The strength in my weakness

I sat in the bathroom sobbing. There was an emptiness, a numbness that was consuming my heart and at times my marriage. It was a slow, engulfing despair that sought to eat away at my hope little by little. It seemed it wouldn’t stop. Every month, I ended up in the bathroom again, sobbing over another negative pregnancy test, the deafening thought echoing in my soul: “You will never be a mother. You are not worthy of becoming a mother.”

I married Nicholas, the love of my life, on Jan. 9, 2016. On that day, we pledged to lovingly accept children from God. We were ready for children and would have been perfectly happy with a honeymoon baby. The morning of our wedding, Nicholas had given me a letter in which the last line read, “Let’s go get married; our children are waiting for us.”

Nobody talks about infertility in marriage preparation. All the information on family planning focuses on avoiding children, and makes it sound incredibly easy to become pregnant. Since I had experienced issues with my cycle at sixteen and had been treated with progesterone therapy at that time, we knew that infertility was a possibility. But we also didn’t think it would be this much of a challenge.

The first month after we were married, I was simply disappointed to find out I wasn’t pregnant. But that quickly turned into five months with no sign of pregnancy. I felt in my gut that something was wrong, and we began seeing Dr. Jason Mattingly, a family practice doctor specializing in Creighton’s Natural Reproductive Technology (NaPro).

A hormone panel confirmed that I still had low progesterone and estrogen, so I began hormone treatment immediately. We hoped that would be the end of it, and that a baby would arrive soon after. Month after month, I went to get my blood drawn and have my hormone levels checked. Each month, I saw negative pregnancy tests. I sobbed. I screamed. I begged. I swore. I prayed.

After a year of infertility, I underwent a hysterosalpingogram, or HSG, which uses an X-ray to check for blockages in the fallopian tubes. Our doctor then had us check for male factor infertility. After that I was put on medication to encourage ovulation. Finally, our doctor said that my symptoms pointed to endometriosis. Since endometriosis can only be diagnosed through surgery, he had us schedule a laparoscopic surgery to confirm and treat any endometriosis.

During September 2017, we traveled to St. Louis to see Dr. Patrick Yeung, who scheduled surgery for me later that week. On Sept. 21, we went to St. Mary’s Hospital after first going to the Basilica to pray. I was nervous, excited and afraid. I hoped for answers. I will never forget Dr. Yeung’s prayer before my surgery. He asked Jesus to let the surgery prove fruitful and requested that Mary guide his hands to bring me healing. Pathology later confirmed the diagnosis of endometriosis. Upon returning home, Nicholas and I decided to focus on growing as a couple before committing to additional intensive fertility treatments.

On Nov. 8, 2017, I was crying in the bathroom yet again. But the cries were different this time. I cried tears of joy, because after 22 months of infertility, our prayers had been answered. Just the month before we had driven to St. Louis for my surgery, and now I was pregnant. I ran out to Target, bought two baby hats, one pink and one blue, and put them in a gift bag on our bed. Nicholas sobbed when he came home and I showed him. He was so astonished when he saw them that actually asked, “Is this a joke?”

Dealing with infertility requires a particular strength. Unlike other crosses involving loss, it cycles each month. Each month begins with both despair and hope. Despair, because the desire for a child is rooted so deeply and the answer is “no” yet again. Simultaneously each month was filled with the possibility of a child. Every month I had to choose to hope again instead of remaining in despair. My cycle became a microcosm of the stages of grief. Infertility is a loss that can’t be quantified; every month, there is mourning, and yet, there has been no concrete loss. The mourning is for what could have been. The mourning is for the answer of “not yet” that comes with a new cycle. But there is a choice: let go of the despair, choose hope, cling to Christ and risk crashing back down; or build an emotional wall and refuse to go through the cycle of grief all over again.

I chose both, at different points. When I built the emotional wall, our marriage and my relationship with Christ suffered. When I chose vulnerability, it was then that I found strength. In my moments of deepest desolation, when I bared my soul to God, sobbing, I found comfort. I will never forget the deep peace that came after I wrote a letter to my future children through tears after my period came yet again. When I opened up to other women, suddenly I heard, “We struggled, too.” And when I allowed my husband to be my rock instead of simply a means to having a child, we found renewed intimacy, hope and strength as a couple. Infertility is particularly difficult because it has no definite end. Choosing to carry the cross of infertility means accepting that the answer may always be, “No, not yet.”

Then, after 698 miles to travel to St. Louis for surgery, over 12 months of blood draws, over 12 months on progesterone and estrogen, nine months of Clomid, two months of Femara, two ultrasounds, one HSG, one laparoscopic surgery for endometriosis, and one year, nine months, and 30 days, the answer was finally, “Yes.”

Although pregnancy was not always easy, I was grateful for every moment of it. Infertility gave me a particular gratitude for the pains, the inconveniences and the unpleasant things that pregnancy brought about. In the end, the tears, blood tests and pregnancy pains were all worth it. Our daughter, Madeleine Immaculata, was born at 4:28 a.m., July 16, 2018, her due date and the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

We experienced immeasurable joy at our daughter’s birth. But, once home, we were confronted with the reality of parenting. Madeleine frequently took over an hour to eat, stopping every few minutes to scream and fuss. It made me wonder what I was doing wrong, and I questioned my worth as a mother. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I felt like a stranger in my postpartum body. My hands, shoulders and back were constantly sore from holding Madeleine in place while feeding her. Sometimes my whole body was stiff and in pain.

I brushed aside the aches and pains until one night, when Madeleine awoke for one of her night feeds, I could hardly get out of bed. Her cries grew louder and louder. When I finally got to her, I couldn’t pick her up out of her crib. I had to wake my husband and have him bring her to me in the rocking chair. Afterwards, he had to take her from me so I could get up. I cried as I held her and fed her, in physical pain as I did so. Something was alarmingly wrong, and it was affecting my ability to care for my daughter.

In November, when Madeleine was just three and a half months old, I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disorder that targets the joints. The doctor explained that it was very likely that my pregnancy followed by the rapid drop in hormones triggered the disease. Once again, I felt betrayed by my body, as I learned that my body was literally attacking itself. The fact that it was likely my pregnancy that triggered the disease added to my feelings of betrayal.

When I learned of my RA, I had to mourn for a while. Even though medication allows for the management of many of my symptoms, it was still a vast change. I wondered how my motherhood would be different without RA. I cried when it was difficult to hold Madeleine for long periods of time, when I struggled to do things as simple as closing the snaps on her pajamas. I cried about being on immunosuppressants indefinitely. Future pregnancies would potentially have to be planned and coordinated with my rheumatologist and OB-GYN, and I cried about that too. I worried that all of this might mean we’d continue having trouble growing our family. I worried about potential long-term effects to my health. But, on the hardest days, when I sobbed, Madeleine would look at me and give me the biggest smiles.

Suddenly, my daughter became one of my biggest sources of fortitude. Seeing her pure joy made me determined that my disease would not define me. I researched all I could about RA. I began eating a Paleo diet to help manage my inflammation. I set a goal of running a Spartan race this summer. I want my daughter to see that suffering and illness can be a source of strength. On days when my symptoms are more difficult, I need only look at Madeleine and see her joyfully playing, giggling and blowing raspberries, and it becomes easy for me to carry this cross. In the early days of my diagnosis, she was very aware when I was upset, and she gave me smiles and giggles at just the right moments.

Motherhood has been more difficult than I ever could have anticipated, and being a mother with an autoimmune disease is something I never could have foreseen. Madeleine, however, has a contagious smile and playful personality that never fail to make me laugh. She loves dancing, making silly sounds, listening to big band music, exploring, reading books and spending time with her dad and me. There has been such a joy in mothering, a joy unlike any other, and it is in that joy that I am reminded of Christ’s love and know that I can carry on.

Through infertility, through motherhood, and through my RA, Nicholas has been my rock. Every week, Nicholas is the one who administers my injections to manage my disease. When it is difficult to pray, the love and support I see in Nicholas reminds me of Christ’s love and gives me the fortitude I need to carry on in my faith and in daily life. When my hands are weak, Nicholas becomes my hands, lovingly carrying out any task I ask of him. And when I am weary of the struggles of motherhood, Nicholas reminds me of the great joys and helps me to refocus myself.

Having fortitude is difficult, not because it requires superhuman strength or will to continue on, but because it requires admitting that you are not enough. Trying to carry our crosses alone inevitably results in failure. Christ gives fortitude in moments of vulnerability. I have found this in the way of consolation after tears, smiles and giggles from my daughter on the hardest days, and kind words of affirmation from my husband after sharing my struggles.

I am grateful for the cross of infertility and, now, my RA. I have learned that with Christ, I am stronger than I ever could have known. I have become closer to my spouse and become a better person because of both of these crosses. Infertility made me a better mother, a mother who views every struggle of motherhood with a particular type of gratitude. Dealing with RA has taught me that spiritual strength can be found in the midst of physical weakness and suffering. Through it all, I have been sustained by my faith and by the love and joy I share with my husband, and now, our beautiful daughter. Even in the darkest moments of suffering, there are still moments of joy. And it is that joy — the joy of a love letter from my spouse, seeing Madeleine giggle for the first time, quiet moments spent in prayer — that has sustained me and been my strength.

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