I knew what it meant to be a woman. I’d always known. It meant being “Mommy.” At least, that’s what I always believed.

Even now a doll sits high on the shelves in my bedroom. Her dark, curly hair is mussed and worn. The pink ribbon that once adorned her hair has long since been lost somewhere in my past. Her blue dress is torn and she’s missing one shoe. But I love that doll, for she embodies the hopes and dreams of my childhood. With her, I played house, I had tea parties, I sang her to sleep at night. I practiced for the child I knew I would someday have when I was all grown up.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that my girlhood dreams may never become a reality. My husband and I married in our early 20s and planned to start a family soon after we’d said our “I do’s.” But the years went by, and still I didn’t get pregnant. Everyone said we were young yet, to give it time. But time didn’t give us the child we longed for, even after trips to the infertility clinic, even after treatments I was sure would work. And still, as more years passed, the doll sat on the shelf, looking down at me, reminding me of the baby I’d always dreamed of and still didn’t have.

Everywhere around me, children played. In the nursery at church, at the park down the road, in the street in front of my house. And for each laugh I heard, for each shout “Mommy-yyyyyyy, Kaitlyn hit me,” my feelings of emptiness grew. How could I ever live a full life without children? How could I be a fulfilled woman if I never was “Mom”?

These feelings haunted me and culminated at the community Easter Egg hunt held at our church. There I sat at the beverage table, pouring punch into tiny paper Dixie cups, as children dressed in their Easter finery scampered around the lawn hunting for plastic eggs. “Mommy, look,” called a little girl who looked surprisingly like my childhood doll, rumbled brown hair and all. She held up her basket full of eggs and grinned. “I got 16 eggs!”

Her mother smiled. “That’s great, Ashleigh,” she said, then turned back to the group of women bunched around the welcome center.

I grimaced and began to mix up another batch of punch-flavored Kool-Aid as the world of women with children swirled around me. A girl and her mom, dressed in matching flowered skirts with fancy hats and shiny white gloves, skipped hand in hand down the walkway toward the church. One mother near the door stooped over to straighten the tie of her toddler son. A younger woman casually breastfed her baby next to the face painting booth while another showed off the new baby she’d had only two weeks before. And, as if that weren’t bad enough, a few moments later a group of women paused in front of the beverage table as they chatted about their previous pregnancies.

“I was in labor for 26 hours,” exclaimed one.

“That’s nothing, my sister went 40 hours before having a c-section,” added a woman dressed in yellow silk.

“I thought I was going to die!” claimed another. “But when I saw little Jeremiah’s face for the first time I forgot all the pain.”

A woman in her 50s chuckled and turned to a younger woman who was rubbing her rounded belly. “Honey, go with the epidural. You won’t feel a thing.”

The pregnant woman twisted a lock of blonde hair between her fingers. “Does it really hurt that much?”

A dreamy look crossed the older woman’s face. “It’s worth every minute. The birth of my son was the most beautiful moment of my life. Holding him in my arms for the first time...” her voice trailed off. Then she sighed. “You haven’t really lived until you’ve given birth,” she added.

The others nodded their heads in agreement.

The pregnant woman smiled. “You know,” she said, “this pregnancy has been a pretty incredible experience itself, feeling the baby kick and squirm, watching my tummy quiver when she gets the hiccups.” Her smile broadened as she gave her belly a quick pat. Her voice softened. “I never really knew the full meaning of womanhood until I started to feel this little life growing inside me.”

I felt my heart constrict as I listened. All the hurt, the disappointment, the pain of infertility rose within me until I thought I would drown beneath the onslaught. Couldn’t these women tell that their words were like swords in my heart? Didn’t they know that I may never experience the feeling of having a child grow within my womb? I might never know the joy of watching my belly grow larger with the promise of a brand new life? How could that woman stand there, patting her belly so blissfully, while I died a little more every minute? Tears gathered behind my eyes. Desperately, I fought them back.

The conversation continued as one of the women smiled at me then leaned over to pick up a cup of Kool-Aid. “Becky’s due in May,” she said to me. “Any words of advice for her?”

I swallowed hard and shook my head. “I, I don’t have any children,” I muttered, choking on words that tasted like bitter fruit in my mouth.

She looked at me, and I saw a strange combination of pity and disapproval chase one another across her face. “Oh, well, that’s too bad.” She turned back to the group. “Let’s stand over there in the sun. Oh, look!” She gestured toward the lawn. “Brianna’s found one of the prize eggs. She takes after her Daddy, I guess...” her voice was lost to me as the group walked away.

I watched them go. The tears I’d been holding at bay soon began to slip down my cheeks. I set down the Kool-Aid pitcher and hurried into the empty church where I hoped to be safe from both sympathetic glances and words that pierced my heart with pain.

The tears came faster as I entered the sanctuary. Surrounding the altar, dozens of Easter lilies bent their snowy heads toward the long rows of wooden pews. Behind them, an empty cross hung against the front wall. And above, three stained glass windows captured any sunlight that peeked through the overcast sky. Through a blur of tears, I looked at the third window. There, Christ stood in the clouds, his arms extended toward me, his palms bright red where a shard of blood-colored glass marked the place where the nails had driven deep.

I sat in the first pew and glanced from the window, to the cross, to the painting of an empty tomb that hung along the side of the altar area. Everywhere I saw the symbols of resurrection, of new life, of hope. So why did I feel so hopeless, so empty? And why did the emptiness hurt so much?

My gaze fell to a place at the altar, a particular place, a special spot. There, a dozen years before, I had knelt and given my life to Christ. I remembered how he filled my heart and promised to live there. I remembered how happy I felt, how full of life. But that was then. Now, after years of struggling through the doubts and disappointments of infertility, things seemed different.

I rose from the first pew and walked toward the altar. Slowly, I knelt again in the same place I had 12 years before. I tilted my head until I could see the third stained glass window above me. “Right here, Lord,” I whispered. “Here’s where you promised me that you’d never leave me nor forsake me. And here’s where I surrendered my life to you.”

As I said the words, a cloud must have moved from in front of the sun, for light began to shine through the stained glass window above me. One ray shone through the blood-colored shard on Jesus’ palm and sent a shaft of red light shooting across the altar in front of me. My gaze returned to the window, and I saw again the image of Jesus, his eyes gentle, his arms extended. “You are not your own,” I heard the words whisper through my mind, “you were bought with a price.”

And that’s when I realized the truth. I did have a life growing within me. Christ’s life. He lived in me. He grew there. I was not empty, not barren, after all.

I stayed at the altar a few more minutes. Long enough to tell him that I’d really meant it when I surrendered my life to him all those years ago. I asked him again to fill my heart, to take my life and make it his, to help me to see beyond my hurt and to accept the path he chose for me.

As light continued to pour down from the window above, I finally began to understand that giving my life to Christ meant that he could do what he wanted with it. And whatever life he chose, whether it included children or not, would be a good life, a fulfilled life.

Years have passed since that Easter morning when the light shone through the third window and into my heart, and still my doll sits on the shelf at home waiting to see if there will ever be another little girl to play with her.

My desire for a baby remains strong. I still hope and pray that someday my childhood dreams will become reality. But for now, I know I must accept the idea that my belly may never grow round with a child. I may never feel the kicks of tiny feet within me. Yet, even if no one ever calls me “mommy,” I remember that my life is not my own, but is Christ’s, who lives in me. So, I will trust God to make my life worthwhile. I can still be all he wants me to be. I can still live a fulfilled life in him.

And most of all, whether or not I ever have children, I am still fully a woman, and more importantly, I am a woman of God.

The above is a testimonial contained within the book, Aching Womb, Empty Heart (Bethany House Publishers, 2001).

Photo Credit: Mitya Ku