Infertility and the Conflict Within Us
This is a guest blog post by Jess Coe
Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, “It is easy to find truth, though it is hard to face it, and harder still to follow it.”
Never have I experienced this reality more than when the circumstances of my life required me to choose between following the truth I had come to know or experiencing a joy I desired more than anything.
I have always been a person who seeks to understand the reason behind the reason for everything under the sun in order to make sense of the mysterious. This disposition led me down a path of deep exploration of my inherited Catholic faith. I needed to satisfy the nagging “but why do I believe this” until my brain could explain with reason and logic what my heart believed without question.
In my searching, I found in Catholicism a truth and beauty so authentic, I fully embraced my faith and didn’t look back.
Armed with this fervor, at the age of 24, I entered into marriage with a childlike enthusiasm for NFP, despite having a pretty simplistic view of what it meant. To me it was just a tool for preventing pregnancy that came with God’s golden stamp of approval. I read “Taking Charge of Your Fertility” and then, feeling pretty darned in charge, I began temping and charting. It was kind of exciting at first; the organized charts neatly filed in a three-ring binder, my biomarkers color coded, years of successfully preventing pregnancy all while being open to life! I talked about NFP to friends who suffered ill side effects from hormonal birth control and thought we were a perfect example of how successful NFP could be in preventing pregnancy.
But five years into our marriage, I was served a huge dose of humble pie as well as an entirely new view of what NFP means.
As one of seven children, I never once in my life considered that I could have difficulty conceiving a child. Fertility was always something I expected, something I took for granted, even something I feared a little in my younger days. Society pushes a narrative that fertility is an illness that needs to be treated in order to live a life of freedom. For Catholic though, it is all but synonymous with identity, large families the bastions of our faithfulness to God’s plan.
Infertility, then, is a most isolating, confusing and devastating experience when it strikes a Catholic couple.
Marriage is meant to be life-giving. We often presume that a vocation to marriage is a vocation to parenthood as well. When we realize that is not always the case, it creates a great conflict within us.
We struggle with questions that we will never have a satisfying answer to in this life: Why does God give some ten children and others none? Why did God place within my heart the desire for children if it is not possible? Why is everyone around me pregnant?
Pews of two are awfully lonely. After a year of getting nowhere, we sought help and were disheartened to be told that in vitro fertilization would be our only way to conceive. The diagnosis? Suspected advanced endometriosis, a disease that can wreak havoc on a woman’s fertility and one that is often circumvented by using IVF. I was not satisfied with a suspected diagnosis, nor with being told that there was only one way forward. And so I embarked on a different, entirely foreign journey that completely changed what NFP means to me.
Early in 2014 I discovered NaProTechnology after hearing through the grapevine that it had helped a few fellow Catholics I know overcome their infertility. Hope! I learned that NaProTechnology is a medical science that could help treat the underlying causes of our infertility and thus help us conceive in a way that upholds the dignity of the human person. I was ready to get answers. In order to get those answers, I learned the Creighton Model of charting my fertility biomarkers.
With just a glance at that chart, my newly-appointed NaPro Doc recommended I have an extensive hormonal profile completed as well as schedule minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery to confirm an endometriosis diagnosis. On May 29th of that year, I got that diagnosis and a windfall of vindication with it. The years of excruciating pain, digestive dysfunction, chronic fatigue, widespread inflammation, an array of mysterious symptoms all made sense when I learned that there had been a crisis going on inside of me. What should have been a quick procedure turned into a 9 hour open surgery to repair and preserve my reproductive anatomy, in contrast to what many conventional OB surgeons do after they recommend hysterectomy. With renewed hope, I actually felt a little smug recalling the first doctor’s warning that IVF would be our only option. My NaPro estimated my chances of conceiving naturally had jumped from zero to 40% as a result of a successful operation, and I thought those were pretty good odds.
An out-of-state move and almost a year later, I was back in a different NaPro’s office with intensifying pain and a binder of beautifully-stamped Creighton charts showing zero pregnancies.
Because of my pain and an enormous cyst that wouldn’t resolve, I underwent surgery again in July of 2015 and woke to the news that I had a serious scar tissue problem. You see, endometriosis causes scarring every single month and NaPros are trained to both skillfully remove that scar tissue and to help prevent it from returning while the body heals from surgery. But my body made it anyway, and loads of it. Since the second surgery was less invasive than the first, we hoped that my less-traumatized body would fare better than before, and we began following a series of protocols unique to NaPro treatment.
But the months passed and each brought with it another negative pregnancy test for my collection. My body wasn’t ovulating. Month after month it made cysts instead of embryos. It had been three years since we first sought help, but it felt like thirty.
I recalled the first doctor’s words with despair. Maybe she was right. Maybe my body is too broken. But it went to even darker places. Maybe we are not supposed to be parents. Maybe the deep desire for children is merely meant to give us a suffering we can unite to Christ’s. The only thing my husband ever wanted from life, the only thing he dreamed about since he was a child, was being a father.
We thought about IVF. Maybe if we were respectful of what we were doing? Maybe if we only transferred the embryos we made? Maybe if we only made one? Maybe if we could get dispensation from a priest? Then, would we even consider it? I had thought about these things. People all around me told stories of Catholics who pursued IVF in a careful way, “so-and-so only created two embryos and had them both transferred.” But I had already seen the beauty in the Church’s teaching about the dignity of the human person. So, once I accepted the reason behind the reason for this teaching, I knew I couldn’t participate in the industry in any way, no matter how respectfully we might approach it.
I realized in making this decision exactly what NFP was all about. I realized that NFP isn’t only a tool to help you avoid pregnancy - it is a lifestyle that when embraced empowers us to cooperate fully with God’s design for procreation and human sexuality.
Personally, that meant a rejection of the very thing that might be my only path to pregnancy. It was a painful decision to make, but deep within me, I knew that if God truly willed us to have children, we wouldn’t need IVF.
We discussed adoption, but we had so much to process before we would be ready to open ourselves completely to the idea that it may be our calling. Infertility forces people to come to terms with the loss of biology, and there is a deep grief in that; one that needs to be accepted and worked through by each person in their own way and in their own time. No one should carry that kind of grief into an adoption unaddressed. Children deserve better than that. Some people may feel like they can never work through that grief enough to face adoption. That is okay, too. Grief will affect different people in different ways, and the best thing we can do as friends, family, and fellow Catholics is try to walk with others in that grief so they don’t feel the weight of it so heavily.
Being able to understand that the thing about infertility is that we are not just sad about being childless; we are grieving a specific person (albeit one that doesn’t yet exist) but one that we have already prepared our hearts to love for a lifetime. To wonder if that love will ever find its answer in a person is the most painful yearning imaginable.
My husband and I took the time we needed to let our grief run its course, but during this time, we started to feel a stronger and stronger tug toward adoption. We were so weary from an already long journey that we didn’t have the wherewithal to even think about how to manage that but figured that a good place to start would be to share with family and friends our interest, hoping that if it were our appointed path, the way would be made clear without a great deal of searching on our part. In addition, we felt that in order for us to be proactive in moving forward with a different plan for our family than the one we’d held closely for so many years we needed real closure. So in December of 2016, I had a third surgery to assess my situation, and the news was grim. My scar tissue problem had my insides trapped. The reason I was not ovulating was because the eggs were meeting scar tissue and had no way whatsoever of ever escaping to find their way to my womb.
In a strange sense, it was a relief, a liberation, to be told that natural conception would likely be impossible. It gave us the freedom to let go of that part of our plan and focus on the possibility of adoption.
Still we were hesitant about the industry. We needed God to guide us every step of the way. We prayed that if it were His will for us to adopt He would bring the child to us in a way that felt natural and ordained, the way agencies did not.
In April of 2017, we got the call of our life. My sister-in-law was on the other end of the phone and said, “I have a possible adoption connection, and I think it’s a really good one!” I immediately had a good feeling about the situation. Over the summer, we prayed for the young woman she spoke of and felt hopeful that if she chose adoption for her child she might consider us as parents. We were not able to meet her until September but while we looked forward to our blind date on September 8th, we completed a home study to be prepared for the best.
Then, on September 1st of 2017, something unthinkable happened. I was pregnant! I’ll never forget the feeling of seeing a second line manifest on that test for the first time in six years.
I wondered why now, when we were so close to matching with an expectant mother, when adoption seemed like the very thing we were being called to. We met with “C” on September 8th, and we felt an instant connection with her, which left us wondering how we would handle everything if she chose us. Would we accept? Would it be fair to do so now that we were expecting a child ourselves? Fate answered those questions for us when I miscarried our tiny miracle the day after we met “C.” To say my heart was broken would be an understatement. It was completely shattered, empty. Not just because of the loss but in reflecting on the happiness we were blessed to feel, for a fleeting moment, in believing that our turn for a miracle had come at last. I’d even let myself believe maybe we'd be blessed with two children if we were chosen as adoptive parents, that the radiant morning we'd been anticipating after our extended night of tears was dawning.
The piercing sting that felt like betrayal was the most painful. I can't speculate why God would go through the trouble of giving us such an impossible miracle if not to keep. But He didn’t let us grieve for too long. Two days after receiving the news that our baby was gone, we received the best call of our lives: “C” had chosen us to parent her baby!
What followed was a flurry of preparation that culminated in the most glorious day of our lives: Isaac Lee’s birth a mere four weeks later. Isaac was born on the feast of St. Gerard, the patron to whom I’d begged for years to hear my pleas for motherhood and intercede for me. After being an expectant mother for six grueling years, I truly felt like this was an affirmation from God and my patron, that my prayers had been heard and mercifully answered.
We remained out of state for three weeks waiting for paperwork to clear, and in that time we had some serious complications with the adoption process, making those weeks some of the most stressful of our lives. We clung to prayer and faith that God had led us here so providentially for a reason.
When we were finally able to bring Isaac home, we settled in to our new lives as parents when I discovered I was yet again miraculously pregnant. Nine months and two days after Isaac was born, Isla Sophia entered our world, a living testament to trusting in God’s timing and mercy. God proved to me what I knew all along; nothing is impossible with Him.
I still have some of the same questions I had before; why did God bless us with two beautiful children while other couples never experience the same joy?
But my experience has taught me that when the questions have no answers and life is a torrent of confusion and pain, God can and will make beauty from the ashes of our brokenness. We need only to be open to accepting that those blessings may look completely different from what we have planned, but we can trust that whatever they are, they will be so so good.
About Jess Coe
Jess is leading a pretty basic but beautiful life as a wife and new mother of two babies who are nine months apart. She used to drink coffee for fun like a normal person, but now it’s a matter of survival. Having walked the lonely road for six years, Jess feels a calling to advocate for others confronted by infertility and to encourage them by sharing the story of how God worked in her life to answer her desire for motherhood in a most-unexpected way. She lives in Kalamazoo, MI where she teaches voice and piano, dabbles with painting, dreams about what cute outfits the babies will wear tomorrow, and prays for warmer weather.
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