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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 and part three 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 and part three 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.

Tender and Mild: A Mommy’s Mantra

Back in December, I came across a trend that interested me: choosing a “word of the year” and using it as a guidepost for personal development over a 12-month period.

As someone who has—in 28 years of life—yet to write down a new year’s resolution, keep track of that record, and think about that goal throughout the following year (let alone actually execute on it), this concept caught my eye. It seemed like the perfect alternative to goal-setting for someone who has a knack for procrastinating, tends to be disorganized, and may (if we’re being honest) be a tiny bit lazy here and there.

Turns out, though, that it wasn’t as simple an approach as it seemed.

Words are Hard

There are a lot of words, guys. Like, a quarter of a million of them (in English). Even if you cut that down dramatically and assume just 1 percent are potentially useful, positive, and relevant in this context, that’s still thousands of words to ponder. (How many thousands of words do I even know?)

Thankfully, I’m a lover of words by nature, so mulling them over doesn’t require a ton of mental focus. It can happen in the back of my mind as I go about my day. So I tried to let it happen without too much effort on my part. I didn’t want to overthink this theme for the year; I wanted it to emerge from the shadows of my subconscious and help me learn something about myself.

Ha. Turns out “the shadows of my subconscious” can be pretty sticky. Thus, the difficulty.

After a week or two of this mulling, I kind of gave up. I am impatient. Nothing was shedding any light in those little corners of my mind. Perusing lists of virtues and random word generators wasn’t stirring up any passion for me. I’ve been reading a few chapters of the Bible each day via an email series, and nothing jumped out at me there, either. I figured I’d just go back to my old way of vaguely thinking of things I should do for the year, then go on to achieve my reading challenge and little else.

Advent-ageous

Of course, the moment we stop dwelling on our issues is often the moment that their solutions make themselves known. (Someday, maybe St. Anthony will tell me why we find the little things we’ve lost as soon as we stop looking for them.)

As we settled into the Advent season and I saw the star of the Nativity on the proverbial horizon, I found myself in the very narrow window of time when I actually enjoy listening to Christmas music. For 50ish weeks of the year, I’m simply not in the mood for it. I get so irritated when radio stations are usurped by premature holiday tunes as soon as Halloween is over. But between about December 20 and the Epiphany, I’m as ignited as any Christian by a peaceful rendition of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful.’

‘Silent Night’ is a long-time favorite of mine, and this past season, one of my favorite lines stood out dramatically as I listened: “Holy Infant, so tender and mild.”

Tender and mild. That’s what I need to be.

Being A More Child-like Daughter and Mother

We are called to be Christ-like. And we can be like Him in many ways, if we cling to faith and we try to be our very best. He was as human as we are, after all. But if you’re anything like me, you might be a little intimidated by His divinity in this effort to emulate Him. I have often asked myself a simple but looming question: “How can I, a sinner, try to express in my thoughts, words, or actions the holiness of God?”

The saints have long taught us that this is possible. But the saints can be intimidating sometimes, too, can’t they?

Christ gave us an antidote for this intimidation when He instructed us to have faith like a little child. I did some reading on this last year, and it opened my eyes to the concept. This is a beautiful subject for another day, but for now, let’s put it this way: doesn’t God deserve to be looked upon with the awed eyes, reached for with the soft hands, and loved unconditionally with the blind trust of His children?

I realized that setting “tender and mild” as my theme for 2018 could help me develop this innocent and deep faith in God. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that embracing a child’s unrestricted sense of love and joy would make me a better mom, too.

So, this year, when I find myself dwelling on the grown-up, made-up stresses of daily life; when I lose my patience for whining children who won’t eat their dinner; when I am tempted to put my own exhaustion above my husband’s well-earned need for my attention—in these times and many others, I have a new mantra to repeat in my mind and under my breath:

Tender and mild. Tender and mild. Tender and mild.

So far it seems like a peaceful way to be.

Do you have a word of the year for 2018? How are you embracing it, now that we’re two months into the year? Share it in the comments or on my new Facebook page!

 

Womanhood as Vocation

As humans, we are simultaneously single-minded and easily distracted. Each of us has a past littered with unfulfilled dreams, incomplete goals, and missed opportunities. Every day, we screw up, and it’s often because we’re focused on everything but the right thing. But if our past is untidy with little—or big—mistakes, our futures are loaded with chances to make it right.

There is, really, only one way to fulfill our life’s purpose, whatever that vocation may be—and that’s to do it with our whole hearts.

Loving Womanhood

For me, vocation is a multifaceted thing. But, as I’ve grown up and matured into adulthood, I find that it comes down to one simple thing: I am proud to be a woman. Although I, like many other women of today, struggle at times with body image, I also feel honored to have the feminine genius gifted to me. It is a beautiful thing to be female; there is so much about womanhood that is precious and exclusive. I find that, despite the fact that I’m far from the most ladylike or traditionally effeminate of women, this inherent part of my identity is at the core of my vocations; it is what makes me called and qualified for the greater purposes that I see in life.

When I read Pope Saint John Paul II’s Letter to Women—originally distributed in the summer of 1995, when I was just a girl—my heart swells with pride. It’s the good kind of pride, though—the one that makes me so thankful for who I am, and so honored to be counted among the many beautiful and amazing women who grace my life and the world every single day.

I know it’s a bit late to be celebrating International Women’s Day, but I want each of those women to hear these words from a humble man, a pope and a saint, who dearly loved us all:

Thank you, women who are mothers! You have sheltered human beings within yourselves in a unique experience of joy and travail. This experience makes you become God’s own smile upon the newborn child, the one who guides your child’s first steps, who helps it to grow, and who is the anchor as the child makes its way along the journey of life.

Thank you, women who are wives! You irrevocably join your future to that of your husbands, in a relationship of mutual giving, at the service of love and life.

Thank you, women who are daughters and women who are sisters! Into the heart of the family, and then of all society, you bring the richness of your sensitivity, your intuitiveness, your generosity and fidelity.

Thank you, women who work! You are present and active in every area of life—social, economic, cultural, artistic, and political. In this way you make an indispensable contribution to the growth of a culture which unites reason and feeling, to a model of life ever open to the sense of “mystery,” to the establishment of economic and political structures ever more worthy of humanity.

Thank you, consecrated women! Following the example of the greatest of women, the Mother of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, you open yourselves with obedience and fidelity to the gift of God’s love. You help the Church and all mankind to experience a “spousal” relationship to God, one which magnificently expresses the fellowship which God wishes to establish with his creatures.

Thank you, every woman, for the simple fact of being a woman! Through the insight which is so much a part of your womanhood you enrich the world’s understanding and help to make human relations more honest and authentic.

The Journey Here

I’d be lying if I said that discovering this appreciation for my gender was easy or quick. The daily cultural pressures imposed on every woman in today’s world are heavy, unjust, and sometimes just plain repulsive. We are made to feel like lesser people if we don’t look like Barbie. We are expected to give of our physical selves before our partners are expected to truly appreciate it. We are told, even by fellow women, that we should live under a cloud of shame, and even that sacrificing our children can enrich our lives. We are given prescriptions to disrupt our bodies’ natural and beautiful functions like children are given candy, to conform our bodies and behaviors to the needs of others—and in the process we sacrifice our own comfort, health, and fertility.

All of this is enough to spark in me the frequent and fervent wish that things could be so much different than they are. And we haven’t even touched on how physically taxing it is to be a woman who bleeds and cramps every month, tolerates the many effects of natural (or unnatural) hormone cycles, carries and births children, and, often, takes on the everyday care of her home and family even as she juggles a full-time job and all those cultural pressures.

I’m tired just thinking about all of it.

But, like many other challenges in life, the hardships I have faced in my efforts to be a good woman of God—to be true to who God made me to be, to be kind to myself, and to be everything my family needs from me—have been so sanctifying. And when I come out of them feeling more confident, I also come out more humbled. Because none of this can be done alone, and I need a lot of help along the way.

That brings me to the little something that is sprinkled all over my true calling in life: the reminder to stay humble. I know that I am called to be a daughter, a wife, and a mother. I know I am called to be a writer. I know I am called to be Catholic. But I can do none of that well without that most elusive virtue, humility.

Next week (because I’m trying to write once a week for Lent!), I’ll talk more about that side of things and how it touches on my every nerve—and my every joy.

mommy image

Let’s Talk About Mommy Image

We women are hard on ourselves. We are hard on each other. And moms are often the hardest.

I recently read an article about women who regret becoming mothers. If given the chance, they would go back and choose never to have their children in the first place. Aside from being bone-crushingly sad and sharply heartbreaking, I find this so, so frustrating. Can you imagine what it must be like to wish your own child out of existence? To long for their permanent absence? To wish you’d never met them?

I can’t begin to unpack all of the baggage in those thoughts. To me, there is the obvious conclusion that many of these women could be suffering from untreated depression. How else can you account for such a disconnect with one’s own identity (because motherhood surely does change our identities as women, as well it should)?

There’s also the clear problem of selfishness in modern culture. Although we can’t really know it until we’re in it, we all know that having kids will mean a serious life change—one that puts some of our own pursuits, by necessity, on the backburner. It means we can’t just up and do what we want anymore. There are more important things to worry about. There should be a natural bond in motherhood that makes those selfish impulses less important than the wellbeing of your child. If that’s missing, that’s a tragic problem that deserves attention. But I think, in some of these cases, people are just so caught up in a culture of “Do what YOU want because YOU want to and forget the rest!” that they forget that life can’t be lived that way in the context of a family.

Many of the women who contributed to that article cite societal pressure—to work, to not work, to breastfeed, to sacrifice—to “do right” by their children. They feel “trapped” and “coerced” into a life they didn’t expect. They feel forced to accept a singular identity as mothers. And they feel resentful that their children’s fathers aren’t held to the same standards.

Very little about being a mom is easy. I would venture to say that many new moms cry at least as many tears as their newborns during the first several months of life—and probably at several other stages of life, too. And there is a lot of self-doubt. That’s natural, and in many ways, it’s unavoidable. But it isn’t the doubt or the tears that should be life-changing. It’s the ultimate beauty of it all.

That said, it is incredibly difficult to live a life that basks in beauty when you can’t see the beauty within yourself. And that is where “mommy image” comes in.

Mommy image is the mental lens through which we view ourselves as mothers. Like body image, it is often a skewed perspective that casts a certain shade over the truth—one that is defined by unreasonable comparisons and unrealistic expectations. Whether that shade is warm or cold is up to us, but it is very difficult to see objectively, and it’s even harder to change.

In fact, body image is a major component of mommy image—and I think it’s an important and underemphasized one. There is so much pressure for moms to look a certain way. Tabloids are full of photographs featuring celebrities who’ve trimmed down immediately post-baby, and look like they did before pregnancy—or celebrities who haven’t, and are shamed for it.

During pregnancy, we are sold products to prevent stretch marks. After pregnancy, we are sold products to get rid of them. We are told to apply wraps or wear body shapers that will “shrink postpartum bellies.” In short, we are expected by others—and ourselves—to take time away from getting to know our babies and settling into our new roles to implement intense workout routines and carefully crafted diets (which may or may not be breastfeeding-friendly) so that our appearance might “go back to normal.”

But if there’s anything I’ve learned since becoming a mom, it’s that you don’t “go back to normal.” You need to find a new normal. Your life has changed—and so has your body. And that isn’t a bad thing.

Of course, we must do what we can to stay healthy. It isn’t a positive thing to ignore good nutrition and cease being active out of laziness or even distraction. But the focus should be a well-functioning body—not a good-looking one.

The fact is that the female body is not made to be looked at. It isn’t made to fit a Photoshop mold. And it certainly isn’t made to stay the same as life happens.

Though it’s an unpopular notion, the female body is meant to be given. We give ourselves to our husbands in the marital embrace. We give ourselves to ourselves when we maintain a healthy lifestyle and appreciate our appearance. We give ourselves to our neighbors when we spend our time and energy serving them. And, in such a profound and unmatchable way, we give ourselves to our children as we grow, nourish, and protect them from conception and throughout their lives.

When we focus on what we can give—and what we have given—instead of what we look like, it is a lot easier to see the beauty in our postpartum bodies. Those stretch marks and the loose skin exist because your body grew beyond the bounds of itself to accommodate a growing child, and to shelter her, in a warm, safe place, from a world she wasn’t ready for just yet. The extra padding on your thighs is there as a cushion for your child—one that will help nourish her as she grows in the womb, but also give her a soft place to land and hold onto as she learns to navigate life. The breasts that can’t seem to decide on a consistent shape, color, consistency, or size are working hard to feed your little one—and it is okay if this effort permanently alters their look, because it has significantly altered their purpose.

Motherhood has taught me many invaluable lessons, but one of them is to see the imperfections of my body and appreciate the miracle that left them on me. I can’t wish them away without wishing away the real privilege that gave them to me, and I would never want that.

Aside from just the physical, mommy image can haunt our minds with constant questions. Am I doing this right? Should I have tried harder? What will the neighbor think? Why can’t I keep my patience? How many times will I screw this up before I finally just get it right?

It is so, so hard to get past these thoughts. The first step is tuning everyone else’s judgmental questions out—because, like an annoying song, they can easily get stuck in our heads, to be repeated in our thoughts thousands of times until we just can’t shake them. I have had to learn to take advice gratefully, analyze it personally, and set aside what doesn’t work—no complications involved. This exercise both helps ease my doubts (hey, I tried, right?) and tune out the outside influences that make me question myself.

In innumerable ways, many of us feel pressured, judged, and shamed as mothers at one point or another. This is a fault of modern culture—and we need to get better about withholding judgment against one another. However, we also need to know that motherhood is about toughening up and finding your own sense of confidence and natural ability. Do not let others’ judgments affect how you feel about your family and your inner and outer self.

So what does your mommy image look like? Is your view of yourself as a mother tickled pink, mottled brown, or queasy green? We can all work on ourselves, and we can all work on how we view ourselves. You are deserving of your own respect. If you’ve lost it, how can you get it back?

When you find a way—by meditating, praying, repeating uplifting mantras, seeking support from others, or whatever works for you—please own it. Own that self-respect and know that your mommy image is one that you truly deserve. Because you are among the world’s superheroes.

I’m Not a Feminist, But…

I am anti-abortion. I am also pro-life.

So when I hear politicians, super PACs, and activists say things like “women need access to abortion” or see blog posts like “10 Reasons to Have an Abortion – Illustrated by Adorable Cats,” I get sick to my stomach worrying about the value we place on healthy, happy, well-informed women.

The groups sharing those opinions often fight against informed consent laws that are designed to teach women in a vulnerable, emotional position the science behind their pregnancy. (A 14-year-old girl who’s frightened out of her wits—and uneducated on both pregnancy and the procedure of abortion—shouldn’t be denied a guaranteed opportunity to learn more about them before she decides to abort. Still, in many states, she is. If that’s not backing young women into a corner, I don’t know what is.)

Similar groups also fight against notification laws that are designed not just to protect young women from rash decisions and protect parents from losing influence over their children’s lives, but also to protect victims of rape and incest from continued abuse. They say they want abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare,” but they virtually never support initiatives that would make that last one true—and, in fact, they fight actively against those efforts. More than 3,000 abortions take place every day in the United States alone. The number of abortions that have occurred in America since 1973 exceeds the number of U.S. military deaths in every war we’ve ever fought combined. There’s nothing rare about that.

The most outrageous among them claim that pregnancy is an “unnatural” or “unhealthy” state, which is a direct insult to the biology of the feminine genius. To suggest that our anatomy makes us “unnatural” or “unhealthy” is the most perversely anti-feminist thing I’ve ever heard.

The fight for abortion uses the same shaming I’ve mentioned before: it forces women to feel their ability to open themselves to the physical intervention of scalpels, suction, and chemicals is what will protect their health and independence, and help them avoid social judgment. It makes pregnancy shameful and pushes women to make them fit society’s opinions of who and what and how they should be. The argument that “women need access to abortion” seeks to force women’s opinions with perceived normalcy and education. It pretends to be the smarter, more forward-thinking majority. It says: “Trust us when we say you need a reactive way to ‘solve’ your problem—and it is your problem, since you’re the one who’s pregnant. We’re here to tell you what’s best for you now that you’ve gotten here, because you can’t be responsible for proactive options, and you shouldn’t have to think of anyone but yourself. It’s not selfishness; it’s independence.”

I won’t even get into how much this hurts the men involved, who have played an equal role in starting a pregnancy—with total consent from both sides, the vast majority of the time—and yet have no weight in the argument over whether that pregnancy can continue. Removing fathers from the equation hurts women, too. It puts those women into a very lonely place, wherein one of the most impactful decisions of their lives must be made alone because society tells each of them that the man’s opinion doesn’t matter, and this must be her choice and hers alone. That makes it her ‘problem’ to solve, as if she’s solely responsible for both its creation and “cleanup.” It is isolating, terrifying, and unfair for her to endure that struggle on her own.

Those are the insults to womanhood that make me feel like a feminist. Those are the claims that devalue me as a female member of society, fully capable of understanding my body, controlling my impulses, and sharing my life.

We should be teaching each other to understand the way our bodies work. We should be encouraging each other to make the safest, healthiest decisions to protect our wellness and accomplish our goals. When unplanned circumstances come our way—even when they’re by our own actions—we should be supporting each other the whole way through, not shaming each other for the decisions that have gotten us there.

The vast majority of the time, women seeking abortions are healthfully pregnant by their own—and the father’s—shared choices. We are too smart to be telling each other that’s not the case. We all know that sex is a procreative act. We all know that birth control fails. So to say, “I consented to sex, but I didn’t consent to pregnancy” is a fallacy and an example of profound ignorance. And we are too smart to tell each other that abortion doesn’t end a life, or that its graphic violence is ever our best or only option.

We are all called to love and respect one another and ourselves. So why can’t we do a better job of helping each other do just that? Pro-lifers should support mothers and babies, as the sincere ones do, both before and after a decision is made. Even if a tragedy occurs, we should be there to hope for and help support healing. And advocates for abortion should welcome conversation, equal education, and support into the equation before a decision is made.

Women need each other as much as they need the men in their lives and as much as those men need women. We are social beings and should not isolate ourselves or each other. That’s not how we were made to be. Instead of subjecting ourselves to shame, objectification, violence, and ignorance, we should stand hand-in-hand in our toughest moments. Those are the moments of history that people remember, and that inspire us to be better. We must make a decision to support our most frightened, most vulnerable, and most unprotected—whatever that looks like.

Defending Chastity (and the Feminine Genius)

I recently read an article vilifying the virtue of pre-marital virginity. The writer claimed that girls—and the families of those girls—who make a promise not to have sex before marriage are afraid of female sexuality, devalue girls and women who aren’t virgins, and perpetuate patriarchy.

I disagree on all counts. And so does the Church.

Catholic teachings on pre-marital sex are both misunderstood as patriarchal and misconstrued as outdated. To begin with, the Church’s teachings on sexuality apply to both men and women. In the eyes of the Faith, men are not held to any different standards, nor is their worth greater than that of their female counterparts. Any suggestion to the contrary comes from a skewed cultural perspective—not from the catechism. No one can dispute that pop culture glorifies men for sexual experience and mocks women for it, but that doesn’t make it right, and it certainly doesn’t make it the position of the Catholic faith.

In truth, the Catholic Church holds the feminine genius in incredibly high esteem. During his papacy, Saint John Paul II was outspoken and passionate about the unique character and contributions of women in the Church, and in society at large. I’d encourage you to read his writings in his Letter to Women and Mulieris Dignitatem, which discuss the feminine genius—and the many and splendid roles of women in the Church—at length.

Moreover, the Church is, herself, personified as the bride of Christ. She is an essential partner in the salvation of humanity, and is both devoted to Christ and loved by him. If you truly reflect on that imagery—which was established centuries ago, at the foundation of the Church’s beginning—and it still doesn’t convince you of Catholicism’s love for femininity, I don’t know what will.

While it may seem easy to quote historically significant theologians who touted anti-feminist teachings, it’s essential to remember one thing: no person since Christ and Mary themselves has been without sin, and no one but God is always right. Because many of even our greatest theological minds may been tainted by perspectives built by the societal hierarchies of their times, it’s critical to remember that the words and teachings of no Catholic—whether saint, sinner, pastor, or nun—are taken without question. We all must recognize that, humanly speaking, wisdom is selective, conditional, and not without influence.

One of the many beautiful things about Catholicism is that the Church, as the bride of Christ, is perfect—even if her members are not. Such is the structure that has kept her faithful for 2,000 years.

In addition to her teachings against patriarchy, the Church’s teachings say nothing to reject the worthiness of women—or men—who’ve lost their virginity before marriage. Is any one of us made less valuable by sin? Less loved by God? Less capable of being forgiven? Of course not. After all, our Church knows of only two individuals who spent their entire lives without bending to the temptation of sin: Christ himself, and Mary, his mother. No person, obviously, could ever match the perfection of God. But we haven’t even managed to emulate the devotion of Mary—a fellow human, through and through.

Without exception, “Human persons are willed by God; they are imprinted with God’s image. Their dignity does not come from the work they do, but from the persons they are” (Centesimus annus, #11).

Finally, the Church isn’t fearful of female sexuality—or sexuality in general, for that matter. A thorough, end-to-end education on Catholic teachings regarding sex can be found in the Church’s theology of the body, as well as the catechism. Neither resource refers to human sexuality alone as wrong, evil, frightening, or disgusting—or, in fact, any negative quality at all. In truth, the Church regards sexuality as one of God’s most precious gifts to mankind: it is a surreal, unique opportunity to express and strengthen the bond between a married couple. More importantly, it blesses us with the opportunity to take part in God’s greatest act: creation. There’s nothing dirty or unbecoming about an honest, truly committed, selfless, and open-to-life expression of sexuality by a man or a woman.

So what, then, does the Church say is wrong about pre-marital sex?

To understand that, it is essential to understand Catholic teachings on marriage. Please check out this post for a holistic discussion on that, but here’s an abridged version:

  • Catholic marriage is a sacrament—which counts it among the seven holiest experiences anyone in the Church could ever experience.
  • Among other reasons, marriage is treated as a sacrament because:
    • It was ordained by God Himself, who joined Adam and Eve together at the very beginning of everything humanity has ever known.
    • It is the relationship in which we take on an extremely blessed and sacred role in God’s creation: that of participants in the creation of new life, which is the formation of everything out of nothing.
  • The marital bond is permanent and unyielding. As a relationship of choice—the only permanent relationship we choose to experience with a specific person, as opposed to being born into a family of blood relatives—it requires the most profound commitment there is, and therefore cannot be revoked or undone. Thus, husband and wife “become one flesh,” and cannot be separated.
  • Because that permanent, unique union joined by God cannot be fully comprehended by our limited human understanding, the Church teaches that sex is a tangible, experiential way for us to begin to grasp its profundity, in that it is inherently bonding and there is no other experience like it.
  • The relationship between husband and wife is central to the family, and thus plays an essential and unmatched role in the Church.

So chastity outside of marriage is taught by the Church neither as the selfish command of an overprotective parent, nor the devaluation of sexually active single people, nor the rejection of female empowerment. It is a holistic approach to valuing oneself for all that we are worth, because a true spirit of chastity is about more than just withholding from sex. It is taught to be a simple, selfless decision to choose love over pleasure, permanence over brevity, giving over receiving, and life over egoism.

Purity

Battling Shame to Promote a Culture of Love and Life

I have never been a feminist. I believe in equality, not superiority. Of course, I’m well aware that most feminists out there feel the same way I do: that men and women should be treated equally, paid equally, and given the same opportunities. But I don’t consider that to be “feminism” so much as general human rights, if I’m being honest.

That said, there are two prevalent issues that never fail to spark some kind of feministy flame in my belly: the culture of shame, and abortion. I believe with my whole heart that those are the injustices that are really waging the so-called “war on women.”

To see what I mean, stop and consider what’s happening to virtually every girl and woman experiencing day-to-day pop culture and media right now.

Slut shaming. Virgin shaming. Skinny shaming. Fat shaming. Pretty shaming. Ugly shaming. Online shaming. In-person shaming. Smart shaming. Stupid shaming.

And do you know who’s often perpetuating that shame?

Women.

We mock each other for eating, speaking, praying, exercising, socializing, dating, having sex, studying, and partying too much or too little. We judge one another mercilessly and aren’t afraid to share those judgments with others. We gossip. We bully. We pick fights and wage battles over boys we barely know.

That’s incredibly frustrating and heartbreaking to see, but the thing to remember is that this lack of mercy does not define us. Inside every one of us is a beautiful, powerful heart made of love, not stone. So why don’t we let it shine? Why do we lock it up?

It’s because we constantly engage in something almost as bad as shaming each other: we shame ourselves.

It’s a vicious cycle, really. We compare ourselves to airbrushed fantasies, think of ourselves as sexual objects, and consider ourselves lucky when we capture the frisky attention of a male counterpart. In our weakness, we point out the faults in our peers to make our “positive” attributes stand out. We adhere to pop culture’s definitions of beauty and femininity and know that we don’t always fit them (because we can’t), but neither do our peers (because they can’t), and so we place the attention on them to avoid letting it fall on ourselves. And they do it right back. So on and on the cycle goes.

Without question, much of that shaming comes from standards that were set by men seeking the impossibly “perfect” woman. But it is neither empowering nor honest to say that they are solely responsible for that; we set the same—sometimes worse—standards of “perfection” and continue to demean ourselves into thinking they’re reality.

In the same way, even if we look in a mirror and make the sincere decision to love our bodies’ appearance, popping a pill so we can enjoy a man’s body—and be enjoyed by it—is not empowering, either. It’s debasing and objectifying. It’s telling us that, by taking a magic pill to suppress the bodies we claim to love, we can use our sexuality to physically enjoy ourselves “trouble-free,” and be the experience that man wants for his Saturday night.

Taking that a few steps further, it’s not empowering to be able to abort a pregnancy created by that Saturday night—it’s the opposite. As mothers, we bear the burden of telling that man about an unwanted pregnancy. That sharing role should be a blessing, not a curse; we should be able to joyfully tell the men we’ll always love, and who’ll always love us, that our children are on the way. But an unplanned pregnancy out of wedlock robs us of that; instead, we must face a near-stranger with life-changing news or, worse, must face a man we thought we loved as he reacts with disdain. We are blamed for not taking a pill on time or reminding him to use a condom. And we are told, “Go to a clinic and get this taken care of.” That is an unjust shame.

Even if that man offers to be “supportive,” we must take the pills that make us cramp and bleed for hours, or lie down and open up for a doctor who will violate our most private space with steel instruments and tubes that literally cut and suck the life out of us.

There is nothing empowering about abortion. For some women, it is forced upon them by a “partner” who refuses to support a pregnancy. Others feel forced by economic circumstances, uncaring families, or their own doctors. Regardless of the reason, women often feel isolated and panicked—neither of which will help them make a decision they’re truly, lastingly comfortable with.

Sometimes it’s selfishness, yes—and that’s a reason for another blog post. But more often than we’d like to think, women get abortions because they feel they have no choice at all.

If you’re concerned about equality in the workplace but don’t see inequality in a woman saying “I can’t stay pregnant because of my career,” you’re missing something important. To be sure, being a parent will infringe on the amount of time you can commit to your career. But pregnancy doesn’t require parenthood—adoption is always a compassionate and merciful option—so that’s not really the argument here. The point is that, if employers aren’t offering sufficient prenatal care and accommodations to their female employees, we have a problem.

And speaking of adoption, there’s some kind of stigma around that, too, isn’t there? Adoption is an honorable, selfless thing. Abortion is violent and degrading. Though certainly not as severe a stigma as it once was, no woman should be embarrassed to say she’s given up a baby for adoption. Is it painful? Of course. But she accepted the consequences of her actions, took care of her baby while she could, and chose to give him or her the best life possible—not to mention giving two people desperate to be parents a family of their own. It’s hard to find a greater gift than that, and there should be no shame in such generosity of heart. How anyone could ever argue that a child will be worse off with a happy, loving family than they would be never being born at all is beyond me.

As women, we have so many unique gifts to give and share with the people we love. Instead of focusing on how we can or should look or what we should and shouldn’t do, we are capable of using those gifts to make this world a better place. Shame, violence, and stigma aren’t going to help us do that.

Love must come first. Not shame, pain, convenience, or ignorance. Only love.

Stay humble, be merciful, and keep family first.

The other day my husband told me that we’re “at that stage in our lives where every decision we make is the biggest decision we’ve ever made.” In our early/mid-twenties, newly married, with a home, changing families and friends, and fresh careers, he’s definitely right.

At the moment, we’re in a pretty stable place. But that could change quickly because, as young adults, we just never know what might come up. He’s waiting for the next step in his career to become available, and I’m settling into new and changing opportunities in my job. We’re trying to maintain friendships that are evolving as our lives are diverted, maintain close family ties while our traditions must change, prepare for the fact that our own little bundles are probably on the not-too-distant horizon, and doing what we can to start our married life the right way.

It still takes just a little perspective to make prioritize everything as they deserve to be.

My grandfather-in-law suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s for almost a decade. His wife met his every need unfailingly. When he lost the ability to hold a conversation, she never stopped telling him how much she loved him. When he lost the ability to speak at all, she spoke for him. When he couldn’t care for himself anymore, she barely blinked. She became not just his wife, but his nurse, his caregiver, and his lifeline. And she didn’t once complain.

Recently, his health took a serious turn for the worse. Bedridden, unable to eat, drink, or move, he was surrounded by his family within days. All three of their children—from opposite corners of the country—rushed to his side. My grandmother-in-law held his hand and kept him comfortable and told him stories.

He’d been suffering a long time. We all knew he was ready to go Home. And though the last five years, at least, had been far more work than she’d ever expected in her marriage, his wife still wept to see him on his way out. She still ached to keep him with her longer—to stay at his bedside.

As she told him stories, she laughed about the hard times they’d had as a young couple. She joked about the time she fled to her mother’s after an argument, convinced she couldn’t forgive him. The rest of us thought that sounded pretty serious, but she couldn’t even remember what the fight had been about. She giggled over the antics that had once driven her crazy. And in the quiet moments, when the somber mood overtook her, she explained how she could barely remember the bad times.

“They just don’t matter,” she said. “All I know now is how good it was.”

Half asleep and painfully exhausted, she alternated between staying by his side and fluttering around the house caring for her children and grandchildren. She rarely stopped smiling. And though you could see the hurt in her teary eyes, she told him it was okay to sleep. To rest. To go to Him. He did and, though she misses him dearly, she’s doing her very best to cope and know that he’s in a better place, waiting for her.

That’s what marriage is about: sharing the burden of strength in life’s darkest moments. Knowing your place as a servant to your spouse—no more and no less.

So, in the long run, career adjustments don’t mean much, do they? Neither do day-to-day arguments, annoying routines, or undone chores. We shouldn’t make them bigger than they are. We can only make the choices that are best for our family. There are bigger things in this life and the next. Stay humble, be merciful, and keep your family first. That’s all any of us can do.

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Altering My Body Isn’t Essential for My Health, and Here’s Why

Essential: absolutely necessary or extremely important.

When you hear the phrase “essential for your health,” what comes to mind? Water? Exercise? Decent nutrition? Regular check-ups?

What about “Essential for men’s health?” Probably most of the same things, with some adjusted cancer screenings and precautions tailored to their risks. The same would go for women’s health, right?

“The health care law puts women and families in control of their health care by covering vital preventive care, like cancer screenings and birth control. … We believe this requirement is lawful and essential to women’s health.”

That’s a statement from the White House regarding the contraceptive requirement of the Affordable Care Act (emphases are mine).

Let’s step back and explore it for a minute.

As I mentioned in a previous post, hormonal birth control works by suppressing the female body’s natural cycles. It works to prevent ovulation, alter cervical mucus and the lining of the uterus, and change the way the cilia in a woman’s fallopian tubes move. It changes the way her body works by adding artificial hormones.

I’m not a doctor, but I can’t think of a single reason anyone in perfect health would find added hormones essential to their health. Is ovulation an illness? Is your reproductive cycle, which occurs on its own, naturally, without intervention, something to be cured, reversed, or stifled for the sake of “wellness”?

Does interfering with a natural bodily function equate to regular cancer screenings when it comes to monitoring my health?

There’s a growing movement to shed light on the use of artificial hormones on livestock raised for food production because a growing number of studies may indicate increased risk of health problems resulting from those hormones. But in the same moment a young woman might opt for organic beef, she’ll pop her birth control pill with a glass of hormone-free milk. What sense does that make? To me, it doesn’t make any sense at all. But she’s been taught to think it’s not just safe, but essential for her health.

Preventive care: measures taken to prevent disease or injury, rather than cure them or address their symptoms.

Hormonal birth control doesn’t cure disease—it disrupts a natural cycle and, in fact, can mask underlying problems. Though the medical community hasn’t come to a consensus on all of the below side effects, some studies show it also puts women at increased risk for a host of medical problems, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Blood clots
  • Certain types of cancer (including breast cancer)
  • Ectopic pregnancy (the number one cause of maternal death)
  • Uterine perforation (with an IUD)
  • Infertility
  • Aches and pains
  • Painful intercourse
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Diabetes (among women with increased risk)
  • Stroke
  • Cervical cancer (among women with HPV—which is, sadly, about one-third of women in their twenties)
  • Weight gain
  • Emotional problems (including depression) 

(Much of this information I learned in several places, but these two are particularly helpful: this blog post includes extensive citations and references, as well as further details; and this website, while geared toward a specific message, is also very thorough and insightful. Check them out to learn more.)

And, even if some of those risks are small and/or inconsistently displayed among women, is it worth potentially compromising our health at all when natural, risk-free alternatives exist? People make the same arguments against eating organic, unmodified foods — but a lot of us choose to err on the side of caution there, don’t we?

Additionally, artificial hormones suppress a woman’s natural hormone production and, therefore, overrule her natural cycle. That means any undiagnosed medical problems—such as endometriosis or anovulation—can go unnoticed and unaddressed until they’ve had a serious effect. She may not even realize these problems exist until she’s actively trying to get pregnant and can’t, or discontinues the birth control and finally notices symptoms.

Often, women take hormonal birth control to “restore hormonal balance” and treat unpleasant physical symptoms, like irregular cycles, PMS, or even acne. But taking birth control only masks the symptoms—it doesn’t get to the heart of them. Especially in girls and young women, cycles tend to be inconsistent for a while as the body matures and adjusts to adulthood. It’s a fact of life, and altering it artificially doesn’t change that. When she comes off the pill (or other method)—often years later—her body may still have a tough time normalizing itself after years of inhibited functioning.

There are natural ways to balance hormones. Something as simple as a diet change, vitamin supplements, and exercise can make a big difference. Of course, all of this should be discussed with a doctor. But the point is that there are other options, whether we hear about them in everyday conversation or not — so you don’t need to take hormonal birth control. There are also non-hormonal ways to treat things like acne and cramps.

So how are suppressing a natural function, potentially masking health issues, and increasing risk for other health problems essential for my health? How is that preventive care?

Women should be well-informed about how to meet their unique health needs safely and effectively, instead of being immediately given a script for birth control pills just because it’s the common or easy thing to do. What do we have to gain, as women, by denying our natural state and altering the way our bodies are made to function? I’ve asked it before, and I’ll ask it again: what message does that way of thinking send to our sisters, our daughters, and ourselves?

No Flaw