The Infertility Journey
In this week's episode, Chris and Tim are joined by Doug and Jesse Brown, founders of Uniquely Knitted, a non-profit that supports the infertility community. Through transparency and honesty, they unpack some of the pains, struggles, questions, and life-altering realities that anyone struggling with infertility can face.
Audio: Thank you for joining us for another Art of Relationships Podcast. In each episode, we work hard to bring you the latest research in psychology and communication theory to help you develop healthy relationships. We also have a lot of fun in the process. Ready to get started? Let's do it.
Chris Grace: Well, welcome to another Art of Relationships Podcast. And Tim, we have opportunities to interview people at different times and hear their stories. I think one of the fun things is the ability to take our podcast on relationships and be able to just explore areas that impact all relationships, from marriages all the way to singleness.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, we've been so encouraged how our podcast has exploded and covered wide range of audiences. Some people will think, "Well, Biola, you're just college students." No, not at all. We have people all along the life stage encountering all different kinds of marital difficulties. We wanted to pick a topic that really affects a lot of people. It can be something that is very difficult to navigate. And so today, we're going to tackle a couple of different issues with a very special couple.
Chris Grace: We're going to talk about infertility. Let me introduce to you Jesse and Doug Brown. Jesse and Doug, are you guys there with us?
Jesse Brown: We are here. We are excited to be here.
Chris Grace: Oh, we're so glad to have you guys on. Let's just start with a quick introduction and tell us a little bit about yourselves. While I know that you have Uniquely Knitted, and you can talk about that website eventually, but you all's story is one of dealing with infertility over the past decade or so. And I think through that struggle and isolation, you guys have decided back in 2019 to start a nonprofit and say, "Hey, we're going to go and talk with those who are dealing with this issue." Jesse, Doug, great to have you guys on our podcast.
Doug Brown: Thank you so much for having us. It's an honor to be here and an honor to share our story, which is a very common story. Jesse and I both have known each other since... How old were we, five years old? Probably, something like that.
Jesse Brown: Yes. We actually don't remember actually meeting each other. We just grew up at church together.
Doug Brown: Yeah. We grew up going to church together, and we actually got married fairly young. We were in our twenties, early twenties. Jesse is actually older than me.
Jesse Brown: I am.
Tim Muehlhoff: By how many months?
Jesse Brown: Cougar. Six months.
Tim Muehlhoff: Six months.
Doug Brown: But when we got married, family was a part of what we wanted to do. I wanted to have a big family. I wanted to be a young family. I was wanting to be a young dad. And then after a couple of years of kind of living the newlywed lifestyle, we started to try to have kids and immediately ran into problems and immediately ran into a fertility issues on both sides of Jesse has fertility issues and I have fertility issues, which we could jump into it. But the quick intro is that over the next decade, we tried to have kids.
We tried to kids through all the different fertility treatments, through adoption, through now foster care. We do have two kids living with us now. But really throughout that whole process, just understanding the concept of infertility, the struggles that so many people go through, we were not prepared for. It really rocked our relationship.
Jesse Brown: Not at all.
Doug Brown: Yeah. Rocked our relationship, rocked our faith, rocked just our whole lives. We had a direction that we were going on, which felt like we knew what that direction was from teenagers. And then this season of infertility, it just blew up our whole lives and really to kind of change the course of direction for us in a lot of different ways.
Tim Muehlhoff: I wonder if we couldn't unpack some of those. I'm a chronic migraine sufferer.
Doug Brown: I'm sorry.
Jesse Brown: It's the worst.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yes.
Jesse Brown: They are. They're terrible. I've had them too.
Tim Muehlhoff: My faith both helps and hurts at the exact same time when you're a chronic migraine sufferer, right? I mean, it helps because you're not in this alone, right? There's God. There's spouse, church, but then it hurts because you always have that weird conversation in the back of your head. "God, you could fix us. I mean, you could. If you wanted to, I believe you could intervene, and you could even do it supernaturally if you chose to."
Now, I have migraine medication and things like that that certainly help. How does your faith help and hurt when it comes to the issue of infertility?
Jesse Brown: It's a great question. For me, I really wrestled with God of, I feel like Doug and I love babies and we love kids. All of our nieces and nephews always flocks to us. When I walked into a room, it was like, who has a baby? Let me hold it. You know what I mean? We just love, love, love kids. So I was really confused on why God would not want something good for us, that we would even be really good at. So that was my biggest wrestle with him.
And I felt like there was times where we had our 10th month or year where we had another month go by where we weren't pregnant, where I remember Doug just holding me on the couch in the fetal position. And I just remember saying in my mind going, "God, I'm not ready for you yet. I'm so mad, and I'm so sad." And I almost envisioned him in a corner almost. I was like, you're going to be over there because I am going through so much. It was hard for me to let him in.
And it took going to therapy and my therapist calling it spiritual debris that I had in the way of God a little bit or things like debris that I had that I needed to let go and kind of have him come back into the story. But I was kind of like, my hand was up. How could you be having this happen? I'm almost like mad at you. I feel like I was like a teenager like, "You stay over there. I'm not ready for you yet." So that was my journey.
Chris Grace: Jesse, it doesn't sound like it was a quick journey. It sounds like it took probably a long time to get there. Unpack that. I mean, listeners are going to be thinking we're maybe on the very beginnings of this, just on the cusp of making some realizations, and you were there and ran from it, hid from it, or was angry with God. And then eventually you found somehow your way into a therapist office, and then eventually to maybe an understanding with God. Tell us a little bit more.
Jesse Brown: Yes. I remember when my therapist said that and I was saying... Because she would ask me all the time, "Where are you at with God in this situation?" And of course, I would pray out to him. Me and Doug would pray every time we did anything in our journey together. It wasn't like I was never letting him in, but really letting him into my pain, I would say. And that was in the therapist office. And I remember when she said, "It sounds like you have a lot of debris that you need to get through first to kind of really go there with God and give him this whole thing."
And that was so releasing for me, even for her to say that. And we just went layer by layer of just like... And a lot had to do with my infertility, like, okay, you're never going to have a baby. What does that feel like? And what does that feel like towards God? And what are your feelings? And I would just unleash, just blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. This is what I feel. This is what I feel, which is very easy for me to do. I did that, and then it was kind of just a surrender to, okay, here it is.
I'm actually really mad and I'm really sad, but I know you love me and I'm here to receive your comfort. That's kind of what in the therapist office that happened.
Doug Brown: I would say for both of us as we're going through that, you're talking about time, how long this takes. I think the part with infertility that's very odd is there's a sense that next month could be the month, right? Next month, all of this waiting, all of our hopes and dreams and prayers could kind of come to fruition. And that month to month waiting really I think it messes you up, because you're like, okay, I will, address God in the corner. I will let God in once I get pregnant.
And there's that sense of like, well, once we kind of get through this storm, God will be on the other end. And we can kind of be together and celebrate this season of trials together. The problem is, is when those months turn into years and all of a sudden there's this vast time period where you've been soldiering through. That's where it starts to feel very painful. Like, well, maybe I need to bring God into this situation.
Maybe I need to address the emotions of the situation while I'm still in it, because I'm not getting through it the way I thought I would get through it.
Tim Muehlhoff: Can I ask you a theological question? The narrative that we adopt towards God. Like for instance, I do not believe that my migraines are something God gave me. I don't interpret sovereignty like that. I'm not a Calvinist. I'm not even going to look at Chris because he is. My narrative is, this is a really crappy world that really bad things happen that grieve God, and ultimately he will rectify it. But right now, he's choosing free will. I'm a free will defender. It's one thing for me to think, okay, God's giving me these migraines.
And if I learned the lesson, they'll stop. But that's not my narrative. My narrative is, this is a crappy, crappy world and God grieves when it comes to infertility. He grieves when it comes to migraines or cancer or pandemics and is doing stuff to help. I just finished literally last week a book on common grace as one answer to the problem of evil, which is to say, yeah, I have migraines, but I also have Maxalt, a medication that really does help me when it comes to migraines.
What's your narrative when it comes to infertility? And do you both have the same narrative?
Jesse Brown: Well, can I pause one second?
Tim Muehlhoff: Sure.
Jesse Brown: This is literally exactly how Doug thinks. Have you guys met each other? Because that's exactly what Doug says all the time. I was pointing to him. I was like, "THis is you. This is you."
Doug Brown: I do tend to that thinking, that I wouldn't lean more Calvinistic. I too would say that this is a crappy, like you said, situation that we find ourselves in. However, though, there is a battle that I think theologically that goes on in my head just by looking at the scriptures and how much fertility issues are there. And there's a sense of leaning on God waiting to figure out our fertility issues. But I don't think that we've been given these problems with our fertility, this problem of us not being able to produce kids biologically.
I don't think we were given that to find some greater meaning or accomplish some other greater task. I think this is a part of our fallen world and the crud that we find ourselves in. But there is that idea of common grace. There is also just grace that is bestowed upon us by our communities and by our people. We've grown so much as individuals, and we've made so many new connections. And we've been able to produce a lot of good in the world, I think, by adopting, by doing foster care.
And there is so much hope for our story and our lives, but I don't think that that hope was kind of like manufactured for us without our consent. I think this is just a part of the debris of fallenness, the evil that's in the world. And we are by God's grace living in a way, which is accomplishing still a lot of good. But yeah, I think we both are on that theological train.
Jesse Brown: Yeah. I would say I'm the same.
Doug Brown: And I think it helps. Because I think if you were sitting here thinking we've been chosen... This is a greater theological conversation, but we've been chosen to live this path of having no kids, and this is what God wanted for us, this pain is what God wanted for us, it would be hard to make sense of it because it has never turned around. We're now going on 10, 11 years of never been able to get pregnant. And that pain is still there. I would still be wondering, "God, what are you doing in this?"
But I know that God has been with us and has cried with us and has experienced the levels of pain that we've experienced together. I think that's a great comfort to us.
Chris Grace: About a year ago, you guys decided to reach out, because community is so important. You started Uniquely Knitted. You were hearing from I'm sure many other couples that were in the same place you are in. And you guys talk a lot about how mental wellness has to include community. Tell us how your journey started and why community now is so important for our listeners out there who may be dealing with similar issues.
Doug Brown: Yeah, absolutely.
Jesse Brown: Yes.
Doug Brown: The short answer is that infertility isolates you.
Jesse Brown: Period.
Doug Brown: Period. Infertility, it separates you. Kind of like an animal gets separated from the herd. And then the further you get from your community, the more vulnerable you get. And I think the reason that that separation occurs is most people are trying to get pregnant. I guess times change. It's like late twenties now that people are trying to get pregnant. But as your friends and your friend groups start to have kids and you start to struggle to have kids, there's an obvious sense of separation that happens there. There's a sense of, well, this is a very private matter.
It's sexual in nature, in that we're talking about having sex and getting pregnant. There's an embarrassment that goes along with it. There's a sense of like it's a very human thing to be able to get pregnant and you're struggling to do this very human thing. And then on top of that, it feels like you want to be able to surprise people and say, "We're pregnant!" That's difficult. All of these things start to isolate you and separate you, and it doesn't seem...
We haven't seen, and for us, it's true in our lives too, that there's this sense that you can just kind of figure it out on your own. You have to rejoin the group essentially and lay bare your struggles and lay bare what you've been going through. And to do that is difficult, because you really expose yourself, but that exposing is the very thing that is needed. For us, it's like you have to kind of get over that hump of saying, "Hey, we've been trying to surprise you guys that we're pregnant, but it's been a year and a half now and we're still struggling."
Jesse Brown: And for me, I was really big on this I wanted to surprise people. I don't know if everyone is familiar with the Enneagram, but I'm a seven on the Enneagram and I am everything is a party. Everything is a joy. Everything is that. For me, I kept it to myself because I wanted to have that surprise. I wanted to have that moment that everyone around me was happy, because so many people in my life were getting pregnant and getting that. That was a really big thing for me and I think that's really common.
I think another thing that makes people isolate is people's comments back. That's also what we're trying to help, is if saying, "Just relax, or just pray harder, or just, just, just, just do this, just do that," that actually makes the person isolate even more. We're all about like you have to... One of our therapist always says, "You always have to play, the person that struggled with infertility, the first chord." That first chord and be like, "I'm struggling, boom," and say that.
And then we also care about educating the person on how to respond, because I think that will be so helpful for people to share and more engage their community.
Chris Grace: So someone's listening right now that really is isolated. They've laundered away for whatever reason due to embarrassment or shame or just simply the inability to know anybody around them that deals with this. What's your recommendation? First of all, they can go directly to you guys, I would imagine, to your website and they can start getting information. And I'm sure you guys have... What's the first step for someone like that who just doesn't know what to do? I mean, therapy can be a little bit scary for some people.
Jesse Brown: Yeah, and cost money.
Chris Grace: And yeah, and it could cost money. We talked about therapy on here, and so people have a good sense of how to go about doing that, the nuts and bolts. But in general for you guys, that community is so strong. For somebody out there who doesn't have it, what are you going to say to them?
Jesse Brown: Good question.
Doug Brown: Good question. I would say kind of maybe an unorthodox answer is I would say it does start with our ability as a person to grieve the situation that we're in. And I think that through that grief, there's a softening and there's a vulnerability that starts to happen. And then the next step would be finding the safest person you can find in your life and inviting them into that vulnerability. A lot of people that we work with in our lives too as well, there's a sense of hardness that we developed over time.
In that we viewed ourselves a very certain way, that we were these infertility warriors going through this difficult thing and nobody really got it and nobody was in it with us. And that was all isolating. That separated us. But to take a step back and to really allow ourselves to grieve what we had gone through, grieve the process of the pain that we had experienced, that even softened us a little bit, to a point where we saw ourselves as a couple that needed compassion, that needed friendship, that needed encouragement.
But we only really got there, if that makes sense, through grieving. But once we did grieve that and we kind of saw ourselves for who we really were, it was easier to invite someone into it. It was easier to say, "Hey, I'm really sad about this situation." So again, on a practical level, finding that very safe first person. A lot of times, it's your spouse. It's the person you're going with this through. Even just starting there, finding that little glimmer of support from some person. Family is a great option. Sometimes it's not. Sometimes family...
Jesse Brown: Sometimes it's good.
Doug Brown: The one group of people that actually hurts you the most sometimes is family. But if not there, a small group at a church. Someone who's gone through it before. Reaching out, even in the online community. Finding people who've struggled with infertility, just like you have, and just start... Like Jesse said, just start playing those first chords of like, "I'm grieving. I'm hurt. I'm disappointed." Expressing those really early on emotional states, I think it starts to help people attuned to where you're at and attuned to what you're experiencing, and they can kind of start to grab hold of that.
Jesse Brown: And I think when you're struggling with infertility, you constantly think like, "Oh, I'm sad and they should just know, or I'm having a bad day and people should just know that." And it's like, sometimes they don't. People are kind of self absorbed, so they're just thinking about them and how they're dealing with their life. For you to be able to just... And just think of your safe, safe, safe people in your life that you can do that with. And then not only tell them that you're sad, but then tell them what you need.
Sometimes I needed to not talk about it, and I wanted to be like, "I just need to go out and have an appetizer and eat really greasy food and sit there and talk about The Bachelor." You know what I mean? And not talk about what was going on in my life. And then sometimes I needed, "I need you to come over, and I just want to be sad. And I just want to tell you what's going on." Sometimes I just wanted to call my mom and tell her everything I was learning. Like, "Mom, do you know what IVF is?"
Sometimes I just needed someone to run all this information that was coming at me so fast. I feel like it's taking a step back, acknowledging that you are sad and you're going through a lot, and then telling what they need. And it might be different from person to person too. I had my friend that I could be like, "Let's eat greasy food and talk about The Bachelor and do that." I had that friend. And then I had the friend that I was like, "I need to be sad and cry."
And then my mom was more of like a cheerleader for me and was more of the person that I would go to when I need encouragement to keep going like, "You can do this, honey. We do hard things. What did you learn today? What is this?" And not that I couldn't cry with her too or tell her that I was being sad, but that's who I would naturally go towards when I needed encouragement. If we can just look at our lives... Sorry.
Tim Muehlhoff: No, no, no, no. That's really good. Let me ask about the sadness part. This may be controversial. Okay? If it doesn't go well, Chris sent me a note to ask this question.
Chris Grace: I will edit this part out.
Tim Muehlhoff: Edit. Edit. To drop a little John Calvin, Chris, Calvin said our hearts are idol makers. I've had this thought that we can take a good thing, but make it an idol. And I think we strap men and women with this. Jesse, obviously, we can make an idol out of motherhood, and we can say, "I am not a real woman unless I can bear a child." And then, of course, the man's narrative could easily be, "if I can't get my wife pregnant, what kind of a man am I?"
So I wonder if indirectly the conservative church has so elevated motherhood that when a woman enters into that space, "I can't get pregnant, so I'm less than that," I just wonder if we haven't played that card too much, that the most important thing in a woman's life is being a mother. That's when I just start to become uncomfortable with that. Any comments about that?
Jesse Brown: Absolutely, 100%. Yeah, I absolutely agree with everything you're saying, is that it's something that... Especially in the church, it's like you get married. Or you can even go back. You say the prayer. You get married, and then you have babies, and then you work, and then you retire. I'm thinking about people in our church that are older and single. They feel like they're so behind. Oh, I'm just not doing what God wants me to do or whatever. I totally, totally agree that there is, especially in the church, this big push to be a mother and that's where your "worth" is. Doug wants to say something. I can tell. Go, Doug.
Tim Muehlhoff: Doug, jump in.
Doug Brown: I would say that both in men and women, it feels like true womanhood, true manhood is exemplified in parenting. And maybe that's a narrative that is partially true, but is also partially false, in that you can't be a true woman unless you're mothering. And I think we put that burden on women, and there are so many women that doesn't apply to. In a way it applies to them because mothering can be done by anyone. Mothering can be done by the way you care for your neighbor kids and things like that.
But it also starts to sneak in that kernel of a thought that says, "Well, if I don't get pregnant, I'm not truly living up to my full potential, or I'm not truly a woman." Same thing with a man. It's like, "I'm not truly a man unless I've passed my lineage on to someone? If that's what it means to be a man, if that's the entirety or the culmination of manhood, yeah, if you can't have kids, you can't even be a full man, which is a card, you're right, probably too often played, because it's easy to play.
You've been tired, but you've never been tired like a mother is tired.
Tim Muehlhoff: Right. Oh, that's so good.
Jesse Brown: It's so true.
Doug Brown: Same idea of like, there's nothing quite like going camping with your boys or something. That same type of thing. If you don't have that experience, you start to think of yourself as less than. You're the other. I don't have those experiences, which adds pain to the experience.
Tim Muehlhoff: And is there even room in the church for a couple to choose not to have kids because they're more effective for the kingdom in what they're doing that they choose... I was at a conference one time and a woman said that. "My husband and I have chosen not to do this because we do nonprofit work, legal work." And the reaction they got from a Christian conference, oh my word. I later grabbed them and said, "Listen, Jesus says seek first the kingdom. And what you guys are doing his kingdom work, there is no doubt.
And so don't let people like that drag you down, because you have made a hard decision to do that." There's got to be room for people like that within the church.
Jesse Brown: I 100% agree. Our board member consists of a couple who has chosen not to have children and they have chosen, and it has been a hard journey. They have received plenty of those comments, but it always fascinates people... And they're one of our biggest supporters. And it always fascinates people that they are such a fan of ours when it's like, "But they don't want to have kids." But it's like they've chosen not to have kids and they have battles with that too. And they even get questions. They've gotten a question before of like, "Why do you care about Uniquely Knitted so much when you don't want to have your own children?"
Doug Brown: Yeah. I think it goes back to originally what you were saying is that we'd take a part of human function, a part of what we do as people, and we elevate it, like you said, to be an idol, to be the culmination of all of what it means to be a person, is to be just this one thing that's a part of who we are. We live in Southern California, so I like to go surfing. It's as if I were to say, when I'm surfing, I am achieving the peak moment of what it means to be a man. Even saying it feels like, well, of course, that's not true.
But I'm not saying that surfing is the same thing as having a child, but it's saying it's a part of what we do as people. If you elevate that to be the entirety of what we're aiming at, I think it's a false and that we've essentially set up for ourselves.
Chris Grace: Well, it's been great to have as our guests Jesse and Doug Brown. And Tim, it's always good to hear this topic. And for listeners out there that want more information, go to our website and then go to theirs as well, uniquelyknitted.org, and find out more about it. And what an awesome opportunity to have this topic brought up and talked about. Tim, it's such an issue that plagues some people's lives in a way that it's hard for them to overcome things. It's just good to have this topic covered.
Tim Muehlhoff: Important. And again, as the base of our listeners grow, we just have diverse issues that everybody's dealing with. And some those are really hard to talk about. And I'm glad that we got a chance to peel back the curtain and talk about this in a very transparent, honest way.
Chris Grace: Yeah, it's good stuff. Thanks again for listening. Take care.
Audio: Have you ever been asked to mentor a young married couple, but were afraid to say yes? Thankfully, the Center for Marriage and Relationships is here to help. The CMR's marriage mentoring curriculum covers important topics like communication, forgiveness, and the ever important sexual intimacy. It even provides tips on when and how to refer a couple for professional help. Sound interesting? Check out the resources page on our website at cmr.biola.edu.
The Art of Relationships podcast, hosted by Dr. Chris Grace and Dr. Tim Muehlhoff, is centered on helping you build healthy relationships and marriages. In this podcast, Chris (director of Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships and professor of psychology at Biola University) and Tim (professor of communication at Biola University and author of I Beg to Differ), weigh in on how to navigate the complexities of relationships in our culture with biblical wisdom and scholarly research. Listen to get practical insights on relationships, dating and marriage that can be applied to all relationships — family, friends, co-workers and others.