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.

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