Last year I celebrated ten years of being married to Sheila. Way back we’d had grand plans of how we were going to celebrate this milestone. It seemed like a biggy. An exotic holiday, an eternity ring (this seemed like a pretty central demand), a full-on romantic blowout… Then, of course, I felt called to become a vicar, and Sheila gave up her teaching job to come with me to train at a vicar school and those grand plans started to disintegrate. I’d love to give her an eternity ring, don’t get me wrong, but I’d also like to eat tomorrow. It’s complicated, I’m sure we’ll get there eventually.
I’m not sure why I’m (over)sharing this. Oh yes, marriage. We’ve now been married ten years, soon it will be eleven. So I have plenty of experience of being called a moron. (There it is.) I do moronic things all the time. I stuff up, and invariably it’s Sheila, the person I love the most, who bears the brunt of my numptitude. So life, in our marriage at least, is a constant process of refinement and hard work, of apologising and striving and being a moron.
But I’m not just a moron. In the last year, I’ve learned what it’s like to be an oxymoron.
To explain, this isn’t a better kind of moron, with added oxygen, (like a Marks & Spencer™ moron). An oxymoron, in poetry, is an apparent contradiction that holds within it a surprising truth. Examples include a serious joke, controlled chaos and deafening silence. There’s more in this excellent poem by Brian Bilston (as my friend Matt told me, ‘If you’re not following him on Twitter, you’re not doing it right’) and this concise verse from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:
O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
I am an oxymoron because I am an infertile father.
Our boy was born last May. Before that, I journeyed with Sheila through pregnancy and all it entailed. Before that, I sat with her in clinic appointments as we went through the process of insemination. Before that, we chose a donor. Before that we prayed and talked and wondered if this was okay, if we could take it, if we’d feel like real parents or frauds, to venture into parenthood this way.
I am a father. I’ve been my son’s father from day one. I held him in my arms in his first ten minutes of life and showed him around the delivery unit as the consultant stitched up Sheila’s wounds. I see his face light up when I come home from work, and him look to me for comfort when he falls on his face for the umpteenth time that day. I make him laugh and inhale the horrors of his nappies and push him on the swings and pray for him and settle him when he wakes in the middle of the night. If that’s what a father is, then I do all of that, with all the energy I can muster, and I aim to keep on.
I’ve also watched him roll off the bed onto his head when I was meant to be protecting him from just that, and I’ve pushed him onto his face, and forgotten to feed him and nearly drowned him and countless other unmentionable flawed things, and though I’ll try not to, I expect I’ll keep being a moron to him too. Like most fathers.
In all the fullness of the last year, of being a father, I’ve never stopped being infertile. In the wake of my diagnosis, thoughts immediately turned to what azoospermia prevented us from doing. My infertility meant that we’d never have children that were genetically ‘ours’. I think it’s human to look at this kind of news with the perspective of how it changes the future you dream of. Yet, in doing so, I didn’t give much thought to the past, to the idea that I’d always been infertile, from birth, because of a gene deletion that lay in my code quietly, unassumingly, waiting to reveal itself.
Before being told I was infertile, my infertility had never prevented me from having a full life. As someone who tries to follow Jesus, one of the most exciting aspects of being a disciple is his promise of an abundant life. He says to Nathaniel, ‘You will see greater days than these.’ Greater, more, heaven, kingdom come: the idea of living life to the full appeals, motivates, inspires, hopes.
Once I began thinking about how I’d always been infertile, I wondered how Jesus’ idea of life in all its fullness could apply to me, since I lacked one of the attributes I craved the most. Though it was painful, I didn’t want to throw out the notion that a life overflowing is possible for broken, grieving people. That love received and love given can overcome shattered dreams. That fullness of life might be found in the paradox, might itself be an oxymoron, a surprising truth.
It took time. Grief takes time. But I have to testify that through friendship, community and being an intermittent voice on this blog, streams of life started flowing again for me, and I chose to believe that I could have the abundance that Jesus promises, as an infertile man, whether or not I’d ever be a father. Fullness of life returned long before Sheila became pregnant and our baby was born. Our child, gorgeous though he may be, was not the solution to our broken hearts, is not the happy end to my sad story. Grace means that broken hearts can provide the drumbeat for full lives. Grace means that when strangers stop me when I’m pushing the pram, and tell me my baby looks like a carbon copy of me (this happens A LOT) I don’t feel pain at their mistake, or shame that I’m not his father in that way. Grace means that, though it still sometimes feels weird, I can live with, and speak about, and maybe even glory in being an infertile father.
"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." John 10.10