I am a barren woman.
I know that language feels stark, harsh even, to modern ears. In more modern, euphemistic terms, it might be said I am “struggling with fertility” or maybe, more directly, “unable to have children. (“Affected by infertility” is the language used by AmericanPregnancy.org in describing this situation which, according to them, affects 10% of American females of child-bearing age.) Most euphemistically of all, the problem is elided entirely: one is “planning to build a family through adoption.” Other women grow families—organic, natural language that evokes gardens and pictures of babies amongst fields of flowers. Barren women have to build theirs, a word that connotes labor and artifice.
I actually prefer the word “barren.” The authors of scripture use this word when they’re acknowledging and naming the deep suffering of a woman who wants to have children but can’t, a childless mother. “Barren” is biblical language.
An Ancient Problem
In Israelite society everyone assumed that a woman wanted to become a mother. The cultural value of family had deep roots among the people. For an ancient Israelite the more children the better. That society immediately understood the plight of a barren woman. Everyone comprehended her deep grief and misery.
This intuitive understanding of the desire to be a mother is part of what makes the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth so powerful. This old, childless couple had faithlessly but fruitlessly prayed for a child when, all of a sudden, they learned that Elizabeth is with child. What joy! What a blessing! What favor from God! It’s the dream of all barren women.
The authors of scripture made use of the pain and sorrow of infertility and specifically deliverance from infertility as a metaphor for God’s eschatological deliverance of all humanity from our current fallen world and the arrival of the world to come. The prophet Isaiah writes,
Shout for joy, o barren one, you who have borne no child. Break forth into joyful shouting and cry aloud, you who have not travailed. For the sons of the desolate one will be more numerous than the sons of the married woman, says the LORD. Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch out the curtains of your dwellings, spare not. Lengthen your cords and strengthen your pegs. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left and your descendants will possess nations.
The biblical authors understood that to be a barren woman is to experience great grief and unrequited longing. To be a barren woman is to be forced to wait for a deliverance that only the Lord can provide, be it in this life or the next.
A Modern Problem
In modern life the question of children is more complicated than it was in ancient Israel. Some women want kids and some don’t. It’s polite neither to assume a woman’s preference nor to inquire into the “whys” behind her situation. For that reason, I feel that the depth, the intensity, the sheer power of my grief requires explanation. Sometimes it requires justification. “Barren woman desperately waiting to adopt while being weighed down by overwhelming grief every single day” is not the assumed category that exists in my culture. Interest, not empathy, has become the modern assumption of those of us who are married but not yet biological mothers.
In Psalm 113 the psalmist sets side-by-side two visions of a future state of affairs that demonstrate the goodness of the Lord God. The Psalmist calls on the congregation to praise the Lord and exalt his name forevermore and in all places. He or she asks, “Who is like the Lord our God [who] raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap . . . [who] settles the childless woman in her home as a happy mother of children?” Here, again, we see the deliverance of the barren woman as an eschatological motif which communicates the Lord’s plan to ultimately bless his people in ways that meet our deep needs and set right the deep wrongs of our world.
The psalmist sets the promise to the barren woman alongside the promise to the poor. I believe both promises, but I also know that for many, many people, this life will hold no deliverance from poverty. The evil systems of this world will insure that millions (billions?) are born and will die in situations of grinding poverty. Who among us has not contemplated the images of refugees who left their homes with nothing or children living in slums in Nairobi and Rio and not felt deep grief and compassion? These slums should not be.
The Bible validates my pain by putting my plight alongside that of the global poor. The crushing poverty of a Rohingya woman who has fled Burma and isn’t allowed to work in the country to which she has fled and so can’t feed her children shouldn’t be. But it is. My body should be able to conceive and bear children. But it isn’t. The Bible validates my pain by putting my plight alongside that of the global poor.
I embrace the term “barren woman” because the Bible is the only place I’ve found whose treatment of infertility gives me permission to express my grief with all of the intensity and desperation which I feel.
In so doing, the Bible also causes me to lift my gaze from myself and be mindful of the suffering of so many, suffering that the Lord Jesus cares about deeply and preached about during his earthly ministry. While I wait for the Lord to make this barren woman a mother of children, if that is his will, I also remember the many who live in poverty, who have their heads trampled into the dust of the earth by the wealthy and the unjust systems of this world.
The Bible gives me permission to feel the deep wells of my pain but also calls me to trust in the Lord for my deliverance. In the stories of the scriptures, the barren and the poor are not forgotten by God. In the scriptures, God remembers those who are suffering, whether because of poverty or infertility. I prefer the word “barren” because it's the Bible’s language and reminds me that God has not forgotten about me either.
Cover image by Mahrshi Bisani.
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