My husband and I went on a marriage retreat last week, deep in the mountain woods. We stayed at a big old home, normally meant for family reunions – eight bedrooms, large kitchen, dining room, living room, and basement. My husband and I got there early and spent an hour transforming the basement “rec room” into a chapel, accomplished with the help of religious pictures from our home and gold-colored tablecloths. It was an incredibly peaceful room where we felt tucked away from the world.
The week before this retreat was rough. I had an emotionally and physically painful test that confirmed some health problems that were preventing my ability to conceive, and we found out that our current apartment would probably not be approved for our adoption home study. I was already feeling sorrowful arriving at this married couples’ retreat, and it didn’t help knowing that two of the women attending included a seven-month pregnant woman and a mother with her two-month old baby. (All the couples are good friends of ours, and they know about our IF struggles; but this was not going to be an infertility retreat, that’s for sure!) So I knew this retreat would be intense – I was taking into it a very bruised and battered heart, and was bracing for more medical appointments in the coming weeks.
The retreat structure was simple: meals together, silence, talks by our spiritual director, time for silent prayer, rest, conversation with our spouses. The setting was so perfect. Tucked in the autumn woods, far away from traffic, no cell phone or internet service. Ahhh. Lots of room to walk and think and pray.
I thought it would be intense…and I was right.
The very first talk, Father walked us through a catechesis on marriage. “Matrimonial,” he began, “comes from the Latin word for Mother…” Oh darn it, why did I think I could get through this without tissues? I got up twice during that talk to blow my nose and dry my eyes. Once when the group was asked to describe motherhood, all I could think was, That’s not me, not me, not me.
Father was quick to add throughout that a married couple’s call to be father and mother does not depend on actually having living children. It’s about their fatherly or motherly care for other people. My head gets that…my heart apparently does not. As Father talked, I felt this chasm open up in my soul, the oceans of grief bubbling up once again, threatening to spill out of my eyes. Why not us? Why not us? my heart pounded. Motherhood…that’s a door I’ve locked and sealed, because to look behind it is too painful.
From that first conference throughout the entire day on Saturday, I grieved as I haven’t allowed myself to do in a long time. Through Father’s words, through silence, through having nothing to do but pray and be still, God invited me to go with Him to a place deep within that I generally keep under tight lock and key: the place where my heart is bleeding and crying over not being a mother…the room where I keep all my hopes for motherhood, all my dreams for a future child. Come with me there, I heard Him say. I’m there, too.
Maybe some journal entries can give a better picture of the state of my soul during the retreat:
Thoughts (1st break)
I can’t hear what anyone is saying b/c the sound of pain, heartache, grief & rage is so strong in my ears. It blocks everything else out. And no one else hears it, which is all the more isolating.
I just want to start running & not stop until I am far, far away & have left the pain behind – except that’s impossible because the pain is in me, in my broken body, my fruitless womb.
I feel like I’m living behind a thick glass window & am screaming at the top of my lungs but no one can hear me & everyone else is acting as if nothing is wrong, everything is perfect, words like mother & father & child are just normal, run of the mill words instead of arrows with such power, such beautiful force that they pierce to my very soul & leave me wounded, bleeding, swords in my heart like Mary.
I know the anger is hiding grief, because if I stop shouting, I’ll weep.
For the record, Father’s talks on marriage were great. I took a lot of notes and plan to ponder them. But from that very first morning, it became clear that my retreat was going to be about addressing my grief, and my anger towards God. I felt so raw that it scared me…
By the afternoon, I felt so weepy that I skipped out on the final conference of the day. (It turned out to be about suffering and hope, ha!) I’m usually not a skipper, but I was afraid that I literally would start weeping in front of everyone and I’m not humble enough to do that…
So I went for a walk in the woods, and I came upon a bench overlooking an idyllic fall scene.
I sat on the bench and just cried. Ugly cries. Cries you don’t want anyone to see. Sobbing, sniffling cries. Cries from the heart – Why, God? How long, O Lord? Where are you?? It felt awful and healing and terrifying and refreshing all at the same time.
I thought a lot about grief in those moments. About the fact that infertility is such a unique kind of grief. No one has died (of course miscarriage is its own kind of grief – I haven’t experienced that, so I can’t speak to it), so why all the tears? There’s just a huge lack. Someone is missing. Someone whom you’ve never met. Doesn’t that sound strange?
And the grief doesn’t hit and then fade. There’s no clear break like when a person dies, and you know that you need to accept their death. (Hopefully it’s clear that I’m not trying to minimize the grief after death – just pointing out some differences with IF grief.) But with infertility, there’s such an uncertainty, it’s almost unbearable! If I just knew that we would never conceive, that would be the hardest thing in the world to digest. But at least it would give us a clear message, a clear “no,” and we could grieve and move forward. But every month is a “maybe” – every month there’s hope, and then grief – it’s like I was crying over the accumulated grief of the past 29 months of hoping for a baby. That’s a lot of grief! It’s like barnacles on a boat or something – every once in a while, gotta take the hose and get those suckers off!
So yeah. I had a good cry. It was cleansing, in the end. And I felt God there, there in my grief, more than I have for a long time. I’m sure He was there all the time – I just was too angry at Him to look.
I’d be lying if I said the retreat was fruitless. On the contrary. To my broken, wounded heart, Jesus gave me such a word that I’m going to live off of that for a while…
It happened during mass on Saturday. I was grieving, yearning for comfort, asking God, What about us? We’re not mother and father. Our marriage isn’t living out physical motherhood and fatherhood. What do we do now?
From the stillness of the cross, I heard…Love. Just love.
Great. What a Sunday School answer! “Love” Come on…it can’t be that easy.
But then I got off my high horse and let it sink in. This is what I wrote in my journal later:
“Just love,” Jesus says to my heart. “Just love and let me take care of the fruit.”
Love is never wasted. There is always fruit. Sometimes that fruit is so physical, so tangible, that you give it a name, clothe it, feed it. (“That’s the kind of fruit I want,” I say to Jesus.)
But sometimes the fruit of love is intangible, immeasurable, invisible. Invisible even in our own eyes.
“How easy it is,” I think. “How easy it is to have a child, to be able to point to someone and say, ‘That is our fruit. That is our love, made visible.’” Again, my concern for outward things.
Love. A verb. Something to do, now. Small enough, big enough. Enough.
Love is suffering. Love is giving yourself. Love is entregarse [a Spanish word that means “to entrust yourself completely to another”]
So yeah. Love. That’s the message I got from God. Love. Love my husband – maybe that love will be manifested in a child someday. Maybe it won’t. Love those whom I serve. Love the poor. Love my friends. Who can argue with that? Love is always fruitful. That was the big word of comfort I received. I am not wasting my life!!!! it said to me. Even if I never become a mother, mine is not a wasted life because I can love!
It connects so well with my favorite line ever from Pope Benedict: The vocation to love cannot be impeded by an organic condition. (He’s talking specifically about infertility there.) I want to cry with joy when I hear that. My vocation to love is not impeded by my inability to conceive, by the polyps in my uterus, by the lack of a child in our home! It’s not!! I can still love, and my life can be beautiful.
In conclusion, I think I need a retreat about every month. =) Barring that, just more time to be with God, to feel His comfort, to feel my own grief. This has been quite the journey, that’s for sure.
Bethany Meola is a graduate of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, and lives in Maryland with her husband Dan and daughter Zelie-Louise, who joined their family through the gift of adoption.