Dorothy Cummings McLean

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Fidelity to cross of childlessness means rejecting in vitro fertilization

Dorothy Cummings McLean Dorothy Cummings McLean Follow Dorothy
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The author and her husband cutting their wedding cake.

MUSSELBURGH, Scotland, October 30, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – There’s an old wedding tradition of saving the top tier of the wedding cake for the couple’s first baby’s christening.

This tradition clearly belongs to the days when wedding cakes were made of fruit cake, the kind of cake made primarily from candied fruit and raisins, slow-baked and well-laced with brandy or rum. This is cake that could, in a pinch, be eaten after fifteen years. It’s the kind of cake that got sent to the front during the First World War.

That said, in the days when fruit cake was the wedding cake, people expected that the baby would be along within the year. Mark and I had a fruit cake, but God did not send us a baby within the year. Or the year after that. Or even the year after that.

In fact, God never did send us a baby, and until this morning, the ornately decorated top tier of our wedding cake sat in an upside down ice-cream tub. This morning, after directing a moving van to our new home, I got out the spade from our new-to-us garden shed, took the tub to our flower garden, and dug a hole a foot deep. Then I took the lid off the tub.

I was hit by the delicious smell of well-aged, alcohol-laced, homemade fruitcake. My mother made our wedding cake, and I made butter out of whipping cream in a not entirely successful attempt to make white icing “the natural way.” My mum covered the pale yellow result with beautiful pink icing roses. She’s very good at cake-decorating – possibly from making so many beautiful birthday cakes for her husband and five children over the years.  

I was afraid to see what state the cake was in, however nicely it smelt, and indeed there was no sign of the pretty pink roses. The icing looked like globs of butter left in the fridge too long, but at least there was no mold. It was a sad object but not disgusting. I shook it into the hole and covered it up with dirt and prayers.

This may sound silly – a grave for a cake – but nevertheless I marked it out with little stones picked off the beach in my great-grandfather’s town of Stonehaven. We had kept them in a glass in the old house, and I had carried them to our new place in my pocket. Now they mark my buried hopes. I am in my mid-forties, and my husband is still ill. We are not going to have children of our own.

When I was a teenage pro-lifer picketing Toronto’s various abortuaries, I sometimes shivered to think how awful it would be – and what a horrible irony it would be – if I never got pregnant myself. There was no reason to think it wouldn’t happen one day, after I grew up and got married.   

However, life was not as simple as “growing up and getting married”, and when I married Mark I was older than my mother was when she had her last baby. We both knew that we might be lucky, or blessed, but that we might not be lucky, or not blessed. Neither of us knew how abysmal fertility care was in Scotland’s National Health Service, or that the only help we would be offered was in vitro fertilization. Baby-killing IVF was offered to me so many times after I explained why it was not an option that I finally suggested that this was old-time Scottish anti-Catholic sectarianism. The doctor, who telephoned to tell me I was in perimenopause, was not amused.  

Having married too old to have a baby is an old story. What makes it a new is the temptation and false promise of in vitro fertilization. IVF is a big industry, and in Scotland taxpayers foot the bill for up to three “cycles” of IVF for desperate women. But unless the situation has changed since 2013, 77 percent of IVF cycles performed worldwide fail annually. Worse than that, over a million embryos have simply been discarded in the quest for test tube babies. Because I knew about the high cost in human life, and because I read Humanae Vitae as a teenager, I was never tempted by IVF.

However, I believe it is because so many others, including Catholics, participate in IVF that the National Health Service and other medical systems do not offer women anything better. The ignorance of what the Catholic Church teaches, and why, is vast – perhaps because school-teachers and priests do not teach the facts to young people in their care. I was shocked dumb when a Scottish doctor (again, over the phone) asked, “Does the Catholic Church not believe in IVF?”

“How could he not know this?” I inwardly seethed, as the poor man stuttered, “I’m sorry. I really don’t know.”

The answer was clear: he’d never had a Catholic patient turn it down before. And, guessing this, I felt very ashamed at our failure as a Church to communicate the Gospel of Life to ourselves – let alone anyone else – and to talk frankly about ministering to couples carrying the cross of childlessness.

It can be a heavy cross. After burying the cake, I was surprised to find myself crying. The new place is small, and my brother is visiting from Canada, so I cried in the empty bathtub. You would think that, having been childless my whole life, I would be used to it by now. But I’m not. And I have to remember what I prayed as I shoveled the dirt over my dead hope: I do not know why He meant for us to be childless, but surely God knows best.

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Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian journalist, essayist, and novelist. She earned an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto and an M.Div./S.T.B. from Toronto’s Regis College. She was a columnist for the Toronto Catholic Register for nine years and regularly contributes to Catholic World Report. Her first book, Seraphic Singles,  was published by Novalis (2010) in Canada, Liguori in the USA, and Homo Dei in Poland. Her second, Ceremony of Innocence, was published by Ignatius Press (2013). Dorothy lives near Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband.