Trust: The Heart of NFP

I will forever remember the first time I tried to educate somebody else about NFP. I was explaining that NFP along with natural reproductive technology, or NaPro, could actually provide health solutions for most problems treated by the pill. My audience: my junior level morality class.

I am one of the first in a generation that has used NFP from a young age. Rather than immediately being put on the pill for the issues I was having with my cycle, my parents took me to see a NaPro doctor and a Creighton practitioner. And so at the young age of 16, I was familiar with signs of my fertility, the way in which a woman’s fertility worked, and the fact that my current hormone levels likely meant that I would struggle to have children if they continued at that level into adulthood.

I quickly saw the many uses of NFP. I saw how it benefited me greatly in preventing immense pain throughout my cycle. I wanted others to have this knowledge, too. Hence, the position in which I found myself: explaining NFP, a woman’s cycle, and the downsides of birth control to my junior morality class.

It was at that moment that I learned that many of my classmates were in fact on the pill. Mind you, this was a Catholic school. However, many of them had been put on the pill for various health issues. Most of these health issues could have been addressed by hormonal support provided through NaPro Technology. I’ll never forget the reaction though from the boys in the class who looked at me and booed me and Said to all the girls in the class “We don’t want to hear about your flow.”

Although comical now, it points to the issue of educating not only young men but also women about their health and fertility. Fortunately, my school decided to address this issue by bringing in a Creighton practitioner to talk to all the girls in the high school. Perhaps the young men could have benefitted as well.

As I became older, I found myself having discussions about NFP with my fiance. When we attended marriage preparation the way in which NFP was presented to us was a sort of prosperity gospel: use NFP and avoid kids when you want. But when you want kids, since you have been following God’s will, they will come easily!

However that wasn’t at all our experience. We faced infertility and all the struggles that went along with it. I wrote about that extensively in my infertility series that you can find here. If that is currently your struggle, know that I am praying for you.

Once we were finally blessed with our first child in 2018, we then switched to using NFP to avoid. That was not nearly as easy as it as it had been made to seem either. For both of us when I was postpartum it seemed that there were infinitely less available days for use than the happy, smiling, overly cheery couple at our marriage preparation had made it seem. There were likely many days that had been available to us but that I did not feel confident enough in using. I was using Creighton the first time postpartum, and since Creighton is a mucus only method, it became confusing postpartum. Postpartum cycles and fertility markers are very different than in normal cycles, which is why I’m using Marquette this time around.

In both cases, using NFP required trust. Trust that we would be carried through our suffering. Trust in the purifying fire of Christ’s love and suffering. Trust that any child would be a blessing, no matter that timing. Trust in one’s spouse to communicate. The center of NFP is trust, which is why this method can be difficult to embrace.

If you don’t trust your body, your spouse, or Christ, other forms of birth control can become tempting. And while there have certainly been times that birth control has seemed appealing, I know it would leave me feeling empty. It would remove the radical trust required in each intimate act. It would become a divide between us rather than something that requires continued communication and trust, as NFP has been for us.

I find that NFP mirrors the requirements of love: it requires self knowledge, communication, vulnerability, and trust to work effectively. How fitting that these elements are also required for a healthy and successful marriage. And so in using NFP to plan our family, we practice the very things needed for a strong marriage and indeed, a strong faith as well. For at the center of our fertility is Christ calling us to relationship with Him, calling us to walk on the waters, to put out into the deep, to trust in Him. Christ is calling us to know ourselves that we may know Him, to trust that we may be vulnerable with him, to be vulnerable with Him that we may be loved by Him. Will you answer His call?

Beauty in the Broken

I have often struggled with feeling broken and betrayed by my body.

It began with our struggle with infertility and my anxiety, when I felt that because my body would not carry a child, that not only was I broken, that I wasn’t fulfilling my vocation as a woman and spouse.

When I became a mother, during my pregnancy I thought to myself, “now, finally, I am healed.” As I passed each milestone, and birth came closer and closer, I let go of those feelings of brokenness and rejoiced in my body. My body was creating life, and I rejoiced in the pains and struggles of pregnancy, because I no longer felt betrayed by my body.

I thought that feeling of brokenness and betrayal by my body would change definitively with my daughter’s birth. I thought her birth would heal that wound, the feeling that my body had betrayed me.

And yet, after Madeleine’s birth, that wound remained.

I was a mother now. Everything we had prayed for had happened. Her birth was beautiful. Madeleine was even born on her due date, the feast of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel after I’d prayed a novena to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel that she would arrive on time.

And yet, in all that joy, I was drowning.

My body was a stranger to me. Nothing prepared me for how different my body felt to me after Madeleine’s birth. And then on top of that, Madeleine would scream when I tried to feed her. It sometimes took an hour and a half just to feed her.

It was then that I started to notice my hands.

I remember a reflection during our marriage prep that asked you to hold your betrothed’s hands. It asked you think about how these hands, the hands holding your own, would be the hands to care for you when you were sick, to comfort you in times of difficulty, to hold and love your children.

After Madeleine’s birth, my hands ached. They were constantly stiff and sore. I blamed having to take hours to nurse Madeleine and constantly hold her in the same position. But it kept getting worse. I thought perhaps my De Quervains Syndrome (like carpal tunnel) was returning and was sure that after a time it would get better.

Then my shoulders started to ache. I blamed my ring sling, and stopped wearing it. But the pain remained. I couldn’t lift my hands above my head without pain. I blamed having to sit in the same position for hours to feed Madeleine.

But then one night, Madeleine woke up crying. She needed to be fed. And I struggled to get to her.

I struggled to move myself out of bed. My whole body was stiff and sore. Madeleine’s crying became louder and louder. I felt terrible. And then, when I finally got to her, I realized I couldn’t pick my baby up out of her crib.

I woke up Nicholas, who brought Madeleine to me in the rocking chair. I could barely hold her, even with my nursing pillow. It was that night that I realized something was terribly wrong.

About two months after that night when my hands refused to work (this past November), I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

The doctor explained that my immune system had started to attack my joints. I would need to be on an immunosuppressant indefinitely. She explained that it was probably my pregnancy that had triggered the autoimmune disease.

And once again, I felt betrayed by my body.

My pregnancy and Madeleine’s birth had started to heal the wounds of betrayal I had felt after almost two years of infertility. Suddenly, those wounds were cut open again. My body was literally attacking itself. It wasn’t functioning as it should, again, and it was affecting my ability to care for my daughter. I was angry, I was hurt, I was broken.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned from infertility, it is that there is beauty in brokenness.

My body had betrayed me again, but I decided that wouldn’t stop me from being a good mother, from being a good wife, from being a daughter of God. Instead, I tried to turn to the Cross. I repeated to myself in times of weakness, “this is my body, given up for you.” I repeated it when it was difficult to pick up my daughter. I repeated it when I struggled to feed my daughter because my hands ached. I repeated it when I woke in the middle of the night to Madeleine crying, needing me, and my body was stiff again. I repeated it when I looked in the mirror and was unhappy with my body because my arthritis had prevented me from exercising until my medication started working.

I decided that my RA would not change how I parent, would not change my fitness goals, would not change my vocation, would not change my faith. I began researching ways to heal my body through diet and exercise. I have set a goal for myself to run a Spartan race either this summer or fall. I have decided to show my daughter that having a chronic illness does not mean that you cannot be active, that you cannot do extraordinary things, that you cannot lead a life of adventure and faith.

I started trying to take care of myself. I began a new diet about two months ago to help with inflammation. I purchased an exercise program to help heal and strengthen my core from pregnancy. I’m going to be blogging more often as part of self care and posting updates about my progress with training and treatment of RA. I’ve been trying to pray more often and focus on joy and acceptance.

We cannot choose our crosses. I do not know yet what purpose this cross carries, but I know that when we received news of my diagnosis and told my husband, that he had a profound sense of peace. “We need this,” he said.

I remember the reflection given during our marriage preparation now whenever I look at my hands and the hands of my husband. For although my hands are sometimes inflamed and in pain, I know that Christ has gifted me my husband to be my hands and feet when my own will not work. Before I was a mother, I felt broken because of our struggles to have a child. I felt betrayed by my own body, angry that my body wasn’t working as it ought, crippled by my body’s brokenness. Now, I feel broken because there are some days when my whole body aches. And yet, I know that I need this. I need to remember that I am broken, that I am weak, that I am wounded. Because in my brokenness, I am reminded to look at Christ on the Cross.

God gives us what we need. He challenges us, and allows us suffering so that we might realize our littleness. So that we might turn to the Cross, see Christ bloody, bruised, and beaten, and know in our hearts the great sacrificial love of Christ for us. Christ on the Cross shows us the profound depths of God’s love for us, and will always stand as a reminder to us all that there is immense beauty in the broken.

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.

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. 

 

 

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.