From the Family Foundations archives
The Braxton-Hicks contractions began three or four months into the pregnancy, compounding Lydia Bardua’s exhaustion, dizziness and nausea. Her doctor couldn’t find anything wrong, so he told her to relax and hydrate, relax and hydrate.
Lydia heard her doctor repeat that advice often, but it was hard for the 34-year-old to relax with two young children clamoring for their moth’s attention. Her earlier pregnancies involved more serious complications, including postpartum depression, but this pregnancy felt like the worst of them. Unable to cope at work, she quit her part-time job at the preschool her children attend.
A CCL member in Dayton, Ohio, Lydia said she felt like a wimp but tried to keep her hardships in perspective.
“Some people have suffered way worse than me,” she said.
Romantic comedies, Hallmark cards and Facebook photos often paint pregnancy as bliss, and for some women, it is. For others, though, pregnancy is a blessing wrapped in burden. Some expecting mothers feel crippled by nausea, fatigue, or mandated bed rest. Some learn their unborn baby has a medical condition and unknown future. Still others suffer complications that threaten their lives or those of their babies.
Four couples practicing natural family planning, the philosophy of being open to children also brings with it a certain openness to risk, for the mother or child.
That risk wasn’t something Amanda Roe, an NFP user in Wisconsin, considered when she became pregnant with her first child. Her friends had textbook-perfect pregnancies, and she anticipated the same. Instead, she endured debilitating hyperemesis gravidarum and was told her son may have a neural tube defect.
“Nobody told me how hard or scary it could be,” Roe said.
‘This feeling of failure’
In 2011, RyAnne Carr also seemed to have a textbook-perfect pregnancy, and all seemed well at her routine 38-week appointment. She and her husband, Nathan, were expecting their first child, a son they had named Caleb. Nathan installed the car seat that night, and RyAnne felt Caleb’s familiar hiccups before going to bed.
The next morning, Caleb was strangely still.
On her way to the Catholic school where she taught in Western Illinois, RyAnne prayed she would feel a reassuring kick. She called the doctor and was told to head straight to the clinic.
RyAnne was rushed through the waiting room and onto the doctor’s table, where the nurses immediately hooked her up for a non-stress test. The doctor couldn’t find the baby’s heartbeat and sent her for an ultrasound.
RyAnne had a feeling then that Caleb had died, she said. She remembers the ultrasound technician confirming her fear, saying, “He didn’t make it.”
“Those words still haunt me today, because I didn’t have a reference point for it,” she said. “He didn’t make it where? …Then I realized what she meant.”
In those first hours after her loss, she coped by leaning on her faith and entrusting her son to God. She was induced for labor and delivered Caleb two days later.
Initially, each surreal step — labor, delivery, time with their son’s body, his funeral — was accompanied by a surprising sense of peace, RyAnne said, but then, as the reality of the situation set in, the peace gave way to heart-wrenching grief.
“I didn’t know that late-term stillbirth could happen,” said RyAnne, 30. “I didn’t know what to say to people. There was this feeling of failure on my part.” Caleb’s autopsy provided no answer for the nagging question of “why.”
The Carrs tried to have hope. They kept Caleb’s nursery filled with baby items from five showers.
That hope didn’t assuage the Carrs’ deep feeling of loss. For RyAnne, even NFP was a source of grief. The last cycle they had charted was the time she conceived Caleb.
“When we pulled the last one out, that was a really hard moment,” she said of their chart. “There were a lot of hurdles there.”
Despite her midwife’s advice to wait at least six months to conceive again because of their grief, the Carrs were open to pregnancy and conceived 10 weeks after Caleb’s death.
The second pregnancy was emotionally difficult for RyAnne. She suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and spent time in counseling as she prepared for her baby girl, Abigail, to arrive. She felt an intense fear of losing the baby, especially in the third trimester. She obsessed over monitoring the baby’s kicks and spent sleepless nights in prayer.
After Abigail’s birth, the couple decided to postpone the next pregnancy until they felt they were emotionally ready.
“We almost had to die to ourselves of this pride in us,” RyAnne said. “We did have some pride that motivated us to want to be able to say, ‘Look, we’re this big, happy Catholic family. We can do it.’ But we had to be real and say that’s not what’s best for Abigail right now, or me, or our marriage.”
Ryanne also wonders how future pregnancies would affect her new passion — a retreat-based apostolate called Immaculate Hope that she and Nathan launched for parents who have suffered the loss of a child.
“What we found is that women just really need a safe place to share,” RyAnne said. “That’s what’s important — getting them together so they know they’re not alone.”
Vulnerable to heartbreak
Stillbirth was a real concern for Maria O’Rourke, who gave birth to her youngest two children while in her 40s. A homeschooling mother of 10 and a CCL graduate in Indianapolis, Ind., Maria was 46 when she conceived her youngest child in 2013. Chronic hypertension afflicted most of Maria’s pregnancies, but, around age 40, her blood pressure went up and stayed up. In pregnancy, it compounded another risk factor: advanced maternal age. Her doctor warned her that, for a woman her age, there was no “home free” from miscarriage or stillbirth at any point in the pregnancy. Until the onset of labor, Maria felt certain she was going to lose the baby, a healthy girl born last December.
“I felt like [God] was laying on me a burden: ‘Just be prepared to lose this child,'” she said.
It was a risk she and her husband, Michael, had consciously decided to take after Maria suffered two miscarriages between the births of her eighth and ninth living children, the first at 10 weeks of pregnancy, the second at six weeks.
“It was very painful,” she said of her first miscarriage. “I had felt a presence with me, and when [the baby] died, I was very aware that I wasn’t pregnant anymore.”
The losses caused the couple to wonder if they would have more children — or should even try. Maria didn’t want to conceive again only to lose the baby, she said. She even hoped at one point to be done with childbearing altogether and move on with other aspirations.
However, the O’Rourkes wouldn’t find what they considered a good reason not to have more children, she said. At the onset of their marriage, they had agreed to be open to whatever children God gave them, and that commitment prevailed, even with the fear more pregnancies could lead to further heartbreak.
“Who am I just to protect my heart from pain, to say no if God wants to give life?” she said.
Risk for future babies
CCL member and homemaker Elva Farrell regularly endures real, physical pain due to vascular issues exacerbated by pregnancy. During one pregnancy she developed a blood clot, and the doctors elected to remove the troublesome vein, causing permanent nerve damage to her leg.
The 36-year-old Indianapolis mother of seven takes her suffering in stride, however, by following the example of two of her children who endure physical hardships from dwarfism, a genetic condition diagnosed in utero. The condition has meant 17 spinal surgeries so far for 7-year-old Therese and serious medical interventions for Andrew, who was born last December.
When Elva was 12 weeks pregnant with Therese, their doctors told her and her husband, Mike, that their daughter’s body was disproportionate. Another ultrasound five weeks later confirmed that the baby was not developing typically. The Farrells were offered an amniocentesis for further diagnosis, but they declined because of concerns it could induce early labor.
Their daughter was born without further complications in October, the feast month of her patroness, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, “The Little Flower.”
Therese’s condition, diastrophic dysplacia, has caused a host of medical challenges, including scoliosis, respiratory problems and brittle bones. She broke her femur four times in the past two years, and the multiple surgeries have scarred her small body. Despite the challenges, Therese is joyful and persistently positive, the Farrells said.
The Farrells learned that children in future pregnancies would carry a 25 percent chance of dwarfism. The statistics didn’t shake Elva’s determination to have more children, even though her doctor recommended artificial contraception to avoid having another such child.
Elva told her she was open to having another child with the condition (and then found a new doctor).
“We don’t have kids for the looks,” Elva said. “We have kids because we love children and they are a gift from God.”
Mike, however, wrestled with what Therese’s condition meant for their future family. He wanted more children but questioned his motives. Was it right or fair for them to have another baby? Was their desire for more children selfish? What would other people think?
A conversation with a moral theologian convinced him that it was OK to try to have more children. God will bless you with whatever comes, she told him.
For 43-year-old Mike, the conversation was a “mile marker” for the couple’s path forward, he said. They conceived again and miscarried at seven weeks and then had another daughter, Mary Grace.
Another miscarriage at 12 weeks followed that pregnancy. For a time, Elva struggled to understand why God would allow them to lose children when they were open to life despite a potential genetic abnormality. Naming the miscarried children provided comfort.
Elva conceived again in 2013. The baby’s heartbeat was difficult to detect, as Therese’s had been. At the 20-week anatomy scan, they were told the baby likely had dwarfism. The diagnosis was not as overwhelming for Elva as it had been with Therese, because she’s seen the joy that’s come from her daughter’s life and the way she has touched other people.
In addition to dwarfism, Andrew was also born with a clubfoot and a cleft palate and struggled with breathing and swallowing. They made the difficult decision for him to undergo a tracheotomy to allow him to breathe. He is nourished through a feeding tube in his stomach. Despite these sufferings, he is a happy, smiley baby.
With every baby, bread
In Elva’s home country of Ecuador, there’s a saying: Every baby is born with a loaf of bread under his arm. It’s a reminder that God provides, often through the support of family and friends. It’s an adage the Farrells have taken to heart.
The Farrells said God has used their experience to quell the fears of others who wonder “what if” they were to conceive a child with health complications and to bring people to prayer.
Few of Elva’s friends or family members in Ecuador practice NFP, and they assume Elva’s use of the natural method is the reason the Farrells have a large family. In reality, none of their children were “surprises,” Mike said.
“Before we have a baby we pray so much and ask God if this is what is best for our family,” Elva said. “That’s the beauty of natural family planning — it’s the constant conversation, the constant prayer. It’s the constant relying on your faith in God…and seeing the beauty of life in this type of culture where it’s very hard to do it.”
The Farrells also credit NFP for giving them the time they needed to be intentional about pregnancy, especially after they had Therese, when, Mike said, “the stakes were different than before.”
“It really provided an opportunity and time in which to take time in the months and years that followed to be intentional about that and pray through that and make sure we were both in a position where we were able to be open to life,” he said.
For the Carrs, who struggled for a year to conceive before Caleb, practicing NFP taught them that they’re not in control and that it’s not always God’s plan for families to be as large as the parents might have hoped.
“Discernment is not just to discern whether to have a baby,” RyAnne said. “We had to pray a lot. We’re not a normal family. For us, to get pregnant is not just that another baby is going to be added. It includes the possibility of losing that baby, tons of doctor visits, high medical bills, the extra stress, the time off from work.”
Lydia Bardua, the Ohio mom whose pregnancy was dogged by fatigue and nausea, has come to realize that all mothers suffer to varying degrees to bring children into the world. “It might be hard during pregnancy, but when you get to hold them, it melts away,” Lydia said.
She made that comment in May, two weeks after giving birth to a new daughter and then developing a new set of complications. A week after childbirth, her feet swelled and her blood pressure skyrocketed. She was hospitalized for several days for preeclampsia, a condition she also experienced during her first pregnancy.
The complication hasn’t changed the Barduas’ hope to have more children. “There’s always going to be risks in anything you do,” Lydia said. “Anything can happen at any time, but we feel like our greatest achievement is being parents and bringing these beautiful children into our lives. The beautiful thing about NFP is that we reflect on that every month: Are we ready for this? Are we open? Is it time?
She added: “We trust in God and his timing.”
— Maria Wiering
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