The loss of fertility in our Catholic marriage: the grief, shame, and sorrow

Adrienne and I “met” on Instagram and became (long-distant) friends offline. When I found out about her story, I asked her to share here, because it’s the perfect example of why we shouldn’t make judgments about other people’s family size, because we very rarely know all of the details.

Nobody gets married and expects to deal with pregnancy loss, infertility, and even the complete loss of fertility. So often couples experience hard things and think they are the only ones, but that is never the case. That’s one of the reasons we started Surprised By Marriage. Through the crosses we experience, God can draw us closer to him and closer to each other. -Jen


It wasn’t something we saw coming. I didn’t even know the disease had been silently destroying me for years until 2015, when I was 32 years old. By then, we had already lost so much.

My husband and I were married in 2009. We had committed ourselves to a chaste relationship so our honeymoon was deeply special. We also brought home a tiny souvenir, though it would be two more weeks before I got a positive pregnancy test. 

Three months after the birth of our oldest daughter, we got pregnant again. This would come to be the first devastating loss we’d go through as a couple. At thirteen weeks pregnant, I lost our son. My husband baptized him in our bathroom, and we buried him at the Veterans cemetery where the sun rose and set just behind his grave everyday. 

Watching my husband cry as he baptized our first son in our home is burned in my memory forever. Losing our sweet John really taught us both how fragile life is. We both learned what a blessing both pregnancy and birth are. I would like to say the loss brought us closer, but this first loss taught us how not to grieve and process a miscarriage. We isolated ourselves from one another and failed to check in on each other. We didn’t come together in prayer. We were so broken in our grief, we were just trying to survive. It wasn’t until later that we circled back and admitted our mistakes during that time. 

The pain from adolescence returns

We would go on to have two more girls. As a teenager and young adult, I always had terrible cycles, which caused me deep embarrassment and shame. While the difficult cycles eased during the first couple of years after marriage, they became increasingly terrible again after our second daughter was born. After each birth, when my cycles returned, they were worse than before.

Following a very difficult pregnancy, our third child was born in December of 2013. Shortly after her birth, our daughter was diagnosed with failure to thrive. By the time she was five months old, she had already been admitted to the hospital for RSV and had significant health issues. Our other daughters were ages 4 and 2 at the time. Needless to say, life was overwhelming.

In June 2014, my husband was unexpectedly deployed. Days after his departure, I found out I was pregnant again. 

That night after testing, I miscarried again at five weeks. I could not deal with another miscarriage while my husband was gone. Without realizing it at the time, I went into denial and thought it was a false positive. He came home four months later, and soon after, we were pregnant again. Despite our youngest being less than a year old, we were thrilled. It was Thanksgiving morning when we found out, and I’ve never been more grateful on a Thanksgiving.

A pregnancy of joy and sorrow

That pregnancy, more than any others, felt laced with the Divine. There was a very distinct taste of Heaven during those first few months. I have never in my life been that completely joyful. I truly believe the Lord was preparing me for what was to come. 

In 2015, eighteen weeks into the pregnancy, I lost our second son. It was our third and most devastating loss. I found out at a routine appointment, when the Doppler was silent again. I remember screaming over and over, “Please, God, not again!” That night, I was admitted to Labor and Delivery for an induction as a woman labored and gave birth to a healthy baby next door. 

I felt as though I lived a sample of Christ’s Passion that night. My soul was burning in anguish as I labored through the night. A piece of me died that day. I didn’t understand why fertility and birth came so easily to some women but was so terribly hard for me. I wept to my husband, “What’s wrong with me?!” 

Finally, some answers

After my stillbirth, I finally started getting answers at a follow-up with my gynecologist. I found out that I had a clotting disorder, as well as endometriosis with adenomyosis—which is basically endometriosis’s evil sister. 

Unlike endometriosis, which is uterine tissue that grows on the outside of the uterus, adenomyosis grows within the walls of the uterus, slowly eating away and destroying the organ itself. There’s no treatment and no way to do corrective surgery (which can be done with endometriosis). With severe cases, most women end up needing a hysterectomy. My doctor told me I’d probably end up needing one, but that I had a good five years before then. I wish that had been true. 

A month later, in August of 2015—thanks in huge part to our Creighton provider and my gynecologist—we found out I was pregnant again. My anxiety was extremely high during that pregnancy. I was on blood thinners, progesterone, baby aspirin, and extra methylated folate. My prayers for a healthy baby were both constant and desperate. I needed this child to survive. 

One late night in April of 2016, after laboring for several hours, I gave birth to my third son. I held my son to my chest as both of us cried. I had finally given birth to a healthy son. God is so good.

Adenomyosis and its destruction

My cycles returned that summer, but my health deteriorated quickly. I was in bed all the time in immense pain. It wasn’t until November that I had another laparoscopy to remove endometriosis. My gynecologist found almost none…but he did find that the adenomyosis had eaten a hole through my uterus and destroyed it. My Creighton provider said that between my charts and laparoscopy results, we were sure to lose any pregnancies if we were even able to get pregnant again. 

My health continued to worsen. I could no longer get out of bed most days. My entire abdomen was in debilitating pain, and I was hemorrhaging. In an emergency appointment, my doctor leaned across his desk. “I know you wanted a larger family. I’m sorry. But we have to do this.” He was crying. I grabbed my husband’s hand and wept. 

The surgery was scheduled for his next available operating day. In the few days between, I begged for a miracle and pleaded for another answer. Proverbial doors and windows slammed in my face. I felt deep sweeping grief and shame. As a Catholic wife and mother, I felt I had failed. As I prayed through the emotions and we sought counsel from two priests, my husband patiently stood as a sounding board to my thoughts while affirming me we were doing the right thing—the only thing left to do. I needed a hysterectomy.

The morning of the surgery, I felt surprising peace. My doctor kept comforting me. My husband prayed with me. The day before, I had received Anointing of the Sick. I felt as ready as I would. Just before being wheeled back, I took my last pregnancy test. 

The grief and shame of hysterectomy

For the year following the surgery, I felt deep shame at the loss of my fertility. There were no books that I could find by Catholic women in my situation. Many Catholic women asked when we were going to have more children. Someone told me that having a hysterectomy was against Church’s teachings and another told me I’d committed a mortal sin.** This just added to my grief, pain, and shame.

During it all, my husband stood by, affirming me that my womanhood was still precious, insisting that I’d been brave and strong. He was angry for me and grieved with me. My husband accepted with great peace and saintly strength the cross laid upon our shoulders. Looking back, I’m grateful for his strength and prayer during my physical and emotional recovery. He truly lived out, in his quiet way, “in sickness and in health.” It taught us the importance of communicating our feelings and being receptive to the other’s feelings. We realized how critical it is to check in on one another. While we did the best we could, there are always lessons on how we can be more fully present for our spouse. 

I don’t feel the shame of the hysterectomy anymore. I can talk about it and feel the pain without it paralyzing me. The grief of losing my babies and my fertility will probably hurt for the remainder of my time in this life. But I’ve learned this over and over: God never lets Satan win. He always brings greater good out of suffering. Though I may never see it on this side of Heaven, joy always comes in the morning. 

Adrienne Stravitsch is an Army wife and mother of four children on earth. She has experienced multiple pregnancy losses as well as infertility. When she’s not homeschooling or loving on her husband and children, she can be found with her nose in a book or writing behind a keyboard. You can find her on Instagram @stravgirl, or her blog, Trust with Wild Abandon.


**Church teaching regarding a hysterectomy is explained in this post on the Vatican’s website (as a follow-up to this document). A hysterectomy is licit when medical experts deem the uterus incapable of carrying a pregnancy to term.

To the small Catholic families: God loves you too

Everyone knows about the verse in Genesis, where God commands Adam and Eve to have children:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’…”

Genesis 1:27-28b, Revised Standard Version

The very first thing God told Adam and Eve was to be fruitful and multiply! We vow on our wedding day to be open to children. Not enough is said about the importance of the dual purposes of marriage (procreation and union of the spouses). Marriage is rightly ordered towards having children and educating them. 

But what if a couple is not blessed with children? Are they less loved by God? Is their marriage somehow not living up to the command to be fruitful and multiply?

Of course not. Unfortunately, couples who are unable to have children are often left behind and forgotten. There seems to be this underlying notion that in order to be a good Catholic couple, you need to have all the babies. And that couldn’t be further from the truth!

Sometimes God doesn’t send all the babies

The truth is God doesn’t give a bunch of babies to every couple. Sometimes he doesn’t send any. But it has nothing to do with how much God loves that particular couple or with them not being fruitful. It’s all about what God wants you to do and how he wants you to bring his love to the world. 

Married couples with no children or not as many children as they would like still have so much to offer the world and to the Church. God has a big plan for you, whether you have one kid or ten kids. But we can’t know how God is calling us to be fruitful if we’re too focused on what God hasn’t given us.

If you are a couple who wants children and it just hasn’t happened, this post is for you. If you are a couple who has children but not as many as you hoped for, this post is for you. If you’re struggling with knowing what God wants you and your spouse to do because the babies aren’t coming, this post is for you. If you think all you’re supposed to do in life is get married and have babies, this post is for you.

Your marriage can still be fruitful without children

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, there is a section on “the openness to fertility.” The Catechism quotes St. Pope Paul VI by saying children are “a supreme gift of marriage” and that “it is in them that [marriage] finds its crowning glory.” For a couple without kids, those words can sting a little, right? A lesser known quote in that section, though, is paragraph 1654:

“Spouses to whom God has not granted children can nevertheless have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms. Their marriage can radiate a fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality, and of sacrifice.” 

Catechism of the Catholic Church, par 1654

Yes, children are blessings and contribute to the good of parents. But even without children, your marriage can still be fruitful. 

St. Pope John Paul II talks about marriage in his Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio and refers to St. Pope Paul VI’s quotes about children. But he also adds this:

“It must not be forgotten however that, even when procreation is not possible, conjugal life does not for this reason lose its value. Physical sterility in fact can be for spouses the occasion for other important services to the life of the human person, for example, adoption, various forms of educational work, and assistance to other families and to poor or handicapped children.”

John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, no. 14

St. Pope John Paul II spent much of his priesthood with couples and knew intimately the struggles in marriage. (How else could he have written Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body??). He must have known many couples who struggled with infertility and knew that they could still (and did) live fruitful and meaningful lives. 

Marriage isn’t just for procreation

If you read more of St. Pope Paul VI’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes (which is quoted in the Catechism, as mentioned above), you’ll also read this:

“Marriage to be sure is not instituted solely for procreation; rather, its very nature as an unbreakable compact between persons, and the welfare of the children, both demand that the mutual love of the spouses be embodied in a rightly ordered manner, that it grow and ripen. Therefore, marriage persists as a whole manner and communion of life, and maintains its value and indissolubility, even when despite the often intense desire of the couple, offspring are lacking.”

Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes, no. 50, emphasis added

Your marriage is not worth any less if you don’t have children, and St. Josemaría Escrivá has a beautiful response to this. When asked his opinion about the meaning of the lives of childless couples, he said:

“If in spite of everything God does not give them children, they should not regard themselves as being thwarted. They should be happy, discovering in this very fact God’s Will for them. Often God does not give children because He is asking more. God asks them to put the same effort and the same kind and gentle dedication into helping their neighbours as they would have put into raising their children, without the human joy that comes from having children. There is, then, no reason for feeling they are failures or for giving way to sadness.”

Josemaría Escrivá, Conversations, 96

Read the rest of his answer here

God is writing your story through infertility

It’s hard to see what God is doing in the midst of the pain and suffering of infertility, but God uses everything. Many couples are able to look back on their journey of infertility and see the blessings from it. 

One couple sees infertility as a blessing because it led them to their two adopted sons. 

My friend realized (through her infertility journey) that she has other gifts that bear fruit.

Because of our experience with infertility at the beginning of our marriage, we were able to be more available to family and friends, especially those with children. We were able to serve our community and church in ways that are more difficult now that we have children. We were able to be foster parents in a world that desperately needs them. We learned not to judge a family by its size, because we knew firsthand that infertility and pregnancy loss are not always visible to an outsider. Because of infertility, we are better spouses, better parents, and better members of our Church community.

And now that we’re experiencing secondary infertility, we know God has a reason for it. Maybe it’s because he has something else in store for us, or maybe he’s asking us to grow in trust. Either way, our family is perfect exactly how we are, because that’s what God intended for us at this precise moment in time.

To all the small Catholic families out there….God loves you too. More than you will ever know this side of heaven.

“God in his providence has two ways of blessing marriages: one by giving them children; and the other, sometimes, because he loves them so much, by not giving them children. I don’t know which is the better blessing.”

– St. Josemaría Escrivá

Bear the Whole Fruit Tray: Infertile, Still Fruitful

We have been so inspired by our dear friend, Mary, throughout her journey of infertility – and she is one of the reasons why we pray often for couples struggling with infertility. She’s sharing an important message about being fruitful in marriage, and we can’t wait for you to read it!

 

My husband and I love fruit. He even likes fruit for dessert. I would hardly classify a bowl of strawberries “dessert,” but pour some sugar, chocolate, and whipped cream on it and you’ve got yourself a sweet treat! The thing we get made fun of for the most is our love for pineapples. We’ll eat them fresh off the tree, sprinkled all over our pizza, or even grilled up and tossed on our hamburgers! Weird? Maybe. But yum? Yes. There is no shortage of fruit in the Bruno house, but some may not agree…

Chris and I officially met in 2010 and married in 2013. Growing up, we both naturally desired to be parents one day. It’s funny how we don’t typically classify having kids as a “dream” because most of us just expect to start popping them out when we’re ready. We were no exception. 

Our dating was characterized by both joy and pain due to my newly diagnosed chronic disease – endometriosis – and subsequent surgeries. But this only increased our growth in love and holiness. Chris truly became my knight as he flew with me across states for medical procedures and cared for me even before he put a ring on it. And two days before my third surgery, he did. 

Then Genesis 2:24 puts it best…

“Leave your father and mother and be united to your wife.” The author of the Bible said (in so many words), “Become one flesh.” He said…

So we did. And it has been bumpy but beautiful. I’m not trying to be cliché. Every marriage has struggles, and ours have made our marriage stronger and sweeter. We are just finishing up preparing our third engaged couple for marriage, and my favorite piece of advice to give each couple is to not be afraid of the potential hard stuff- you know, the sickness part of the “in sickness and health” vow. This is when you get the opportunity to choose love for your spouse and to fully live out your vocation the way it was intended. Suffering helps us to grow in unity more than anything else when we make a gift of it.

We learned that lesson quickly as we began to realize that we may not be able to get pregnant and my physical pain was slowly getting worse.

“Be fruitful.” He said. “Multiply.” He said.

But we couldn’t. Is He sure He wrote that correctly?

These words would mentally and emotionally beat me up over the years. God has designed for us this beautiful vocation of marriage where He invites us to become one flesh and experience a little piece of heaven on earth. But He doesn’t stop there. He allows us mere humans to be co-creators of new life with Him – to be present as He drops a fresh little soul into a fresh little human embryo. To bear fruit. It really is amazing.

Its amazingness is one of the reasons why infertility is so hard. Man, I just wish my body could do all those special little things that make conception and implantation possible! But it doesn’t. So those “fruitful” and “multiply” words made me feel insignificant – not because we weren’t actually being very fruitful, but because we couldn’t see it.

CCC 1654: “Spouses to whom God has not granted children can nevertheless have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms. Their marriage can radiate a fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality, and of sacrifice.”

I eventually learned that being fruitful doesn’t just mean biological children. It’s far from it! Consider how fruitful priests and nuns are. It took awhile for me to get there because the focus for me (especially in Catholic circles) has always felt directed towards being open to life in the context of pregnancy, children, schooling, more pregnancy, more children, and then schooling again. These are beautiful events and desires, but when one cannot take part in those activities and conversations, it’s easy to feel insignificant.

Y’all, we are more than our ability to have and raise children. We are also more than our inability to do these things.

I know what some of you are thinking right now: “Ahh Mary, hold the phone -I’m pretty sure it is most important for me to bear children…” or something like that. I don’t know exactly the right answer, but I am challenging that idea. What does that say about me who cannot bear children? That God has preserved someone like me from doing something so important through no fault of our own? That I am not as important? That the fruits of my marriage will never be as good? I’m just not sure He works like that. So I’m simply encouraging us to look at it differently. 

Yes, bearing children is important. We need to populate the world. But that’s going to happen as many people continue to become parents. The focus should not necessarily be on the next child, but on this: “What is God calling us to do today?” Sometimes it will be to have another child, but sometimes it won’t. It can be just as selfish to desire another child as it can be to decide to be done growing your family.

“Open to life” requires more than just not using birth control. What are the gifts God has given you to sprinkle into the world as an individual? As a couple? Are you and your spouse achieving pregnancy on purpose because you have discerned that God said it is time or by “accident” (excluding hyper-fertility situations) because you’re not using NFP correctly? Are you open to the fact that God may be calling you to have more children? God has gifted us with the knowledge to effectively avoid pregnancy and intentionally achieve pregnancy in a couple with normal fertility. Do we appreciate that gift and respect His timing? 

Discover all of your gifts

Because of my infertility, I was forced to pursue desires and open gifts I didn’t know I had. Now I wonder if I would have reached this potential if I had been able to bear children. Not because those gifts didn’t exist, but because no one was encouraging me to look for them! My own beautiful and wonderful Church wasn’t even challenging and affirming me in that way. Would I have the same fighting spirit and foster the same desire to help other women and couples?

I learned that I am a good speaker and motivator. I started a ministry to empower women to know their bodies and get them the right help. I am becoming a Creighton Model Practitioner. I learned I can write blogs and rap lyrics that I’ve written myself. We were trained in marriage preparation. We adopted our daughter. I became a founding member of The Wise Fools media group. I give advice. I make people laugh. I volunteer. I cook for friends…and strangers if needed. There is a lot more I have to learn and a lot more I have to give. 

Fertile or not, God has given us each unique gifts and abilities to share with the world. This is not just a story about bearing fruits of your life and marriage, but how beauty is born from suffering and difficult situations. Imagine what fruit can grow during the days you are abstaining!

Bear the whole fruit tray

Ironically, we celebrated our daughter’s second birthday party one year ago with a “Two-tti fruitie” theme because she loves fruit so much. We literally rejoiced in the life of one of the fruits of our marriage with a fruit-themed party. What a corny sentence, but how appropriate? Just like our favorite fruit trays, the fruits of our lives and marriages come in an intricate and beautiful variety of ways, shapes, flavors, colors, and sizes. 

As much as I would love to sit on the couch with a fork and a fresh watermelon, it is good for me to discover and pursue other fruits. After all, who do we think invented all those delicious combinations? Bear the whole fruit tray and add some whipped cream to our Creator’s own bowl of fruity goodness.

 

brunos.jpg

Mary Bruno is a former Physical Therapist Assistant of 6 years who “retired” the day she and her husband welcomed their adopted daughter into the world three years ago. Her long-time struggle with pain and infertility inspired her to start a ministry – “Taking Back the Terms” – nearly 4 years ago to make use of her suffering by helping other women to find better women’s health solutions that treat the whole woman more effectively. She is passionate about her Catholic faith and hopes that her ministries will help shed a light of love and understanding on authentic faith and women’s health. Presently, Mary is training to become a Creighton Model FertilityCare Practitioner and is thrilled to connect women of all ages to this system that truly helps us appreciate our gift of fertility. She is also a founding member of Wise Fools Media Group where she podcasts. Find her @takingbacktheterms on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, and read her blog here.