The Ache of Empty Arms

pregnant-971984I lay in the ultrasound room looking at the image of my perfectly formed baby on the screen. I could see the profile of his face and his little hand. I had a hard time believing my doctor’s gentle words: “I’m so sorry. His heart isn’t beating.” The next day I held my son in my arms after delivery, and we named him John. Eight months later I lay in another ultrasound room and again heard the words I most dreaded: “The baby is measuring smaller than she should be, and there is no heartbeat. I’m sorry.” My daughter was beautiful, and we named her Agnes. Another six months, and a phone call with lab results confirmed what I already knew: we had lost our third baby to an early miscarriage. We named him Michael.

How does one cope with the loss of a child? I have shed more tears in the past year and a half than I have probably in the rest of my life combined. I grieve for each of my babies. I struggle to accept God’s will. But there is joy too, and my heart has grown with love for the children I can no longer hold.

I imagine my children in heaven—probably romping around causing mischief together. Surely kids can cause mischief in heaven, right? I’m no theologian, so I guess we’ll find out when we get there. My husband and I have joked that our kids probably have their elbows on the table at the heavenly banquet, and the Blessed Mother is up there gently scolding them. Heaven seems more like a real place now, not an abstract idea but the home where my children live. I look forward to having a big family reunion there someday.

As I have processed my own grief, I’ve also connected with other women who have lost babies and have seen their pain. People at our parish have shared about their own losses when they heard about our babies, and friends I’ve known for years have told me about babies I never knew existed. So many couples are suffering silently as they grieve their children.

I also have friends who struggle with infertility. I understand and share in their desire to raise a family, although I don’t know the monthly disappointment of being unable to conceive. They also suffer silently and feel the ache of empty arms.

Bishop Loverde of the Catholic Diocese of Arlington will lead a novena to Our Lady of Guadalupe for those suffering
from infertility, miscarriage, and infant death beginning on December 4. Please join in praying for those of us who carry this cross. We appreciate each and every prayer.

Novena for those suffering from infertility, miscarriage, and infant loss

Mexican_oil_paint_on_tin_retablo_of_'Our_Lady_of_Guadalupe',_19th_century,_El_Paso_Museum_of_Art

The Pill ‘for Medical Reasons’ and that Slippery Slope

So, here goes. My birth control story.

When I was 19 years old, I came home from my first semester of college and begged my mother to take me to the gynecologist. I had been having irregular periods for about a year. So off we went, to the gynecologist appointment together: me, a 19-year old college student and virgin, and my mother, a devout Catholic very much opposed to the birth control pill.

You can surely see where this is going.

The appointment that followed may still be counted among the most horrific, humiliating experiences of my life. So, there at my very first doctor’s appointment excepting my pediatrician and orthodontist, the doctor was examining me while asking me health history questions. “Are you sexually active?” he inevitably asked, without looking up. “No,” I answered truthfully.
Next thing I know, he’s explaining that I am going to feel something cold, and before I have time to react, I am in the midst of my first (UNNECESSARY) pap smear. It. was. excruciating. I remember limping in pain out of the office 30 minutes later. He tells me to get dressed and meet him in his office. There in his office, he begins his sales speech for the pill. He tells me that it will fix the abnormal bleeding that I’ve been seeing, and help to regulate my periods. He goes on to say that it has the added benefit of treating acne, and that my skin will clear up while I’m taking it. And finally, he closes with, “And when you meet that special someone, it is a very effective form of contraception!”

My head was spinning. I remember asking how long I had to take it, and he said 6 months should be enough to get my periods back on track. OK, I thought. I can handle 6 months. It sounded like a pretty quick fix, to me. 6 months of medication, during which time my periods would be normal, and then when I came OFF the medication, they’d be normal once again from that point on.

Oh how silly and uninformed I was.

As I limped out of his office and into the waiting room, I was greeted by my mother who had a look of worry on her face. I think Abby Johnson said it best when she wrote that if only we based more of our decisions on what would make our mothers happy and proud of us, we would be so much better off. My mother knew all along, without REALLY knowing, that this was the beginning of my demise.

Still in a daze, I handed the sheet of paper the doctor had given me to the woman at the front desk. I assumed it was a follow-up sheet that I was to give to the front desk to schedule my next appointment. Then I was startled out of my daze and back into humiliation when the lady shoved the paper back at me and quite loudly quipped, “This is your prescription for birth control pills. I don’t need this!” Talk about mortification.

In case you haven’t already guessed, 6 months later when I came off the pill, my periods were anything BUT regular. However, in that interim, I had started to get used to the idea of being a sophomore in college with periods I could rely on, and more importantly, with beautiful, clear skin… especially since I was looking and waiting for a boyfriend. Now that I had stopped taking my pills, what I saw looming ahead of me was a return of crazy bleeding and acne flare-ups. NOT appealing. I told my mom I had to go back on them, but she wasn’t convinced. So off we went to gynecologist #2.

Gynecologist #2 was a very educated man, and after a brief physical exam (no pap smear), he took me to his office, and drew me pictures of ovaries with lots of tiny cysts on them. I had no idea what he was talking about, and frankly, I didn’t care. I just sat there politely pretending to listen, waiting for him to hand over the prescription for my happy pills. Which of course, he did. This time with instructions to stay on for one year.

By the end of my sophomore year, I had fallen deeply in love with a guy I had met on my first day and told my friends back home he was the one I would marry. And to my surprise, by the end of my sophomore year, he had fallen in love with me, too. We had dated briefly right before he went to study abroad (he was a year older), and now he had just come back and we were back together and very serious.

You can surely see where this is going.

About two months into a “very serious” relationship with the man I was convinced I would marry, I somehow went from virgin to … well, not. I say somehow because it wasn’t at all planned or necessarily talked about and decided. We had been physical already; such is the nature of college life, and I was no stranger to “hooking up,” but at the same time was very proud that I had not given away my virginity to just anybody. I knew that I believed in the teachings of my Church. I knew that what I was doing was wrong. But in my mind, I rationalized that sex was reserved for marriage because you are only meant to do that with the man you are married to. I really didn’t understand the complete beauty of sex at that point, but I was about to begin my education.

I remember that night vividly. Or maybe I should say that memories from that night continue to haunt me. I distinctly remember that we were very close to going that far, but still not quite there, when he suddenly jumped up and ran to his desk. I asked him what he was doing, and he said “Getting a condom … just … in case….” For some stupid reason, I assumed he meant “in case” he went too far and we were at risk for pregnancy. (I may have been stupid about the pill, but I did know about contact pregnancy.) I told him “It’s ok, I’m on the pill.” To which he pill packsresponded, “Oh… well… are you sure?” (This guy was not really known for his ability to articulate and convey an actual message.) And I responded, “Yeah, I’m sure. It’s to regulate my periods, but it still ‘works.’” (I realize now he was basically asking me if I was sure that I wanted to have sex with him. So, basically, one of the biggest decisions of my life came down not to a well thought-out weighing of consequences, but rather an ambiguous exchange of “Are you sure?” “Yeah, I’m sure.”)
And so, ignoring the underlying guilt I continued to feel every once and a while, we continued being intimate. Over Fall Break, my prescription for the pill was up, and this time I was adamant about staying on it. I threw a fit when my mother suggested I stop taking it for a while and see if my cycles normalized; because now, I actually needed that pill for contraception. But at the same time, both of us were not satisfied with the fact that no one had any answers for me about my health. WHY was I bleeding like this? WHY were my periods so irregular to begin with?? So we agreed to go together to Gyn/Midwife #3, recommended to us by my older sister. I was absolutely convinced that whether she gave us answers or not, I would be able to get more happy pills from her.

Gyn/Midwife #3 took me in her office first, alone. There she asked if I was sexually active, and I responded truthfully that I was. She explained that she wanted to run a couple of tests on me, some blood-work and an ultrasound, to find the issues that were causing my weird cycles. So we made a follow-up appointment for the following day for the ultrasound. On our way out of the office, I remember the ultrasound tech at the front desk asking me if I was a virgin. Of course being in front of my mother I said, “Yes,” and she got a look of concern on her face and said, “Oh, wait a second, we can’t do this type of ultrasound that was ordered. Hold on, let me go tell the doctor.” My face must have turned beet red. The tech came back, made minimal eye contact while she quickly said, “OK, it’ll be fine, just come tomorrow as scheduled.”
After the ultrasound and blood-work, the Midwife took me back into her office and explained my diagnosis: Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). I finally had an answer for all these years of crazy cycles! She was pretty detailed in her description and finally told me the solution: (I know you’ve guessed it) The Pill. I was to stay on the pill up until the time I decided I was ready to have children. (I was 20 years old at the time.) Now this next part I remember verbatim. I asked her: “Will being on the pill that long have any adverse effects on my ability to become pregnant when I want to?” (See, I was worried about my fertility even back then.) Her answer: “Oh, no, on the contrary: being on the pill tricks your body into thinking it’s pregnant every month, so when you want to become pregnant and come off the pill, it should be very easy!”

I was sold. This stuff was the best thing on planet earth.

Back to school I went, and me and my boyfriend continued our physical relationship up until I was about to study abroad for a semester. Soon before I left, we discussed our plans for the future, and he said he wanted to take a break. A break?? I. FREAKED. OUT. What did he mean a BREAK?? We were going to get married, what in the world did he need a BREAK for?!?! Didn’t he realize what I had given to him??!! Inevitably, because I was not very agreeable when it came to the “break,’’ we ended up breaking it off for good instead. I was completely devastated. It was one of the lowest points of my life. It was as if I had just lost my husband, because, in a way, I had. I say that because I had given myself to him physically, in a way that I had always intended (and God had always intended for me) to give myself ONLY to my husband. I thought that if not in word, we were at least “physically married.” But now what were we? What would we ever be? Everything was, in an instant, completely upside-down and backwards. What I didn’t realize is that it had already started out backwards.

So then I left for Italy, and while on the plane from NYC to Venice, I sat right next to a very attractive guy with whom I would wind up spending the rest of my life. We hit it off immediately, exchanged phone numbers, and began talking on the phone frequently, in Italy. Eventually, he invited me to his roommate’s birthday party, and we officially began dating.

Now, in my mind, when I began dating my future husband, it was to be an Italian “fling” to help me get my ex out of my system. I still had a very unhealthy attachment to my ex that I just couldn’t shake, and looking back it makes perfect sense why I felt that way. Because sex, as beautiful and life-giving as it is, is only MEANT to be shared with one person, one spouse, one partner for life.

Surely you see where this is going.

Way too soon, and way too impetuously, I slept with my new boyfriend (and present husband). And it worked… almost. I felt a physical detachment from my ex right after that, but I was still very much in love with him. And this poor new guy I was dating, well, he was just the catalyst to help me heal what couldn’t really be healed.

I started to notice that my new boyfriend was quickly falling in love with me, but I did not, could not reciprocate the feelings. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. Hadn’t I always told myself I would only sleep with ONE man, and now here I was sleeping with someone I didn’t even love?? What a fast and furious downward spiral my life had taken, and I hadn’t even had time to sit back and reflect on it.

Flash forward a couple years or so, when both of us were back in the States, still dating (long-distance), still sleeping together. He was a man I now loved. At a certain point my birth control pill prescription expired, so off I went to another doctor. I was never worried that I wouldn’t be able to get it refilled, in fact, the thought never crossed my mind. I pretty much just had to ask for it and it was mine. No exam, no blood-work, no other tests. So when one day the pharmacy charged me full price for them because my insurance didn’t cover it, I was up in arms. “What??? What do you mean? I’ve ALWAYS had it covered!!” The pharmacist didn’t know what to tell me, but finally asked, “Do you work for a Catholic organization?” “Yeah.” (I had just started working as a Kindergarten teacher in a Catholic school.) “Oh, that explains it. They don’t cover birth control.” I was livid. “But this is for a medical purpose, I’m not on it for birth control,” I practically yelled at the poor girl. But her hands were tied.

I refused to pay the full price for months on end, so I got one more month’s worth and prayed for the best. Over the past 3 years, there had been several months in between prescription refills when I didn’t take the pill, and we just used condoms. But I HATED condoms. Absolutely loathed them. I felt like there was a foreign thing in my body that did not belong there and was not supposed to be there, and it made me physically sick. I think about my reactions back then and see that I had the truth all along: I knew in my heart what human sexuality was all about, what sex was intended to be, but my being on the pill blurred that crystal clear vision to the point where I could not see the whole picture. There was a time when I never would have thought of using a barrier method. Now it was just a necessary Plan B.

A month later, we were engaged. We planned to become celibate once we were engaged and would wait until marriage to resume our sex life. (See what I mean? Warped indeed.) But when we got married and became intimate again, nothing was new, nothing was exciting. In fact, I remember for the first 6 months or longer feeling guilt every time we had sex. It was a feeling I just couldn’t shake – why NOW did I have this overwhelming guilt? Our marriage, while legitimate in the eyes of God, began on a rocky slope, and it felt like we had to constantly struggle to stay on our feet, specifically in regards to our sexuality. I felt like the bonding element of sex was not bonding us at all, and instead almost became a hurdle to our union.

And then came infertility. The biggest hurdle to our sex-life.

I don’t think any woman (or man for that matter) could say that infertility didn’t have some negative effects on their sex life. But in our case, it added a curveball to an already disrupted foundation. Over the past 5 years, we have worked through most of these issues, but I always wonder how much easier it would have been, and could have been, if I had made different decisions.

Being on the pill for 6 years wreaked havoc on my reproductive system. Syndromes and diseases like PCOS and endometriosis were exacerbated over those 6 years, and the pill masked them to give me the illusion of normalcy and perfect health. But the worst thing the pill did to me was wreak havoc on my sexuality. From the moment I got my first prescription, I knew I was safe “just in case,” and almost overnight my plans and goals shifted from long-term whole person well-being to short-term physical and emotional satisfaction.

I can’t change my past, though often I wish I could. All I can hope is that God continues to heal my soul and my marriage. And praise Him, every day I see it happening more and more.

And that’s my story.

Adoption: A Miracle, Not a Last Option

I was fortunate enough to be raised in a great Catholic family. I was one of 8 children, so we did get the Catholic large family comments. I always knew that I wanted to have a larger than average family, too. I was also very lucky to meet my future husband who decided he wanted to join the Catholic Church.

My husband and I took a class in NFP before we were married, in spite of the offer my husband got from a friend to teach him about contraception for our wedding night (he knew we had abstained from premarital sex). We decided to use NFP in an attempt to postpone pregnancy for a year or two.

When we decided we wanted to start our family, it was exciting at first. After all, I thought, with NFP you can get close to pre-determining your child’s birthday. I had fun thinking about when our baby would be born and I even bought a grandchild birthstone charm for my mom’s collection.

After a year of trying to get pregnant, we were frustrated and depressed. My husband and I tried to work through it together. We both dealt with infertility very differently and it caused much tension in our marriage. My husband was optimistic and happy to keep doing his part to achieve pregnancy. I, on the other hand, dreaded the impending period every month and saw “achieving” pregnancy as a chore.

My married siblings were having children every 1.8 years and my husband and I spent longer than that trying to get pregnant. Friends were having “surprise” pregnancies. We heard all of the talk about IVF. One reason I didn’t tell people that I was trying to get pregnant was because I didn’t want to hear their recommendations about trying IVF or other methods not conducive to God’s plan for life. I just wished I could become a mom. Mother’s Day (which happened to be my birthday one year) was a little depressing. I even thought a miscarriage wouldn’t be so bad, because I would be a mom with a lovely soul in heaven. But I never saw that positive pregnancy test.

We sought infertility help from a prolife doctor and he was wonderful with us. We tried some medication and some natural supplements, but we still did not get pregnant. After exhausting what I saw as all of our viable options for a biological child, I wanted to proceed with adoption. When we got married we had talked about adopting some day, but we figured we would have biological children first. My husband wanted to keep trying to get pregnant, so we compromised and decided to try to achieve pregnancy for 6 more months and if unsuccessful, we would pursue an adoption. I was happy to have an end goal in mind. The monthly periods weren’t as depressing for me because they put us one month closer to an adoption. For those 6 months I became an adoption-information fiend and gathered information from wherever I could: internet, adoption agencies, and information sessions. We did not have any friends, family, or neighbors who had adopted so we had to look elsewhere. Adoption wasn’t a word we heard discussed at church and there wasn’t an adoption support group for Catholic families.

After 6 months of information-gathering and more failed attempts at pregnancy, we embarked on a new journey to adopt. We told close family and friends and they were surprised. I can remember telling my in-laws and the first response was, “Why would you do that?” We simply said, “Because we want to.” We didn’t feel that this was a back-up plan because our original plan hadn’t worked out. We knew this had been God’s plan all along, and we were now embracing it. I suppose He knew we wouldn’t adopt if we had started by having biological children.

We chose to adopt a child from Korea. We filled out the piles of paperwork and met other couples who adopted or were waiting to adopt. Right after our home study was completed we received a picture of our future son. He was beautiful! We told people we interact with regularly about him. People were happy for us but weren’t quite sure how to react. Do you throw a baby shower for a mom who is about to adopt? Do you keep asking if she has heard anything about when the baby comes home? I went to baby showers for pregnant women and expecting fathers at work. I didn’t look like I was expecting and we were hesitant to buy many baby things.

Life got very exciting when we received a surprise phone call that our son was ready to come home two months earlier than expected. A day later we were on an airplane to Korea. Meeting our son for the first time was the recognition of a miracle. Though we didn’t witness the medical miracle of birth, we knew that God had called this child to be in our family.

There wasn’t anyone to meet us at the airport when we arrived home. We didn’t even have a crib set up for him at home. There wasn’t a big baby shower with lots of baby items to doll up our son. But we were a happy family of three now.

We knew we would be back to Korea to do it all over again. And 16 months later we came home from Korea as a happy family of four. We witnessed yet another miracle child by adoption.

A year later we decided that we would pursue adoption again. This time God had a different plan: I was pregnant. Of course we were excited, but we were also disappointed that we had to stop the adoption process (we were not allowed to pursue adoption if I was pregnant). It was a sad call to the adoption agency to halt the process.

When we finally told people after the first trimester, they were elated for us. Friends and family were more excited than when we told them about our two adoptions. People figured we had finally gotten what we wanted – a child of our own.

Being adoptive parents has taught us that our children are not only ours. Our sons also have biological and foster parents who will always be a part of their lives. Ultimately, all children really belong to God, and, like being an adoptive parent, we are just given the privilege to care for them here on earth. We were looking forward to welcoming our third child a different way, but we knew that this child is still not our own.

We had always longed to be parents and we were blessed to experience both miracles of adoption and birth. No one method of becoming parents is better than another and no child is more special than another. In a way we were sad that people were so excited for us this time around. When our son was born we received a family heirloom blanket that was reserved for our “first child.” I was angry that people viewed our newborn as our first child. What about our other two blessings? All of our children were wanted and loved and we didn’t let ignorant comments from others bother us.

Three years later we followed God’s call to adopt our fourth son. Many people think we are crazy. If you know you can make your own kids now, why would you adopt? Why would you choose to have more than three children? We could easily limit the number of children in our family just by not signing piles of paperwork. If you can pick your child, why would you keep picking boys? The truth of the matter is that we don’t have a gender preference for our children and there are many more boys to adopt. We are so happy that we have been recipients of this most precious gift of adoption.

I harbor no resentment for those Catholic families who have children every 2 years. It is wonderful that they are open to the life God gives them. That was just not God’s plan for our family. He helped us to discover the miracle of children in a different way.

So how do we share the wonder of this gift with others? How do we shed light on the beauty of adoption and get it off the “very last option to become parents” list? We wish there had been support from our Church community during our adoption process, so we have started an adoption support group at our church. We need to combat the modern culture of ordering up a pregnancy through IVF, sperm banks, gender selection, and all other ways of controlling the biological process. We have the wonderful option of adoption so let us celebrate it and share with others. I will not claim that adoption is easy or that it is for every couple, but I wish more families would consider it instead of the “guaranteed results” at the fertility centers.

God is so Kind, so Generous and Merciful

My husband and I were Evangelical Protestants. We used contraception for the first years of our marriage. That was, we believed at the time, the most responsible thing to do. We were taught not to become pregnant until we were financially “ready,” and then it was probably most responsible to have only two children. More than that, and you would find it difficult to be a “good” parent. Having more than two children, we would also risk being “selfish.” I, however, was willing to take that risk. My dream was to have many children. My husband’s dream was to have two. That, he hoped, would be our family. That would be our responsible plan.

But then, that was not God’s ultimate plan for us. I look back on those days and think of myself as, hard as it is to say, arrogant — to believe that my plan, our plan, could be “better” than whatever God would have planned for us. But I really did not understand, nor had I ever heard, the Catholic teachings of God’s plans of procreation, of sexuality, and of the gift of children.

When we decided we were ‘ready” for children, we found we had infertility problems. After many months without contracepting, we were finally blessed with our first child, and then subsequently suffered our first miscarriage. More infertility, and finally we were blessed with a second child. After several years, I was able to convince my husband to try for just one more child. We had, however, years with more miscarriages.

After four miscarriages (the pregnancies were achieved through infertility treatments and medications), we were told by the doctor that I would never give birth to another child, and so we adopted. My husband was reluctant at best when we began the process, and only came around because he realized how desperately I wanted another child. The day our baby arrived, however, she became the light of my husband’s life, and that light has only become brighter with time. They adore each other, and God created this special relationship, just as he had created our first two children. At this point, my husband told me, no more adoptions. Our family was complete. While his decision saddened me, for the first few months of our new baby’s life, I was too distracted by the carpools, after school sports, diapers, and nap times to really absorb the finality of his decision to close our family at this point.

Then God opened it again. One day, when my husband was away on a business trip, I went to the drugstore to purchase something I never thought I would ever buy again — a home pregnancy test. Without any fertility treatments, my body was beginning to show all the signs of pregnancy. I felt numb — if this were true, it most likely meant I would have to live through the devastation of miscarriage again. How would I ever get through this yet another time, I wondered.

The test was positive, and I knew my husband wouldn’t believe me — he would think it was a practical joke. In fact, he did laugh when I told him, but soon the truth settled in on both of us that I was indeed pregnant, and we would, in all likelihood, have another miscarriage.

But God is so kind, so generous and merciful. And He allowed us to give birth to our last child. He was born strong and healthy, and he is truly our miracle baby.
I believe that the gift of this baby was, in part, God’s way of showing us that it is indeed He who is in control. His love for us is greater than we could ever imagine. And His plans for us are greater, as well.

After our last baby was born, we came to the Catholic Church, by the grace of God, and through the writings of Pope John Paul the Great. The Pope’s theology of the body explains the great love God has for us, and how He allows us to participate with Him in His creation. We learned that it is a great privilege to partner with God in the creation of His precious children. We are grateful for this gift, and we are grateful, as well, for His bringing us into the fullness of the faith, in His Holy Roman Catholic Church.

Submitted from Virginia