June 2020

Life to the Full: stories of infertility, faith and a hope-filled future

In this new book by Debra Vermeer, we encounter the stories of seven couples as, guided by faith, they navigate the struggles of infertility to find fulfilment, writes Virginia Knight.

In Life to the Full, Debra sensitively presents the very different experiences of each couple as told through the female voices. Some have chosen to become adoptive or foster parents while others are still discerning what is best for them.

The couples share their struggles; from the early realisation that having biological children might not be possible, through medical or other treatments, to acceptance and then the choice of different ways of achieving parenthood or embracing alternatives.

“The strength of the book, I think, is in the couples, and in the variety of their stories,” Debra reflects. “I am really grateful to the couples who shared their stories and trusted me.”

Debra says that when a couple is going through infertility, it might be natural when both are experiencing pain to experience it individually, and the constant stress and consuming desire to achieve pregnancy can sometimes drive a wedge between them. However, most couples found it was important to be open, and to share all their feelings.

“One of the lovely things all the couples said was that they felt it drew them closer together, and that they knew they were in it together. It wasn’t me being infertile or him being infertile, it was us as a couple.”

The book opens with Debra’s story and her journey with husband Tony through infertility; and how her faith was a pivotal part of her whole life and their relationship as a couple. Although Tony was a widower and Debra realised the joy of family in her two stepchildren, the couple yearned for a child together.

For Debra, it was her faith that saw her through the many bleak times and nourishes her still. “Faith is very much a part of the story for us and for all the couples in the book. I wanted this to be a book about faith – how people get through infertility, through the eyes of faith.” 

An encounter at Jamberoo Abbey saw Debra drawn to the peace and serenity that seemed to radiate from the community of nuns, and eventually saw her adopting the life of a Benedictine Oblate. “Benedictine spiritualty seemed to speak to me. I was very attracted to its sense of hospitality that we practise, to try to find that sense of a balanced life – balance between work, prayer and rest.”

Following the principles of Lectio Divina, Debra has adopted a daily devotional life of morning and evening prayer. And it was through this prayer process that the idea for a book to help others was born.

Like most of the couples she interviewed, it was at one of the lowest points of her journey that Debra scoured bookshops and hunted online, searching for something with a spiritually nurturing or nourishing focus on infertility. “I was really just looking for some support in a faith perspective but, in fact, there wasn’t much on infertility at all. It wasn’t a topic that was on the bookshelves.”     

Although Debra had the journalism background and skills to fill this void, she says it was still a very long road from conception of the idea to bringing a book on the subject to life. In the beginning, she needed to work through her own journey emotionally before she was ready to share her thoughts on paper. It took a lot of time and prayer before the work was completed.

She envisaged a book that would not only support couples struggling with infertility but give them a sense of hope. “I wanted to encourage couples into reimaging how their life might look if they can’t have biological kids. Sharing their stories was one way of saying ‘well here is what someone did’ which might create some openness to what God might have in mind.”  

Philomena and husband Adrian are the second couple whose story is featured in the book. Recently, they began their family with the adoption of their son through an international agency. Philomena recalls that at one point her faith seemed to be a series of petitions through prayer, which went unanswered.

It was later that she realised you have to listen to God’s message in your life, and there are times when things can’t go your way and you have to pray for more strength. “The biggest thing the whole thing (infertility) has taught me with my faith is that you have to have more trust in God and have more patience.”     

She too had rummaged through bookshop shelves, searching in vain for something that had been written in this area. Philomena reflects that infertility is a topic that is difficult to discuss with people. Asking them to share, “how did you get through it” often seems too personal a question.

“There are little things you are inquisitive about,” she says. “You want to know because you are struggling. I guess you are trying to find stories of hope, even if it is that the person doesn’t have a child. So hearing that if it doesn’t work out you can get through it, and it is going to be OK, and you can keep going, and it will be all right, is a lifeline.”

Philomena says she hopes this book will reach people who need it. “There is no easy quick fix with God and sometimes there is a reason why you are not meant to have biological children. I hope that is the message that people get; that there is a reason for everything and you cannot always plan every aspect of your life and you just have to accept that sometimes.”

Debra says she has been quite overwhelmed with the reception of the book and has received positive responses from people working their way through infertility who have felt that for the first time, they have heard their own story.

She believes it has resonance, not just for couples grappling with infertility, but their family and friends, clergy and others engaged in pastoral work, making them more intuitive and sensitive to the thoughts and needs of infertile couples.    

This is a book about faith; reaching out to help others to heal and find their own way forward. “My hope was that even if it helped one person, one couple, I would be pleased,” Debra says. “And from the feedback I have had it has done that – in fact, more than one couple. More than anything I am just grateful, grateful to God for popping the idea into my mind and for being so faithful throughout the whole gestation.”

Life to the Full is published by St Pauls Publications Australia, $24.95 AUD.

Virginia Knight

Virginia Knight is a freelance writer whose work has been published in Catholic and secular media.

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