Marriage and the Universal Vocation of Motherhood

This is a post written in the midst of our infertility journey that I had not published at that time.

Nearly a year after I was married, my mother went through everything in my old room.  She packed it all up in boxes and handed it to me. “Here”, she said, “This can be all yours to sort through now.” And as I was looking through boxes of clothes, purses, makeup, and school projects, I found two particular projects that were of interest to me.  One was from when I was in preschool, the other was from first grade.  Both were “All About Me” projects, the type of project where a teacher asks a young student various questions about favorite color, favorite food, favorite things to do, all for the purpose of being able to look at these things later and reminisce.

My favorite food was mac’ and cheese.  My favorite color was blue and purple. Things I loved included my dog, my mom and dad, and my siblings. But what did I want to be when I grew up? Not a teacher, not a doctor, not a nurse.  Not a lawyer, not an astronaut, not a writer.  I wanted to be a mom.

It strikes me, that as young as I was, as many different things that I could have chosen, that I chose motherhood as my desired vocation.  I know from my own memory that even as young as six, that I wanted to be a teacher.  But when asked, I didn’t choose to say, “I want to be a teacher.”  Instead, I decided that being a mother was a greater desire in my heart than being a teacher.

And yet, marriage was not my immediate vocation choice.  When I met Nicholas, I wanted to join the Sisters of Life in New York City.  Their mission to protect, preserve, and enhance the sacredness of all human life is a mission that deeply resonates with my heart.  And when I was discerning with them, I didn’t see my desire to join them as contrary to my desire to be a mother.  I saw that these women were mothers in a profoundly spiritual and mystical manner.  I saw the way the mothers in their convent looked at them and spoke of them as mentors.  I saw them carry babies and lovingly nurture them so that a new mom could have some peace on a retreat. And I wanted to participate in this spiritual motherhood.  It is still on my heart to minister to women in this way, though not as a religious sister.

On January 13, 2015, I left Nicholas behind before I went to Rome for four months to do research abroad on religious life.  On January 13, 2016 I stood in Vatican Square in my wedding dress with my new husband to receive the Sposi Novelli blessing.  God worked in my heart that year to open me to the possibility of marriage. He asked me to give up the possibility of marriage while in adoration, and then, three days later, in the Basilica of St. Mary, Major, asked me to give my heart fully to Him, but with Nicholas at my side.  He expanded my understanding of my vocation as Christ’s spouse to include marriage; I see now in my marriage that I receive Christ’s love primarily through Nicholas.  That in turn reminds me to give all that I have to Christ and to rely on Him even more deeply than I rely on Nicholas.  And though I hope to participate in embodied motherhood, Christ has used my understanding of spiritual motherhood that I gained from my discernment with the Sisters of Life to understand myself as a mother in a profoundly spiritual way.  I am a mother hidden, unknown to the world except to some close friends.  I may not be a mother in the same way as mothers with children on earth, but I am a mother.

Saying that takes a certain measure of boldness.  I am afraid that those with children on earth may be angered that I would dare to claim the title of “mother.”  And yet, my experience with discerning religious life and entering into marriage have taught me that every woman is a mother.  Every woman is called to be a mother, though her motherhood is expressed differently and uniquely. Reading Edith Stein’s Essays on Women has confirmed what I have known in my heart–that every woman, no matter her state in life, is to be a mother.  For motherhood is not confined to raising one’s biological children, but rather, “to be a mother innately means to cultivate, to guard, and to develop true humanity. Both spiritual companionship and spiritual motherliness are not limited to the physical wife and mother relationship, but they extend to all people with whom woman comes into contact” (Essays on Women).  Woman has been created to be relational.  She concerns herself with knowing, understanding, and helping others.  When we strive to cultivate and guard true humanity, authentic relationship, we are fulfilling the office of mother.  The office of mother is particularly important as it relates to biological and adopted children, of course, but would we not say that a religious sister who pours her heart out to teaching and cultivating children’s faith is a mother?  Would we not call the older, single woman who cares for our children and mentors teens a true mother to the community? So too it is then that any woman who prays for children of her own, who gives herself to the care of children, who takes up the office of godmother or confirmation sponsor, who devotes herself to the betterment of her community, who gives generously of herself to all whom she meets, may be called a true mother.

I am a godmother and a confirmation sponsor to two of my siblings.  I work with children daily, teaching them the faith and love of neighbor.  When they fall down, I tend to their wounds.  When they cry, I comfort them. And I pray for my own children that are not here yet.  Though I do not know the time or the way in which my own children will come to me and my husband, I know that they will come.  And so I hold them in my heart and my prayers daily.  And it is through these prayers, through this daily gift of self to others, through care for all whom I meet, that I strive to fulfill the call to motherhood, which is the call of every woman.

For Nothing is Impossible with God: An Update on Our Journey with Infertility

This is a post written during my pregnancy with Madeleine that I had not gotten a chance to publish.

Many of you may know by now that we are expecting our first child. It took 698 miles, over twelve months of blood draws, over twelve months on progesterone and estrogen, nine months of Clomid, two months of Femara, two ultrasounds, one HSG, one laparascopic surgery for endometriosis, but one year, nine months, and 30 days later the Lord has answered our prayers. Baby Jobe will be with us by mid July 2018! We cannot begin to describe our gratitude and our joy. I wanted to take a moment to reflect on all that has brought us to this moment.

In late September of 2017, we travelled to St. Louis to see Dr. Patrick Yeung, a surgeon specializing in endometriosis. Our regular doctor, Dr. Mattingly, felt that since other treatment wasn’t working, that perhaps endometriosis was the culprit of the symptoms I was experiencing. We know I had low progesterone and estrogen, and endometriosis was the only probable cause of those and other symptoms. We were hopeful that the surgery would provide us with answers and prove to be the treatment I had needed.

We are grateful for the love and care we received while in St. Louis. Since my extended family lives there, we were able to visit with nearly everyone before the day of my surgery and stayed with one set of my grandparents. After a day of testing and exams, Dr. Yeung scheduled me for surgery. The morning of my surgery, we headed to the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis. I was incredibly nervous, and the stillness of the Cathedral helped me to feel more at ease. I reflected on the past week, on recieving the anointing of the sick, and on the hopes and dreams that Nicholas and I share for our family. I thought about our frustration at the lack of answers, and hoped for the best. I knew God was asking us to walk with this Cross for a reason, but sometimes it was difficult to see the blessings in the midst of the pain.

The doctors and nurses that took care of me were incredible. They put my worries at ease, making me laugh and smile when I was nervous. In between the constant parade of different persons coming into the room, Nicholas and I prayed together. I prayed holding the rosary he had made for me for our wedding. He matched this rosary to my wedding dress, and put on it the medals of all the patron saints for those desiring children. Dr. Yeung even came in before surgery to pray with us, asking that God guide his hands and that the surgery would prove fruitful.

Of what they removed, only three spots were endometriosis. After the surgery, Nicholas and I decided to take a break from all of my medications, with the exception of progesterone, for a few months. We felt a deep peace about this decision and looked forward to having some time to focus simply on enjoying each other and growing in our marriage.

I have often been told that “if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” Well, it was the month after my surgery, and I knew any baby we could be blessed with that month would be due in July. I told God that I was perfectly fine waiting until September or October of 2018 for a baby to come, since that would let me work over the summer more easily. The one month, I told God, that I did not want a baby to come, was July—but, of course I would still be overjoyed. I just wanted to let God know that there was no rush.

On November 8th, 2016, I saw two lines on a pregnancy test for the first time. I screamed, I sobbed, and then I calmed down enough to think that I should call the doctor. Thinking the test would be negative, I had taken it while Nick was at work, which meant I had four hours before I could tell him. These were the longest four hours of my life. I ran out to get my blood drawn, and then went to Target to buy two baby hats: one pink and one blue. I made the bed, and put these in a gift bag in our room with a card. And then I waited.

When Nicholas arrived home, I took him upstairs. As he opened the gift bag, he began to sob. That very weekend, I had seen him tear up after watching a number of small children in our parish play during mass. He told me later that he desired so much to be a father, and that infertility had been weighing on him lately. At first, he didn’t believe that it could be true, and Nick asked me, “Is this a joke?” I had to assure him that it wasn’t a joke, that I had called the doctor, and that our baby was coming in July.

Infertility has forever changed how we will view our children. We have a deep understanding that no person is entitled to a child, and that children are undeserved gifts from our Lord. It has changed how I experience pregnancy as well. I have been able to thank God for the fatigue, the nausea, the hunger, and the other symptoms I experience. I am able to view these experiences joyfully, and offer them for others carrying the cross of infertility, miscarriage, and infant loss. To those that are still struggling with infertility, you are always in our prayers and in our hearts.

Struggling with infertility has shown me just how broken I am. I frequently attempt to do things alone, without the help of others, but I have learned that this is a struggle I cannot handle by myself. When I tried to deal with this alone, it hurt Nicholas and me. Infertility has humbled me. I have learned that I am easily overwhelmed and that I am frequently inflexible. I have learned that I have issues with control; I want to be in control, but I cannot be. I must surrender and give all things to Christ. Struggling with infertility has allowed me to experience a vulnerability with my spouse and with others that I would not have otherwise known.

Now, pregnancy challenges me to let go of control. It has challenged me to rely on Nick to do more of the cooking and cleaning than I would normally let him do. It has broken down my pride and helped me to realize that I cannot do any of this alone. I do not fully understand why Christ let us carry the cross of infertility, nor do I fully understand the timing of his answer to our prayers. I do know, however, that our journey with infertility is not over, in a way. I have learned that I cannot plan the future, and that it is possible that we will struggle with infertility again after our first child comes. Earlier in pregnancy, I was very worried about the possibility of miscarriage. Through these crosses, Christ has called Nicholas and me into a deeper trust. We cannot know the plans the Lord has in mind for us, but I do know that they are plans for good.

For although the journey has been difficult and sometimes painful, there have always been moments of immense joy. We have prayed, and the Lord has answered our prayers. We look forward to welcoming Baby Jobe into our arms, and teaching him or her that truly, nothing is impossible with God.

During the next few weeks, I will be publishing some pieces reflecting on infertility that I had intended to publish earlier, but was unable to do so due to technical issues. I still hope to take the time to make Visitation Bible Study a reality, as it is a project close to my heart. Over the next few months, I will be expanding the topics covered in my blog to reflect the broader experiences we have had with infertility and pregnancy.

An Experience with Faithfulness

I was around 13 weeks pregnant when a friend, upon hearing that we were expecting and knowing of our struggles with infertility, looked at me and asked me,

“What has your experience of God’s faithfulness been throughout this journey?”

I stared. My mind was blank. The Lord’s faithfulness? The thought had barely crossed my mind. I was just then beginning to make plans for this baby, to truly begin to believe that this little one would make it into our arms. I had been blessed by very little morning sickness, but I was exhausted and constantly hungry until around the 9th or 10th week of my pregnancy. When I wasn’t trying to figure out what I to eat or overcome by exhaustion, I was constantly praying for the safety of our little one.

As I struggled to answer her, I realized that despite our immense joy and gratitude, that thus far, I had spent most of my pregnancy consumed with worry. Fear was waiting in the wings, always ready to come out and turn my joy to anxiety. Even on days with relatively little worry, I worried about our experience with having our next child. I dwelled on the possibility of secondary infertility. Some that knew us asked us how we felt now that our journey with infertility was “over.”

In my heart, though, our journey with infertility was far from over.

I had yet to truly open my heart to Christ. He had blessed us with this immense and incomprehensible gift, and yet, my heart still felt broken and shattered. I was consumed with “what ifs” and the darkness of the unknown. I prayed constantly for our little one. I prayed for the grace of baptism to be given to our child, I asked for the protection of our child’s guardian angel, I looked up week by week miscarriage statistics, I tried not to worry at every new pain, all while trying to hold it together and be as joyful as others expected me to be.

That question shattered the facade and walls that I hadn’t even realized I was building.

Where was Christ in this? In the midst of all my worry, and yes, joy, what had I done in my life to seek Him? The question of Christ’s faithfulness began to swell up within my heart as my heart repeated and amplified the question as a resounding chamber echoes. In time, it became another question:

“How have I been faithful to Christ?”

I hadn’t been. Thoughts of planning and of worry took root in my heart where Christ’s love should have been. I allowed myself to be consumed with noise and distraction, content with a spiritual life of mediocrity. The noise of television and social media drowned out my worries, rather than turning to Christ and allowing His Mercy to pour over me as an ocean.

The realization hit me like lightning, and I was paralyzed. I was ashamed. I was angry with myself. For months, I had simply been going through the motions of my faith. I was numb to the reality of Christ’s immense Love and Mercy. I was too consumed with my own worries and my own faults. The way I had been living was not enough, and it had to change.

I poured my heart out to Christ that evening. I was brutally honest with Him about the worry that this child would not make it to our arms. I prayed over and over again, “Lord, you did not spare us from the Cross of Infertility. In your Mercy, I beg You, spare us from the Cross of Miscarriage. Yet not my will, but Thine be done in me.” I laid bare all the ways in which I knew I was failing Him and those around me. I confessed feeling empty and disconnected in prayer. It was a moment where I allowed myself to be vulnerable and to truly feel all the pain, hurt, anguish, worry, and fear I had carefully bottled up within my soul. I resolved to be more faithful to Christ, and asked His forgiveness.

To my surprise, Christ met me in that moment. When I allowed myself to be brought low, Christ came down to me and lifted me into His arms. Our Lord gave me a beautiful experience of His Grace. For the first time in my pregnancy, I felt peace. I felt hope. I felt an assurance that this child would be given the grace of Baptism, and I gave myself the emotional permission to be excited about our child’s future. I opened my heart, and Christ met me there in my brokenness. He began healing me from the wounds that I hadn’t realized were left from our experience of infertility. And I sobbed, because in that moment I was finally able to say, “Our Lord is faithful.”

All throughout Lent and into Easter, Christ has continued to show me His faithfulness. I have begun seeing that the Lord allows us to be brought low so that we can more fully realize our need for the Holy Spirit in our hearts. When we are small and entirely dependent upon Christ, we experience His Love all the more deeply.

So, what has my experience of the Lord’s faithfulness been throughout our journey with infertility?

Our Lord is gentle and merciful. He knows our hearts, and He knows exactly what we need in order to grow in holiness. Christ frequently gives us more than we ourselves can handle, but the Holy Spirit will walk with us and carry us through these pains if we allow Him. All of our sufferings in our journey with infertility have come with a clear lesson. I have grown in ways that I would not have if not for our experience with infertility. I am able to experience a deeper gratitude, not only for our child, but also for my spouse and for the daily little blessings of my life. I know that secondary infertility after this little one is still possible, but I know longer dwell on it. I know in my heart, that Christ’s plan for our family is greater than I could imagine, and so day by day, I strive to give control of our lives to God.

For the Lord does not allow Calvary without the Resurrection, whether that Resurrection be in this life or the next.

A Letter to my Future Children

When Nicholas and I decided to be open to children from the beginning of our marriage, we both hoped for the best. I could never have anticipated the heartbreak that has accompanied us on our journey towards having a child. I broke down the night after I took a negative pregnancy test during our fourth month of trying. And so as I knelt in front of our home oratory with tears streaming down my face, I felt a deep sense of loss. I had been so sure I was pregnant. I was heartbroken and crushed, and I started pouring my heart out in my journal. This letter to my children, whom I deeply longed to hold in my arms, is what resulted from that experience of loss. In a sense, It is this letter that marks the beginning of my journey with infertility. 

A letter to my future children, April 30 2016 

Oh my child, how I love you. I love you so dearly and my heart breaks that you are not yet with me. For I have loved you. Before God formed you in my womb, I knew you. I knew the tears I would shed for love and want of you. I anticipated the joy I would experience in finding out that you were coming. I anticipated the fear I would know as you grew. The pain as you were sick. My beloved child, before I was ever a mother, I loved you with a maternal love.

 I prayed for the joys and the sufferings. I poured out my heart to Christ. I saw you at once a child and grown, and my heart welled up with joy and sorrow.  

 I have consecrated your hearts to Christ and promise to raise you as saints. Yet even now I know I must commend you to your true mother, Mary. She will always protect you.

I am imperfect, and I may hurt you. Already this fills my heart with deep sorrow. I beg your forgiveness, my child, and ask you to commend me in prayer to Christ through the Blessed Mother.

 I cannot explain my love for you. I only know that I am your mother. You have always been a part of my heart and you always will be, even if you come to my arms through the sacrifice of another. You will always have a place in my arms and prayers. But until you can be in my arms, I hold you in my heart. But know that for me, you have always been here, though I cannot know the time or the way you will come to me.

I want to thank you for sanctifying me. I want to thank you for teaching me how to love. For though you are not yet in my arms, I know my beloved child, that you will lead me to Christ as I strive in my imperfection with the Blessed Mother to bring you to His Heart.

 My darling, I pray for you. I pray each day for you. I sometimes fail in my prayer life, but you are always in my heart. Never doubt how deeply you are loved and how much your father and I have desired you. For we have desired you with longing and pained hearts, but the wait is worth it.

 For though I love you my child, I do not love you enough. I can never give the love you truly deserve, for that love is the love of Christ. And it is only in His time that you, all of you, will come. But I know you will come. For I hope in the Lord. My Lord is my good shepherd, in Him I put my trust. My heart is waiting on the Lord, watching and waiting for my beloved children.

Love always,

Your Mama
This is the seventh post in a series for National Infertility Awareness Week. 

Entering into the Tomb

During lent of last year, I began praying the Servite Rosary.  Rather than five decades of Hail Marys, each meditating on a portion of Christ’s life, the Servite Rosary has seven septets of Hail Marys, each meditating on a particular sorrow of Mary. I fell in love with the seven sorrows of Mary. I found a profound beauty in meditating on Mary’s suffering that gave a sense of purpose to my own crosses. I found comfort in knowing that Mary knew deep suffering and could guide me and love me in my own suffering. I admired her acceptance and love even in the face of unimaginable persecution.

The Seven Sorrows of Mary has its roots in Luke 2:34-35, “And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, ‘Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed— and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed'” (emphasis in bold added). The image of the Sorrowful Mother, or Mater Dolorosa, finds its biblical roots in this passage. In this image of the Blessed Mother, we see Mary’s heart pierced by seven swords. The presentation of Christ in the temple is the first sorrow of Mary, as it is there that she learns of the suffering she is to endure. But her suffering is given a purpose, for through it “thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Mary’s suffering reveals the beauty in our own sufferings. She carries our hearts with her own to Calvary, so that our suffering may have purpose as well.

I was able to meditate on Mary’s obedience and acceptance during the Presentation of Jesus in the temple. During the second sorrow, the flight to Egypt, I meditated on the loss and anxiety that Mary felt, and her grief for all the children that had lost their lives. I prayed about the sense of failure, heartbreak, and loss that Mary and Joseph could have felt when Jesus was lost in the Temple. I tried to imagine the grief Mary felt when seeing her beloved Son under the weight of the cross. I thought about Mary’s tears and sharp pain and imagined her prayers as she stood at the foot of the cross. I contemplated the love and tenderness with which Mary looked at Jesus when He was laid in her arms after his death, trying to imagine Mary’s thoughts in that moment. But when it came to the seventh sorrow, Mary laying Jesus in the tomb, I was at a loss.

I didn’t know what to think about during this mystery. I didn’t know how to pray it well or relate to Mary in this moment. I felt lost as to how I should enter into Mary’s suffering in that moment. I felt that I was unable to relate to her suffering, and of course that remains true in a way. No other person can understand Mary’s grief in her son’s persecution and death. But we can use our own sufferings to try to enter into her journey with Mary, and when meditating on this particular suffering, I didn’t know how to enter the tomb.

Then when I was kneeling at our home oratory over the summer trying to pray through Mary laying Jesus in the tomb, and I felt her calling me to go deeper. 

As I reflected on Mary laying Jesus in the tomb, I tried to identify and understand her pain. Suddenly it became clear to me—Mary experienced barrenness. It felt as if for the first time, her womb was empty. The tomb became a physical manifestation of the pain of Mary’s heart. She bled and wept for her child. She could no longer hold Him in her arms. She felt emptiness and a deep longing.

Mary experienced barrenness after the death of her child. She had given birth to the Church, yet her heart felt alone and empty. She grieved the loss of her son, feeling powerless in the midst of her pain.
 Yet, she did not cease loving. Though her pain was no secret and the depths of it cannot be comprehended, she took others into her maternal heart, emptying herself. She did not despair, but hoped, trusting in her beloved Spouse, the Holy Spirit, to guide her amidst this barrenness. She trusted and hoped also in the Heavenly Father and her Son, recalling Simeon’s prophecy. Yet, the dagger pierced not only Her Heart, but Her Womb, and she bore with all women the pain of barrenness, the pain of loss, the desire for a child, for Her Son. And she wept upon bearing this pain for the whole world, wept for love of us, cleansing our impurities so that our wombs and hearts may be filled. She remained a mother though, even in the midst of her barrenness, and comforted the newly born Church. Her heart bled internally for us, yet she never ceased her prayer and her hope.

 And on the third day, her womb and her heart were full again. And so I too await the resurrection. I offer my pain to lessen the pains of the Blessed Mother, knowing that she pours her graces upon me as I rest in her womb and heart.

This is the sixth post in a series for National Infertility Awareness Week. 
The photo used today is an original image of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows done by Amberose Courville.