Catholic infertility ministry provides community, support

Lauren Allen, founder of the Fruitful Hollow ministry for infertility Lauren Allen, the founder of the Catholic infertility ministry the Fruitful Hollow, with her husband. | Courtesy of Lauren Allen.

Lauren Allen always jokes that God hit her over the head with the idea for her Catholic infertility ministry, the Fruitful Hollow. 

“I was driving down the back roads, like I do sometimes when I'm upset or to think or pray. And I just heard God say to me, ‘you're called to carry your cross, not pray that it goes away from you,” Allen told CNA. 

Allen and her husband had been struggling with infertility for about a year at that point. She said her prayer was to get pregnant, and have a baby. 

“‘And all of this will just go away, and I can kind of ignore that it happened, and I won't be infertile, and I can move on with my life,’” Allen said. “But, when God, when I heard Him so clearly say ... ‘it's meant to be carried’, then I had a flood of situations that I had been in, or conversations that I had had. And I knew what He was asking.” 

“He was asking for me to create a resource that would put out valid Church teachings on different parts of infertility, and lead people towards holiness, and not towards anger.”

Allen, a Catholic from Texas, launched The Fruitful Hollow in January. The online ministry runs a blog post or an article once a week. It also offers resources on its website, including guides for journaling and information about patron saints of infertility. 

The Fruitful Hollow team has a particular devotion to St. Gianna Beretta Molla, the patron saint of infertility. They also look to scripture for stories of infertility.

“One of our favorites is Hannah,” Allen said. “Hannah in the Bible was infertile. She ended up being the mother of Samuel. But her story is really beautiful, because it really talks about her grief in the process, and crying out to God kind of in frustration.”

The website also offers information about Church teaching on modern medical responses to infertility, such as in vitro fertilization. 

“When you start to realize that you have a problem getting pregnant...a lot of the mainstream OB-GYNs, that's what they know, so it's unfortunately what they push,” Allen said. “You have to really be educated in your Church teachings to know what's okay to do, and what's not. There's not a lot of education in the Catholic Church. Where would you find that unless you were searching for it? I don't think it's a well-known teaching.”

The Fruitful Hollow team is working on an information campaign to parishes nationwide, with the hope of taking it international soon. The ministry will send cards encouraging parishes to remember in its prayers of the faithful couples trying to conceive and couples hoping to adopt. 

“On Mother's Day, [my parish] added into the prayers of the faithful that they were praying for all couples dealing with infertility,” said Serenity Quesnelle, outreach coordinator for the Fruitful Hollow. “It wasn't even just for people that were trying to get pregnant, it was for couples dealing with infertility. Those couple of words make you feel so heard.”

The Fruitful Hollow has also had requests for coordinating local chapters, for members to gather for community and sharing. They haven’t been able to do that yet, but hope to in the future. 

Allen said her ministry’s growth signals just how common the experience of infertility can be, and how hungry for resources and community are the Catholics who experience it.

“I think that's of the biggest points of feedback that we get from our readers,” Allen said. “We interact often through social media polls... and our readers really talk about a lack of just a conversation about infertility.”

Allen said one of the Fruitful Hollow’s team members, who is a convert to Catholicism, was shocked that infertility was at time treated as a taboo subject even within the Catholic Church.

“It's a very lonely part of the body of Christ that we're trying to minister to,” Allen said. “I know Mother's Day and Father's Day are hard because if you see two Catholics who are sitting in a pew by themselves— I mean, going to Mass itself is hard, because everybody talks about how much of a blessing a big, Catholic family is. And that's kind of the desire...but when you can't, it becomes very lonely and just really hard.”

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Allen said many members of her audience have said they wish they had heard discussions about infertility during their marriage preparation. 

“When you go through marriage prep, they tell you you're supposed to be open to life, and children are a blessing,” Allen said. “But even in our marriage prep, no one ever said, ‘but it's okay...if you're open to life and you can't have children.’”

One member of the Fruitful Hollow wrote into the ministry anonymously, asking if it was even licit for her and her husband to have sex, since they were experiencing infertility. Allen and her team found the question heartbreaking. 

“As Catholics, we're taught that sex is supposed to be this beautiful marital act. But now there are so many couples that just don't feel like they should even be able to have that gift because it's not resulting in offspring,” Quesnelle said. 

Katie is editor of the Fruitful Hollow. She asked to be referred to by only her first name, for privacy. She and her husband have been married for five years, and they have not been able to conceive.

Katie said her infertility may be linked to a diagnosis from before their marriage. She was open and honest with her then-fiance about the diagnosis, and she said the prospect that the diagnosis could result in infertility loomed over their marriage preparation classes. 

“I didn't disagree with what the Church teaches about children being a big part of the sacrament of marriage, about being open to life and accepting children willingly from God,” Katie said. “[But] something about it made me a bit uncomfortable, given that, in the back of my mind, I knew that I might face infertility. Would my marriage be somehow ‘less than’?”

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“I was grappling with this question of, ‘if children are such a key part of the sacrament of marriage, then what if you can't have children, is your marriage incomplete?’”

Katie connected with Allen and the Fruitful Hollow team through a Facebook group for Catholic women experiencing infertility. She says the ministry has brought her a lot of comfort. 

“I think on such an isolating journey, community is key,” she said. “I think that's one of the best things to have come out of The Fruitful Hollow, is just finding such a community of like-minded Catholic women and men who are struggling with the same questions, and this rollercoaster of an infertility journey, and how different it can look.”

“Just like every family looks different, every infertility journey is different. Some people will go on to grow their family in other ways. Some people will remain a family of two. But the focus of the Fruitful Hollow is helping people to be fruitful in that wait, be fruitful right now. Not to see that the only way our marriage can be fruitful is to have children, but that our marriage can be fruitful in and of itself.”

“We're not just helping people to get pregnant or to find ways to find solutions,” Katie said. “We're helping people to live out their vocation in this wait, and to carry this cross gracefully.”

Allen said that mindset is at the heart of her ministry. 

“I want people to know...that the plan that we have for our lives is never the plan that God has,” Allen said. “You are still called to be fruitful, even if it's not in the way that we think of when we often think of fruitfulness. We're called to be open to life, but even if you...never conceive, there's still a call to be fruitful and work towards holiness.”

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