The call came to my wife’s cell phone on Christmas Eve, 2010.
“Hi, Merryn,” the voice said. “It’s Emily, from the clinic.”
That Christmas was shaping up to be a Christmas like no other. Just a few days prior we had been given some news we never thought we would receive. After ten years spent trying almost every means possible to start a family, we had been told that Merryn was pregnant.
After a decade of waiting, we were finally going to have a baby. We could hardly believe it.
Merryn and I had packed our car and driven from Sydney to Brisbane to spend the festive season with our families, who had greeted us with tears of joy upon hearing our news. And now Emily from the IVF clinic was on the phone with the results from the latest routine blood test.
Yes, this was going to be a Christmas like no other.1
I still remember the day Merryn and I decided to start a family. It was the year 2000. We’d been married for five years, were in a settled place in life, and the time seemed right to have a child. As any couple who makes that decision knows, every twenty-eight days from that point on you look for signs of success. Each month there is expectation. And for the first couple of months it’s common for that expectation to be followed by disappointment.
Expectation, disappointment. Expectation, disappointment.
We knew we needed to be patient. Conception can take a while. But after nine months without success, we’d decided to get some tests done. Those tests had revealed there was a problem on my side, and without divine intervention or technological assistance our dreamed-of baby was going to be hard to have.
Like many infertile couples, what followed for us was a pendulum swing of emotions. One month we were looking at the opportunities childlessness brings: We would have more time for ourselves and less demands on our finances; we would be less geographically tied and more free to travel. But before long the pendulum would swing the other way, and being childless no longer looked so attractive. The desire to hold our own child would return—the desire to hold a “little us.”
We tried special diets, supplements, and all manner of other things to increase our chances of getting pregnant. Being committed Christians, we soon turned our attention to healing prayer.
One night a small group of people gathered in a lounge room to pray for us. As they laid hands on me and began to pray, something unexpected happened. Suddenly I began to cry. Merryn had never seen me cry before; I’m not one for tears. But she saw me cry this night—deep sobs from within. Afterwards it felt like I had met with God in a special way. It felt like something had been released in me, perhaps even healed. And so for the next 28 days there was expectation . . . followed by disappointment.
“Maybe we should try IVF?” Merryn said.
In 2006 we tried our first round of in vitro fertilization. The procedure was traumatic for Merryn and invasive for us both. But friends and family around the country were praying, and so in the days after we were filled with expectation.
Again, however, that expectation was met with disappointment.
“Do you think we should try and adopt?” Merryn said one day in 2007.
Eight months later our assessment to become adoptive parents was complete. “You’re a very attractive couple,” the social worker told us at our final appointment. “I don’t think it will take long for you to be placed with a child. Just wait for the phone call.”
So we waited for the phone call. One week, two weeks, three weeks passed, then two months, six months, nine months without a phone call. After twenty months of the phone sitting silent, Merryn was a mess. “I can’t do this anymore,” she said, “always waiting, our lives on hold, riding this emotional rollercoaster of expectation and disappointment. Do you think we could try IVF again?”
And so in 2010 we made one last attempt at starting a family through IVF. By now I was wondering if my spirituality was the problem. Perhaps I hadn’t prayed with enough faith? Perhaps the prosperity preachers were right and I needed to truly believe in order to receive our child? So as our first embryo was transferred into Merryn’s womb, I prayed, “God, I don’t just ask you to give us a child, I believe you will give us a child!” Others prayed too, and so there was expectation, expectation, expectation!
Followed by disappointment.
Another embryo was transferred, followed by another, and another. Each time our hopes that this embryo would be “the one” were dashed.
In mid-December of 2010—ten years after our initial decision to start a family—our final embryo was placed into Merryn’s womb. We had agreed this would be our final try. We couldn’t keep living in this state of upheaval. By this stage Merryn and I were spiritually empty and had few prayers left. But our friends and family prayed faithfully, and their expectation was met with . . . a phone call..
It was from Emily at the IVF clinic. “I’ve checked with the doctors here,” she said, “and we all agree things are looking good.”
“What do you mean ‘good’?” Merryn asked, not wanting to misunderstand.
“Your hormone levels are right where we’d expect them to be for a pregnancy.”
Merryn had put the phone down and cried with surprise. My mother had squealed with joy upon hearing the news, and friends had texted us in tears. “God has answered your prayers!” they said. “The miracle has come! After ten years’ wait you’re going to have a child!”
And that’s when we’d gotten into our car and driven to Brisbane to spend a Christmas like no other with our family.
A Journey through the Wilderness
“Hi, Merryn,” the voice on the cell phone said on Christmas Eve. “It’s Emily, from the clinic.”
Oh good, Merryn thought, the results of the latest blood test.
“I’m afraid,” Emily said quietly, “things have changed.”
“What do you mean?” Merryn said. “Your pregnancy hormone levels have dropped significantly.”
“But you told us we were preg–”
“I am so sorry.” As an ultrasound later revealed, there had never been a baby inside Merryn. A gestational sac had been responsible for the pregnancy-like symptoms, but while it should have contained a little body, it was empty. Merryn put the phone down, walked into our bedroom and curled up on the bed in a fetal position. Our ten-year dream of having a family was over.
We no longer felt like celebrating Christmas. We repacked the car and started the long drive back to Sydney, stopping at a motel halfway. Walking into the motel room, we dumped our bags on the floor and Merryn fell onto the bed in tears. Then I pulled out my journal and wrote these words:
God, this is cruel—leaving us in this wilderness. We’ve walked round in circles for years, tired, thirsty, and confused. One minute we’ve glimpsed the Promised Land and the next minute you’ve barred us from entering it.
Your Broken Dream
If you’ve in any way experienced a broken dream—if you’ve longed to be married but remain single, or perhaps, despite your best efforts, your marriage ended, or if your career has never taken off, or if a crushing diagnosis has shattered your hopes, or like us, you’ve never been able to have a child—you’ll probably know what I mean by the phrase the wilderness. The wilderness is that barren place between longing and fulfillment—a place of wandering and waiting yet never reaching the “Promised Land” of the spouse, the career, the healing, or the child.
And as you wait for that spouse or that healing or for your career prospects to change, and as you perhaps glimpse the Promised Land in a handsome man or a better diagnosis that proves later to be a mirage, you may feel as we did along our wilderness journey—tired, jaded, sad, confused. Life may feel meaningless to you, feelings of failure may haunt you, and you may harbor jealousy towards those who have what you want and anger towards the God who has denied your request.
The wilderness can be a harsh place to dwell.
Thank God there’s more to it than broken dreams and disappointment.