Why I Hate/Like/Love NFP after Miscarriage

I’ve said before that my husband and I practice natural family planning (NFP) and it brings us closer together. Boy has that perspective turned upside down (and back again) over the last 12 months.

Before & After

It wasn’t always hard. For a long time, it was just plain easy.

In the early years of our marriage, NFP gave me the tools to understand my body. It empowered me to embrace my natural functioning and to admire the efficiency and the beauty of the female body. And it helped my husband and me respect that nature very deeply—to work with it instead of fighting against it. It made us value one another more.

When we wanted to start trying for a baby, the knowledge we had from using NFP for so long made it blessedly easy. And after we had our first child, it helped me see how my body recovered and how my fertility affected so many other components of my daily feelings and physiological experiences. We successfully used NFP to space our pregnancies. The postpartum period isn’t easy for so many reasons, and the complexity of managing NFP during that time is one of them—but we came out just fine.

It was after my son was born that things got trickier. The postpartum hormones hit me hard that time, and I found it difficult to connect with my husband—I felt so much more like a mother and less like a wife. Between those feelings and some other circumstances, NFP was a point of frustration between us. We fought against it and wished we could control it. But, of course, we couldn’t. That’s not how it works.

Even then, NFP did provide structure where we needed it. It gave us accountability and guidelines that helped us improve and do better for one another. And it took off some of the pressure we were putting on ourselves, on things that we gave too much or too little importance.

But, like many aspects of my life, my perspective on NFP was divided into a Before and an After by our miscarriages.

Before we lost our babies, NFP was a sometimes challenging, but overall very rewarding pursuit.

After we lost our babies, if only for a while, NFP was a difficult reality I struggled not to resent.

When the Mind and the Body Disagree

It was painful to hear my OBGYN try to tell me that my pregnancy tests might’ve been “false positives” when I had my first loss. NFP made it painful because I knew, very intimately, how my body worked and that I’d conceived that cycle.

It was painful to watch my body go right back to normal after that experience, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. (Although it was also a bit of a relief, not living in limbo.)

The next time we conceived, it was painful to see 8 weeks of healthy pregnancy go down the drain when the first warning signs appeared. And it crushed us to say goodbye to those babies, too.

Years of charting and researching fertility burdened me with the knowledge that there was, very likely, something wrong with me that led to our losses. And when I sent my charts to my NFP instructor, she confirmed that something was off. Something I missed. Something I felt I should’ve seen as a warning. Something that told me I failed to protect my babies.

Then, months of charting and seeing no improvement made me resentful of my body and NFP. There were days I wished for blissful ignorance, but at the same time, I was petrified of doing something wrong and putting more babies—not to mention my husband and myself—at risk of another miscarriage. Practicing NFP was excruciating, but the alternative—throwing caution to the wind—was unthinkable. It was an incredibly stressful place to be.

After I saw a NaproTechnology doctor—someone specially trained in natural, life-affirming treatments for infertility and miscarriage, and familiar with the Creighton method of fertility charting—and started supplementing, my cycles did improve. I was happy to see it—happy to see our odds of a healthy pregnancy becoming stronger again. But it was also a painful reminder that my body wasn’t doing it right on its own anymore.

Choosing Beauty

Now that the grief isn’t so fresh and we’re making strides toward healthier fertility, it’s easier to see the positive aspects of NFP again. I know that I’m fortunate to have had this knowledge and these resources, so that we could be empowered to spot a problem and work to resolve it rather than keep trying and failing on our own.

Empowerment isn’t easy. It’s not a hand-out and it isn’t a magic wand that makes taking the reins on life simple. Ignorance is easy—but it’s also empty. Empowerment is what gives us the energy and the skills to do what is right, effective, and good. But that’s a lot of responsibility, and sometimes the weight of it can be so very heavy.

For now, my husband and I are trying to see NFP like we’re trying to see life these days: as a gift that can’t be taken for granted, that must be enjoyed moment by moment, that is out of our control but within our capacity to manage together.

If you’ve experienced a loss, please don’t lose hope. Please hang on, with every last bit of strength you have, to the promise of renewal and understanding and recovery. Have faith, do your best, and love your family. Everything else will follow.

Why Motherhood Is Scary (And That Doesn’t Go Away)

You know that feeling you get in an interview—or awkward icebreaker activity at work, at school, or elsewhere—when someone asks you to “Tell me a little about yourself”? That sense of standing at the mouth of the Grand Canyon and being asked to pick out a single rock that best exemplifies it?

I hate that feeling.

When people ask me to tell them about myself, I find it gobs easier to talk about the people, things, and pursuits I love, rather than many distinct personality traits of my own. It’s hard for me to explain “who I am” in isolation.

I don’t like to talk about myself. But I do like to talk about the things I like or dislike, and I think they say a lot about me.

That’s natural, because as God’s children, we are defined by love. It makes us who we are.

Unfortunately, we are also very deeply motivated by fear. We don’t generally talk about the things that scare us upon introducing ourselves. But our deepest fears do have an insidious way of affecting our choices and coloring our thoughts. That’s a reality we must all learn to acknowledge, no matter our vocation.

Resisting Change and Grasping for Control

If I had to pick one word to describe what it’s like to become a mother, I’d say change. And for someone like me—an introverted homebody who’s prone to worry and sentimentality—an experience dominated by change is also defined by an undercurrent of fear.

I hate change. It unsettles me. It makes it difficult to be myself. This is something I struggle with very deeply, because I know change can be good. But I like things to be smooth and low-key, and I stress easily when they aren’t.

I’ve never thought of myself as a control freak, but over the last year I’ve realized that this aversion to change is tied to a quiet desire to be in control of things.

I don’t know which came first—do I hate change because I need control or do I need control because I hate change?—but I do know that both of these qualities are vices for me. The truth is that we are in control of very little in this world. To think otherwise is hubris. To fear it is pointless.

The Unsettled Feeling at the Heart of Motherhood

I know that too much control and too little change wouldn’t be good for me, but it’s hard to stamp down this instinctive fear I have. Unfortunately, this weakness is not at all conducive to a joyful experience with motherhood. Whoops.

Motherhood is defined by change because every day is a transition. Our children grow so quickly, and our bodies and families and emotions change so frequently, that it’s impossible to pin down a definition of “normal” that will last for more than a very brief period before it needs rewriting.

Morning sickness becomes aches and pains. Pains become labor. Labor becomes delivery. Newborns become infants, become toddlers, become preschoolers, become kids and tweens and teens and full-blown adults.

A mother’s heart is a stormy sea. This is often a good thing—the blessings that drop in to churn these waters are full of active, bustling life and they are beautiful. But rarely does beautiful mean easy, and we moms go through a lot to bring our babies up into well-formed adults.

So whether it’s the crazy sleep schedules of an infant, the ever-changing preferences of a toddler, the hormonal mood swings of a teenager, or the far-flung independence of adult children, there is simply no time to pause and breathe and forget the chaos when you’re a mother. And there’s no time to get used to each flavor of that chaos, either, because it changes every hour.

And, of course, we can control none of this. Our babies will do or not do or feel or not feel or say or not say whatever comes to their beautiful little minds, with or without our approval. And as they get older, their self-sufficiency means we have even less of a hand in their actions—and the consequences they will face for those actions.

Motherhood Relinquish Quote

So yes, motherhood is change. Motherhood is letting go. And those are scary things. It means that we must be responsible for our children’s lives, and yet relinquish those lives to the hands of God and the story of their sweet souls. We hold ourselves deeply accountable for their joy, but we can do nothing to permanently impress it upon them. We can only hold their warm little hands and hope for the best.

Our love makes us want to bring them in close and protect them from the world and walk their path for them. But we can’t. And that’s the fear that defines being a mom.

Living in this Moment

So far, in my few years as a mom, the only balm I’ve found for that aching fear is to live in and enjoy each moment with my children. But that can be hard to do, too.

Selfishness makes it hard (“this got you to sleep yesterday; why can’t you sleep for me today?”). A lack of focus makes it hard (says the mom who scrolls through Facebook far too often). Impatience makes it hard (“when are you going to stop throwing every meal I make for you onto the floor?”).

Comparison is the enemy of confidence.

I’ve said that before, but I think it’s an important lesson for so many aspects of motherhood. We become downtrodden when we compare ourselves to other moms. We become discouraged when we compare our methods to the ones in all the parenting books.

Likewise, we torture ourselves when we compare one moment to the next. It’s common knowledge that, when it comes to littles, what worked yesterday probably won’t cut it today—and what gets the job done today will crash and burn tomorrow.

So I’ve had to learn to stop asking myself what if?; to stop wondering why one child develops so differently from another; to stop hoping that this will be the night or the naptime that begins a new, easier phase; to stop being afraid that my picky eater will never enjoy a real meal without a fight; to worry about whether this bad day will become my child’s earliest memory. The examples go on and on.

This applies in other areas of life, too. It’s hard to be grateful for what’s in front of you—to really enjoy it—if you’re too busy being nervous about or anxious for the next thing.

Fear is not always an enemy; it’s a healthy thing. But it cannot define us because, if we let it, it will control us. And that is not the life we were made to live.

In the moments when I’m failing to enjoy what’s before me instead of worrying about what isn’t—to embrace what I am given, good or bad, instead of grasping for what I cannot change—I pray.

Saint Padre Pio said something wonderfully simple about this: “Pray, hope, and don’t worry. Worry is useless. God is merciful and will hear your prayer.”

Sometimes I pray hard and long. Other times, when I don’t have the energy or I’m too bogged down by my fear or self-centeredness, I can barely squeak out a Glory Be or a “God help me.” But every time, no matter what, it helps. If I lean into it and let the words wash over me, it helps.

That’s the relief that defines being a child of God.

 

Why I Don’t Agonize Over the News (And I Don’t Feel Bad About It)

Thanks to a tip from my sister-in-law, my husband and I have been watching NBC’s The Good Place lately. (It’s funny and I highly recommend—catch up on Netflix and Hulu).

Minimizing any spoilers, there’s some conversation in the show right now about how difficult it is for people to be good in the modern world. The simplest parts of life are so complicated and global that even our smallest choices can have drastic consequences—whether we see them or not. One episode used an easy example: simply buying a tomato at the local Piggly Wiggly might mean you’re inadvertently supporting pesticide use and unfair working conditions in communities far away.

Too true. Modern life is stressful, isn’t it?

You wonder if each item of clothing you buy was crafted by a child forced into hard labor. You wonder if your eggs were laid by chickens living a bleak life on factory farms. You wonder if your preferred brand of baby shampoo contributes money to a non-profit organization you deeply dislike. You wonder if your charitable donations are going to the cause itself or just lining executives’ pockets. You wonder if the homeless man asking for your spare change might turn around and spend it on drugs. You wonder if you’re poisoning the water table by using bleach on a stubborn stain.

You wonder and wonder and wonder.

The guilt is everywhere, isn’t it? Certainly it’s on Facebook, where everyone shares idealist memes and posts pictures of their creative protest signs and “5 favorite ways to live more sustainably.” It’s on the news, garish in its display of the very worst of what’s happening in the world (giving no attention to the many, many good things that happen every minute of every day) and haranguing us for the violence and injustices of society. It’s probably in your family or groups of friends, where everyone has an opinion to share. And it’s always on your heart, making you question your choices in the quiet moments, when everything you’ve done wrong in a given day replays across your mind’s eye.

But the thing is that your life, that beautiful and complicated thing with all its individual struggles and triumphs, is stressful all on its own. Justifiably so.

You worry about earning enough to support your family, or supporting your burnt-out spouse in his or her zealous efforts to do so even while you’re running on fumes at home. You worry about raising up good, happy children who will be kind to others and love themselves as God loves them. You worry about voicing the Truth, even when it makes you unpopular, and nurturing your soul. You worry about coordinating childcare, travel, school, passion projects, home maintenance, personal development, meal plans, inboxes, outboxes, taxes, and extracurriculars at the same time, all the time. You worry about managing calendars and maintaining relationships and being fully present for the people you love even when you have a million other things on your mind.

You worry and worry and worry.

There’s just so much on your plate.

I have an unpopular opinion to confess, and I’m sharing it in the hopes it helps other moms feel less guilty when they simply can’t keep up with it all.

I don’t watch the news and I rarely scroll through headlines. I don’t know what the latest food pyramid (is it still a pyramid?) looks like, and I don’t know who’s up for a Nobel Peace Prize or why. I don’t run into every debate I come across to evangelize aloud to my peers. I don’t inspect every ingredient list or research every brand I buy. And most of the time, I don’t feel bad about it.

For a time, I tried to do these things. I tried to keep up with the intricate goings-on of the big, wide world around me, to see the many unseen consequences of my actions and take more ownership of those consequences.

And can I be honest? It was depressing. There was so much bad right in front of me. It left me feeling downtrodden and defeated—beaten down by the many sad realities we’ve made for ourselves in this very flawed world.

What’s worse was that it stole my optimism from me. I believe very deeply that we are all made to be good—we are all given an indelible soul and created in the image and likeness of Love itself. We are all God’s children.

Chasing every negative strand down its inevitable rabbit hole made that so much harder to see. No one was covering the happy things, and I was losing the forest for the trees.

Beyond all that, I was simply running low on time. My kids needed me. My husband needed me. My home, job, and extended family needed me. I needed me. I needed to invest in those things, and the additional time and energy had to come from somewhere.

So I don’t feel obligated to pull the thread of each and every decision I make, testing to see how thoroughly my positive intent unravels into a net negative effect. And I don’t think you should, either.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t live a life of carelessness or solitary self-interest. I buy organic for many grocery segments and have a personal commitment to free-range eggs. I avoid some of the more blatantly irresponsible brands (which, often, are too expensive anyway). I donate items instead of trashing them, I recycle, I buy secondhand where it makes sense, and I teach my toddlers not to be wasteful. I’m trying to prioritize cleaning and self-care products that feature natural ingredients. I donate to people and causes in need. I tell the Truth and live it in full view of my neighbors. I am not blind to what’s happening in the world my children will inherit.

But these are choices I make in an effort to care for my family more responsibly. They aren’t hard rules I punish myself for breaking or hold against others who don’t share them.

We live in a very big, very troubled world. And the reality is that we are each a brief blip on the global radar. For most of us, it will be difficult—if not impossible—to have an influence so notable that our names will be recorded in history books.

But do you know what part of your world is very small and very impressionable? What part of your world is fundamentally influenced by you and the choices you make?

Your family.

I think Saint Teresa of Calcutta said it best. Upon winning the Nobel Peace Prize, she was asked how we can promote world peace. Her response? “Go home and love your family.”

If marriage and parenthood are your vocations, the ripple effect of your influence on the world—named or not—begins at home. It begins with the love you share with your spouse and the love you instill in your children.

So be a good citizen of the world, but do not obsess over the world or its affairs. This world is not your home.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:2

Relativism and the Erosion of Truth

We are creatures of need.

At our most basic level, we must eat, drink, seek shelter, stay warm. A little higher up on this hierarchy of needs, we must feel safe from violence and secure in our pursuits. Above that there’s the need for social belonging. Next is respect: we crave the recognition of others and, more importantly, positive self-esteem. Finally, there’s self-actualization: the point at which we realize our full potential.*

Most of us would recognize these needs as simple truths, and it’s obvious that the higher you climb on this pyramid, the more difficult it is to meet each need. Achieving each is dependent on securing the previous, and so life becomes an arduous endeavor for fulfillment.

In our lifetimes, we develop tactics for meeting those needs as best we can. Sometimes we do things right: we prioritize properly to set and achieve positive goals. Other times, we choose shortcuts: bad habits that provide quick satisfaction in lieu of putting in the work to reach big-picture fulfillment.

Relativism—the view that there is no objective right or wrong, and that each of us can decide the truth for ourselves—is our culture’s shortcut. It’s how we bridge the gap between what we should do and what we want to do, without facing the challenges inherent to the disconnect that sometimes exists there. In fact, it’s how we convince ourselves that there is, in fact, no disconnect. Because how can you claim that anyone should do anything when there’s no Absolute Truth at all?

*Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist who developed this framework, later went on to say that “self-transcendence”—in which we pursue some higher, altruistic, spiritual goal, outside of ourselves—is the actual penultimate dimension of need. Ironically, Maslow was an atheist. But doesn’t this theory establish the importance of faith? What better way to explain, in secular terms, why the pursuit of God’s will is the natural end to which our everyday behaviors must be the means?

Cognitive Dissonance

To dig into this further, we need to understand that our minds are averse to what we call cognitive dissonance. In a way, this means that we want our beliefs and behaviors always to be in harmony.

For example, say you believe that “people with anxiety are weak.” But then your sister—who has overcome some immense obstacles, including raising a child with extensive medical needs—confesses to you that she’s been seeing a therapist and has a prescription for Xanax after a recent, debilitating bout of panic attacks. Deep down, your reactive behavior is to judge her: Wow, and here I thought she seemed so together.

On some level, though, there’s a disconnect here that would bother you: How can I judge my sister as weak when I know her to be strong? How can someone so strong struggle with a condition that afflicts only the weak? Your mind would want to correct it, likely via one of three tactics:

  • #1: Fundamentally changing one or more of your relevant beliefs (e.g., accepting that anxiety affects even very strong people, or that your sister is actually a weak person);
  • #2: Gathering new information that reduces the dissonance by outweighing, or objectively disproving, your original belief (e.g., discovering scientific research showing that, in fact, even very successful and otherwise happy caregivers are commonly afflicted with anxiety disorders); or
  • #3: Reducing the importance of your original belief (e.g., realizing that you shouldn’t care at all about how weak a person with anxiety may seem—it’s not your business anyway).

Arguably the most difficult of these methods is the first one. To change your belief that anxiety is for the weak, you’d have to abandon your own paradigms and cease the automatic way in which you judge a man who is too nervous to drive a car (Can’t he just suck it up and run his own errands?). To change your belief that your sister is strong, you’d have to somehow ignore the years of first-hand interactions with her that have made her resilience obvious.

It’s not easy to completely overturn our fundamental beliefs or habitual behaviors. It’s one thing to convince yourself that perhaps you didn’t know enough about a subject (tactic #2) or placed too much importance on it (tactic #3); it’s quite another to admit that you’ve been outright wrong all along.

Of course, in this example, the mental exercise of correcting dissonance can have a positive outcome: it can help us overcome negative stereotypes and become more understanding of the people around us. But this instinct for mental harmony can also become a crutch that helps us subvert our core belief systems.

Dissonance Between Friends

Now, let’s look at a conversation which commonly ends in some pervasive, relativistic platitude like “that wouldn’t be right for me, but it’s not my place to tell you what to do.”

Say Timothy and Vince are good friends. They’ve known each other since high school, and are now in their late forties with good careers and healthy families. Both attended church together as teens, and they were married in that same church just a couple of years apart. Timothy comes from divorced parents who fought viciously during their separation; his relationship with his father, who virtually disappeared from his life after the legal battle, has never been the same. Vince comes from a traditional family and his parents, who have both died, were together for 40 years.

Vince invites Timothy out to catch up; it’s been a while since they watched a game together. During a commercial break, Vince surprises Timothy with a confession.

Vince: “So Jane and I have decided to see other people.”

Timothy: “Oh, wow, man. I’m sorry to hear that. Have you decided who’s going to keep the house?”

Vince: “No, no, it’s not like that. We’re going to stay together because she’s not working and can’t afford to move anywhere on her own, plus keep the kids. We’ve just sort of lost interest in each other, and this seems like the simplest solution.”

Timothy: “Huh—I see. How did all of this come about? How did you guys even start that conversation?”

Vince: “Well, it’s an old story, I guess. There’s this new attorney at work and she made me feel like a hound again, you know? I haven’t felt like that in ages. It wasn’t long before things between us were getting heavy, and Jane found some text messages on my phone. I came clean right away; told her I’ve just been feeling like things between us weren’t really working anymore. I asked her, ‘Why waste time feeling unhappy when we could try something new? Life is short.’ It’s not like we’d even touched each other in months. There was just nothing there. She was real quiet but didn’t put up a fight. She didn’t want to figure out how to go back to work, and I didn’t want to miss out on the kids, so I told her we should just stick around but do our own things.”

Timothy: “Jeez. And she was okay with all of that?”

Vince: “Yeah. I mean, she hasn’t said no yet. So far neither of us has voiced any complaints. The kids don’t have to find out. And this way Jane doesn’t have to worry about me anymore. We can just take charge of our own lives and keep living together like we always have. We’ve basically been like roommates for a while anyway. Why not make it official?”

Timothy: “Wow. Well, I could never do that, but I hope it works out for you, man.”

What thought process might Timothy be trying to cycle through here? Let’s break it down.

Timothy has always seen Vince as someone who was committed to his family; his kids go to private schools and have big college funds, he was never an excessive workaholic, and his wife always seemed happy that she could stay home and spend time with the kids instead of having to work full time like Maggie, Timothy’s wife, does, to help make ends meet. Vince went on and on at his bachelor party about how much he loved his bride, and he didn’t do anything sketchy there and hasn’t since (until now). Plus, according to Vince, Jane was fine with it. She was going along with the arrangement “without any complaints.” And maybe it was better for the kids that their parents would still appear together, and not fight in court for the next several years.

Still, things aren’t really in harmony here. Timothy believes that parents who leave marriages tend to miss out on the closest possible relationships with their children (like his own dad did). He also believes that marriage is precious, and that it shouldn’t be entered into—or set aside—lightly (especially after seeing his mom suffer through her divorce from his dad). Finally, he believes that Vince is a good provider for his children, and that he genuinely appreciates his family. But he’s not seeing these beliefs line up, given Vince’s choices.

Timothy can try to respond to this dissonance in a few ways:

  • He can acknowledge that Vince’s behavior doesn’t match up with Timothy’s belief in him as a good family man, thus making a new judgment that Vince’s moral framework no longer matches his own (the consequences of which could involve losing Vince as a friend, or confronting Vince about his actions);
  • He can tell himself that his understanding of marriage and why it’s important for a family’s foundation is too narrow, and can be broadened to include the co-parenting and co-habitating arrangement that Vince is describing (after all, it seems to be working for Vince so far, and Vince has more exposure to healthy marriage than Timothy does, given their parents’ situations); or
  • He can reduce the importance of his opinions altogether (because aren’t they just that—opinions?), and choose to believe Vince when he says he isn’t harming anyone and should be able to make his own decisions.

Which of those options sounds like it involves the least mental and social gymnastics?

Who Am I to Judge?

Relativism so quickly takes root in us precisely because that last option is easiest.

It’s incredibly difficult to confront—or, worse, lose—a friend over a personal and tender subject like this. It’s difficult to change our own beliefs across the board, based on the possibly sketchy experiences of another person. But it’s not that hard to think ‘It’s none of my business,’ and simply ignore some potential red flags, because we’d rather trust our friends and maintain the status quo.

Taking that one step further, it almost seems like the better way to operate, doesn’t it? Relativism seems like a perfect way to “live and let live.” We don’t get in other people’s business, and they don’t get in ours—we simply coexist. Why shouldn’t we accept our differences of opinion, and choose to live and work beside our neighbors without deigning to think our choices are more valid than theirs?

In truth, though, taking a relativistic stance is not an act of love. It’s an act of cowardice.

Edward Sri, in his book Who Am I to Judge? Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love, summarizes this truth well: “Relativism … divides us. It trains us to focus on ourselves and ignore the people around us—what they’re going through, how they’re living, and ways they might need our help.”

relativisim quote 1

Thus, relativism becomes a philosophy of self-centeredness. Sri goes on: “In many ways, relativism paralyzes us. So we sit back and do nothing, and let our friends and relatives damage their lives.”

The neglect goes both ways. Don’t we all believe that the people we love help make us better? But how can they if we demand their apathetic, unconditional acceptance of even our worst behaviors?

A New Normal

Sri’s book discusses how relativism dominates our current culture, why it came to be that way, and how we can confront it. The short of it is that we’ve traded the classical moral code for a new one—one that can be summarized as “minding your own business.” Because, Sri notes, despite a common refrain to the contrary, relativism does call us to project an ethical framework onto others:

At first glance, [relativism] seems like a good way to promote tolerance of diverse views. But we must understand very clearly that relativism, in fact, is not value neutral. Relativism itself is a certain way of looking at the world. And this view—that there is no right or wrong—is being imposed on us. In other words, the belief that there is no moral truth is itself a point of view. And those who do not agree with this relativistic perspective are being forced to play by its rules or risk being labeled as judgmental if they uphold traditional moral values. (emphasis original)

Joseph Ratzinger—also known as Pope Benedict XVI—also talked about this trend in Without Roots: “The more relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, the more it tends toward intolerance, thereby becoming a new dogmatism. … It prescribes itself as the only way to think and speak—if, that is, one wishes to stay in fashion. Being faithful to traditional values and to the knowledge that upholds them is labeled intolerance.” Ultimately, he concludes, “I think it is vital that we oppose this imposition … which threatens freedom of thought as well as freedom of religion.”

As Catholics, we live tenets of faith that are often unpopular at best, and ridiculed at worst. We believe in the utmost respect for life at all stages, despite circumstances that may make this position inconvenient or painful. We believe in sexual ethics as the truest expression of love and fulfillment of God’s design for men and women. We believe in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We believe in doing good for our neighbors. We believe in setting aside materialism. We believe in our obligation to pursue, respect, and submit to the sacraments in many facets of life, remaining loyal to the Mass, to marriage, to confession, to religious life.

All of this means that we believe in a moral framework that cannot be boxed in as a relative truth. It is universal. And it is our responsibility to live and defend it at every opportunity, with kindness and firmness, within our Church and outside of it.

This is, sometimes, an intensely difficult responsibility. Some of us are better at it than others. (I’ve always been the “live by example” type myself, often choosing the easier route of simply living by this moral framework in the hopes that I will influence others subtly—and deftly avoiding direct confrontation at all costs. Not the bravest form of evangelization, I admit.) But no matter how we do it, it rarely makes us popular.

There are few more efficient avenues to the erosion of truth than the relativism that dominates popular thinking in our communities. By trying hard to swim up that stream and resist its pull, we are not pushing away our neighbors—on the contrary, we’re trying to bring them home. And we are not lifting ourselves up as “better” people—just hoping for a better world in which our own children can grow well.

 

Lessons from the Babies I Never Met: What ‘Fiat’ Really Means

This is the third part in a three-post reflection on miscarriage. I wrote this post a few months ago, shortly after our second miscarriage—when the wounds were still fresh. I wasn’t ready to publish it right away, but I’m publishing the whole series now, in October, in recognition of National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Read part one and part two.

I had a second miscarriage this year. I was eight weeks along with identical twins. I lost them at home after days spent convincing myself everything would be okay.

We conceived this pregnancy immediately after our early loss with Gabriel; our doctor told us there was no reason to wait, and we missed that baby and were hoping that welcoming another would help us heal. It was rejuvenating to be pregnant again, but I was so scared. My tests were dark; things seemed fine. I had a good feeling about this one. I felt healthy and pregnant and maternal. I took good care of myself, with a better diet and more mindful exercise than usual. I was settling into another pregnancy.

At eight weeks exactly, I started spotting. I immediately panicked, though it was light, and headed to the ER. Four hours later, with my husband at my side, I heard “It’s twins” from the ER doctor. I don’t even remember how she phrased it; I just remember the shock and worry and awe.

We had a small subchorionic hemorrhage—a bit of bleeding at the implantation site. It wasn’t a major concern, but it was causing the bleeding I’d been seeing and would need to be checked again soon. That was the good news.

The scary news was that the twins appeared to be mono-mono: they shared a placenta (mono-chorionic) and, more frighteningly, they shared an amniotic sac (mono-amniotic). Worse, their heartbeats were slow: only 83 and 87 beats per minute, when eight-week babies should have heart rates well above 100 bpm.

The ER doctor seemed unconcerned, but Erik and I knew these were not good signs. I called my regular OB on the way home from the hospital, and she was not optimistic: mono-mono twins were incredibly risky and most often had sad outcomes. The potential of our babies becoming entangled and cutting off one another’s connections to their shared placenta was high. She told us to expect a high probability of miscarriage or life-threatening complications down the road, if the diagnosis was confirmed.

Erik and I were devastated, but tried to remain positive. We did our own research and discovered that mono-mono structures are often misdiagnosed so early. My bleeding became a bit lighter. We had plenty of reason to expect to welcome twins in seven short months (or less). I wondered how we’d tell our families.

But then the bleeding picked up again. And then I had some pelvic discomfort that felt unsettlingly like a period. And then my babies were gone from me.

My doctor—who must see this type of tragedy on a horrifyingly regular basis—told me, when I called in tears, that there was nothing we could do but wait and see, and confirm with a follow-up ultrasound on Monday (two torturous, long days later).

I understood this. I knew that it would be more merciful on our family to stay home and mourn. I knew that, if it was such a high-risk pregnancy, it likely would only have been terribly difficult and painful as we moved to the more advanced stages of pregnancy. But that didn’t ease any of the pain.

My husband and I wept. I hid in our bedroom for hours. I skipped meals and ate ice cream when hunger snuck up on me. I tried to accept what I knew, deep down, even though some small part of my mind wondered if I might still have just one of those babies with me.

On Monday, the doctor told us that my womb was empty of anything valuable—just a bit of blood remained. This was good news, she said, because I’d passed everything naturally and wouldn’t need any further procedures. But I felt barren. Empty. Crushed.

We contacted our parish and set up a funeral for the Fourth of July. The deacon and priest presiding graciously included Gabriel along with the twins, now named Karol (after John Paul II) and Julian (after Julian of Norwich). We still don’t know if our babies were boys or girls. We won’t until, someday, God willing, we meet them beyond Heaven’s gate.

We buried them. We picked out a headstone. We accepted that our summer would be empty of pregnancy hormones and a round belly and expectation. We accepted that we could not tell our daughter that she had more siblings on the way. We realized our son would see his second birthday before he met a new baby brother or sister. We began to understand that, in the most profound way we’d ever experienced, our plans did not match up with God’s plan for us. It has been a frightening revelation.

But we have chosen to say “yes” to His plan. We, though drowning in the sorrow of lives lost and babies unmet, are clinging to our faith in God to carry us through. We have no idea of the consequences of these events, but we have given our fiat to the Father and accepted that His will is greater than ours.

Inspired by Mary (who gave a truly categorical “yes” to God when the archangel Gabriel visited her), I have done my very best to say to God: “let it be done to me according to Your will.” I am trying to recognize the simple truth that I have very little control over this world and my place in it. I am human and I am small; but God is love and He is great. He would not abandon me. He would not wish sadness upon me. This suffering is not His doing—it’s the sad fact of a broken world, and He only wants me to get through it. He can sanctify me through this pain. And I can only cling to His love and trust His will as I seek healing.

Like the Blessed Mother, I hope that saying “yes” will help me find the grace that I need to see me through these trials. Mary’s path, though she was chosen for such a beautiful gift, was wrought with suffering and confusion. She bore the Holy Infant, and her role in the Savior’s early life was center-stage—but then she had to say goodbye to him in the most painful way imaginable. She had to watch her only son persecuted, abused, and ultimately killed by people for whom he had only boundless love.

My babies knew no pain. They did not see the sin of this world or the folly of its inhabitants. They left the warm embrace of my womb to be nestled in the warm embrace of God. For their peace, I am thankful. I hope that I can share in some small part of it.

Lessons from the Babies I Never Met: Trust

This is the second part in a three-post reflection on miscarriage. I wrote this post many months ago, shortly after our first miscarriage—before we were devastated by another. I wasn’t ready to publish it right away, but I’m publishing the whole series now, in October, in recognition of National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Read part one here.

I had a very early miscarriage this year. So early my doctor called it a “chemical pregnancy.” I was not quite five weeks—there was no chance to see anything on an ultrasound. All the proof we have of that baby was a week’s worth of positive pregnancy tests and a heartbreakingly low, but definitive, blood hCG level. That, and the ache in my heart, and in my husband’s heart, at the baby’s absence now.

That baby matters. Still matters, even though he or she is no longer with us. Even though we never knew him or her. Even though he or she never got to physically feel our love or see the world.

I was home to that baby for a few short weeks. Just as I was home to two children before who, by the grace of God, have grown into the beautiful kids playing in the other room right now. This baby was their brother or sister—a little soul who will forever be a part of our family. This baby matters.

A life so young is difficult to detect. My body knew before my mind and before any test could’ve known. I was particularly thirsty because that baby needed fluids. I was extra hungry because he needed fuel. I had to pee more often because he needed a clean place to grow and my body was working overtime to prepare it for him. I could smell everything because it was my job to keep him away from danger.

I was nervous from the beginning. It took several days longer to get a positive test, compared to my first two pregnancies. And when the tests were positive, they weren’t as dramatic as I wanted. But after a week of steadily, if only slightly, darkening tests, I decided to let go of my anxiety. I joined a due date group on Facebook. I signed up for a new pregnancy app. I found myself touching my belly without thinking. I talked to my new baby. I believed.

And then, just a day or two later, it started. Just a little, at first—enough that it might be okay. But then it was more than that and my doctor told me “this doesn’t sound like a normal pregnancy.” A blood test the next morning confirmed that it was over.

I know God brought this baby home early because this world was not what was best for him. I am thankful that there weren’t any complications for either of us. I am thankful that everything happened so fast, because if it had gone on any longer I don’t know what I would’ve done. But I miss that baby and I wish I could’ve been a better home for him.

We will never—or not in this life, anyway—know if our third child was a boy or a girl. I find myself imagining a boy, so that’s the pronoun I generally use. My husband suggested the name Gabriel; it’s masculine but can be feminized, so it’s neutral enough. The angel Gabriel brought the most profound news to Mary centuries ago. It seemed fitting.

Gabriel will always be a little saint to us; someone who can pray for our family forever and always. We are thankful to have had him, even for such a short time. I will always ache when I think of him, wishing I could’ve been his mother in more numerous and more mindful ways. But I am thankful that God chose me for him, and that I’ve learned so many important lessons from such a devastatingly brief gift.

Gabriel taught me not to take motherhood for granted. It was blessedly easy to bring our first two children into our lives, but I will never again make the mistake of thinking it must be easy to do it again.

Gabriel taught me that I need to learn to make trust a bigger part of my faith. There is no peace without trust in God—or acceptance that I am not in charge of anything, really, in the grand scheme of things. Ultimately, I know it would be a lot harder if I was in charge.

Gabriel taught me what a difference prayer can make. When things started looking scary, we reached out to a handful of people to ask for prayers and support—even though we’d been keeping the pregnancy a secret, as we usually do early on. I sought prayers from many friends in online mommy groups, a safe way to share my fear and sorrow and receive gentle words in return. Almost immediately, I started to feel a little more at peace. I was and am still heartbroken, but those prayers helped me find a little warmth in a cold landscape of loss. That small comfort meant the world to me.

Gabriel taught me that life does go on. There are a lot of things going on for my family right now; we thought we couldn’t handle any more. And then we lost him. But we are still here, and we have children and family and friends who need us. So we must go on, memorializing Gabriel as best we can and honoring him in our own small ways. We are changed, but the world still spins. I wasn’t sure I could handle something like this. But then it happened to me, and I had no choice.

Gabriel taught me that my voice is important. He never had a chance to speak for himself—to announce his presence to the world. But I can make sure his life, though brief, is felt by others. I can use my voice to make sure he is known. And when I suffer over this loss, I can use my voice to ask for help.

Gabriel taught me to lean on my spouse. I wanted so badly to shield my husband from this pain—it broke my heart all over again to see his face when I told him what was happening. But it has felt good to find shelter in him. To know that we’re in this together. It was our love that brought this baby into our family, and in our love we have said goodbye.

We are still thinking of the best ways to remember and honor Gabriel in the long term (if you’ve been here and have suggestions, I’d greatly appreciate hearing whatever you’re comfortable sharing). But for now, these many lessons from him are precious gifts that I will cherish forever. I love you, Gabriel. I miss you. Someday I will hold you in my arms.

Lessons from the Babies I Never Met: Motherhood Evolves

This is the first part in a three-post reflection on miscarriage. I’m publishing these in October, in recognition of National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Read part two here.

For the first time in more than three years, I am neither pregnant nor breastfeeding. It seems like it should be a time to rest and get back to myself. But it is not a break I’ve taken by choice, and I’ve struggled with it immensely.

I had expected to continuously share my body with my children during this season of my life. At first, it was draining—but then it became my groove. I felt strong, knowing my babies depended on me so fundamentally. I felt active in my mothering—capable. It became part of my identity and I didn’t even know it.

My husband and I have hoped for four children and planned to space them tightly. We want them to be close, we want to have them while we’re young and it’s easier on our bodies, and we want to tackle the “baby years” all at once. But life has not gone according to plan. Turns out it’s not really about what we want.

We have five children; only two of them are here with us. Two back-to-back miscarriages this year (including a set of twins) meant we never got to hold our youngest babies.

After we said goodbye, I was so lonely in my own skin. I was longing to feel a life alight within me. I felt empty. Intellectually, I know I am not alone—I have a family who is wonderful in every way, and a husband who would do anything for me. I have two beautiful, healthy children with me each day. But it’s been years since I wasn’t physically connected to my children in some way. And it’s lonely, to not have that anymore.

New motherhood is so primal—so deeply physical. It begins with an overwhelming sense of awe that your body, all on its own, is so ready for something you don’t yet even understand. My body knew instinctively how to be a mother long before my mind made the leap.

Since my miscarriages, I’ve had to learn to trust that my mind—and all its slow adjustments and stress and erratic feelings—is enough for the children I have here with me. But I’ve also learned that my body is as much comfort for them as it’s always been.

I hold their hands. I kiss their ouchies. I snuggle them when nightmares wake them in the night. I change diapers. I show them how to perform increasingly complex tasks on their own, so they can grow into kids and adolescents and adults who can hold their own in the world. I am present.

I know now that a mother’s love is always as physical and visceral as it is emotional and spiritual. This is true at every stage.

Despite the pain, I am immensely thankful for my little saints: Gabriel, Karol, and Julian. And I am glad to know they are praying for our family; that they love us and know they are loved, too. I am also thankful for the opportunity to work with a NaProTechnology doctor who does not discount our losses as “bad luck,” but is supporting us with mindful care to give us the best chance of holding our next baby.

October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. I’m sharing this story today because we don’t want to keep our babies—tiny as they were, briefly as we knew them—a half-secret anymore. I’ll publish a few blog posts reflecting on them in the coming days, to honor them and make them known. They deserve to be known.

If you have suffered from an early loss, like me, and have no one to talk to—please know that you can talk to me. No matter how well we know each other, no matter how recently it happened. If you need a listening ear, or a prayer, or commiseration, or distraction, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line. We are all in this together.

Babies Gabriel, Karol, and Julian—pray for us. I miss you.