Hannah thought she would scream if one more person invited her to a baby shower! Once she had looked forward to gathering at the well every morning, seeing her friends, and hearing all the latest news. Now she dreaded those encounters, wondering who would be the first to ask her, "So, Hannah. How's it going? Are you 'with child' yet?" She decided that from now on she would draw water later in the day, even if it meant enduring the blistering noonday heat and burning sand. Anything to avoid those smug looks and questioning gazes.
At last summer's tribal reunion, Hannah lost count of the number of relatives who kept asking when she and Elkanah planned to start a family. One after another they had inquired, "Well, Hannah, you and Elkanah have been together for years now. Don't you think it's about time? Your mother is counting on some grandbabies, you know. We could use a few more cousins, too. Here, let me show you my latest brag book. Are these babies cute, or what?" Hannah kept stealing glances at the sundial, counting the hours until that event was over and she could escape back into the comfort of her solitude.
She and Elkanah had been taking her temperature every morning for eons and faithfully plotting the fertility graph. Elkanah had tried so hard to be encouraging, and to let her know how much he loved her, but all she could hear was the ticking of her biological sundial.
"Honey, you've got me. What more could you possible want?" Elkanah humbly chirped. A loving husband just wasn't the same, thought Hannah. After all, he had children by Peninnah, his other wife, while Hannah had none.
Peninnah was a big problem, too. Hannah knew Peninnah looked down on her. She could just hear Peninnah chanting behind her back,
Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah.
I've got children and you don't!
I'm better than you are.
Peninnah really knew how to rub it in!
When Hannah and Elkanah had decided it was time to have children, they had not known that a long, difficult journey awaited them. They had assumed that new life was just around the corner. After all, that's what women were for, having babies. In Hannah's day, every wife was expected to give birth to a son who would carry on the father's name and bloodline. In this way Hebrew men lived on after death.
Women in the ancient world did not enjoy the myriad of lifestyle choices open to women of our day. Motherhood was the epitome of every woman's experience. If they were unsuccessful at producing offspring, there were no other options.
Hannah tried hard to love her stepchildren, and felt that she could have built loving relationships with them if it were not for Peninnah's constant presence and interference. Hannah found herself becoming more and more bitter and reclusive. She discovered that one way to avoid some of her pain was to avoid other people. Going to the synagogue on Mothers' Day was absolutely out of the question. It was hard enough on other Sabbaths when all those little darlings marched down front to sit at the rabbi's knees and hear the children's message.
She felt guilty for resenting her friends and relatives who had children, but those negative feelings were inside her just the same. Hannah tried not to be angry with her friends, and found herself turning her anger toward God instead.
As time dragged on, Hannah began to question God. Did God think she was unworthy of motherhood? Was infertility some kind of celestial punishment she had earned?
Since she had so much love to offer to a child, Hannah began to think about adoption as an alternative to giving birth. She had heard that the only babies readily available were those who had physical problems or were of a different nationality. What would people say if they heard she was raising an Ammonite or a Moabite baby in her tent? She would never be able to show her face at the well again.
Hannah mourned the absence of the baby she longed for. She felt so alone and lost. Her head told her that God was close to her in her sorrow, but her aching heart simply could not feel it. The hurt was too deep. She was barely able to function in her day-to-day activities and often cried herself to sleep at night.
Hannah knew she had much to be thankful for, but under these circumstances, she didn't feel grateful for much of anything. Finally, in her desperation, she did what people of faith do when they are at the end of their rope. She went to church and had a heart-to-heart talk with God. She prayed one of those "let's make a deal" prayers that we have all prayed at one time or another. Hannah poured out her heart to God. "God, if only you will do this for me, then I will do that for you." If God would only give her a son, she would give that son back to God to be in service to their Creator. This seems like a strange prayer, since Hannah is promising to return to God what she wants most in all the world, a son, if only God will give her that son. Finally, God grants Hannah the desire of her heart, and a son, Samuel, is born to her.
Hannah proclaims her joy and gratitude in a song to God. "My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God," anticipating Mary's song in Luke 1 as Mary waits for the birth of a savior. Hannah is the Madonna of the Old Testament. We rejoice that Hannah's story has a happy ending.
Unfortunately, that is not the case for all those who desperately want children. More than five million people of childbearing age in our country experience infertility. We may be totally unaware of their problem as they deal with one of the most emotionally and spiritually difficult journeys of their lives.
Janet has chosen to share the heartache of her infertility, that others might understand more fully her anguish. She laments that grief is like a shadow permeating every facet of her life. She has come to accept the fact that she will never feel the flutter of life within her. She is constantly bombarded with subtle and not-so-subtle messages from others that she is not a whole person, a whole woman, nor a whole Christian without children. After all, didn't God say to "be fruitful and multiply"? She feels pain and shame over her situation. Impertinent words of advice and quick solutions only inflict more pain. She would appreciate compassion and understanding from others who mean well, but who also inflict more pain on her. In time she hopes to fill her emptiness with God's love.
We can be in compassionate ministry with those whose dream of children does not come true in the way they had hoped. Some parents give birth physically, while others give birth from the heart. We can give them a great gift by what we say and by what we refrain from saying.
Be willing to listen. Many people just need someone to share their confusion, anger, and pain with. They may not be looking for answers or concrete help but rather for understanding, support, and love. Refrain from asking when a couple is planning to start a family. Infertility is intensely personal and many people are not comfortable discussing it with others. Don't expect childless couples to rejoice when others have babies. Don't be surprised if they aren't in church on Mothers' Day and Fathers' Day, or when the sacrament of baptism is being celebrated.
Don't suggest adoption. Couples are already aware of this option. Adoption is often not an acceptable alternative until all other possibilities have been exhausted. A couple also needs time to grieve the loss of not giving birth, and to prepare emotionally for this choice.
Hannah and Elkanah lived in a pre-scientific era, when people entertained many misconceptions about infertility. In that day and time a lack of children was always the woman's fault. Today we know that a medical problem may be the husband's rather than the wife's. God has given medical science tremendous knowledge in recent years. There are many options for couples today. A good church library will have books about infertility and support groups that are available.
Hannah’s story is my story, too. I know first hand about infertility. Many couples search for answers to the questions, "Why do they have children and not us? Doesn't God care about us, too?" We can answer the last question with assurance. Yes, God loves you with an everlasting love. God hears your prayers, and if God does not bring you the answers you want, God will bring you God's own self, walking beside you every step of the way. And, maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers, that is what we are really praying for.1
1. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 71.