The Discovery of a Calling
by Jenny Dickinson
I suppose many women and men try to imagine what their babies will look like once they are born. I used to try and imagine what I would look like pregnant. I must confess that when we started trying to conceive, I even stopped to look at maternity clothes in store windows. I could not wait to have the loose fitting wardrobe for my own.
That was nearly four years ago, the same time that my husband and I set off for the adventure of our lives. He was to attend a three-year seminary in Oxford, England. I was thrilled! We both love to travel and could not wait to experience living abroad. We had been married about two years, so we also knew that we would start our family while we were in England. Since the day we were engaged, we often talked with anticipation and delight about becoming parents. Wouldn’t I be cute, just like the other English “mums” with my pram and my rosy-cheeked baby playing in the pristine parks of Oxford?!
In addition to starting a family, I planned to grow spiritually during our time in seminary. This was my chance before entering the ministry to be fed by God and to form a solid foundation upon which to start life as the wife of a minister. I was floating on clouds with elation, anticipation, and excitement! As I packed our suitcases, I marveled at what an amazing three years we would have! I could not wait to see the blessings that God was going to pour out into our lives. Things were going my way.
You have probably guessed by now that our plans for our seminary years did not unfold as we had imagined they would. I was fed by God, but my search for spiritual food came in the form of such intense despair that I could not bear another day, yet somehow I did. My faith grew by enduring suffering and grief as I walked through a deep valley of infertility before eventually coming out on the other side, rejoicing. I did become prepared for ministry, but for a very different kind of ministry. I can honestly say now, that if my plans for spiritual growth had transpired the way I originally thought they would, I would not be as prepared for ministry as I am now, and I would not be as close to God as I am today. It was through pain and sadness that I was drawn close to God.
As for my husband, he did train for ordination, pass his exams, and obtain a job at a wonderful church where we are happily serving. Thankfully, that part of the plan did work out for us! God did pour out His blessings upon us while we were in seminary, but they were not the ones we had expected.
After about a year of living in Oxford and “trying,” we still had not conceived. I visited my doctor, and she said to give it another six months. The standard time in England before a diagnosis of infertility was one-and-a-half years. I was still a young and healthy twenty-eight year old, with a regular cycle, and my husband was healthy too. “It takes many couples more than a year to conceive,” we were told.
So, we followed her advice. Six months later, still no baby. My highs and lows were becoming more defined, and they coincided with the beginning and end of my cycle. We lived and breathed by the calendar; month-to-month. After my cycle, I was excited and hopeful, “maybe this will be my month.” Then each month, as disappointment set in, I would crash and enter a time of deep depression before the rollercoaster would start again.
People all over the place were getting pregnant. Every time an e-mail appeared in our inbox with the words, “Great News!,” we knew it was another announcement of a baby-to-be from one of our friends back home. I felt like I was being tortured with each of those celebratory e-mails. Many of those messages were from long-time friends who I love very much. I wanted to be happy for them; I wanted to rejoice with them. There were times that I suppose I was slightly happy for them, but most of the time I was not. Shocking – it seems so selfish to admit that I could not be happy for some of the people I love the most in this world, but I wanted to be them. Each time one of those e-mails came, I would crash again into a pit of sadness. The pattern was usually about three days of depression after hearing the announcement that someone was expecting.
In addition to the conceptions taking place back in the States, I joke that my husband’s seminary was like living among rabbits. In England a pregnant woman’s belly is called “a bump.” Well bumps abounded – they were everywhere! Tears had been constantly beneath the surface, but they began to flow at the sight of all those bumps and smiling ladies. It got to the point that I did not even want to go to the little crowded market where we did our grocery shopping. Inevitably there would be women with babies, and I would find myself getting mad at people I did not even know, because they had something that I so intensely wanted. My heart was hurting.
I started to think I was crazy. People, in an attempt to sympathize, would say things to me like: “no one is sick, no one is dying, this isn’t such a big deal, just relax.” They were right on some level. No one was sick, no one was dying, yet the hope of a new life created by my husband and me died each month I was not pregnant. A little person we thought would be with us was not. And I do believe it was a loss that needed grieving, a VERY significant loss! I have had the opportunity to talk to many women dealing with infertility, and the emotions are almost exactly the same in every case. The grief is just as profound and the despair is just as real as any other major life trauma. Something that is supposed to be so natural is not happening. It is important for women experiencing the loss of a hoped-for life to mourn that loss.
We began to seek medical help for our problem. After passing all the tests, our doctors were perplexed. Nothing was wrong with either of us. “You are still young,” they said, “something will probably happen.” Because of our schedule and the fact that we were spending the summer in America, we decided to give it a little more time. Following the advice of our doctors, we would pursue fertility treatment in the fall of our final seminary year if we did not conceive over the summer.
That summer was emotionally grueling for me. In my mind, this was the last chance at getting pregnant without any intervention, and the rollercoaster ride consisted of intense highs and crashing lows, all the while making me scream! Literally, screaming and yelling – one time I even threw a kitchen utensil at a wall so hard that I bent it – this was anger, and it was real.
We began fertility treatments when we got back to Oxford. The first time we tried, it did not work. Once you enter into treatments, presumably your chances for getting pregnant increase and so do your hopes of quick results. It is impossible to describe with words the sadness and despair I felt after failed attempts at conception.
The other area that was becoming increasingly difficult for me was the anger. My fury had started previously, but, as time went on, I became more and more embittered. It was anger like I have never experienced and pray I never experience again. I was mad at everyone and everything. Most of all, I was mad at God. It may sound incredible coming from a minister’s wife, but I told God regularly how furious I was with Him. How could He do this to me? Was I not doing enough for Him? I had followed my husband across an ocean into a life of ministry; not exactly the easiest of callings. We weren’t going to make a large salary; didn’t God know that fertility treatments were expensive (surely He did, He is God after all?) Why couldn’t someone who had more financial security go through this instead of me? Didn’t He care how much this hurt me? Didn’t He care how depressed I was, how much anguish I was feeling each and every moment of each and every day? All this despair was exhausting; how could I go on one more day?
One day, I was talking to my husband about our struggles (by now this was becoming regular conversation in our household), and, as usual, I was angry. I told my husband (keep in mind, he is training for ministry) that I was not going to pray anymore. Why should I? It was doing me absolutely no good. If God was not going to answer my prayers, then why pray? God obviously did not care. I have often tended towards the dramatic, so I forcefully grabbed my Bible off of the table beside my bed and attempted to “storm” across the room and place the Bible on the bookshelf, where it would stay, unread. (Visualize a very tiny flat in England, smaller in total square feet than most people’s living rooms: my dramatic “storm” across the room would have been much more effective in a larger room.) It really only took me about two steps to get that Bible on the shelf, and actually I could have reached the bookshelf from where I was sitting on the bed. But I wanted God to know I meant business! That is where it would stay until my prayers were answered!
My poor husband! Imagine what he was thinking! He would soon be interviewing for church jobs and would have to say, “No, my wife, she has given up on God and no longer prays or reads her Bible.” What a team we would be, one person fresh out of seminary filled with enthusiasm about ministry and his relationship with God, and the other a bitter, angry wife. What a picture!
The struggle to start a family was very hard on him as well. There were several times when he wept to friends and mentors, despairing over what to do. But more than that, he was burdened because he could not fix it. Men, they always want to fix things. When most of the time, women just want to whine about things for a bit, and get some sympathy. We do not want a quick fix; we want someone to feel sorry for us. Well, I had been inconsolable for awhile now, and my husband was at the end of his rope. He could not help his wife, whom he loved so much, come out of that pit of sadness.
One section of the Bible that brought me great comfort (that is when the Bible was not relegated to the bookshelf) was from the book of Samuel. It is a story that is often quoted and read when dealing with infertility, but listen to the words describing Hannah when she was grieving over her childlessness. “Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord. And she made a vow saying, ‘O Lord Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant, but give her a son…And she kept on praying to the Lord. Hannah was praying in her heart…’ I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have been pouring out my soul to the Lord. I have been praying here out of my anguish and grief.’
I Samuel 1:7-18 (various)
Oh, how I identified with Hannah. Yes, this is from past times, and many things have changed since then. They did not use the word “infertility,” (they used the word “barren woman,” thank goodness we don’t use that anymore!) but the emotions that come when dealing with it are exactly the same: wept, would not eat, bitterness of soul, wept much, look upon my misery, remember me, do not forget me, give me a baby, a woman who is deeply troubled, pouring out my soul, praying here out of my anguish and grief. This was not a new problem. God had been listening to the prayers of women who desperately wanted to be mothers for thousands of years.
One day, I believe I hit rock bottom. A wonderful couple who lived in our building had a baby. I was friends with the woman, and she was perhaps the most sensitive to me during her pregnancy of any other pregnant person I knew. We had previously spent a good deal of time together, and she understood that it would not be possible for me to spend as much time with her now that she was expecting. I am forever grateful to her for this sensitivity. Quite often, people were not sensitive, and that is so important when dealing with friends who are struggling with infertility. If she ever comes across this story, I would not want her to feel guilty or sad. She is a wonderful woman of God, and I am thankful for the unspoken way she ministered to me during her pregnancy and early days of motherhood.
Nonetheless, it was the day they brought their beautiful baby home from the hospital that I journeyed to the absolute depth of my pain. I used to think that it was a mistake for me to have stayed home that day, but I believe God put me there so I would hit rock bottom. It was necessary for me to hit the bottom so that I could surrender and move, finally, out of a place of suffering.
We lived in a building of eight tiny flats with a common front door. Our flat was on the front of the building, on the top floor, overlooking the entryway and parking lot. It was a beautiful sunny day. People started coming bearing balloons, casseroles, and flowers. A few times people rang our doorbell because the doorbell of this couple’s flat was broken. More than once, I walked all the way down to the bottom floor to let in the smiling faces and gifts that welcomed this baby into the world.
That was supposed to be me! We had been trying for a baby for so long! Crying was becoming the norm for me, but I wept that day more than I have ever wept at one time. It was also a weeping that came from the depths of my soul, just like Hannah. I could not stop. I called my husband who was down the road at the college working on an essay. He came home and held me for awhile. I did not stop weeping. Finally, he went back to his study – there was nothing else he could do – it was just God and me, in a stand-off.
I do not really remember how that day ended. I think I was so exhausted by the time I finally stopped crying that I got in the bed and went to sleep. The bigger ending to that day is that I let go of my pain, because I simply could not bear it anymore. I finally allowed God to lead me down the path He had for me. I relinquished myself to His will and stopped fighting for my own. I pulled the Bible down from the shelf and gave it a good dusting. God won the standoff.
I now see that even during the three years I was struggling with infertility, God was slowly placing the desire to adopt upon my heart. It is impossible to put this into words – He did not write anything in the sky, I just knew it in my heart. He wanted us to adopt. Perhaps, one day, I would be pregnant. But right now, He wanted us to adopt. It was the first time I understood the notion of a “calling.” My husband had experienced this when he discovered that God was calling him to be a minister. Shortly after the day I hit rock bottom, the calling to adopt became so strong, that I knew I had to do it. In fact, doing anything else, and that included continuing with fertility treatments, would be going against God’s will for us. He had slowly transformed my heart according to His will.
We had only a few more months left in England after “Rock Bottom Day,” and they were glorious. While our three years there were filled with deep sadness, there was also abundant joy. We had been blessed with some of the most amazing friends in the world. Two in particular come to mind. They were my best girlfriends, and I will never forget how they stood by me through the most difficult time in my life. What I went through was awful, but if I had to go through that to form these two very special friendships, it was worth it. They prayed for me and spent time with me when I was not the most pleasant person. They continue to pray for the baby that is waiting to join our family, and they are perhaps the two most excited people (except the grandmothers-to-be) about our adoption. When you have friends that empathize so much that they shed their own tears for you, you are blessed beyond all imagination. Even though we had many hard days, we cherished our living abroad experience and had grown so close as husband and wife. We loved our life in England and are still homesick for that very special place.
God’s blessings continued to pour out on us as we left Oxford. We were sent to a great church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the love and warmth we felt immediately was overwhelming.
Since moving back to the States, I have participated in hosting the first of several baby showers for expectant friends. One year ago, I would not have been able to give that shower. I could not even look at a pregnant woman without bursting into tears, much less sit by and watch one open packages containing little tiny clothes. Giving these showers has been one of the most joyful experiences of my life. One reason is because they are being given for such special people. They treat my planned adoption as equally exciting as their pregnancies. This has been a true blessing, and I thank God for them every day.
The other, perhaps more poignant, reason this has been such a joyful experience for me is that I finally feel free from the enormous weight infertility placed upon me. I am able to be truly happy for these women and am sincerely excited about meeting their precious children. Not one part of me is jealous, angry, or bitter. I wanted to be happy for all of those pregnant people I knew and loved in the past, but the bitterness was keeping me from true joy. I am so glad that my soul can genuinely be happy for others who are awaiting the gift of children. The freedom is amazing!
One of the verses I wrote in my journal during our struggles with infertility was from Psalm 16:5-6:
“Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup;
you have made my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
surely I have a delightful inheritance.”
I copied down that verse at a time when I probably did not believe it, but oh how it speaks to me now! My lot is secure! There is no doubt in my mind that this is what I am meant to do at this time. It makes me shudder to think that had I persisted in my own stubbornness, I would not have known the pleasure of being in God’s will by pursuing adoption.
About the middle of our three-year struggle with infertility, I wrote the following verses from Psalm 13 in my journal:
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?…Look on me and answer, O Lord my God. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in Your salvation. I will sing to the Lord,
for He has been good to me.”
The first part of that verse describes me during those trying three years we struggled with childlessness. The last part describes me now – trusting in God’s unfailing love and rejoicing, singing to the Lord, for He has been good to me. How did I get to that place? – by finally surrendering myself to God and His perfect plan. I had no choice; I could not continue the way of depression, fear, and anger. Yes, it was a choice I made, but it was also God lifting me out of the depths.
So, I did grow spiritually during our seminary years. At times, I did not realize I was growing spiritually, because I was not even speaking to God. But if I had not gone through a time of suffering, I would not be able to trust God as I do now. Just as He placed the desire in my heart to be a mother, so has He placed the desire in my heart to become a mother by adopting a baby.
So why did I go through this experience? I cannot fully answer that now. As my mother said when I told her I would be writing this story, “but you don’t know the ending yet!” But I believe when I first see my baby’s face, it will make perfect sense. I think this verse from my journal says it best:
“I am still confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.”
Psalm 27: 13-14.