Comfort Through the Valley
Ethics professor Matthew Arbo tackles the tough topic of infertility. Arbo's heart for this issue was born out of a personal story, having witnessed his brother and sister-in-law's struggle with infertility, and he has seen the pain this causes couples. Arbo offers words of comfort to those who long for a child.
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Matthew Arbo tackles the tough topic of infertility. Arbo offers words of comfort to those who long for a child.
Comfort Through the Valley
Bob: When couples are experiencing infertility, there is often stress and strain on their own relationship. Matthew Arbo says part of the reason for that is because it’s natural for us to look around, to ask who to blame for the struggle we’re experiencing.
Matthew: We want that. We want to explain it—somebody’s responsible. Where are we going to fix responsibility? We have some sense of release—right?—sort of catharsis/bizarre catharsis that comes from blaming someone. Then both end up retreating themselves; the communication channels breaks down—the marriage just implodes. If it happens that, say, the clinician discovers that it’s attributable one way or another, then that adds further problem; because then “We know what the problem is—the source of the problem,” and that becomes the subject.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, July 2nd. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. How can husbands and wives come together and pursue oneness with each another in the midst of a struggle like infertility? We’re going to talk more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I don’t think I realized this, when we first got married, but Mary Ann wanted to be a mom pretty quick. Again, I don’t think I knew it when we first got married; I don’t think I knew it when she was wanting it. Except, I do remember—we got married it 1979, and we did not have our first child until 1981. Most people will go, “Well, that’s a good gap.”
But there was a trip we were on—we were driving from Tulsa to Kansas City—and she was crying on the trip. She was saying, “I don’t understand why God would give me the desire to want to be a mom and why we can’t conceive.” I was a young, dumb husband—like, “Well, you know, It will happen,”—or whatever. I mean, I was in no rush/no hurry, but this was an ache in her heart that took me a little bit by surprise. We were, ultimately, able to conceive; then we had what was called secondary infertility; which is, after conceiving, we had a long period where we were not able to conceive again. We went through the same kind of pain that she was feeling, wanting to be a mom for a second time.
People look at us—we’ve got five kids—and they go, “Well, you didn’t have any issues with infertility.” But more couples than you know are struggling with the heartache of wanting to be parents and, for whatever reason, God has not opened the door for that.
Ann: I think most of us have a story like that—maybe, it’s not us—but it is someone we know. I know for Dave and me—it was with our son and his wife. We were so excited when they told us they were pregnant. I mean, it was a big deal; wasn’t it? Then they miscarried, and then they miscarried again. By the third time, you begin to lose hope; and you’re so fearful, that you’re not sure how to respond.
Dave: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the depth of pain—
Ann: —and despair.
Dave: —watching your son and daughter-in-law go through, from a distance; and yet, it’s your family. Oh, man! You talk about the topic we’re talking about today—it’s real; it’s hard!
Bob: We’ve got somebody here to help us walk through the issues of infertility. In fact, that’s the name of the book he’s written—it’s called, Walking Through Infertility. Matthew Arbo joins us.
Matthew, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Matthew: Thanks for having me.
Bob: Matthew is a professor. He teaches at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He teaches—what is it?—ethics?
Matthew: Yes; Christian ethics.
Bob: And are they paying attention?—
Matthew: [Hesitates] Sometimes. [Laughter]
Bob: —I mean, as you bring up ethical issues; because you are talking about very real, very contemporary issues. Are a lot of these kids locking on and going, “We need to think about these things”?
Matthew: Yes; they are very interested.
Dave: Yes; I would—I would think, if I’m a college student, that would be one of the classes I would sign up for. I mean, that sounds like fireworks and “We’re going to discuss; and we’re going to have different opinions, and there’s going to be tension.” Is that true in your room?
Matthew: Yes; it’s like that; yes.
Ann: And Matthew, you’re younger—as far as a college professor—I bet students really love that.
Matthew: Yes, I think so.
Bob: Well, on the subject of infertility—interesting—given the fact that you could be writing on all kinds on social, cultural, philosophical issues, this is the one you locked onto to write this book. Part of that is out of a personal story, not for you and your wife, but with your brother; right?
Matthew: Yes; that’s right. My younger brother and his wife were infertile for a number of years. That was a difficult time for them. We didn’t, then, really know what to say or what to do. You want to do something; you want to say what they need to hear. There’s really very little you can do or say that lives up to the moment; because you’re not with them when they turn the lights out, and they’re lying in bed, and those thoughts just come flooding in. Or when they're at the grocery store and they hear a child cry or laugh on the other aisle. These sort of tangible moments. You can't be there for those.
But you can listen—and that’s what we learned to do, I think—learn how to listen/how to forbear; learn how to be patient with them.
Bob: How did you even become aware that they were wrestling with infertility?—because it’s not the kind of thing that people wear a badge, saying, “We’re infertile.” Somebody that’s been married two or three years—you don’t know whether they’re childless by choice or whether they’re going through infertility.
Matthew: That’s exactly right. That’s one of the common experiences—it’s undiscussed; it’s un-talked about—for some very obvious reasons, which some parts of our life we just keep private—we don’t want to talk about that. But there’s also stigma/cultural stigma associated with it. Some don’t want to—they don’t want to talk about that out loud; they’re more private.
But with my brother, we are very close; so he was open. He told me what was going on, in what ways he could. I cried with him; I prayed with him. He was pretty communicative; I didn’t have to draw him out so much. He’s usually kind of a heart-on-the-sleeve kind of guy.
Ann: What was the next step?—because to write a book, you have to be passionate; because it takes work, and effort, and research. So what happened in you that made you think, “I need to write this”?
Matthew: It really—actually, it was a conversation with a former pastor of mine in Kansas City. He had explained to me that there were some couples in our church that were experiencing infertility; and there’s not a lot—at the time—not a lot of great stuff out there. He didn’t know what to give them. He was asking me about that.
I started thinking: “You know, I’ve had this personal story with my brother,” and “I know some of these people we’re talking about,” and “What could I say in words?” I'm sometimes not so great in personal conversation, in what I want to say and things come to me. But, when I get writing, it slows me down and I can say something that I really feel like I can say the right thing.
That got me thinking about a little book like this, where I just give a sense of the shape. Also, a big part of it sort of help those—particularly the couples that are going through it—the book would help enlarge their world a little bit. It's just so totalizing—the experience—when you're in it, is just so totalizing. It sort of takes up all the oxygen in that period of life.
What I wanted to do in the book was just help give a bigger picture.
Dave: Tell me this. Go back to when your brother has that initial conversation, where—obviously, you can probably sense, he’s unveiling something that’s, oftentimes, kept a secret—
Dave: —he doesn’t share. He shares it with you. What’s the emotion in the room? What did you feel?
Matthew: I felt sad for him; I felt powerless: “There’s nothing I can do.”
Ann: Did you have any kids at the time?
Matthew: Not yet; not yet—but very soon—and that became something, too, when we conceived. I sort of made a special slot to talk to him on the phone to tell him what was going on. He was so happy for us, of course; but I wanted to be sensitive to what they’re going through. The feeling, even though their on the telephone—we’re not close to each other—there’s still the pauses and the strain that comes up in a conversation like that. I just felt for him.
We have the desires for children and they're deep. They're deep and they almost feel biological—they're just part of us—these wants. So it's really hard to be with someone, knowing there's little you can do, except be present.
Bob: I’m thinking about the number of the times I’ve talked to young couples—maybe they’ve been married three or four years; no kids showing up. In the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “So what’s going on here?” My wife will nudge me and say, “Don’t ask what’s going on.” I’m thinking: “No! I want to know. If they are struggling, I want to struggle with them; if they’re not, I want to nudge them and say, ‘Let’s get on with the show and have some kids here!’”
Dave: The truth is—Bob’s nosy—that’s it! [Laughter] He wants to stick his nose in your business. [Laughter]
Bob: I call it: “Intentionally intrusive—
Dave: There you go!
Bob: —“but with a redemptive purpose attached to it”; okay? Is that better than nosy?
Dave: Ah, that’s the same thing. [Laughter]
Bob: In terms of posture—for those of us who may know couples—and we don’t know whether they’re dealing with infertility; we don’t whether they’re childless by choice—we don’t know the dynamics. Do we just keep our mouths shut?—or do we say something?
Matthew: That’s a great question. I think, if there is a sufficient level of trust and rapport, where a question like that could be received—you know, in kind of a jocular way and the venue is right—absolutely. But if it’s more public and the rapport is not there—couples who are experiencing prolonged infertility—to ask that [of them]—it’s deeply wounding, [from] those of who have talked to me about that.
People mean well. Folks at church asking, “When are you guys going to have a family?” “When are you…?”; you know. Or grandparents, you know, eager to be grandparents. The couple—it's not from lack of trying; they just can't. That's itself, wounding. There's a recognition now; it's not just our own problem—right?—our own recognition; but now, others see that we don't have children.
Bob: And you said there’s some shame attached to it in the hearts of people, who are trying to conceive and can’t—they feel like there is something wrong with them?
Matthew: That’s very regularly the case—so common; it’s ubiquitous: “Well, I’m a human being; and one thing human beings seem to be good at is reproducing.” They don’t have to be told much about that: “We can do that.” When we’re not able to do that, it seems like some sort of biological failure. We know, medically and scientifically now, lots of reasons why a couple can’t conceive or have trouble; but from that person’s point of view, it feels like a failure. And it feels like you are not able to do the basic thing human beings have been doing, successfully, for millennium.
Dave: You also wrote in the book a little bit about: “Okay; if I’m a Christ-follower,”—this could be for a non-Christ-follower as well—there’s even a sense of “God betraying me,”—almost, punishment: “What have I done wrong?”
Bob: That was what Mary Ann was saying, “If I’m trying to play by the rules, here—trying to do what God wants—why would He withhold from me what is a blessing for so many?—and what’s the longing of my heart?”
Ann: And I would think there would be real introspection then—like: “What’s wrong with me, God? Is there something wrong? Have I done something? Is this because of my past?” There’s probably a lot of questioning going on.
Bob: What do you do with somebody like that who’s feeling that way? How do you help them recognize that we live in a fallen world, but this doesn’t mean you are a worthless or a broken person?
Matthew: Yes; one of the first things I say—as sincerely as I can/I mean it—is: “I’m so sorry you’re having to go through that,”—to just tell them that. “It’s hard,” and to let them know that “I can see, in what ways that I can, that it’s hard.”
Ann: —and not give any answers?
Matthew: Initially; yes, that’s right.
Matthew: Yes; to not feel like I’ve got an arsenal of possibilities for them and that I can fix it. They very likely—if they’ve come to this point in telling me, they’ve talked to people—they’ve seen clinicians; they’ve taken steps. I‘m not going to tell them anything they haven’t heard, but one thing that, maybe, they are lacking in is someone being present with them.
Ann: What does that look like to be present; you know?
Matthew: In practice, it can be something like—maybe getting the guy, and just having some direct conversation/direct questions: “How are you doing? What’s going on?” Then let it just—drawing them out, so they don’t have to shelter under that experience and the weight of it by themselves.
I’ve talked to pastors a lot about this/we talk to our elders about this—about how to just be with people—it takes just sticking to it. One of the things we want to do is fix and want to have the tools for fixing. But in this case, like the best thing you can do is just listen sometimes—just listen to someone grieve, aloud, about their miscarriage.
Dave: The thing that struck me, as I read through your book—you just talked about the present part—but let me go back to the first thing that struck me, earlier, was the things not to say. Seriously, you mention many different pat answers—I think I've said them at times—and how harmful they can be. Talk about that a little bit. What don’t you say to somebody that is really struggling?—it might not be just be infertility—but definitely this topic as well.
Matthew: Yes; I mean, “God has a plan for you,”—which, of course, is true—a person of faith/he’s following Jesus I think believes that God has a plan for them. The question kind of, as we started with the story at the beginning is, it’s not they don’t realize this; it’s just disjunction—right?—and it’s trying to interpret what this disjunction means: “God loves me. God wants this thing for me. I have this thing that I want, and it’s not happening,” and “I can’t make it happen on my own resolve here.”
That’s one thing—that God’s got a plan—of course, He does; but let’s not use that as a way of explaining away the deep difficulty/your grief that someone would feel.
Bob: Don’t pull out Romans 8:28 out of your pocket and say, you know, “God causes all things to work for good.”
Matthew: That’s exactly right! That’s exactly right. Or to say something like, you know, “You must have unrepentant sin,”—
Bob: Oh, boy.
Matthew: —or something similar.
Dave: Oh! That’s a good one—wow! [Said with disbelief]
Matthew: I mean, I’ve heard some horror stories of what individuals have been told by folks, who think they have some answer or platitude.
Bob: There’s a strain of thinking that says, “It must be a faith issue with you”; right?
Matthew: It’s totally understandable why—why this happened. You can see why—in a moment of difficulty and disclosure, not really having the emotional or maybe spiritual ability, in the moment—right?—to just say, or not say—right?—nothing. And just say, “I’m so sorry.”
Dave: I was going to ask that. If I’m that person, receiving that news and I feel so awkward: “I don’t know what to say.” You would say: “One of the things is don’t say anything. You don’t need to give an answer or a response. Just be there.”
Bob: Did you, with your daughter-in-law—when they were going through infertility and miscarriages—I know you said, “I’m so sorry,”—beyond that, how did you try to interact with her, and minister to her, and help her?
Ann: I think one of things Dave and I did was—we said: “How can we pray for you?” “How can we help you?” “How can we be there for you?”—just asking those questions. Honestly, there is such a helpless feeling when you’re on the outside; and there’s an awkwardness, too, of not knowing: “Is this the right thing?” and “I don’t want to hurt you more.”
I thought it was really sweet that they would—like Austin and Kendall even asked me to just come in and just cook/clean. It’s almost like so they could grieve. They’re not only grieving the present, but they’re grieving of what may not happen—their hopes and their dreams. Just to give them that space but, also, to be right there in case we could do anything.
I think that prayer thing is a big deal; because we were so consistent in seeking God, and asking God; and isn’t this the Bible? Think of all the women in the Bible that could not conceive—and then, it was even more of a stigma in that era; but it still is—it’s still very, very hard and very difficult. We’ve even seen circumstances, where the marriage is lost because of it; because there is so much emotion/there’s so much pain; that if you don’t bring that together, it can really tear you apart.
Matthew: On that latter point, one very common experience for couples who go through infertility is to see marital strain very quickly and blaming. Blaming is corrosive to any relationship.
We want that; we want to explain it. Where are we going to fix responsibility? We have some sense of release—right?—some sort of catharsis/bizarre catharsis that comes from blaming someone, but the marriage just implodes; then both end up retreating, themselves; communication channels break down.
I think couples deeply want to be heard by each other in earnest, truthful ways. With this particular subject—because it’s so deeply felt, personally—if it happens that say, the clinician discovers that it’s attributable one way or another, then, that adds further problem; because then we know what the problem is—the source of the problem—and that becomes the subject.
Dave: Something that hit me, when I was reading the book, was in the back—when you interview your brother with these great questions—you’re walking through it. It’s really helpful for the reader—because like: “How do I respond?” You ask all the questions that need to be asked. You realize, “Oh, this story that’s in the book—this fictional couple—is a real couple.” It’s really personal to you, because it’s your brother.
One of the things that I found very profound was—you discover in these questions—they actually did get pregnant [pause] and have a stillbirth. It’s horrific; because now, hope finally—and they get all the way to the—and it’s just: “Oh! It’s so…” Again, I mean, you lived through it. Before I read to you what I want to read, tell me what that was like.
Matthew: That was particularly with Gary. Gary was stillborn—passed away in utero. They—Patrick and Jennifer made a decision—the hard decision—to name Gary and to have a sort of a memorial for him. They still talk about him, every once in a while, and when his birthday was. When it happened, there was nothing to do but grieve and to cry together. I wasn’t there; I think, at that time, we were living elsewhere/a good ways away. That was deeply, deeply painful. There’s just no other thing to say; in terms as a family, our grief for that loss. Patrick and Jennifer were really heroic and faithful throughout that process. I’m really proud of them.
Dave: You write this; but when I was reading it last night—I read it, out loud, to Ann. You’ve got to hear this response, where Patrick says, “I couldn’t answer the phone.” It gives just a glimpse into the devastation: “I could not answer the phone.” He even says, “It sounds ridiculous, but I could not answer the phone.” So all these voicemails stack up; right?
Then, one of his best friends, Keith—let me read you what you wrote. It’s just—he said:
One of the difficult things for me, unexpectedly, was answering the phone. It sounds so simple and ridiculous now; but the enormity of the task, in the weeks after the miscarriage, was staggering. Voicemails piled up, unanswered, though not altogether neglected.
I can’t express how comforting it was to receive the following sort of message from my brother or best friend, Keith: “Hey buddy, you didn’t answer. That’s okay; really. I’m going to keep calling, because I want you to know that I’m here and that I love you. But there’s no pressure to answer the phone. When the time is right for you, ring me or answer, but not a moment sooner. I’ll keep leaving you a message every few days; because I just want you to know you are on my heart, and in my mind, and in my prayers. I love you pal.”
I mean, such a beautiful picture of: “That’s what you do.”
Bob: That’s a pretty perfect response; isn’t it?
Dave: It is!
Ann: I think the important person not to miss in this is Jesus—and our relationship with God—because He is always there. We can mad at Him; we can be upset; we can be disappointed; we can be angry; and yet, I think to go to Him, and to vent that—to be able to express that—to be able to express our disappointment and our anger—He is all about knowing our hearts and our confession of truth.
That, for me, is where I’ve gone so many times when I’ve been grieving, and upset, and mad. He miraculously comes in and hears me; and hears my complaint. Just like David in the Psalms—by the end, I can say, “But I still trust You.”
Bob: And that’s an important point; because yes, we can go there; we should. The Psalms give us direction on how to do that in our pain and suffering—to be honest with God about that/to be honest with others. We just can’t dwell there forever—
Ann: Good point.
Bob: —the Psalmist didn’t. He found his way back to God and back to some sense of peace. Now, he might, the next day, be back in the ditch again.
Ann: He might the next hour!
Bob: Yes; but he’s not—he’s not saying, “This is my new address.” He’s saying, “This is where I am, but I have to get back to where God wants me to be.”
Dave: The interesting thing in your book is that’s where you really go: “Where’s God in the middle of this? What’s God up to?” We haven’t even talked about that yet. That’s why we have got to continue this conversation.
Bob: We want to point people to your book—it's called Walking Through Infertility—a great guide for folks, who are going through this themselves; for those who want to compassionately come alongside family members, friends, people in your church—walk the path with them. We’ve got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go, online, to order your copy. Again, the title is Walking Through Infertility: Biblical, Theological, and Moral Counsel for Those Who Are Struggling by Matthew Arbo. Order your copy from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call to order at 1-800-358-6329—1-800-“F” as in family, “L”’ as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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I hope you can be back with us again tomorrow. We're going to talk about some of the lies we are tempted to believe when we go through challenges like infertility. Mathew Arbo is our guest again tomorrow. I hope you can be here with us as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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