by Tiffany Basdekis-Tewfik
“I want to blaspheme, and I can’t quite manage it. I go up against God, I shake my fist, I froth with rage, but it’s still a way of telling Him that He’s there, that He exists… The shout becomes a prayer in spite of me.”
-Elie Wiesel, The Town Beyond the Wall
Late one night, sitting on stools at our kitchen counter long after we should have been sleeping, my husband and I made a pact that changed my life. I didn’t know it at the time, but our conversation would reshape my 32 years of thinking about God, religion, and faith.
We had been trying for 14 months to get pregnant with our second child. Infertility came as a shock to us, having conceived our toddler almost immediately when we started trying for our first pregnancy. After countless tests with some of the nation’s top reproductive specialists, I had been diagnosed with premature ovarian failure, a condition in which my egg quality and quantity were very low, and my ovaries functioning poorly. I also had a hormonal disorder and a collapsed fallopian tube, making matters even more grim. The very morning of that kitchen counter conversation, my doctor had given me a ten percent chance of achieving biological pregnancy, preparing me for the next steps of possibly using an egg donor, donor embryo, or adopting a child in order to give my daughter a sibling. To say we were feeling depressed is an understatement, it was more like we were completely ripped open at the seams.
I think it’s human nature to question “why” when you or a loved one are suffering, and I was certainly no exception. Before even getting my diagnosis, I would cry and bitterly ask God why this was happening to us, why it was so hard. My husband and I always tried to be good people, we helped others, gave to charity, were an active part of a church community, and tried everyday to instill good, Christian morals in our daughter. We loved our family and friends, we didn’t lie, steal, cheat, or ever hurt anyone intentionally– surely this was unfair. There must be some kind of mistake somewhere, and if God didn’t think us deserving of another child, then He must realize our daughter was innocent and pure and worthy of a sibling to go through life with? In one of my weakest moments, sitting in my car after a painful test at the hospital yielding more bad news about my fertility, I cried my eyes out and screamed to God “WHY are you doing this to me??” I was utterly lost.
All around me friends seemed to be getting pregnant with second and third children, and I started to feel my heart harden. Before my ordeal, I remembered reading a medical study asserting infertility was as physically and emotionally taxing as other major health crises such as cancer or heart disease. Boy, did it sure feel that way. I was beyond disappointed with the hand I had been dealt. The family I always dreamed about was being stripped from me, and I felt like I had no control over my own life or choices. I blamed God for making this decision for me. I was grateful for having my daughter, but still could not see past my resentment that this life was not the one I wanted. A large family was important to my husband and I, before we even got married we discussed wanting at least three children. We knew their names if they were boys or girls, we talked about them and imagined what they might be like. We were young and healthy and already had a child, so we never dreamed this would all be taken from us under the fluorescent lights of a sterile doctor’s office.
I was mad. Really mad. I felt betrayed. I took these feelings out on God. I stopped praying. What was the point, I asked myself? I disengaged, and didn’t even want to go to church anymore, something I had always looked forward to. I didn’t want to hear positive things, I didn’t want to be reassured about my faith. I wanted to wallow. I wanted to hold someone accountable for what was beyond my control. You can be a good person, you can do everything right, and still be given vinegar to drink instead of wine. God and I were on the outs.
I want to stop right here and address some questions you might have, and that I certainly asked myself during this time: Tiffany, don’t you know God never promised us a pain free life? We are not guaranteed to get what we want just because we are nice, in fact we usually don’t. Haven’t you read the Bible? Don’t you know we are not promised an easy path, and religious text often discusses what we can learn from struggle and strife? Don’t you know you are not entitled to anything while here? It’s not a quid pro quo where just because you do good deeds you get a baby when you want one. Have you heard of this guy named Jesus? The Son of God who came here and was crucified for you? If His own Son had this experience, do you really think your life should be all rainbows and butterflies? You live an otherwise blessed life, more blessed than many in this world, are you really this ungrateful to question God when you meet a challenge?
I know, I know. Believe me, I know. Humans are complex is what I can offer you. Even though I was angry at God, I still knew how blessed I was. Even though I recognize all the above to be true, I still felt robbed. I needed it to be someone’s fault. I was in a psychological place so dark I didn’t want to be reached, I wanted to turn my back. I would faithfully dress my daughter for church and press my husbands clothes early Sunday morning, pack the diaper bag, and send the two of them on their way. But, as for me? I’m not coming to your house, God. I went back to bed.
But then came the worst day, that ten percent day when we were finally, after many months, given an actual prognosis. I came home, put my daughter to sleep, and cried what felt like an entire river of tears. I can’t do this, I thought to myself. In a desperate moment I took out my laptop and googled “infertility inspiration” and scanned through pages of cheesy quotes about not giving up. Nothing resonated. Until I came upon a quote from the Bible: “He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” Isaiah 40:29. Hmmm, I thought. I don’t know about soaring with eagles, but could it be that maybe I have been going about this all wrong? I needed strength. I had fallen. This passage played again and again through my head. While my family and friends had been incredible at providing me with physical and emotional support, I needed something to fortify my soul.
My husband came home from work late that night and we sat together in the kitchen. I confessed what I had been feeling, and we talked for a long time. One of the most poignant things he said to me was “God is not a puppetmaster,” which really struck me. He went on to explain that in his view, there were always going to be things that happened we couldn’t understand and there is an element of free will that God has given us that impacts so much of humanity and our current condition. We cannot simply pray that God moves the marionette strings a certain way and lash out when he doesn’t. We made an agreement then and there that we wouldn’t let our infertility struggle push us away from God or the church. Most importantly, we agreed we wouldn’t blame God. We needed Him now, we needed courage and comfort from our Orthodox faith and our St. Anthony’s community. Our struggle had taken a lot from us, but we would not let it take this too.
It can be hard sometimes to remind ourselves that God is not the cause of our suffering, but that he suffers beside us. When illness, death and heartbreak occur, it is easy to turn God into your scapegoat. I can be the first to attest to that. It is challenging to recall God’s message of faith when you feel your prayers are falling on deaf ears. But we must never lose sight of the big picture: our Orthodox God is with us all along, nudging us forward, encouraging us to put one foot in front of the other, and He does not fail us in our time of need. Just because your pleas to God are not answered the way you want and when you want, does not mean God is not working behind the scenes to help your life unfold as it should. It took this lesson in my life to completely understand that.
I started to pray again, but differently this time. Instead of asking God to pull puppet strings (please let this appointment go well, please let my doctor say something positive, please let my eggs be okay, please let us have another baby…) I reflected deeply and asked God to help my spirit. I now prayed for things like strength to face whatever our outcome, patience and understanding to keep my marriage strong in times of trouble, and for peace to accept my life just as it was. I forced myself to recount the things I was grateful for daily. I even said, out loud to God so I could hear the words, “It isn’t your fault.” It may sound silly, but it helped me immensely to acknowledge the blame I had assigned and let it go.
I went back to church. It felt good to be there. I remembered why I love our community so much. It isn’t just about a place to pray or celebrate God, it is about the people, too. I saw our beloved Father Joe on the altar who has always represented a source of endless love to me, my friends who had the grace to not question me about where I’d been, and watched my daughter run around the church hall during coffee hour with all the children she adores and will grow up with. My husband always said that when I was ready, God and the church would be there for me. They were.
It wasn’t long after that fateful conversation with my husband that I found out I was pregnant. We had been preparing to go through a round of in vitro fertilization when suddenly I found out we were expecting. As I dumbfoundedly got these results, I did thank God, but not for the baby. I will not say that it is because I came back to God that this happened; in fact, if I’m honest, I don’t believe that at all. I met many wonderful people along my infertility journey, many who suffered longer and harder than I did, and I don’t believe they are any less deserving than I am. I don’t think it’s as simple as: I had my faith restored so He therefore blessed me with another child. What I did thank God for, sitting on my bathroom floor surrounded by positive pregnancy tests, was strength. He helped me help myself. Perhaps the newfound tranquility I experienced did lower my stress and help me get pregnant, perhaps it was luck that my husband’s sperm found my one good egg. But what I do know for sure: God gave me what I needed before there was ever another baby: peace, acceptance, and courage.