but (apart from these instances) I’ve never been a person who’s ever been ‘self-consciously’ single. Of course I’m aware that I am, for the moment at least – single, but for some reason I’ve never grown up thinking my marital status ‘defined’ me in any way (or defined others); it’s never been the core of my identity, self worth or the defining signature of my existence.

Nor have I perceived it as a necessary detriment to my social relationships, especially in the Church, the community of faith, within the shared fellowship of believers. For within the common bond of union with Christ, within the security of our eternal familial bonds, I’d come to understand that here, all relationships had the potential to be at their most profound, most transformed, and old world-centred and self-conscious categories of ‘arbitrary social separateness’ done away with.

Neither did I believe that being single in any way hindered me (or should hinder me) in my capacity to develop, embrace and enjoy deep, satisfying and rich relationships with others, whether single, married, divorced, widowed or separated. I understood the scriptures called me, (regardless of my marital state) to embrace a life of social inclusion, not love others, (regardless of personal preference) deeply and from the heart, and to show generosity and hospitality to all, especially the household of God (1Pet 1:22, 4:8-9; Rom 16: 9-12; Gal 6:10, Heb 13:1).

Over the years, those beliefs, those convictions, those teachings, have profoundly challenged my perception of all relationships. They’ve shaped and disciplined the way I’ve attempted to conduct my Christian life and, though not always easy, dictated the contours of approach to the varying social contexts I’ve found myself in throughout my singleness. Because I’d come to realise, that in God’s eyes at least, my singleness was of little relevance to that call, to those commands, to the uniqueness of, engagement with, and responsibility to, those God ordained relationships.

Why such surprise?

Perhaps being caught off-guard was partly because we tend to expect the exclusivity of the ‘coupledom’ phase to be more a signature marker of those first wild flushes of married life, where the movement from singleness to marriage heralds a momentous life shift. With that change often follows all the natural eager excitement and enthusiasm of couples to take every opportunity to share in, and somehow ‘solidify’, that new reality with those who might likewise be - ‘the same’.

But still 10-20 (or more) years on?...even amongst those established, settled and secure?...even with long time friends?…close friends?…important friends?...Still coupledom somehow separating us from one another? Still that stronger desire to share in the common bond of coupled-ness than to now share in that together with friends who may be - not so?

Perhaps I believed, as you got older, and relationships matured and secured, status dynamics would lessen, become less pressing, less pertinent to the flow and bonds of connection. The things that really mattered between us - friendship, love, fellowship, shared life concerns and intertwined histories would become greater, deeper, and more significant. These would be the things that mattered, that bound us, that really made us in - ‘likeness’ to each other.

And so my intrigue, intrigue that there continues to somehow be difference...separation...still at times, social separation by marital circumstance.

So, yes, I must admit, it brought surprise.

As I conclude this little thought post, this passing moment of pondering; and that is really all it is - a point of personal Christian reflection, certainly not in any way a rebuke to married friends. But one can’t help realising that this unexpected reality should in some way continue to raise important questions for us all to consider as we seek to explore together the richness of relationship that we can, (and should) share in Christ. As ‘together’ we seek to live out, in this fallen earthly realm, the greater realities of our eternal inseparable bond, a bond that transcends even marriage itself (Matt 22:30), and as we seek to enjoy all that we really share in Christ, both in and out of marriage.


On a less personal note, I had two passing thoughts to consider for others who may read this little thought post…

For those in the broader church community -I guess the challenge for us all here, whether married or single, is how, in the ‘here and now’ can our relationships in the church community better reflect the heavenly realities we all share?

And if they don't, what might the social/emotional/relational (& spiritual) implications be for individuals and the Church? For one group, the relational-social realm will only continue to expand, grow, and bring ever increasing richness and opportunity. For the other, ever increasing relational contraction and potential social isolation.

At a closer level, for those of us within circles of personal friends, married and single, this is very important. How might we have our social world better reflect the reality of the personal relationships we share, than whether we happen to be married or single?

“Sing to God,
sing praise to his name,
extol him who rides on the clouds-
his name is the Lord - and rejoice before him.
A father to the fatherless,
defender of the widows,
 is God in his holy dwelling.
God sets the lonely in families,
He leads forth the prisoners with singing…”
-Ps 66: 4-6 –

“A new command I give you:
Love one another.
As I have loved you,
so you must love one another”
- Jn 13:34 -

November 11, 2013

10 Words...

I am grateful for my dear friend Anita, who's given me permission to post this excerpt from her personal journal. Her hope is that all those who experience the unique challenges of childlessness (both single & married) may in some way benefit. I am not only thankful for her honesty and courage in opening her precious and tender heart wide for the whole world to see, but I'm deeply thankful for the friendship we share that is rich in truth and grace. Thank you, Neets! xx

*Anita & Adrian are currently serving as missionaries with MOCLAM in Cochabamba, Bolivia. They would love your prayers.

I recently read a blogpost, with 10 words that describe infertility. As I read them, I could relate to each of the 10 words – ‘Lonely. Exposed. On hold. Invaded. Awkward. Angry. Stressed. Loss. Despair. Ambivalence’

In one sense these feelings are not foreign to me at all. The surprising thing for me is that I feel a sense of "moving on" from these words. I'm not sure it is necessarily a positive "moving on", in the sense that I've progressed and no longer find infertility as hard as before. It is more that those words capture what infertility was like during the "testing" and "treatment" phases, but not necessarily the "just living with it" stage. This is how I think now about the 10 words mentioned on the blog...

It's still a lonely feeling watching others around us have children, but Adrian and I have learnt to be comfortable with just each other. Sometimes it is full on spending time with families because we are not used to the pace, noise and unpredictability. The silence of our house can deafen me at times, but it is the norm and I am used to it.

We have learnt to welcome other children into our life, despite our grief. Others have 
generously shared their children with us, allowing us to be a significant part of their lives. We love them and feel loved by them, which means we are not lonely in the same way as before.

We are still exposed, especially as we share our infertility with new social circles. It is hard for these new relationships to grasp the weight of 6½ years of disappointed hopes (or more, depending on how you count). Advice still flows freely, requiring a brave face and a generous heart. 

On hold is an old old feeling for me. The first couple of years of trying to have a baby I knew when the baby would be due if I fell pregnant in any given month. I also new what consequences it would have for future plans, so there was always "outcome 1" and "outcome 2" to consider. I remember so many decisions hanging on whether or not we fell pregnant - future study, holidays, applying to be missionaries, leaving dates for moving overseas.

I have not given a thought to due dates for years now. I do not think in terms of "outcome 1" and "outcome 2". It's not that I'm not aware of the possible outcomes. I still have hope in God's ability to bring about the "option 1" we always longed for. At the same time I recognise it may not be his plan.

I do not know the Lord's plan for me in terms of having or not having children. I do know that he wants me to faithfully serve him with my life, and he promises to use even the hardships to make me more like Jesus. Infertility cannot put God's plan on hold. I am learning more and more to focus my efforts on what I can change and be responsible for, rather than on those unfulfilled hopes. I continue to see him do a mighty work in my stubborn heart. I long more and more for the final fulfilment of God's plans in Jesus' return. "Come, Lord Jesus".

Invaded is also an old feeling. I was sick the other day (sore throat) and had to have an antibiotic injection. I realised at the time that it was the first needle I'd had in almost 2 years. In the 2 years before that, however, I had so many many needles for tests and treatment that I would hate to sit down and count. They were a part of everyday life.

I am no longer living day-to-day at the whim of the next batch of results. After an intense few years of testing, monitoring, probing and pushing myself to the absolute physical limit, I now am barely conscious of "where I am in the month". Neither is it relevant to the group of concerned doctors, friends, and family who previously followed all the updates of my body's functioning.

I no longer feel physical invasion, but throughout the last 6½ years I have felt spiritually invaded as I try to work out how the Bible's truths apply to me. How can I continue to trust in God's goodness, knowing that he could remove our pain but chooses not to? How do I tell the difference between sin and expressions of grief, especially when facing feelings of jealously, bitterness, impatience and anger? If I continue to grieve not having children does that mean I am not content? 

These questions have become weightier over time, "invading" my relationship with the Lord and demanding a response.

Awkward isn’t something I feel in the same way the article describes it.

 The awkward I feel now is related to questions like:

- Where do I fit as a married woman who may never bear children?
- How do I participate in this conversation about kids' schooling when it is a world away from the life I am living?
- How do I respond to the person who tells me that they know God will give us children?
- How do I tell someone that we haven't been able to have children without it being too awkward for them?
-  What do I do when everyone's busy looking after their kids at a social gathering and I am left alone?
- How do I know who God wants me to love?
- How do I decide what ministries to be involved in?

To a large extent I have moved on from the angry feelings and the arguments with God about how unfair it is that Adrian and I have to be the ones to suffer with infertility. I think I've come to terms with the fact that God has chosen us for this struggle, for his glory. I do not know why. I have tried to tell him many times we are not up to it. He has had other plans. There is a greater degree of acceptance within us. At the same time, every pregnancy announcement feels like a strong kick in the stomach. I still feel shocked, winded, knocked-for-6 at the reminder that God can do it, (i.e. create new life). He just hasn't chosen to do that within me.

I no longer struggle with the stress of not having fallen pregnant yet. The monthly high and low is less extreme. I struggle more with the stress of living with the grief of infertility on a day-to-day basis. The stress of having to explain our situation to someone new. The stress of putting on a brave face when unexpectedly saddened by something I see that reminds me of what I don't have. The stress of thinking through what life should look like now that it is panning out so differently from how I thought it would. The stress of another milestone like our wedding anniversary, our birthdays, the anniversary of when we started trying to have a baby. The stress of keeping it together enough to share in the joys of those around us (as I want to) until I have my own space to cry it all out.

Despair is perhaps the feeling that has changed the least. We have lived the cycle of hope and despair almost 80 times. At first it was a cycle of innocent hopefulness followed by optimistic sadness. Then it became a cycle of stressed anticipation followed by bitter disappointment. Over time the cycle turned into a determined search followed by confused despair. The ability to gather our hopes together after each disappointment became harder and harder. After testing and treatment ended we had nothing left in us. There was no cycle anymore, only despair. We are still healing from that time.

We no longer "ride the cycle" like before, but lately I've noticed inklings of hope creeping back... the hope that we have a good God who could do it if he thought it was best. I think it's better to live like that. Living with no hope is a scary place to be. Ultimately the hope we have is not a hope in the fact that God will grant us children. He doesn't promise us that. The hope we have right now is the hope of a good God who loves and cares for us, hears our cries, comforts us in our despair, knows our greatest needs, gives us what he thinks is best, and enables us to hope in him.

The loss of infertility is a heavy burden to bear. Grief would be another way to describe it, and it is as much a part of my daily life as children would be if we had them. It comes with me everywhere, and affects me to varying degrees on any given day. It is often unpredictable. The sinking feeling when I know someone's about to tell us they're expecting a baby. The shock of an unexpected pregnancy announcement.
The deep unfulfilled longing when I see a pregnant belly. The lump in my throat when I see an ultrasound photo. The guilt of feeling so bad about the joys of others. The tears that well up when I see little girls playing with younger siblings or dolls. The emptiness I feel as we helplessly watch other people's children grow up around us. The silence of our house. The work I do when I'd much rather be caring for children. The disappointment of a "late month". The anger at having allowed myself to hope. The sadness in Adrian's eyes as he deals with his own grief while also shouldering my pain. The fact that our situation doesn't change.

I thought that over time it would get easier to cope with the grief, but the disappointments build and the burden has become heavier. At the same time God has provided, time after time, enough to enable me to cope and continue trusting in Him. The (good and right) desire for children remains, and so also the grief of not being able to have children. In my grief God is teaching me to hope in Him, but every day I long for him to take this burden from me.

My ambivalence is different now. I often have a conversation with myself that goes something like this... "I cannot believe the ache in my heart at not being able to have children"... "But it's not like having children would solve all my problems"... "That's true. In fact, it would create a whole new set of struggles."... "I should just move on then and be happy with the situation God has put me in"... "But how can I stop my heart from hoping?"... "You can't". Then tears.

The temptation is to be ambivalent about the significance of not being able to have children. Instead I want to continue to hope in God's power to bring about new life, continue to desire to have children in our life, continue to dare to hope in the good and sovereign Lord of all.

“The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord”

- Lamentations 2:25-26 -