Book Review: Walking through Infertility (Matthew Arbo)

Book Review by Samantha Ho

Samantha Ho is the Communications & Administration Officer at Christ College, Sydney, She is also currently undertaking studies in the Master of Divinity course. Samantha is married to Nathanael.

“When are you going to have a baby?”

The question about pregnancy seems like a natural follow-on after marriage has settled. As I talk with younger and older Christian female friends, I realise how varied the fears and frustrations are. One of my friends told to me how annoyed she was when older women asked her each week about the prospect of children, but never asked about her spiritual growth as a Christian. Other friends sadly experienced a miscarriage and kept it a secret from the wider church community. Several friends have been moving in and out of the waiting game, and some have given up the prospect altogether. I don’t want my naivety to wound a friend in their need for consolation.

There are times when I feel too young and without experience to be a wise and loving friend. I want to know how to respond to those silent (and no so silent) desires for children. So I picked up Matthew Arbo’s Walking through Infertility in preparation for [some events on infertility happening in April]. It didn’t seem like a long read - 107 pages seemed manageable. I was intrigued about whether a book of this sort would allay the fears of my friends.

One of the most prominent ideas that Matthew Arbo introduces is how the different narratives we believe about the Christian life shape our expectations surrounding experiences such as pregnancy. For example, it can be difficult when people unwittingly tie godly womanhood and manhood to the number of children they have. Nurturing children is a noble responsibility, but do we think a godly Christian life is incomplete without children? Arbo affirms that children are a gift, not an entitlement. His answer to the despair of the childless is that “the Creator and Redeemer of life has not forsaken the infertile but has instead given them a slightly different way of being family, and thus of participating in the life and mission of God” (p.20).

To illustrate this, Arbo helpfully provides commentary on the stories of biblical characters dealing with childlessness (for example, Abram and Sarai, Elkanah and Hannah) and evaluates how these stories are addressed in the light of the gospel. He doesn’t just leave it at biblical examples, however. Arbo weaves in the stories of his friends discovering their inability to conceive, and at different stages of their journey. These contemporary stories deserve to be told, because the truths of the gospel are further affirmed in the lived experiences of those around us. I particularly appreciated the extended interview with Patrick and Jennifer Arbo, at the end of the book, about the emotional process of discovering their infertility – the flow of questions and answers were masterfully articulate for an issue so distressing.

It’s important to know what this book (like any other book) seeks to address, and what it doesn’t. Arbo says that his purpose is “to address biblical, theological, and moral questions surrounding infertility”. His aim is to “instruct and inspire the church, especially those couples with personal experience with infertility” (p.19).
After reading the interview section, I was inspired to think about how churches could welcome these sorts of stories in their gatherings. Even so, Arbo’s illustration of how childless couples can participate in the life and mission of God seemed limited. There needs to be wisdom in how we can support and encourage our brothers and sisters to be Christ’s disciples, in their different situations, and stages of grief.

A significant portion of the book is spent dealing with infertility treatments and reproductive technologies. In the chapter, ‘A Moral Appraisal of Infertility Treatment’ Arbo cautions couples “not to allow the desire for a biological child to supersede all other biblical, theological, or ethical considerations” (p.93). However, his explanation and subsequent warnings should be weighed carefully. Couples experiencing infertility should seek the advice of someone who is a trusted specialist in the field. For Australian readers, the careful consideration and weighing of Arbo’s advice is even more significant as legislation and procedures will vary from country to country.

So how should one use this book? For Christians in general, and pastors specifically, engaging with the concepts within the book will be helpful in developing the skills to be a caring brother or sister to friends in a season of grief, loss, and unmet expectations. I’m thankful that the conversation surrounding pregnancy and infertility began for me in my time of premarital counselling – this book would have been a good primer and discussion point for couples to read before and/or during the early years of marriage. I’ve been convinced that we should acknowledge the pain and suffering of our brothers and sisters, and seek to be people of understanding and comfort in this area. Individuals think about pregnancy with their own assumptions and longings, and it may prevent a lot of heartache if we can work through them together, in reflection and prayer to God.