The ghosts (of babies) on Facebook

Before I jump into the heart of this piece, let me clearly state that I know it is possible to write an accurate, powerful and even emotional story about the following issue while leaving religious and moral issues completely out of the mix. After all, the Washington Post just published exactly that kind of news report.

Now, to the subject at hand.

Catholic and Orthodox priests are, of course, not allowed to talk about the confessions they hear. The confidentiality of the sacrament is absolute. However, from time to time one will hear clergy talk — in very broad, safe language — about the ISSUES that they hear people raise time after time during the sacrament of penance and reconciliation.

Long ago, during my Denver days, I heard Cardinal J. Francis Stafford — at that time the city’s archbishop — make an amazing statement. He said that priests face many tough issues while trying to comfort those who are making their confessions while dealing with the wreckage caused by events in life that are occurring, literally, through no fault of their own.

In that context, he noted that of all the issues that he had faced through the years when hearing confessions, one of the the issues that consistently had the most devastating effects on the spiritual lives of penitents was infertility.

How serious? Often, he said, the spiritual effects of infertility were even worse than those suffered by those who lost a child to disease or to a tragic accident. There was a unique and silent pain suffered by those who wanted to have children, but could not. Whole communities will rally around those who lose a child. Those who feel denied the unique joys and pains of parenthood often suffer in silence, except for the interior screams of pain that others rarely hear. Clergy must understand this reality and help those who suffer from it, he stressed.

So what does that have to do with the following story from the Post, which is both creative and emotionally gripping? Read on:

Diane Colling, an occupational therapist and fertility patient, was scrolling through her Facebook page last week when, once again, she was bombarded by a friend’s exuberant broadcast about her pregnancy. “Your daughter will hold your hand for a little while, but will hold your heart for a lifetime,” her brother’s pregnant girlfriend posted.

“I know it’s not meant to hurt, but you feel like you’re getting kicked every time you see these,” said Colling, 28, who lives in Baltimore County and has been trying to get pregnant since 2006. “I have to unfriend people for a while. If I was smart, I wouldn’t go on Facebook anymore, but I’d completely lose connections with family and friends.”

Before Facebook, infertile couples could try to avoid pregnant people at work or social gatherings, limiting their exposure to triggers of bitterness or jealousy. But that was when friendships were forged mainly in person, not via today’s social media Web sites, where people can feel ambushed by photos of friends’ – or mere acquaintances’ – baby bumps.

Now, when more than a half-billion people use Facebook, couples yearning for children say they are trapped: They are unwilling to detach from the social network, but unable to avoid its frequent reminders — fetal sonograms are seemingly ubiquitous — of what might elude them forever.

Now, Facebook is the news hook here and it’s a good one. Of course, newsrooms are packed with people in the prime social-media demographics. This story may hit home for many journalists today.

The story notes that fertility clinic workers report hearing more and more people talking about “Facebook envy,” which is understandable. However, depending on one’s circle of friends, it is also possible to hear people talk about the pain of attending religious services and witnessing baptisms, flowers for mothers on Mothers Day, joyful announcements of pregnancies, etc. In liturgical traditions, the weekly prayers of the people often include (in Eastern Orthodoxy, they always are there) prayers for women by name “and the child she bears” during their pregnancies. The child is already real and, thus, is the subject of public prayers.

Facebook envy sounds similar, yet I would dare say that people are much more candid with their feelings and thoughts in confession than on their Facebook sites. A call to a support-and-prayer group for women in a religious setting wouldn’t hurt.

In other words, could the story have been deeper? Is there a spiritual element to questions such as, “Why me?” or “Why not me?” What about, “What did I do wrong” or “What did she do right?” As the cardinal said, these completely understandable thoughts can lead to anger that is not purely logical and, dare I say it, purely secular (in most cases). And what about “accidents” vs. years of scientific work? What is God up to?

Katherine Klegin, 27, of Springfield, who had been trying to conceive for 15 months with egg-stimulating drugs, has a love-hate relationship with Facebook. Two months ago, the government contractor was at home using her laptop when she discovered a friend’s pregnancy on Facebook.

“I burst into tears,” she recalled. “It made me so angry. She had just gotten married, and there’s this presumption that it was an accident. I can’t comprehend having an accident.”

Klegin didn’t want to disconnect from her online life, so she switched mostly to Twitter, which has fewer photos and instead features snappy 140-character musings. “I found a huge community of infertile women on Twitter, and people announce pregnancies all the time there, but it’s different,” she said. “You don’t see it.”

So, can this story be written in a totally secular manner? Of course.

In the context of the United States of America (hello Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life), can the religion element of this story be included (note, merely “included”) in order to connect with even more readers? Of course.

One can also ask: How many people in newsrooms are on Facebook? Then one can ask: How many people in newsrooms go to confession? To prayer circles for women? The odds of the story being written about in this faith-free fashion are probably higher.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jessica

    As a single woman in her 40′s who will likely never have a family, I can certainly relate to these feelings of sadness and anger. However, in traditional terms, what is described here is one of the seven deadly sins – envy.

    Envy is defined as feelings of sadness over the good fortune of others, and it has long been held to be a sin. The spiritual prescription for this dis-ease is to concentrate on gratitude for all the good fortune one has been given and trust in God’s providential care. Even the 10 commandments include an injunction against “coveting” our neighbor’s goods, which could include envy under it’s broad definition.

    I realize this may come across as insensitive, but in reality envy is a very dangerous vice and can lead to all kinds of bad behaviors, some of which are described here: self-imposed isolation, depression, closing in on one’s self, anger that leads to irrational lashing out. Many divorces are attributed to such envy.

    I think it’s wise to have recourse to the Christian tradition’s wisdom, and to do battle with envy rather than giving in to it. It may be understandable why the infertile have these feelings, but not wise to suggest that we need not battle the underlying vice of envy.

  • JPnutty

    Envy. Yes, facebook is a feeding ground for that vice.

    Not to diminish the childless person’s pain but I feel real pain (envy) when I view it, too.

    I have three healthy and nice (20, 18, 14) children. But they are kind of stupid. They reluctantly attend community college and have absolutely no idea what they plan to do. No amount of suggesting and cajoling has helped. It seems as if ALL my facebook friends have children attending UofM or Loyola or Aquinas or Northwestern or you pick any difficult-to-get-into-and-pay-for-institute-of-higher-ed and their kids are there on full scholarship.

    Facebook has the unique ability to make us all feel crummy, just for different reasons.

  • John Pack Lambert

    This has long been a trouble of religious people.

    I know this is a long-standing issue in Mormon Churches. There is a strong push for family, the whole family is there together at sacrament meeting, either you chose not to come to Church or you chose to come and deal with pregnant women, little children and all that. …

  • Andrew

    Jessica, My mom was almost forty when she had me, and then she went on two have my two sisters, it just goes to show that God is still in control.

  • tmatt


    Please comment on the issues in the actual post and newspaper article.

    Take your thoughts about the issues and other comments writers elsewhere.

  • Bern

    tmatt for once I agree with you: this story needed more rounding out: for me it left the impression that all infertile women are out there, alone, dealing with the hurt, anger, envy and yes guilt about the FB phenomenon. Isn’t there another side, as with the support groups you refer to (religious or not)? OK, maybe FB doesn’t have such but it seems there’s a gap worth filling there . . . and another big gap to me was nothing about the spouse in all this? Like you can be “infertile” all by your lonesome?

  • Alyssa

    You can be infertile on your own if you find out there are problems with the necessary equipment at a young age, before you meet the future father of your now-impossible children. Yes, there is a faith element missing from this story. The sinful nature of envy, but also the strength & comfort that comes from believing in Someone greater.

  • Grace

    I feel compelled to add to this story… I only struggled a little over a year with infertility, but I was older and knew I had limited time left. One sight that made me particularly mad was seeing smoking, pregnant teenagers when I was out and about. My husband and I were looking into adoption and lacked the resources for it, and I looked at those young women hatefully, ruminating on the fact that they would stubbornly keep their babies and others had aborted theirs, leaving few to adopt. One day I realized it was easier in my heart to hate them than to acknowledge the depth of my sadness. It was such a wound, I was afraid of what it would do to me somehow. How long would I cry? Would I stop functioning altogether? Once I had the courage to be honest with myself, I didn’t feel envy anymore. I could let it go.

    I knew envy was bad, but the heart does funny things.

  • Bley

    Thank you for this article; I was particularly touched by Cardinal Stafford’s observations on the devastating affects of infertility in people’s lives. He is truly attuned to the suffering of his infertile congregants.