The Unseen Pain of Social Infertility

There was a couple in our church who were barren. I don’t know the medical reasons for it – I just remember watching their struggle to conceive. I remember how as a church we rallied around them; how we stood with them as they responded to altar-call after altar-call praying for a miracle. Every time another round of IVF failed, we built them up with our words and prayers of encouragement. Every time another woman in our church gave birth, we embraced them with our love. The journey was long and distressing. To this day I don’t think they ever had children.

Social infertility

They’re not alone of course. Experts tell us here in Australia that one in six couples experience fertility problems. In spite of the reality, most of us grow up expecting that one day we’ll be parents. It’s a God-given instinct to reproduce after our own kind. So when what seems the most natural thing in the world is denied us, it’s shocking. It feels deeply unjust – almost deviant.

Recently a friend opened up to me about her own journey through infertility. Her and her husband were on their second round of IVF after trying for five years to conceive naturally. With tears in her eyes, she shared her roller-coaster ride of hope and loss. How they’d conceived, then miscarried, conceived then miscarried again. Now they were waiting another lengthy period before they could try again. I listened with as much empathy as I could. Then I said; “I know how you feel.”

In retrospect I wondered if I should have said that. After all I’ve never been pronounced medically unable to conceive. I don’t have a problem with my uterus or have a partner with a low sperm count. I’ve never been through a round of IVF. Yet I still knew how she felt, because I’m infertile too.

But my infertility is different.

My inability to have a child comes under a different label. The type of barrenness I’ve experienced came because the right man never came along at the right time.

Social Infertility: The Value of a Label

When I first heard the phrase ‘social infertility’, it filled me with a profound sense of relief – like the feeling you get when your doctor finally gives you the diagnosis for a long-term illness. There may not have been an easy cure for the condition I was suffering, but at least there was a label – something that gave it the gravitas it deserved. Now my pain had a name.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘social infertility’? The term has been coined relatively recently by the IVF industry to attribute infertility to the lack of a male partner during the reproductive years. Though I’ve found it a helpful term, some say it’s not only ugly and degrading, it’s also offensive to those who are truly infertile and can’t do anything about it.

Some of course, are doing something about it. IVF clinics in major cities of Australia recently reported a 10 per cent jump in the use of donor sperm to conceive a child. Although lesbian couples account for some of the increase, doctors say the real growth is among older single heterosexual women.

For the single woman who has convictions about raising a family with two parents, that leaves very few options – if any at all. A researcher in the UK recently concluded that given the current church population, the only choice for many Christian women today was singleness or marriage to a non-Christian. But what about those who want to serve God with their partner as well as have a baby?

Growing Up with the Dream

Some of my friends are childless and perfectly okay with it. I’m not one of them.

I’m the one who had the ‘most-likely-to-be-married-first’ tag at school; the one with the glory box packed with an array of lace doilies and whose baby names were long picked out at age 15. I grew up practising motherhood with an extensive collection of dolls, insisting that my prized favourite only ever be called a ‘baby’ by my annoyed siblings. My goal was to have at least four kids, maybe five. Mum was good at it and so would I be. There were no plans for a career – it was all set – with no back-up plan if it didn’t happen.

And then it didn’t happen. My 20s passed with a few prospects. Then the 30s with one or two more, but now in my 40s, most of my male peers prefer a fertile 30 year old and with the current ‘man drought’, they can easily get them. It wasn’t just the numbers. I had whittled down my prospects in seeking a partner who was as passionate about serving the kingdom as I was. Today that choice has left me with an unrealised dream, an ache that still wakes me in the middle of the night and flares up at baby showers. Now I will never have a child of my own.

Don’t get me wrong; I love my life. God has blessed me incredibly and I don’t regret any one of my choices. But the pain is real and it never goes away. I know I will carry it with me for the rest of my life.

Death without a Gravestone

At this point there’s no real cure for singles like me. There’s no medical technology that promises relief for the partner-less and adoption is not usually an option for a lone parent. Like the married woman believing for a miracle child yet receiving none, the single woman today may need to come to a place of acceptance about the status she finds herself in, believing instead that God can give the grace needed to live with a thorn in her flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

But what we can do is speak about it. We can bring the concept of social infertility to the surface and give it the recognition it needs. When the pain is unseen, it is difficult to grieve. Like a death without a gravestone, there’s nothing to mark it. There’s no warm condolences after a failed hormonal treatment. No prayers of intercession for a doctor’s appointment. Not even a partner to share the grief with in moments of vulnerability. It’s usually felt alone, day after day, silently gnawing away at a woman’s heart.

As the church we’re called to carry each other’s burdens and in this way fulfil the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). To bear them of course, we must first recognise them. For many, the pain of being unable to bear a child due to the absence of a partner is felt just as deeply as those who are physically unable to bear them. Like the physically infertile woman, the socially infertile woman needs to feel the love and grace of those who care enough to understand. She needs others to stand with her as she takes her grief to God.

Your thoughts…

Have you struggled to have children or know someone who has? What has been helpful for you? Share a comment here:

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  • Kenie Girl

    Hey Tania, love your write-up on social infertility. Me to a T…
    We’ve got so much in common: Christians, most-likely-to-be-married-first among my 4 sisters and friends, in my early 40’s with a Masters degree to boot, baby names all picked out etc
    I’ve gone through every emotions you wrote about but I’m still holding on. Churches don’t help either as there’s no emphaty/ solidarity for the single members of it’s congregation.
    I’ve got so many questions to ask daddy God when we meet as life’s been tough as a single-babe :)
    Looking forward to reading more from your God conversations, encouraging each others and maybe seeing you in Liverpool, UK someday. God bless you!

    • Hi @keniegirl:disqus, Lovely to meet you and I’m so glad to hear the article was an encouragement! Sometimes we need to risk being vulnerable in order to be understood. God is good always in spite of the disappointment. I’ll be in the UK in June 2018. You never know I may see you there!

  • Fionnola Morris

    I’m a road but my previous church back home ministered to infertile couples and gay people but never singles who are surely more numerous than infertile couples or people with sexuality struggles. Living on one salary is becomes problematic if you want your own home or surviving in this day and age so I couldn’t afford to adopt or IVF (would be a bit strange anyway – a virgin birth).

    • Tania Harris

      Hi Fionnola, Thank you for your comments. Yes the goal is to embrace and accept everyone wherever there at! Bless you!

    • So true Fionnola and you’re not alone. Praying you will know God’s grace in the midst of your situation!

  • Philip Calodoukas

    Very moving! It breaks my heart to hear and be reminded of such things. The church needs to rise up and address these issues because it’s usually in church life that we meet our Christian spouses. We need more ministries to single people, whether more events for men and women to meet and interact, or education. I just don’t think most church leaders have much of an answer to this issue…yet!

    It’s also sad to think there are so many unwanted babies but so difficult for Australians to adopt unless we go overseas. the government needs to be involved in this issue too – an unwanted child coming to a loving home (even a single mum) could be one of the most powerful acts a man or woman can do for another human being.

    Having said all this, i believe with Jesus it’s never too late for anything – thats my conviction anyway. Keep believing and keep doing what you need to do to position yourself for a miracle.

    Lots of love to you and to your readers who identify with this article.

    • Tania Harris

      Thank you Phillip! Your passion shines through! It’s great to have friends like yourself who get it. I think as the church sometimes we find it difficult to theologise our situations when things don’t work out the way we want them to. This is one of those, but they’re so many more. Bless you heaps and thank you for your kind words of encouragement! :-)

  • Jacqueline A. Johnson

    Wonderful read Tania! Made me cry. I have a few friends who could probably relate. My heart grieves for them and you.

    However, as I read it, I couldn’t help but think, “what about those babies and children already born who need families to love and care for them?” I thought, maybe, just maybe they are part of the “least of these” who Jesus spoke about. And there are many (couples and singles alike) who could “see about them” in such a real way.

    Now mind you, this is coming from a woman who was told by doctors that she wouldn’t have children but God’s plan was different and He blessed me with 3 wonderful children…2 born to other women.

    I understand the longing…and I wonder if it’s the same longing many children feel as they continue to seek their forever families.

    God doesn’t make mistakes. I truly believe that. And I also believe that couples who aren’t able to conceive naturally have great opportunities to “quench” that longing for themselves and so many children. I also believe that singles, who are called, can make a difference in the lives on many children in need.

    God bless!

  • david

    Well written Tania, and a very real issue facing many people within Church

    • Tania Harris

      Thanks Dave!

  • Jennifer Billard

    Thanks for writing this Tania. There are so many women in this situation today that the pain you describe is very real and shouldn’t be ignored. I know many will have different views on this but while I firmly believe children are better off with two parents there is also another epidemic occuring in society today, that of foster children with no family to go to. When there is no foster family available these kids bounce between short term homes and group homes. I had already resolved to become part of the answer if I finally found my life partner (not believing I could manage it as a single) but I was deeply challenged by two things. In my work I read lots of case studies of vulnerable people coming out of the criminal justice system. Unfortunately almost all of those are people who failed to have a single adult figure that could affirm them, love them or champion them very early on in life. It was after reading one of these reports wthat I came to the conclusion I had to do something. The second thing that happened was my sister took the plunge (as a single) as I saw how successful she was and I saw how much support she received. Her little foster baby has brought so much joy to our family. She has him long-term (as in until he is 18 and can decide for himself). I know no matter what happens he will be one loved little baby. I am convinced that we need to think about “singleness” differently. Yes children are better off with two parents. That is the ideal. But what if society can no longer offer the ideal? Will we hold back until the ideal comes along and more children churn through group homes and into the justice system? I imagine the answer will be different for everyone. But I know for myself that I have been challenged to step out and give the best of what I have rather than what I don’t have. I’m only in the very early stages of this journey but I know that I won’t be alone even if I remain single. Not only is God faithful but he’s given me a wonderful church family.

    • Tania Harris

      Hi Jennifer, a good friend and I were just chatting about the exact same thing the other day. In the past single women missionaries have set up orphanages in overseas nations in an effort to help orphans. Far from the ideal but a solution nonetheless and one which the church has always applauded in the past. I see no difference in our own context. There’s the ideal and the real. I actually did something similar in my early 20s acting as a lead tenant with another young woman in a house of homeless teenage girls! It’s a tough call, but God will give you the grace to fulfil it! Huge blessings to you (what church are you in now?) xox

      • Jennifer Billard

        I’m still at Hillsong and involved in building the over 35 community. Thanks so much for sharing your story here. xo

        • Tania Harris

          Awesome, hope to bump into you one time! x

    • Felicity Corry

      I could not agree more with what has been articulated so beautifully by both Tania and Jennifer. I always thought I would be a foster parent after having my own kids, but once I hit my mid-30’s and no knight in shining armour had swept me off my feet, I decided to step out in faith and do it. So 2 years ago I became a foster mum, and am now immensely blessed to be “mum” to a gorgeous little girl who I only got to meet when she was 5. It is unequivocally the best thing I have ever done!!! I never imagined I would be a single mum to another woman’s child, but God’s ways are higher than our ways, and He helps me with this challenge every day. Singleness isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a person, but I don’t know if I could have lived without ever knowing the joy of being someone’s mum.

      • Tania Harris

        Wow, Felicity, how wonderful that you’ve been able to give your daughter a loving and safe home! Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Jen Gurry

      Jennifer, I think you nailed. While I know the ache and pain of being socially infertile, I also can’t help thinking that this dissipated when I threw myself into helping others children… at the risk of sounding harsh or judgemental – I can’t help but feel that maybe Felicitys store should be the story of more ‘socially infertile’ women… our Foster care system is overloaded with desperate children and who better than women that feel called to serve Him and build His Kingdom…

    • Jacqueline A. Johnson

      Well said Jennifer. May God bless your journey. God’s plan is perfect!

  • Kristy

    STUNNING write – love your absolute honesty, intelligence, Biblical integrity and transparency – you are such a gift to the church Tania xx

    • Tania Harris

      Ah thank you Kristy! x

  • Tara

    I feel your pain. When I finally met the man of my dreams & we started dating I was 42. I had a fertility test as we were confident we’d marry but were so conscious of the ticking biological clock. We planned to put some eggs in a safer place to keep them available for when we felt our relationship was ready for children. But it was too late. We are now married, I’m 44 & still grieve. Sometimes I’m angry at God – why didn’t he allow us to raise children of our own? It’s a pain with no closure. Thanks for sharing your story Tania and providing a safe place for others, like me, to share theirs. xo

    • Tania Harris

      Am with you on that one Tara. Thank you so much for sharing. Standing with you, lots of love

  • Nathalie

    Love the purity and the honesty of your blog!
    Super proud of you for sharing this. Not many are willing to share their deepest heartaches.

    • Tania Harris

      Thank you Nathalie! :-) xo

  • Claire

    Tania, so good that you have been brave and brought this into the open. I think especially for the church who at times can `spiritualise’ different forms of loss and disappointment.
    For grief to be responded to, it first needs to be acknowledged. Thanks for sharing your heart.

    • Tania Harris

      Thank you Claire! I pray it will encourage others…