As America prepares to celebrate motherhood and pay special honor to mothers—rightfully and to the glory of God, my heart is burdened for the many women who long to be mothers but are unable. Mother’s Day celebrations can be especially hard for them—I pray for such women.

The one thing I know for sure about women who long to be mothers is that I do not, and cannot, know their pain.

A mother is a life-bearer. Mothering is a profound stewardship of the sanctity of God’s life-giving purposes on earth. The first grand commission was to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen 1:28), which was reinstated after the flood: “be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it” (Gen 9:7). It is significant that this first commission was preceded by a blessing: “And God blessed them. And God said to them…” (Gen 1:28).

A closed womb is contrary to God’s “very good” design. In the OT barrenness or childlessness was a personal tragedy of great significance. It cuts deeply in the soul at the very root of life-bearing as a testimony and witness to the inestimable tragedy of sin and the Fall.

The grief of barrenness was especially noted with Sarah (Gen 11:30), Rebekah (Gen 25:21), Rachel (Gen 29:31), Manoah’s wife (Jdg 13:2, 3), Hannah (1 Sam 2:5), and Elizabeth (Lk 1:7, 36). So intense can this condition be that it is described variously as ‘desolate’ (2 Sam 13:20) and ‘deadness’ (Rom 4:19). The indescribable pain associated with infertility is illustrated in Rachel’s cry, “Give me children, or I shall die!” (Gen 30:1).

In the OT economy, rich in family heritage and the importance of carrying on the family name into future generations, infertility was considered a curse from God (Gen 16:2). This is why when Elizabeth became pregnant she said, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people”—her barrenness was a ‘reproach’ or ‘disgrace’ or ‘shame’ as though barrenness was the evidence of God’s curse upon her (Lk 1:25; see also Hos 9:11, 14). It is significant that key women in the genealogy of Christ were at first barren, signifying that the ability to bear children is a sign of grace and blessing from God.

I pray that we would all take on a special compassion and tender care toward women who long to bear children but are unable.

What follows are some reminders to all of us men and women who do not (or no longer) experience the pain of infertility. Reminders to help us minister to women who are hurting because they long to be mothers. While there are various situations in which women long to be mothers and for which we should be sensitive and compassionate (i.e. singleness), for our purposes here I will focus on infertility.

1. Remember that infertility is a form of suffering.

We live in the wake of sin, in a fallen and cursed world. Every pain resulting from the denial of something good is a form of suffering. Let us remember that they are suffering and that we deserve no more blessing than they.

May we remember and model to all the glory of the gospel in the midst of such suffering. The pain of suffering under the curse is intended to remind us that this world is broken; it is not the way it should be. Sin has opposed the blessings of God and the goodness of His creation. Even the creation, including our bodies, needs redemption. Christ is our hope!

If the woman who longs to be a mother does not cling to Christ as her Savior, then pray for her spiritual healing first. The gospel is the answer even in this seemingly disconnected situation. Be very careful and sensitive in your attempts to witness to her, but do not neglect such a powerful opportunity. All brokenness, falleness, and pain is temporary for those in Christ. Christ is the only hope.

2. Remember that the pain and emotional distress is expected.

Cultivate compassion rather than trying to resolve their distress. A range of deep, disturbing emotions are to be expected. Anger, helplessness, sadness, isolation, and depression are all very commonly associated with infertility. Women often feel defective and broken with infertility. They commonly feel uncomfortable at church, at events that celebrate motherhood and children, and even at extended family gatherings (i.e. during holidays, birthdays, etc.). Be sensitive to them. Experiencing marital stress often results. Husbands be especially tender and pray that God would grant you a measure of understanding what you cannot understand.

Listen to the personal experience of one worshiper of God who has deeply grieved her infertility:

“Trust God! He knows what’s good for you. He has good things for you.” People say these things to you very casually and they are not helpful. They are handing you another burden to carry—you don’t have enough faith!

In the midst of our infertility, I cried a million tears. I cried out to God. I read the Bible. I read about Hannah. I read about Rachel. I read about Sarah. I read about Elizabeth. But they all had their babies! I read these stories over and over again thinking it would help. It did help in one way. It validated how hard infertility is. Hannah cried, “Give me a baby or I die.” In my own anguish, I ranted and raved. If I saw a story on TV about a baby thrown in a dumpster, or a child who had suffered abuse, I screamed at the television. That was part of the way I processed my anger.

Grief. No funeral. No burial. No flowers. No cards. Yet there is a death: the death of hopes of the wonder of a child emerging from your love.[1]

3. Remember to weep with those who weep.

There is a right and wrong way to grieve. When it is in love and support of another, we must intentionally avoid common pitfalls. Godly grieving gives voice to pain. The purpose of our efforts to encourage must not be insensitive and rather than give voice to their pain seek to rebuke their pain. Listen to the advice of a biblical counselor who has loved his wife through her infertility:

Help your counselees to give voice to all these things as well as thanksgiving and hope for the future. However, when they’re angry or hurting, they have trouble thinking clearly. They’re can’t read a deep theological essay to find help. So give them one simple thought to hang onto. Maybe one passage or verse of Scripture. They need to fight but they must also wait. Encourage them to worship God through their waiting and crying and to allow God to examine their hearts

Sometimes we offer a default response to those who grieve. We go into advice mode. “Have you tried this? Have you tried that?” But this approach only tries to fix a problem. It does not develop a relationship with the couple. How about the Pollyanna response? People say, “Don’t worry. It’s going to work out for you.” My first response to this is irritation. “How do you know that?” But instead of responding, I shut down. I just don’t listen to them.

Do you tell an “I have a friend who …” story as a way to avoid the discomfort of the situation? Don’t do this. It does not provide comfort. We often respond in negative ways to our counselee’s suffering. Be careful.[2]

4. Remember to ask them how to pray.

Kimberly Monroe married at age 36. Her husband was still in seminary at the time, so they waited about a year before trying to have children. After seven months of trying, and a multitude of tests, the doctors said that Kimberly was entering menopause early. She panicked. The doctors assured her that she should could get pregnant as she cycled in and out of this transitional phase. In the end, she tried everything available to her to no avail.

Despite the many efforts of her church family to minister comfort and encouragement to her, she felt devastated. By grace, God has ministered healing in her life. She shares what God used in her situation that proved most helpful:

One day I thought, God has so many promises for us. But one thing He didn’t promise. Nowhere in Scripture did He promise me a baby. He has not let me down. It’s good to desire a baby. But I cannot demand it of Him. Children are a blessing, but they are not promised to us individually. You do not receive blessings because you’re a good person or because you earn them. They just come. That was a revelation to me. Gradually I stopped feeling defective. I started to believe that “all things work together for the good” (Rom. 8:28). God is good and He wants good for me. But that good does not include biological children. I had to wait and trust Him.

Four years after we stopped fertility treatments, we started adoption procedures. But then, Phil’s grief kicked in. In the adoption process you realize, “That baby will not look like us.” I was finished with grieving. I knew no baby would ever look like me, but Phil wasn’t finished grieving. We had to work through his grief. People grieve in different ways at different times.

We finally received a different blessing than the one we originally wanted. And this blessing is very sweet and very precious. Through this trial and trouble, God was at work. He blessed us with a clearer picture of who He is, what the Christian life is really about, and what to put our hope in. This is our lasting hope. Peter says, “In His great mercy He has given us a new birth into a living hope and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade” (1 Pet. 1:3).

God is glorified by relieving our suffering, and God is also glorified by not relieving our suffering. In either case, God is always seeking to bestow His greatest blessing upon you: Himself.

Remember those who long to be mothers this Mother’s Day; love them, be sensitive to them, listen to them, and pray for them.

[1] Kimberly Monroe, “From Hope to Despair,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Number 1, Winter 2005 23 (2005): 53.
[2] Philip Monroe, “Moving through the Pain of Disappointed Desire,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Number 1, Winter 2005 23 (2005): 57.