An interviewwith Lesli Westfall, Author of Dancing Upon Barren Land
It is estimated that one in six American couples (7.3 million women) are affected by infertility. Christian women are no more immune to these astounding statistics than anyone else. When experiencing infertility, a woman’s feelings about herself, her relationships with others and her belief in God become confused and complicated. Having experienced these emotions herself, Lesli A. Westfall has written Dancing Upon Barren Land: Prayer, Scripture Reflections, and Hope for Infertility (January 18, 2013 / ISBN: 9780615746128 / $12.99) not only as a prayer guide for women facing infertility, but as a resource for churches and support groups.
Q: Infertility is a problem far more couples face than most of us realize. Can you share a few statistics with us?
· Infertility’s is defined when a couple 35 years or younger is unable to conceive within one year of unprotected intercourse, and for couples over 35, if unable to conceive after six months of unprotected intercourse.
· Infertility is one in six American Couples (15% of couples), one in 13 women, even more worldwide.
· There’s a misnomer to think it’s just a female problem. The breakdown of infertility/sterility is ⅓ female, ⅓ male, and ⅓ a combination of both male and female, or unexplained infertility.
· The term “delayed parenting” is when couples choose to begin their families later in life. Therefore age is the most important issue in conceiving. This is consistent with our present-day culture.
· The World Health Organization in 2009 defined infertility as a disease.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your own struggle with infertility?
For me, as a young child I had always dreamed of being married and having children. Once I did marry, we waited to start a family. Our goal was to further our careers and to save up enough money to put a hefty down payment on a house essentially what is now called within the fertility world “delayed parenting.” Yet, there would be days I’d have this intense longing.
It was during a Mother’s Day church service when the pastor spoke on barrenness that stirred in me that childhood dream to have children. I left the church that day feeling a sense of peace and purpose in my life, to become a mother, finally. Since I had such a profound impression of God’s purpose in the Mother’s Day service, I just assumed that I would get pregnant easily, so I did not obtain diagnostic testing for my infertility.
As the months and years passed, no pregnancy. Eventually, I saw the first fertility specialist at the age of 40, which for most medical professionals would be too late in life. I had diagnostic tests, which revealed a few problems, and I had surgeries to correct them along with medicines to balance hormones. But still no baby after the corrective surgeries and thousands of dollars spent.
I sought another fertility specialist and went through additional treatments. With the last treatment, we were given the news, “With your age and egg maturity there is no hope for you to conceive.” I felt as if those words left me lifeless. I felt as if something died within my heart. The only thing I could think of to do after receiving this terrible report was to turn to God. I prayed asking God to mend my broken heart, which was shattered in a million pieces. Truly, he supernaturally brought healing to my confused mind and broken emotions.
Q: What does it mean to dance upon barrenland?
Dancing upon barren land means to enjoy life now, to live life while you wait for life in your womb or to hold your adopted baby in your arms. You can learn to “dance” by discovering who you are in Christ, enjoying the relationships around you and exploring your passions and pursuing them along the journey to parenthood. I expand more on this in chapter five of the book, Living Life While You Wait. This scripture sums up “dancing upon barren land” in Romans 15:13: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing as you abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Q: What lessons has God taught you through your journey?
I can’t make things happen. No matter how hard I try in my own strength, I can’t make a baby just appear. I’ve learned to trust God, His timing and His ways, even when I don’t understand (Proverbs 3:5-6).
Be led by peace and be in agreement with your spouse. There were many options presented along our fertility journey. Each fertility journey is different for each couple, so what might be the right plan or fertility treatment for one couple might not be the best plan for you. Asking God for peace through the process, discussing with my spouse all of the options and then coming to a mutual agreement has helped us tremendously.
God is in the “now.” We can tend to focus on God for the end result—the answered prayer of a child of our own—but we fail to recognize God is with us during journey. I discovered He is with me now, to help me during the pain, disappointment, misunderstanding and confusion.
Q: Why did you write Dancing Upon Barren Land, and what do you hope readers will gain by reading it?
From leading support groups I sensed a felt need for a resource to help women and couples going through infertility. Initially I just wanted to have a simple, small paperback a woman could tuck in her purse and just pull out when she felt the need to be spiritually uplifted. But the book has evolved and expanded due to my writing coach, Karen Porter’s, prompting. While she was reviewing and editing the prayers she said, “Lesli, you have lived through this struggle and are experiencing peace and joy. You should write how to live this thing out.” So I did.
I hope readers will gain an understanding that:
· they are not alone, God loves them and they are not forsaken
· the prayer and scripture will sustain them in this hard journey
· even though there may be conflict within relationships, there is also resolution
· to discover joy and peace during the journey while they wait the desires of their hearts
Q: Dancing Upon Barren Landfocuses on specific prayers for women to pray concerning their infertility. What are some of the things you encourage women to pray for?
First of all, I encourage them never to give up on praying for the desires of their heart even though their journey has been long or full of misunderstanding. Peace for their mind and emotions within their relationships and their fertility options. For God’s perfect will to be done and their hearts to be open to His will and plan on how to grow their families.
Q: Why is it important for churches to offer support groups for women dealing with fertility issues?
Given the statistics above, there's a probability someone is hurting within their congregation, whether from infertility or infant loss (miscarriages/stillbirth). For women, there is a loss that is silent and secret. The loss can be from a desire yet to be fulfilled or loss experienced through miscarriage or failed adoption attempts. The social interactions often decline due to the feeling of “not fitting in.” A church could offer support groups, helping them through the complicated grief via Biblical principles, provide a safe haven to connect with others, essentially offering acknowledgement there is help and hope for the hurting. My new book, Dancing Upon Barren Land, is a resource support groups can use and Dancing Upon Barren Land ministry and website is available to help churches start a support group.
Churches are very family-centric and rightfully so, but there is a need not being met within the body of Christ. Due to delayed parenting, single women attend my support group because they are hurting, because they are not married yet and because they feel their chances of having children is very slim. Couples will not attend church on Mother’s or Father’s Day because the focus is on a role in life they’ve yet to achieve. Also, those who’ve experienced miscarriages/stillbirth will refrain from churches on that day. Their loss is never validated.
Q: I think we all can understand to some degree the physical tolls that infertility has on a woman, but what about the emotional and spiritual effects?
Infertility reaches to the core of who we are, therefore affecting our emotions (especially women). Women go through a range of emotions throughout the fertility journey. Initially when first diagnosed there’s a sense of denial or anger. As one moves along the path with months or years of no baby, there’s a sense of jealousy and envy. A woman can feel ashamed or even condemned by others because she can’t conceive. A deep sorrow can replace the once-desired child.
Spiritually, one’s view of God can be distorted through infertility. A woman may feel as if God is punishing her due to her lack of conceiving. She feels abandoned and forsaken by God and her church (spiritual) community. She wonders what the use of prayer is if God doesn’t hear and He does not answer.
Q: What are some of the other strains that come along with fertility treatments?
Financial: When seeking a specialist (a reproductive endocrinologist) it is very expensive. Most couples do not have an upfront savings of $12,000 or more for an in-vitro fertility treatment or any savings for additional treatment options. Most will take out a loan for the treatment. However, the treatment is never a guarantee for a baby; therefore if the procedure does not work the couple has lost all of the money with nothing to show for it. It is very disheartening and discouraging. I’ve personally seen marriages fall apart due to this and couples go into massive debt just to conceive.
Relational: What once was an intimate act has now become a scheduled routine due to “mandatory” intercourse. Therefore the loss of intimacy can be huge while trying to conceive. Because timing is so important, the demanding spouse places great demands on his/her partner. Also, if one spouse does not agree upon a fertility treatment and the other one does, this causes conflict. If the conflict is not resolved it leaves bitterness and resentment and therefore a breakdown within the marriage.
Q: Some people simply don’t identify with the strong biological desire to have children of their own and might ask, “Why don’t you just adopt?” How do you respond to questions like these?
We’ve been asked this question a lot. And we’ve prayed about it, but we feel for us, presently, adoption is not the way to grow our family. I know, as a Christian, we’ve been adopted by God into His kingdom (Ephesians 1:5). At times I know other Christians and even our friends who don’t understand why we don’t adopt. When we’ve been presented with the actual offer to adopt a baby on several occasions, we’ve not closed the door but are open. Our first response to them is that we will pray and discuss it. Once we discuss the options, we give it some time. It is very tempting to take in a child who needs a home. Yet we are careful not to make a decision based upon our emotions, but instead based on praying and being led by the peace of God.
Q: Even if a person means well and doesn’t set out to hurt any feelings, what are some of the things that you should never say to a couple struggling with infertility?
· Give up. Let it go. It will happen.
· Just go and get drunk.
· Just relax.
· Just adopt.
· You’re too old to have a child.
· It’s not the end of the world if you don’t have kids!
· Can I have some grandchildren, please?
· It will happen when you are least expecting it.
· At least you are an aunt and uncle, that’s fun!
· Complain about your own children
Q: What are some of the words of hope someone could and should say to a woman facing infertility?
· I am here for you.
· I’ll be praying for you and your spouse.
· Non-selfish comments
· If couple is pursuing fertility treatments, voice interest.
· Give a call on Mother’s/Father’s Day.
· Don’t say anything, just listen and encourage.
· Be their biggest cheerleader.
Q: What encouragement would you offer to a woman who has a stronger desire to start a family than her husband does?
Apart from my own experience, I came across this subject from women through the support groups. It means if you two are not on the same page in starting a family, back off, give him some space and pray. Ask God to help you maintain a good attitude toward him in spite of his viewpoint now, or pray for God to change his heart or ask God to calm your anxiousness. Step back and trust God to work in His heart and yours. It may take some time. Most of all, at all costs maintain peace within your home and your relationship. It is very easy to allow bitterness to set in. Continue to nurture your marriage. Your future children will be all the better for it.
Q: Tell us about your ministry that shares the name with your book Dancing Upon Barren Land.
Dancing Upon Barren Land — Spiritual Nourishment for the Infertility Road is a Christian online support ministry encouraging those grieving through infertility and sorrow from loss. Actually the ministry was birthed out of my own pain. After receiving a devastating doctor’s report from our last fertility treatment, there was a determination in me to reach out to others. Through a series of God-ordained events I was given money to begin the ministry that now reaches those hurting around the world. God knows how to bring joy and purpose even through the most difficult struggle. The online support offers a devotional, Christian resources, infertility etiquette, prayers and products. My heart is filled with compassion to reach those hurting through infertility in the hope of offering comfort and resources to ministry leaders, friends and family all through the online ministry.