On Sundays after Liturgy (before the pandemic), a kind altar server often gifted my daughter a fresh flower from the vase that adorned the icon of the Theotokos. She was always tickled to receive her “present from Mary.” She pranced about the church showing anyone who would admire the beauty in her hand. On one particular Sunday, she received a stem of several delicate, white flowers, each on its own branch. My daughter admired the speckled petals and was taken by the “bead” at the base of each flower. I explained to her that in the bead is where the seeds live. She considered this new information briefly, accepted it as fact, and bounced away, on to the next adventure. As she bounced, the petals of the flowers fell off one by one. She returned with a now nearly naked stem in hand saddened that her beautiful flowers were gone. In an effort to comfort her, I explained that it is natural for the petals to fall off. That even when the flowers remain planted in the ground, the petals are meant to fall off so that the seeds can grow to maturity, fall to the ground, and grow new flowers. My daughter then asked if we could plant the seeds from her flowers, to which I replied that we could not since these flowers had been picked and would no longer grow to maturity — that the seeds within were still small and were not able to create new life. At this, I paused, and realized that my journey with infertility is much like those flowers.
Without medical intervention, my own ‘seeds’, stunted by polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), cannot grow to maturity. I was first diagnosed with PCOS in my early 20s at a time when I was not yet married and not ready for children, yet I felt a deep sense of loss and grief having been told I would likely have trouble conceiving or not ever conceive at all. This weighed on my heart as I often felt that I was ‘less than,’ or that the beauty of womanhood would never be fully realized if I could not bear children. In my sadness I sensed myself leaning into my faith, asking God to be with me.
Shortly after marrying my husband, armed with knowledge of my diagnosis, we began trying to build our family. And try we did! Ovulation charts, weight loss, medication, more medication, counting days, and perfecting timing with no success landed us in the office of a fertility specialist. We added regular blood draws, ultrasounds, and injections to our arsenal of medical interventions and finally, after 5 years of trying, 5 years marked by hope and disappointment, loss and love, persistence and prayer, we were blessed with our daughter. A few years later, we boarded the infertility roller coaster again and, by the grace of God, we had our son.
I thank God every day that we’ve been blessed with our two, beautiful children; however, I still feel pangs of being ‘less than’ knowing that my body is once again not able to create new life, often being reminded of this when well meaning folks remark, “Your youngest is getting so big! Looks like it’s time for the next one!” They don’t understand that there will likely never be a next one. They don’t understand that even after overcoming primary infertility, secondary infertility is still very real.
I will always have PCOS. My seeds, like my daughter’s flowers’ seeds, will always be stunted. It is my nature. I am reminded of my nature each time I am required to take a pregnancy test before completing a round of my current medication. The expectation is that I will not be pregnant and may proceed with my treatment. With each test I have a glimmer of hope that the result will be positive only to be disappointed by the negative result and once again faced with my barrenness. I am reminded of my nature when my son asks if I will ever have another baby in my belly because he wants a brother, and I have to tell him no. I am reminded of my nature when I see families with three, four, and five children and wonder what it may have been like if we had a whole brood. And I can’t help but feel that pang of being ‘less than.’ But am I less? Are we less?
The flowers that my daughter so loved will never give the gift of life, but what a life they had. They grew tall and strong and blossomed into delicate beauty. They gave the gift of joy to a little girl as she swept them into the games of her imagination. They gave the gift of beauty to the congregation adding to the solemnity of the liturgy. They were chosen from all the flowers and given as a gift to Mary, the Mother of God. They held vigil to her in the day and throughout the night, keeping her company in the still and silent church after the faithful went home. They were not less than! Much like the flowers, we each carry beauty within and without. We have gifts to offer. At times it may feel like our petals have fallen, that we have nothing to give, but we are not less. At the very least, like those flowers, we can sit with the Mother of God taking comfort in knowing that she is praying for us whatever our plight. Throughout my own journey I have come to realize that sitting quietly with Mary is the most fruitful of my prayers. I offer her my troubles. I ask for nothing. I sit. And without fail, I weep, a Motherly embrace enveloping me. Whether we have never felt the buzz of life within our wombs, whether we suffered a loss of life, whether we long for life to return within, we can lean in to Mary and ask her take up our sorrows and be met with comfort. And I can’t think of a better place to rest!
Alissa West is a stay at home mom on hiatus from her career as a Board Certified Music Therapist. She lives with her husband of 10 years, Byzantine Catholic Deacon Paul, and their children Adelaide and Nicholas. The West Family is currently awaiting Dn. Paul’s priestly ordination. In her spare time, Alissa enjoys baking, sewing, and making music.