Elizabeth Miller, LMSW
Infertility, then pregnancy: a story of suffering and surrender
By Elizabeth Miller, LMSW
Sometimes something hurts so much that all you can do is cry. Honestly, it’s reassuring that there are so many women in the Bible who experienced the sting of infertility. I’ve looked to them many times, relating a little too closely. “In her bitterness [Hannah] prayed to the Lord, weeping freely” (1 Samuel 1:10). I’ve certainly been bitter as I’ve poured out my heart to God and I’ve definitely wept. A lot. My story, like Hannah’s, is long and complicated. Tangled and messy, like hair I’ve wanted to pull out so many times because that would certainly be easier than facing the reality of my empty womb.
I’ll be straight with you: I have two children. I feel sometimes that I have to hide that fact when talking about my infertility struggle. But that’s dishonest. My two boys are a part of my story, a part of God’s victory over the darkness in my life. The darkness of infertility that changed my faith and allowed me, through great suffering, to know my God better and trust Him differently than I ever had before.
Prior to conceiving our first son, we tried to get pregnant for about 8 months. The wait was hard, especially when pregnancy felt more like an if than a when. We had changed doctors and adjusted medications to be more helpful to my particular situation, and then we conceived our oldest. Relieved and with great joy, I thanked God because I thought my fertility difficulties were through.
I had never been more wrong in my life.
Five years later we were still trying for number two. As one of seven kids myself, the desire for my son to have a sibling was overwhelming. Each month that went by that ended with a period or negative pregnancy test broke my heart over and over again. I became so raw, and my desire to grow our family was so fierce, that it was like a toothache that simply never went away. I learned to deal with the pain and not freak out at people so much when they accidentally said the wrong thing, but the ache was always there, eating me. At times, typically in the beginning of my cycle, the emotional pain was punctuated by small bursts of hope, but quickly dissolved as the days dragged on with zero signs of fertility and I failed to ovulate.
Two pink lines
Then, one day, it happened. I saw two bold lines on the pregnancy test! I told my husband and cried happy tears, praising God in awe. I scheduled a blood draw to confirm pregnancy that afternoon at my new doctor’s office (I’d changed doctors again). When I arrived, all of the staff were so excited, congratulating me; even they knew I’d been hoping for this for a long time. They took my blood sample, assured me the doctor had ordered it “stat,” and told me I’d be hearing from him after hours.
That evening, the call I’d been waiting for came from my doctor. “Liz,” he said. I held my breath. “I don’t have good news. You’re not pregnant. The medication you were taking must have caused a false positive.” A false positive. My heart dropped to the pit of my stomach. Even today, as I remember that phone call, I feel a bit nauseous. Something changed in that instant. Gone were the fleeting moments of hope. All that was left was deep sorrow etched in the core of my heart. That night I shut myself in my room, sank down to the ground and sobbed, yelling at God, trying to make sense of all the times we’d tried to have a baby… and failed. The suffering was tangible and in that moment nothing, no one, was able to take it away.
The next few days were the darkest point of my fertility journey. I no longer trusted any test, any medication, any hope that things were going to “work out.” We were going to remain a family of three and my child’s nightly prayer of, “Jesus, please give me a baby brother or sister,” would never be answered. I was crushed and didn’t know how I’d ever explain it to him. I was afraid of the unknown future and just wanted to understand why I couldn’t conceive month after month after month. I became horribly jaded and joy became a difficult thing to experience. My heart was utterly broken.
During this particularly distressing time in my life there was one constant in my prayer. Each week, in addition to Sunday mass, I’d carved out just enough time to go to an hour of adoration (ok, sometimes it was more of a “holy half-hour” than a full holy hour, but I tried, really I did!). It was there, in adoration, that I began to let some of my suffering leak out into the heart of Jesus. Growing up I went to a school that was named for the Sacred Heart of Jesus. There I learned that every image of Jesus’ Sacred Heart has a visible wound. As I gazed at the Eucharist, and past the monstrance to the giant crucifix behind it, I saw the wound in Christ’s side and was reminded of the wound in his Sacred Heart, and, in turn, of the wound hemorrhaging in my own heart. Somehow, although I couldn’t put words to it at the time, I placed a little bit of my own wound into Jesus’ bleeding side. He was the only one who might possibly understand the inexplicable wrenching seesaw of tiny hope and immense disappointment that I experienced each day. He’d felt searing pain in his body too, intensified by a broken heart. That tiniest surrender opened me to commit more of my pain to Christ’s heart and began to change me. I began to trust like I never had before. I started to believe that God did want for my good, and He might even desire me to have another child too, however that looked. I still felt he was taking an excruciatingly long time, but, in retrospect, I can see that he was leading me to better things than just a miracle pregnancy.
A surprising diagnosis
Over time, something began changing physically within me. I started to realize that my cycles were different and there were more and more problems surrounding my reproductive system. Physical pain began to match the emotional pain I felt throughout my cycle. I switched doctors (again) and floated my concern about endometriosis to him. Instead of blowing me off, he thought carefully, looked at how I’d been charting my cycles for years, and then strongly agreed with my discernment of what was happening. He suggested surgery to determine if I did have endometriosis, which, in addition to causing other issues, is a leading, under-diagnosed cause of infertility. Although surgery is always less than ideal, God blessed me with an abiding peace that this was indeed the right track to follow.
It turns out I did have endometriosis. Quite a bit of it. All over my ovaries, outside of my uterus, and “menstrual debris” inside my uterus too (whatever that is). No wonder I wasn’t able to conceive, and even if I had, there would’ve been nearly no chance of successful implantation. The good news is that my doctor was actually able to remove it all, leaving me in much better health. The greater victory for Jesus was that he’d led me peacefully to that operating table… and now I had real answers to my deeper “why infertility?” questions. What an answer to prayer that was!
The journey continued though. The surgery was not a magic fix and things got harder emotionally. In the six weeks it took me to heal from abdominal surgery I had three siblings 5-8 years younger than me announce first pregnancies. Two of the couples hadn’t exactly been trying to conceive. It was incredible that I’d have my first nieces or nephews… but I also felt like someone had just gut-punched me three times in a row while I was looking the other way. It just didn’t seem fair at all.
Two more lines
After I’d healed adequately from surgery, we were back on the TTC train. Charting mucus, measuring out vitamins, and filling prescriptions… here we go again. Frustratingly, even with all of that, my lab numbers showed my hormone levels still weren’t great. I was pretty sure I hadn’t ovulated again, even after going to all the trouble with surgery. Thankfully, though, I had a scheduled telehealth check-in visit coming up with my doctor. Because I was in the back half of my cycle, even though I dreaded it, I took a quick pregnancy test before the videoconference just to confirm what I already knew for the doctor. I wasn’t in the mood to waste the appointment by just having him tell me to take a pregnancy test and call back with the results.
Early in the morning before the appointment, when I glanced at the test to throw it out, something caught my eye. There were two lines staring back at me, not just one. Pregnant. Pregnant! Pregnant??? I tiptoed back into my room and shared the news with my husband. Neither of us could believe it. No, really, we actually did not believe it. In fact, we refused to believe it. After all the sorrow, pain, and the experience with our false positive test, we couldn’t allow our hearts to rejoice just to be crushed again.
A call to trust deeper
Later that day, my doctor congratulated us. He reminded me I wasn’t taking any meds this time that would give me a false positive pregnancy read. I had to be pregnant. He immediately prescribed me progesterone support and sent me on my merry way.
We were stunned. How? Why now? Would this child even survive with my precarious hormone levels? I had so many doubts, and worried that I may lose the baby easily. In the same way my surgery didn’t immediately fix the emotional turmoil surrounding infertility, my pregnancy didn’t heal it either. It was ironic really. I’d expected becoming pregnant to work as a lovely balm covering the wounds left in my heart over the past five years. It wasn’t. It seemed all of the trust God had been calling me to throughout my time of infertility—asking me to wait, changing doctors, asking me to wait some more, pulling me to surgery—was simply a prelude leading to this time of pregnancy. It seemed pregnancy didn’t “fix” my anxiety or concern about what was happening or what was to come, but that God was still calling me to trust him deeper. He wanted me to continue to commit my suffering to him.
In time, my heart began to soften. Through 19 weeks of closely monitored progesterone support and tons of prayer, the little sparks of hope inside of me gradually became stronger flames of anticipation. I found myself praying with Hannah again, although this time we proclaimed, “I rejoice in your victory” as we looked in wonder at what the Lord had done for us (1 Samuel 2:1). There were times, though, throughout my pregnancy when it all felt a little too surreal. Not until I felt the fluttering of the baby moving around inside me did I believe that maybe this child was going to make it. The truth is, throughout my pregnancy I kept looking around, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even now sometimes I look at my son and wonder, “How is he real? How is he mine? Why did I have to wait so long? Why him?” I don’t have any answers to those questions, but I’ve begun to accept and appreciate that in his infinite wisdom, God has given me this healthy child at exactly the right time.
I’m also beginning to see the mercy and blessing of the time I spent struggling to become pregnant. At one particularly difficult point, I described feeling so intensely forgotten, like a knife had pierced my heart. But how else would Jesus have felt, hanging there on the cross? Forgotten, pierced. In some crazy way I see that Jesus has actually offered me an up-close-and-personal look at his bleeding wounds, and allowed me to share in them. How humbling to know that suffering and to be able to draw on that degree of empathy when others around me vulnerably share their pain.
Suffering and surrender
Although the Lord has healed some of the emotional trauma I’ve felt surrounding my infertility, much he has allowed to remain. The negative test results month after month; futile attempts to conceive after praying novenas and taking endless medications; and grappling with a desire that seemed it would never be fulfilled doesn’t simply go away overnight. I recognize this journey with infertility is not over. Triggers are everywhere. As I begin charting again after the birth of my child, I feel the anxiety bubbling up once more. Wondering if my younger sisters will get pregnant quickly again while I may still struggle to conceive makes my heart heavy. I expect the first, or second, or fifth negative pregnancy test I see once we try to conceive again will send me on a mind trip full of doubt and despair. There is no “after” infertility. The memory of trauma and inscrutable sorrow remains, even if our fertility changes.
The one constant, however, is the ability to commit those aching places in our hearts to the Lord. The truth is, the Sacred Heart is not just pierced, but it is also on fire with Christ’s love. There are often rays of light pictured exuding outward from a flame in the center of the Sacred Heart, ready to envelop and heal our hurt when we surrender it to him. Together let’s ask Jesus to transform the wounds that he’s allowed by bringing them into his resurrected heart and remembering he can heal and reveal his glory through our pain.
I would like to end by sharing this prayer which has brought me great consolation on my journey and continues to console me today.
Novena of confidence to the Sacred Heart
O Sacred Heart of Jesus, I have asked you for many favors, but I plead for this one. Take it, place it in your open, broken heart, and when the Eternal Father sees it covered with the mantle of your Most Precious Blood, He will not refuse it. It is not my prayer, but Yours, O Jesus. O Sacred Heart of Jesus, I place all my trust in You. Let me never be confounded. Sacred Heart of Jesus, I believe in your love for me.
(Credit: Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus)