Today I am very honored to welcome Dr. Nicole Roccas to Orthodox Motherhood. I first met Nicole at an Ancient Faith Writing and Podcasting Conference two and a half years ago. I was impressed with her thoughtful approach to Orthodoxy, to writing, and to life. Her latest book brings this same thoughtfulness to a topic that often goes unaddressed in our churches: infertility. Thank you, Nicole, and welcome.
I’m so thankful Sarah invited me to share about a topic that is dearly important to me: infertility in the Church.
Roughly 10-15% of married couples will experience some form of infertility during their marriage. Yet we rarely engage this topic in a meaningful way in either Church or society. Infertility is not merely a medical puzzle to be solved, it is first and foremost a source of grief, one that affects husbands, wives, and their marriages.
My recently released book, Under the Laurel Tree: Grieving Infertility with Saints Joachim and Anna, seeks to help couples with infertility and those who love them better navigate this grief by integrating the experience of infertility with understandings of a God who is supposedly life-giving.
Today I’m reflecting on 3 things writing that book—and traveling the path of infertility—has taught me about motherhood.
Childlessness offers a unique vantage point from which to understand the gift of motherhood. My hope is to build bridges between women who are mothers and women who wish they were, and to help all of us give thanks for the lives we’ve been granted, even when they are difficult.
1. Motherhood is a Mystery
The longer my sojourn through infertility lasts, the more mysterious it becomes. It began as a somewhat straightforward medical condition rooted in my body. It then grew into a grief rooted in my heart, its tentacles stretching long and deep into the marrow of my bones, drawing me into the “fellowship of suffering” (Philippians 3:10) by which we come to know and be known by Christ.
And slowly, strangely, infertility has also become a way of being, a manner of perceiving and giving thanks and responding to God, who has accompanied His people through so many barren places across the ages. Strangely, as many times as I have lamented my infertility, I have also been caught up in wonder at it. I have now written an entire book about infertility, yet still feel unable to fully render this sacred sorrow into words.
A similar mystery lies at the heart of motherhood. Many mothers find it just as difficult to fully capture their experience of motherhood in words as I do with infertility. As Laura Jansson wrote in her recently published pilgrimage through pregnancy: “[The birth of a child] is neither the first nor the final stop on the road to knowledge of my child. Instead, it’s the unfolding of a new layer of a mystery” (Fertile Ground: A Pilgrimage Through Pregnancy, pp. 94, 97).
Whether we are mothers or not, it’s hard as human beings to dwell in mystery for very long. We can’t control or predict or fully explain it. But as excruciating as mystery may be sometimes, I value its malleability. Softness. Like a piece of pottery whose clay never fully dries, mystery and our understandings of it are always unfolding, always changing. This comforts some hidden place within me, maybe because it means that mystery, if I let it, will carry me—and all of us—to the next good thing, whatever that may be.
2. Motherhood is a Shadow
For both childless and child-bearing women of faith, it is tempting to view motherhood as the goal, the pinnacle of our spiritual calling or vocation. As beautiful and self-sacrifical as motherhood is, however, it is merely a shadow of the Life that has been made manifest to us in Christ:
The witness of Christ demonstrates that biological procreation is merely a shadow or icon of the Life He has given us. We bring life into the world every time we are kind, every time we hope in God’s mercy, every time we offer ourselves to Him and our neighbor self-sacrificially, every time we do something that creatively and newly manifests Christ to the world. (Under the Laurel Tree, p. 46)
This reality serves as a comfort both for those who are mothers and those who pray to become mothers.
For mothers, it’s a much-needed reminder that one’s worth as a child of God does not depend on whether they perfectly fulfill some ideal picture of motherhood or whether their children grow into certain kinds of people.
For us who are not mothers, it recalls that even if infertility is our medical diagnosis, it needn’t be our spiritual one. There is still a place for us and a path to travel that is every bit as meaningful and important as motherhood.
3. Motherhood is a Cross
This point may initially sound cliché. Before infertility, though, I would have placed the emphasis on the word “cross.” For most of my life, I anticipated motherhood as the cross, the ultimate sacrifice, akin to spilling one’s blood in the arena of literal martyrdom.
After more than five years of infertility, though, I’d now emphasize the word “a”: Motherhood is a cross. It is one of an infinite array of trials that could conceivably be ours to bear in this life.
Infertility is also a cross—no more, but also no less.
And that’s because the Cross was the one on which Christ died for our sake. Neither motherhood nor infertility, no matter how saintly they are borne, can in themselves heal us of sin.
Christians believe that the world was changed when Christ bore the Cross on His shoulders and accepted the crucifixion voluntarily so that He could conquer death through the Resurrection.
On perhaps a smaller scale, the world is similarly changed when we willingly accept our own crosses, though they may not be the ones we would have chosen for ourselves, and allow ourselves to be raised into new life through them.
I would not have chosen infertility for myself, and I know many mothers who at one point or another have lamented their own path, however fleetingly. And yet, because of the Cross, we are all saved, and being saved, in and through these experiences. Thanks be to God.
Nicole Roccas, PhD, writes and podcasts about the intersections between faith and the difficult things in life. She is also the author of two books: Under the Laurel Tree: Grieving Infertility with Saints Joachim and Anna and Time and Despondency: Regaining the Present in Faith and Life. To find more of Nicole’s her work and sign up for regular giveaways, follow her personal blog. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Nicole lives in Toronto with her husband, Basil.