TTC: On the Other Side of NFP 

This is a post written in the midst of our infertility journey that I had not gotten around to publishing.

When Nick was hired by the Athenaeum (Cincinnati’s Seminary) in late February, I couldn’t have been happier. We had jumped into marriage trusting in God’s timing, and here was an answered prayer. After going out to dinner and celebrating, we began talking about the changes the new job would bring.

I was excited to move to Cincinnati, which had always been one of the two cities where I wanted to live. Nick was happy to be working for the Church and assisting the students at the seminary. We started looking at apartments and town homes, ready to be out of UD Student Housing.

As we discussed what we both felt to be a true start to our lives together, our discussion turned to children. Nick had a steady, stable job now, with amazing health insurance and a comfortable salary. Before that point, Nick was a graduate assistant at UD and we were living in student housing as part of his assistantship. I still had a semester left to finish my undergraduate. It was easy to see that we shouldn’t rush into trying to have children, though building a family together was one of the deepest desires of our hearts.

I remember the profound joy I felt when Nick and I decided to intentionally build our family together. In previous months, we had remained open, but we wouldn’t have said we were trying. At first it was easy to remain hopeful and excited each month, but after a few months of trying, it began to weigh on both of us.

Suddenly, communicating about my fertility became a big deal and a source of anxiety for me. I wanted to allow Nick the chance to initiate, but I knew he also needed to be aware of the changes in my cycle. I didn’t want to put pressure on either of us, but as the months passed I felt a growing sense of urgency and the need to take advantage of every opportunity. It was exhausting for both of us and it became a strain on our marriage.

In our marriage prep, we’d heard about the stresses of NFP. We’d heard about the difficulties of choosing to abstain during times of fertility rather than choosing a form of birth control. We’d heard that NFP could cause fights and at times resentment.

Everything we’d heard about the difficulties of NFP prior to our marriage was in the context of using NFP to avoid having. children (or TTA).

Clearly, we weren’t using NFP to avoid having children at this point in our marriage. It followed then, that there should be no difficulties caused by using NFP, no stress, no strain on our marriage.

We didn’t have to abstain at any point in my cycle! We didn’t need to worry anxiously about being pregnant when we weren’t ready! From the point of view of anyone that was currently trying to avoid having children by using NFP, we’d struck gold, and we should take advantage of this fun and exciting time in our marriage.

And while for a few months we felt that excitement and gratitude for our situation, as stress and worry about fertility mounted, the excitement and gratitude faded away.

Our marriage prep failed us. I realize that may seem to be a drastic statement, but I believe it’s true. When the couple you bring in to talk about NFP is the couple that “gets pregnant when the husband sneezes” (something the wife actually said while teaching us about NFP), the only side of NFP that you will hear about the crosses that come with NFP are those related to trying to avoid children. But there are a whole other set of crosses and struggles when a couple is trying to conceive (TTC) and it doesn’t happen. Even if the couple doesn’t ever meet the standards for being called “infertile” (6 months to a year of trying, depending on age as well as the doctor you ask) trying for two, three, four months is still stressful. It can still create issues that need to be addressed. The Church does newlyweds a disservice a when the struggles that come with TTC (and not just avoiding children) are not included in the marriage prep discussions about NFP.

I truly believed that trying to build our family would be a time of joy and excitement in our marriage. Sometimes, it is a time of joy and excitement. But other times, it can be a time of frustration, stress, and worry. It can drain Nick and me, although in different ways. It can cause tension and resentment between us, something we were not prepared to work through when it came to the intimate issue of building our family. As newlyweds that followed the Church’s teachings on sexual morality, intimacy was already new to us. It was already a struggle to communicate about issues related to intimacy, simply because we didn’t even have the language or the knowledge of how to do so—as is true of all newlyweds that choose to follow Church teaching. Now, because we were trying to have children, there was an added set of issues we needed to discuss with each other related to intimacy—on top of simply figuring out how to communicate with each other about intimacy in the first place.

I truly believe that had our marriage prep included a discussion on the tensions that can arise in a marriage while trying to build a family, that we could have dealt with some of these issues more gracefully. It would’ve helped to simply know that what we were going through was normal. It would’ve helped simply to know that we might expect some additional tension at times. We had learned things about arguing, finances, dating each other while married, compatibility, temperament, and love languages. We certainly didn’t follow through with everything we learned (and are still working on it, as are all couples), but simply having the knowledge was a great help to us. It helped us feel that we had at least some of the tools we needed to address the situations that arose between us. But when it came to building our family together—and intimacy in general—we did not feel that we had the tools we needed, and so we had to seek out the knowledge ourselves.

I know I am not alone in this struggle. I know of many married woman that say that they felt wholly unprepared for the struggles that came with marital intimacy. I have had numerous discussions with other couples about how the Church needs to be more upfront about issues that can arise with sexuality in a marriage as well as how to deal with them. I have read countless stories about women–and their husbands–who were utterly blindsided by the problems that accompanied trying to have children.

For those that have started trying to build their family, whether it be the first or seventh time, know that you are not alone in these struggles—whether it’s the first, third, or seventh month, or whether it’s been years, it doesn’t matter. There are always difficulties that accompany the TTC side of NFP. I believe this is the silent side of NFP, the side that people don’t talk about, because after all, Catholics can easily pop out ten babies. And we all know that NFP is all about creating happy families, because that’s what good Catholics do, right?  We all know that NFP is the natural option for family planning, and so it naturally follows that when you don’t abstain during fertile times, that your body will naturally do what it’s created to do!

These statements aren’t true, and yet within Catholic circles we seem to silently accept them as such. Trying to have a child isn’t as simple as checking in with your spouse monthly and deciding that yes, we are ready for a baby! Deciding that you are ready does not mean a baby will follow, and yet this was the impression that was given in our marriage prep–and the impression I believe is given among most Catholic circles. There were almost elements of the prosperity Gospel, since there was this idea that if you follow God’s plan for sexuality and don’t use birth control in your marriage, that God will bless you abundantly with children and shower blessings on your marriage. We should follow God’s plan for sexuality out of love for Him and because it respects our spouses. We should not be convinced to “buy in” to NFP by hearing the stats about how couples that use NFP have better commmunication, better experiences with intimacy, etc. We need to be honest with couples preparing for marriage about the difficulties that can arise with sexuality, trying to avoid children, and trying to have them—in so far as is appropriate and prudent for couples that are not yet married.

We reached a point in our marriage where intimacy was a chore and an obligation. Intimacy became a source of anxiety as I examined my chart and started feeling “it’s not enough if we want a baby.” I relied more and more on my understanding of health and cycles to try to optimize our chances for success—acting as if I could control whether we had a baby. I pinned the success of my health goals on two pink lines at the end of the month. I made Nick feel objectified and as if I was only interested in having a baby. I felt Nick didn’t care enough and didn’t understand what I was going through. It resulted in a myriad of issues that all came to a head around our first anniversary, pushing us to question whether we needed marriage counseling.

Thankfully, because we were able to recognize the issues that were disrupting and straining our marriage, we were able to develop a plan of attack to address these issues. We began having intentional, vulnerable conversations with each other about our struggle.  I was able to listen to Nick’s concerns and adjust the way I approached him and our fertility so that both of our needs were met. I began focusing on the many blessings in our marriage, and this ignited a new, deeper intimacy between us. We were able to do this because our marriage had a strong foundation in our faith.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of all newlywed couples in the Church that are experiencing this struggle.

We need to have frank, open conversations about the struggles couples can encounter in their sexuality, especially when using NFP for any purpose. I would strongly encourage those involved in marriage prep to have multiple presenters for the NFP talk, so that a variety of experiences, struggles, and blessings that come from using NFP may be presented. There is no singular experience of NFP or married sexuality, and the way we prepare couples entering into marriage should reflect that reality. When we avoid these difficult discussions out of a misplaced sense of propriety, we are doing a disservice to newlyweds. There is a difference between speaking imprudently about one’s very intimate experiences with one’s spouse and seeking to educate and inform those entering into marriage about the difficulties they may encounter.

Despite the Church’s beautiful teachings on Theology of the Body, speaking about the struggles and joys that accompany married sexuality still remains somewhat taboo. We remain silent so to avoid scandal, but in being silent, do we produce scandal by failing to adequately prepare couples for the realities of married life?

We cannot remain silent on these issues, and yet while these realities require frank discussion so as to adequately prepare couples, they also require a certain delicacy and restraint. These are matters of a deeply intimate and personal nature, and we must recognize and treat them as such. We must maintain the sacredness of the intimacy shared between the couple. Walking this fine line is certainly difficult, yet I firmly believe that it is a line we must walk if we wish to truly form couples in the Church’s teachings on sexuality.

We cannot continue to fail newlyweds. There is much that needs to be reformed in marriage preparation, and I strongly believe that the treatment of sexuality is one topic desperately in need of greater emphasis in marriage prep. If we are bold, yet prudent, in our discussion of married sexuality, we can address a myriad of potential issues before they even begin in a marriage. We can encourage those in need of healing from previous experiences to seek help. We can invite couples into the struggles and sufferings that married life carries with it, particularly with the use of NFP for any reason. Ultimately, in choosing not to be silent on these issues, we can raise up a stronger and more faithful Church, built upon the foundation of strong and holy marriages.

Infertility as Disease: Accepting and Navigating the Medical Side of Infertility

It was my first Mother’s Day mass after being married.  The previous month I had an experience where I was sure I was pregnant. I can’t explain this experience, and no test I took that month was positive.  But the next cycle did arrive later than usual and with more pain than normal.  During the consecration, my husband and I began to sob.  We felt a sense of loss that we couldn’t explain, a sense of deep heartbreak. And then during the blessing for mothers, the priest saying mass didn’t include Godmothers or spiritual mothers, so I didn’t stand up for the blessing.  And I cried even more, because I so wanted to be able to stand up for that blessing.  It was after that experience, that my husband and I decided to seek medical help for fertility because of my medical history. Making that decision was very emotional for me, because it meant opening up a very private part of our lives to medical intervention.

Infertility is not merely a cross or a struggle.  It is a symptom of an underlying disease. According to RESOLVE, about 12% of married women (1 in 8 couples) have trouble getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term.  Of those struggling with infertility, approximately one-third is related to female causes, one-third related to male causes, and one-third is attributed to both or is unexplained. Trying to figure out what is causing this struggle has been a trying and long journey. Besides my hormone levels and pain, we have very few clues as to what could actually be behind our infertility.  The CDC lists numerous possible causes for infertility in women, including but not limited to Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), improper function of hypothalamus or pituitary glands, obstruction of the fallopian tubes, abnormalities of the uterus, and endometriosis.  Infertility in men can be caused by varicoceles, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, heavy alcohol use, improper function of the pituitary and hypothalamus, and cancer treatments.  However, many of the causes of infertility remain unknown.  It is my hope that our scheduled consultation with a NaPro surgeon might give us some answers.  Sometimes a couple can be perfectly healthy in all respects though, and still struggle with infertility.

Infertility needs to be treated as any disease would be.  I am grateful for the experience I had with Napro-technology as a teenager.  Rather than simply handing me the pill, they showed me how to track my cycles.  I learned more about my body, my cycle, and how I was affected by my cycle.  I learned more about what should happen when my reproductive system is functioning normally. I took bio-identical progesterone timed with my cycle to help adjust my hormone levels. I learned from my experience with Napro-Technology as a teenager that I should expect medical care that respects my dignity and seeks to provide me with a treatment that addresses the underlying cause of my symptoms.

It was natural then, when we decided to seek medical advice for achieving pregnancy, that we turned to Napro-Technology (NaPro) again.  Developed by Dr. Hilgers at Creighton University, it is a system of treating infertility that is rooted in Catholic theology and modern science.  I am immensely grateful for my doctor and the doctors that trained him in this system.  NaPro is an alternative approach to infertility treatment.  Many treatment systems begin with trying to identify physiological causes of infertility, but then move into artificial reproductive technologies such as artificial insemination, IUI, IVF, and others. NaPro sets itself apart from other treatment systems because it uses knowledge about the women’s cycle and hormone levels based upon her fertility charts to treat her.

Unlike common suppressive or destructive approaches, NaProTECHNOLOGY works cooperatively with the procreative and gynecologic systems. When these systems function abnormally, NaProTECHNOLOGY identifies the problems and cooperates with the menstrual and fertility cycles that correct the condition, maintain the human ecology, and sustain the procreative potential. -NaProTechnology site

Since NaPro is rooted in Catholic theology, I know that none of the treatments recommended by my doctor will be contrary to Catholic teaching.  The Church teaches that the procreation of children should remain within the marital act.  Having experienced the heartbreak of infertility, I can understand why couples turn to artificial means for having a child, and they have my deepest sympathies.  We should not treat parents who have turned to artificial means of treatment harshly, nor should their children be treated differently, as their children have equal dignity.  That being said, for my husband and me, we know that these are not an option for us.  I see in treatments like IVF and IUI the same sort of approach that using the pill to treat all cycle issues results in–treating the symptoms and not the disease. This is precisely part of Dr. Hilger’s motivations for creating the system of NaProTechnology, after he observed a paradigm shift in the treatment of infertility.

“Until 1978, most of the effort in medicine in evaluating and treating women with infertility was placed in trying to identify and treat the underlying causes.  In 1978, in vitro fertilization produced a paradigm shift.  It led to a “skipping over” the causes and this continues up to the present time to be the foundational management approach.  In essence, this is a symptomatic or Band-Aid approach to treatment, not one that gets to the root causes.” -NaProTechnology site

Fortunately, NaPro is just as effective (and in some cases more effective) as IVF and it is less expensive.  Treatments used by NaPro involve hormone correction, fertility-focused intercourse, use of modern fertility medications such as Clomid or Metformin, and surgery to correct possible endometriosis, tubal occlusions, and other physiological issues. NaPro results in pregnancy in 38.4-81.8% of cases, depending on underlying causes (NaPro textbook, pg 691).  IVF, however has between a 20-40% success rate.

If you are struggling with infertility, there are options for you.  You don’t have to spend $10,000-$12,000 on fertility treatments.  You can seek treatment that helps you understand the underlying cause of your fertility issues. There is hope, and there are doctors that don’t use NaPro that take a similar approach.  I do know that NaPro isn’t for everyone, and that many Catholics approach NaPro as a miracle fix for infertility.  It can actually be hurtful to couples with this struggle when NaPro is approached as the “end all be all” infertility treatment.  The reality is that 20-60% of NaPro patients don’t get pregnant, depending on the underlying cause.  There is nothing that any person can do to guarantee a pregnancy. Sometimes that is hard to accept. The greatest blessing of using NaPro is remembering that children will happen in God’s time.  We cooperate with Him by seeking medical help and better understanding my fertility, but in the end, the Lord is in control.  It is God who creates and gives life.  And while I sometimes want to shout at the Lord, “Why not now, God?” I know that this suffering is not without purpose.  I know that His timing is perfect, though His timing doesn’t seem to match my plans.

Through it all, I learn to let go.

I let go of control, I let go of my pride.  I let go of my desire for having a child to be easy.  I am humbled each time I have to take medicine so that my body can do what it already should. For a time I would spend the evening crying after every blood draw, as they were a reminder to me that my body was broken. I now begin to look at every pill, every medication, every procedure as part of my labor. For after the fall of man, God said to Eve, “I will intensify your toil in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16).  I have come to understand that toil in childbearing is not limited merely to the actual birth of the child.  For those with infertility, it is all that they undergo in order that their bodies may function as they should.  It is all that they do to try to cooperate with God in procreation.  I still struggle with accepting the medicalization of this process.  It feels like medicine is invading something that should be very private and deeply personal.  I still struggle with the stress that comes with trying and hoping again each month.  But I have learned that when I hand these things over to Christ and say “Not my will, but thine” that I feel a sense of peace.

My husband and I are helpless in a sense–there is nothing in our power that we could do to guarantee that this month will be “the month.” But what we can know is that Christ holds us close to His Heart.  He walks with us as we try to walk with Him on the path to Calvary.  And when we reach Calvary, we cling to hope.

For we know that on the third day, there will be the resurrection.

 

This is the third post in a series for National Infertility Awareness Week. You can read the first two here: Gratitude: The Gift Amidst the Cross and here: Put Out Into the Deep 

A Cross Not Without Purpose

I found myself particularly emotional during a Sunday mass in Lent of this past year.  I went up to receive Jesus in the Eucharist and then came back to my pew and sobbed.  Nicholas held me tight, as I cried out to God in prayer, “Lord, the cross is too heavy. I cannot carry it.”  Saying this over and over was the only way I knew how to pray in that particular mass.  I felt my brokenness and need for Christ deeply. I was humbled and as I looked at the image of Christ on the Cross, and slowly my prayer became “But not my will but thine be done in me, O Lord. Not my will, but thine.”

There are moments in my prayer and life when this cross feels senseless. These are the moments when Christ allows me to feel more fully the weight of the pain I am carrying, though I know He still carries most of it for me.  Christ allows this cross to be felt more heavily so that I can be broken. I have noticed that all of my struggles have allowed me to feel broken and helpless so that God can enter into my brokenness, break down my pride, and flood my heart with needed grace.

I don’t want to be broken.

I want to be in control. I want to be able to fix my own problems. I don’t want to have to rely on anyone. I don’t want to need anyone. I want to be fiercely independent, channeling my passion into healing all those around me.

But I am not in control. I don’t have the ability to fix my own problems. I desperately need others in my life to help me on the path to holiness. And I can’t focus on healing those around me while neglecting myself.

To break down my independence and pride, God allowed me to carry the cross of anxiety. I felt so little and small during the worst moments of my anxiety. I saw my brokenness, and I wanted to run from it. I wanted to deny it. One of the most difficult steps in healing from my anxiety was admitting that I couldn’t do it on my own. And so the Lord broke down my wall of fierce independence so that I could rely on others, especially my husband, and let other people into my heart.

Now Christ is breaking down my illusions of control.

I have tried herbal teas, different diets, researched different supplements, all in the hopes of optimizing my fertility. Nicholas calls it trying to make “super baby”. I have stressed myself out about not doing everything I can to help increase our chances. And yet, none of this can guarantee that we will have a baby.

When and how we have children is in God’s hands. I can’t control it. It is the letting go of control, letting go of my plans, and the patient trust in Christ’s will that has been the most challenging for me.

I have struggled with feeling that because Nicholas and I do not have children yet, that our love is not fruitful. I have struggled with feeling handicapped in living out my vocation. And yet, our love is fruitful. And since my primary vocation is to be a sign of Christ’s love to Nicholas, I am certainly living out my vocation. Infertility has become a part of the way that Christ calls both of us to fruitfulness and to living out our call to be Christ to one another.

Fruitfulness in marriage should not be limited  to procreation. Yet, this is a common view, held by many faithful Catholics.  I have heard Catholic radio announcers greet a caller with a large family (usually five or more children) with the following statement: “Thank you for your ‘yes'”. This is deeply hurtful, as we said ‘yes’ too. We said yes to being open to children, and yes to trusting in the Lord while carrying this cross. My husband and I give life to each other through daily love and support. Nicholas pours his heart into his work at the seminary, and I know that he couldn’t do that without my support. He serves all the seminarians and students there joyfully, and I am so proud that my husband is working at an institution that forms priests and leaders for the Church. I work with preschool through high school age students. When I work with the preschool children, I teach them, pray with them, show Christ’s love to them, and tend to their hurts. I try to let them know that they are deeply loved. And I know that part of the grace and patience to do this stems from my marriage and the love that Nicholas shows me daily.

We recognize the fatherhood of priests. We recognize the motherhood of sisters, or nuns. We even honor those single individuals in our community that have participated in the formation of young children and youth on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. In other words, the Church openly celebrates paternal love that is beyond the bounds of biological procreation. Why then, is it a different story with couples who have not yet conceived or have suffered miscarriages and have no visible children?

Infertility is not merely a cross. It is an opportunity to witness to the deeper reality that we as married couples do not get to decide how our marriage is lived out. It is a witness to a motherhood and fatherhood that is lived spiritually rather than physically. It is a witness to the fact that fruitfulness is not limited to procreation. Infertility, understood in this way, is a charism. It is a call to live out fruitfulness even in the midst of barrenness.

“The infertile give their suffering unto God. They lift it up to the Father in Eucharistic love, asking that it may be transformed. For some, they give their suffering over to become adopting or foster parents. For some, they bestow their diminishment upon the Eucharistic altar, discovering there a new mission in the world to love those on the margins. The infertile couple fulfill the mission of marital love whether they have children or not.” -Timothy O’Malley, The Charism of Infertility

Children are a supreme gift. They are not guaranteed in marriage. They are a blessing, and yes, they are the primary sign of a couple’s fruitful love. They act as a visible sign. Infertile couples have the opportunity to witness to the invisible reality of spiritual paternity. In placing their Eucharistic love for one another at the foot of the altar, they offer up their sufferings and unite themselves more deeply with one another and with Christ. Infertility has caused me to take my role as my youngest brother’s godmother more seriously. It has allowed me to see myself as a spiritual mother to the children with whom I work, for I strive to love them with a Eucharistic love and pray for their well-being. I rejoice with them and thank God for the joy that they bring me daily. If we are open about our struggle with infertility and break the silence around this cross, we can witness to a deeply spiritual love. We can serve as a sign to other married couples of the deeper spiritual realities of marriage and the call to participate in the suffering of Christ. Infertile couples can serve in a particular way to remind those with children that “the goal of marriage is not the production of a happy family alone. Procreation itself can become an idol if it is treated as a measure of our own success as a sexual being, as a couple in love, as a form of ‘Catholic identity'” (O’Malley). We often measure a family’s “catholicity” by the number of children they have, and when we do so, we make procreation an idol. We pass judgement on those families that could not have more children. We claim that one family is more blessed than another.

When we invite others to journey with us in carrying the Cross of infertility or early loss, we serve as a reminder of the supreme blessing of children, a reminder that children are an undeserved gift. We serve as a reminder that parenthood must not only be a physical parenthood, but also a spiritual parenthood. We become witnesses of the fruitfulness of Christ’s love in the Church.We witness to the communion of saints and the reality that it is God who “[determines] their relationship with him, their relationship to one another in him, and their relationship as parents to the spiritual and bodily children they receive from the Creator Spirit, the Sanctifier” (Cardinal Ouellet, qtd. in O’Malley). We call other families to more deeply unite themselves to the Cross. Rightly lived, this witness to families with children can become a sort of spiritual paternity in which each family, both fertile and infertile, more deeply recognizes the unique blessings and fruitfulness Christ has given to them.

At times, the cross is too heavy. But then I realize that I have been trying to carry it on my own. And so in those times, I turn more deeply to Christ. I open up my heart to my husband. I reach out to friends and family. When the cross is too heavy, I begin to realize how I can more fully live out Eucharistic love in my marriage. I allow Christ to show me how I am living out fruitfulness and saying ‘yes’ to his call to be a wife and spiritual mother. I start seeing how in carrying my cross with Christ and Nicholas, that we can witness to others, showing them that the primary goal of marriage is transformation through the Eucharistic love of Christ. It is perfection through suffering. And though I may not understand why Christ has chosen the suffering of infertility to lead my husband and me toward a deeper love and perfect holiness, I can take comfort in the knowledge that this cross is not without purpose.

Properly lived, this cross is a gift to the Church that allows us to live more fully with the communion of saints and the Church Militant. And for that, I will praise the Lord even in the midst of my sorrow. I will surrender my will to Him, knowing that the Lord is good and His Mercy endures forever.

Becoming an Image of the Visitation

And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;  for nothing will be impossible for God.” -Luke 1:36-37

I have often found that when others learn of our struggle with infertility, they don’t know how to respond.  Often they want to journey with us and support us, but sometimes their words can be unintentionally hurtful.  Rather than rushing out to the hill country like Mary to rejoice with Elizabeth in her joy and her sorrows, they find themselves crippled in reaching out to us.  Especially when a friend finds themselves expecting a child, they often do not know the best way to tell us that is considerate of our struggles and at the same time allows us the opportunity to share in their joy.

Infertility is a very silent cross.  It is not something that you can see, like poverty, hunger, cancer, disabilities, and other visible crosses.  There is a silence that surrounds infertility because it involves a very personal matter.  And sometimes, when those with this struggle do speak up, they are dismissed.

I attended the Greater Cincinnati Women’s Conference on March 1 of this year with a beautiful woman who has become a great friend.  While there, I was sharing some of my struggles with some other women. I was also talking about my desire to build a ministry that would meet the needs of couples struggling with infertility.  An older woman, one of the speakers, overheard me talking and decided to involve herself in the conversation.  Her heart was coming from a place of true love and concern, and yet her words were hurtful.

At the time of the conference I had been married for thirteen months.  Upon hearing that I had only been trying for thirteen months she said to me, “Oh, don’t worry about it then! It’s only been just over a year and Dr. Hilgers gets 88% of his patients pregnant! You’re on the right track, and look, God has even given you a vocation out of this struggle! You’ll be just fine, don’t get too worked up about it.”

I felt crushed. I felt foolish for sharing my struggle with these other women.  I felt like my suffering didn’t matter, and that I was making a big deal out of nothing. I felt that because I’d only been struggling with fertility issues for a little over a year, that my infertility wasn’t a “valid” cross that I was carrying.  I started to wonder if it was all in my head.  I started worrying that perhaps my own stress and anxiety were the cause of our inability to conceive. I felt lost and embarrassed that I had even bothered to open up to these women. I thought that perhaps I was just being a drama queen and was complaining of my struggles unnecessarily to these women.

When people open up about their crosses, we have the beautiful opportunity to become an image of the visitation.  We have the option to set out and travel to the hill country in haste to rejoice with our brothers and sisters in Christ, to share in their sorrows, and to carry their burdens with them.  We have an opportunity to become an image of Christ to them and to recognize Christ within their hearts.  And when we dismiss the sufferings of others, either by saying that they haven’t gone through their suffering long enough, or not to worry, or that it isn’t a big deal, we miss that opportunity.

When Mary visited Elizabeth, Elizabeth rejoiced with Mary, saying “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:42-44)  She recognized Christ incarnate in the womb of Mary, as did her infant, John. Mary then responds by rejoicing with Elizabeth in the Magnificat,

And Mary said:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
47     my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
48 For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;
    behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
49 The Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is from age to age
    to those who fear him.
51 He has shown might with his arm,
    dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
52 He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones
    but lifted up the lowly.
53 The hungry he has filled with good things;
    the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped Israel his servant,
    remembering his mercy,
55 according to his promise to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Mary then remained with Elizabeth for three months.  She rejoiced for “she who was called barren is now in her sixth month.”  And though we do not know specifically  what happened in those three months, we do know that Mary loved Elizabeth with a perfect love.  Mary served Elizabeth in her need.  And we can guess that Mary helped Elizabeth when she was in pain, comforted her when she was weak, and tended to her with gentleness and attentiveness.

We need to imitate the Visitation, especially with those who are suffering.  Rather than dismissing someone’s struggles, especially with infertility, we need to acknowledge how difficult they must be.  We need to try to enter into their journey and understand that this has been a daily cross.  There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about our struggles in one way or another, because I have to track my cycle and chart every day.  Rather than telling them “Don’t worry about it!” or “Just relax!”, we need to acknowledge the struggles and pains of their heart.  We need to journey with them towards Calvary.  We need to look at them and see Christ suffering in them.  Even just listening can be an effective way to enter into another’s sufferings.  Speaking of things that have helped us in our struggles can be particularly effective.  For example, rather than saying, “Have you tried praying the Divine Mercy Novena?” look at them and say, “That pain sounds so difficult to carry.  I know when I’ve been struggling that I’ve found comfort in the Divine Mercy chaplet.” Acknowledge their pain, and give advice from a perspective of active listening rather than simply trying to fix their problem for them.

Infertility is an intimate and heavy cross.  Because it is so personal, it is difficult to speak candidly to others about it.  Many are simply unaware of how their comments can be hurtful, even when they are trying to help.  I am part of a few online support groups for women struggling with infertility, and so I asked them what was helpful and hurtful when trying to walk with them in their journeys.  I found a singular theme in what they said was helpful: don’t be dismissive to our suffering and have an awareness of the impact of your words.

Just the other day my husband and I attended a marriage enrichment opportunity.  The man greeting us asked us if we had kids yet, to which we said, “No, we’re still newlyweds.” It was the easiest response. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that statement.  It’s a common conversation starter. But be aware that even that question can be a reminder to those with this struggle about their cross. What truly hurt was what followed, when the man said, “Oh that’s smart, waiting a bit.”  Nicholas then interrupted him and told him, “No, we’ve been trying. We want children.”

Journeying with others means not making judgements on some of their most private decisions.  Family planning should not be fodder for casual conversation.  Even those who don’t have infertility but have the opposite struggle can be hurt by remarks on family planning.  Saying to “fertile myrtle”, the woman with three kids under three who is pregnant yet again, “Was this one planned or a surprise?” can be invasive and potentially a reminder to her of how deeply overwhelmed she is and how much fear she carries about being able to be a good wife and mother with four children so young. Saying to the family with two children undergoing private financial hardships, “So when is the next one coming?” could be a reminder of their deep desire for more children and their harsh reality that they can’t handle another one yet.  Journeying with others means accepting their situation as it is and looking at them with concern and love and simply saying, “How are you doing?”

When I was discerning with the Sisters of Life I learned about their Visitation Mission which met with women in crisis pregnancies.  One sister said something particularly impactful: “When we sit down to talk to these women, the first thing we ask them is ‘How are you doing?’ Often we are the first person to ever ask them that question. They pour their hearts out to us, and we just listen, letting them know they are loved.”

Just listen to us.  Let us know that we are loved. Let us know that you see us struggling. Remember us on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, for we pray for our children every day and love them, though they are not yet in our arms. For those of us called to adoption, we pray that our children may be safe and loved wherever they are, for we do not know how or when our children will come to us and it is possible that they are already on this earth.  Pray for us, dear friends. Pray for us, ask us “How are you doing?” Give us the opportunity to open up about our struggles, and if we are ready, we will.  And then when we’ve finished talking, if you are lost as to what you should do, just ask “Is there any way I can help you? How can I journey with you in this cross?”

Most importantly, just be aware. Be aware that there are those struggling to have a child. Be aware that not every married couple without children is contracepting. Be aware that dismissive comments such as “You’re so young!”, “Just relax!”, or “Don’t worry!” are hurtful. Know that giving advice such as “Have you tried x?” or “have you thought about adoption?” can feel invasive and doesn’t acknowledge our sufferings. Be aware that the way you announce your pregnancy to your friend could be hurtful.   Some women prefer an email and text so they can mourn privately and then still respond to your announcement with joy. Some families would prefer that if you are a close friend, that you call them or tell them in person, depending on the distance.  You know your loved ones, so consider their needs and their situation when you decide how to share your good news.  But tell them directly.  And then invite them to journey with you through the joys and struggles of your pregnancy.  Challenge them to imitate the Visitation with you.

I would like to take the time to thank those that have been a true image of the Visitation to us.  These are people that have entered into our journey with us, encouraged us, and helped us to know that we are loved and supported.  The man who asked us if we had children later apologized to us after the event, recognizing how we had been hurt, and so I would like to thank him.  I am going to avoid last names here since I don’t have permission to use them, but I would like to thank my dear friend Grace for her constant friendship and support.  I would like to thank my parents and Nick’s parents for their love and prayers. I would like to thank Rebekah, for being a true friend to me, opening up to me about her fears, and for listening to me.  I would like to thank one of Nicholas’ dear high school friends, who knew about our struggles and announced her pregnancy to Nicholas with true consideration for our struggles.  I want to thank all those that have prayed for us. And I would like to thank all of the people that have opened up to us about their struggles after reading these articles. You have made us feel deeply supported and loved.

Finally, I would like to thank a couple with whom Nicholas and I hope to become dear friends.  Devynn and Clifford, thank you for opening up your lives to us. Devynn, thank you for inviting me to the Women’s Conference.  Thank you for listening to me as I poured out my heart.  Thank you for sharing your own fears with me. And thank you to both of you for so considerately telling us about your joyful pregnancy and then inviting us to journey with you through it as your little baby’s soon-to-be godparents.  The two of you were a true inspiration for this post, as it was your invitation that began to show me how imitating the Visitation is a true model for ministering to those in their sufferings and their joys.

To all those that have sought to be with us in our joys and sufferings in this journey, thank you. Keep imitating the Visitation with all those whom you meet.

For it is our sincere hope, that at the end of this journey, we will be able to rejoice with one another saying, “This is the sixth month for her who was called barren;  for nothing will be impossible for God.”

This is the fourth post in a series for National Infertility Awareness Week. The other posts are below.

Infertility as Disease: Accepting and Navigating the Medical Side of Infertility

Gratitude: The Gift Amidst the Cross

Put Out Into the Deep

A Cross Not Without Purpose

Put Out Into the Deep

I remember sitting in the doctor’s office where I was shown a chart of normal hormone levels throughout a woman’s cycle.  The doctor told me, “These are the normal levels. These are yours.”  And as I looked at the second line, I realized that where my progesterone and estrogen were supposed to be gradually rising before dropping off slowly like a bell curve, that mine dropped down in a nearly vertical line.  I knew enough about ovulation and conception to know that successful conception and implantation for a baby would be rare at those levels. I then understood that the severe pelvic pain I felt after running and at other times resulted in part from these low hormone levels.  That was the reason I was there after all: the pain.  I was too young to worry about having a baby, and yet, it was at 16 that I found out, though it wasn’t explicitly stated, that for me, having a baby would more than likely necessarily involve hormone support.

The issues with the pain seemed to get better, and eventually I stopped the progesterone support for the pain. When I thought I was going to be a sister, or nun, the knowledge that my hormone levels were off and that having a baby might be difficult for me didn’t really bother me.  In fact, I used it as a sort of confirmation that I might be called to religious life.  I thought, “Well, since having biological children might be difficult for me, then perhaps God is calling me to a spiritual motherhood.”  Of course, I hoped that my levels had improved with age.  I hoped that it was just a passing thing that happened because my adolescent body hadn’t quite figured itself out yet.  And I hoped for those things all the more when I began courting Nicholas and knew that I would end up marrying him.

I remember the first time I told Nicholas about my experience with NaPro Technology as a teenager.  It came up because we were talking about NFP and children. I told him about how odd I felt learning NFP at 16 so that the doctor could figure out why I was feeling pain. And then I told him that I feared future struggles with infertility.  I told him my hope that the issue had resolved and my deep fear that maybe it hadn’t.  He listened, and though he too was wary, he assured me that God would carry us through whatever struggles we went through.  And so when we were married, we knew that infertility might be a struggle for us.  But we clung to hope that it wouldn’t be.

I remember my first “two week wait”.  Before then, I had thought that pregnancy just happened.  I hadn’t really considered the waiting that was involved.  I hadn’t thought at all about the wondering that would happen between that week of fertility and the week that the next cycle was due.  I hadn’t thought about all the hope that could build up in those weeks, only to be brought disappointment when the next cycle arrived. And I hadn’t thought about the fact that because these were cycles that a couple went through the same roller coaster of emotions each month.

This reality felt like a slap to the face.  I wondered why no one had told me about this stress during my marriage prep.  I wondered why infertility hadn’t been talked about either.  And I was angry that people talked all about the struggles of using NFP to avoid pregnancy, but didn’t talk at all about the emotions and struggles that come with trying to have a baby.

And sometimes, it felt like I was drowning in my emotions.

Nicholas wrote me a letter and handed it to me the morning of our wedding.  The final line read, “Let’s go get married, our children are waiting for us.” I want to sob even as I type that line.  Because now, I feel like I’m waiting on them. I feel like I’m waiting on God.

Charts cover my deep blue dresser next to green, yellow, red, and white stickers. They remind me that it is time to take the progesterone that is in the steel refrigerator downstairs and the estrogen in my small bathroom. Another glance reminds me that I need to go to the hospital today to get my blood drawn to check my hormone levels. I do this every month; it is now routine. I am now used to the needles, I am now familiar with which arm is the easy stick and which is the difficult stick, and I know when the nurse is struggling to draw blood without hurting me. There is a familiar script that the nurse and I go through. Often she comments that my blood doesn’t clot well. I laugh and tell her that my dad has commented on the same thing. Sometimes we talk about how I hate needles and used to faint when I was stuck with one, and then we both laugh as I tell the nurse that my father, an anesthesiologist, is afraid of needles.

I wish I could tell you that I am going to give an outsider’s perspective on National Infertility Awareness Week. I wish I could tell you that this hasn’t been my reality. I wish I could tell you that this has been easy for us. But since we were married in January 2016, we have been open to life. And no babies have come.

We started seeing a NaPro doctor in May, four months after our marriage, because of my previous medical history of low progesterone and low estrogen.  We found out that I was still dealing with that. And we hoped that it would be a simple matter of giving me the hormones that my body wasn’t making.  Maybe it still is and it’s just taking time.  Since then, I’ve started Clomid.  I’ve had an ultrasound to check for ovarian cysts. I’ve had an HSG to check that my fallopian tubes were clear.  And after talking to my doctor, we’ve scheduled a consultation with a NaPro surgeon for possible endometriosis.  It’s the only thing that seems to fit my symptoms at this point.

I get my blood drawn every month. I have a list of medications to take. And it feels sometimes that medicine is invading our bedroom and sometimes I just want to scream, “Enough!”  But that’s what infertility does. It makes you feel like you’re drowning. And yet, the waters we drown in are not without purpose.

One in eight couples struggle with infertility. Infertility is defined as the inability to conceive within a year or multiple miscarriages for women under 35.  NaPro Technology, a system of treating infertility in line with Catholic morality, defines infertility as the inability to conceive after six months of fertility-focused intercourse. Infertility is a disease, as there is something that is preventing the reproductive system from functioning as it ought to function. Couples can struggle with primary infertility (the inability to conceive a first child) or secondary infertility (the inability to conceive a child after a first has been born). Either way, infertility is a true cross that brings inconceivable grief. (I despise puns, and when showing this draft to my husband he remarked, “This is the saddest pun I’ve ever read.”)

And yet, I hear the call amidst the crashing storm, amidst the drowning waves of my emotions: Duc in altum. Put out into the deep.

And I am tempted to look at the Lord as Peter did and say, “Master,  we have worked hard all night and caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets” (Luke 5:5). I am tempted to look at Christ and seeing the strong wind surrounding me exclaim, “Lord, save me!” And yet, our Lord turns to us, “[stretches] out his hand and [catches us], and [says] to us, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?'” (Matthew 14:31)

Christ is using this struggle to call me to a radical trust. I have been broken by this struggle, and that is good.  Because in my brokenness, I am able to turn to Christ more deeply. I am able to look at the Cross and say to Jesus, “Can you not see that I am drowning beneath the waters of infertility, tied down by the weight of this Cross?”  And Jesus smiles at me and lovingly says, “Yes, but the water you are drowning in is the sea of my Mercy. The Cross you carry is My Cross.  Your pain is my pain. Come to the water. Come and drink, and have new life within you. Come and drown in my mercy, and be renewed by it.”

It may seem counterintuitive, but I have found deeper life in my struggle with infertility. I have found a deeper desire to rely on my husband and on the Lord, something that is particularly difficult for me.  I want to have control.  I don’t want to rely on others or ask for help, because I often view that as weakness.  And while it is deeply humilating for me to say that my husband and I need medical help to have a baby, it also points to the deeper truth present in the Body of Christ: that we all have need of Christ and that we all have need of the other members of the Church.

Through it all, I hear one call, “Duc in altum—put out into the deep.” Peter went fishing, but caught nothing. Christ asks him to go deeper, to trust, despite the fact that they have caught nothing all night.

I await the day when I am able to put out into the deep, to trust the Lord’s Mercy with infinite hope, to believe in his promises, and then be rewarded as Peter. I want to look at Christ and say, “Lord, at your command, I will lower the nets. I will trust in your promises and your Mercy. I will trust that you have plans for my welfare and not for woe. I will trust that you have plans for a future full of hope.  I will stand at your Cross, I will be with you in this storm, and I will await the resurrection and the calm.” For after Peter put out his nets into the deep, “they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing.  They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that they were in danger of sinking. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, ‘Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.’  For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him.” Luke 5:6-9

All were astonished at the Lord’s greatness and mercy.  I await the day that I may walk out onto the water trusting in the Lord’s goodness, and be astonished by the abundance of graces, blessings, and gifts that He pours out upon me. And so each day, each week, each month, I step out of the boat again. I cast out into the deep again.  Sometimes I drown, and that’s okay. I try to imitate Peter in his radical trust, knowing that the Lord is good and He will answer me. For though I am carrying this cross with Christ and my husband right now, I know that there will be the resurrection.

 

This week I am going to be releasing a series of posts for National Infertility Awareness Week.  It is my hope that this series may provide comfort to those struggling with infertility, while being a tool for those who have friends or loved ones with this struggle.

You can read the second post here: Gratitude: The Gift Amidst the Cross