I recently attended an Advent Christmas concert featuring praise and worship music. When Tim Timmons sang Cast My Cares about casting fears on God, I thought of all the worry and angst I’ve experienced from focusing on unfulfilled desires, and all those nights of restless sleeping, pondering what the future might hold. This has led me to reflect, during this Advent season, on what it means to experience these emotions, the struggle to choose hope and joy, and how Jesus is there through it all.

I love the last part of Cast My Cares, which contains lyrics about praying with confidence rather than worrying. These lyrics capture a personal change in my own thinking in recent months and the peace I’ve felt, which feels like a monumental milestone on this path of secondary infertility. It seems that to truly appreciate peace or joy, we must also experience the profound opposite emotion.

This sentiment reminds me of the movie, Inside Out, which moved me to tears when I watched it the month before my only daughter was born. I remember focusing on how the main character, Riley, was an only child and wondering if she was lonely. The movie showed me the importance of all our emotions (happy, sad, lonely, angry, excited, fearful, all the feels!) and how they intertwine to create our lived experiences. We could even say we appreciate one feeling, in part, because of the opposite feeling. I often need to actively work to change what I’m feeling on the inside to “behave my way” back into the light and joy.

I was so moved by Inside Out that I promptly put it on the baby registry, even though it would be years before our child would watch and understand it. When I watched the movie again later, I realized how close Riley and her parents were, even when she was experiencing difficult emotions. It gave me hope, both for us to be a close-knit family, one that I hope will always stick together, and for our daughter, Charlotte, to make close friends who could fill the sibling role, in a way.

I also have hope that no matter how far we may feel from God, He’s always there as the Father of the Prodigal Son, ready to take us in His loving arms. Jesus is always there in the cracks. He is there in the mess. He is there in our relationships. He is there during the hard times. He is there when life is sunny and bright. He is there during the in-between times and perhaps, most of all, He is there when we feel alone. He is there when the tears fall.

With the holiday season upon us, there have been moments when I have struggled to hang on to joy. Jesus is still there. At times, I have been swallowed up in the memories, thinking of what it was like to be pregnant at my work Christmas party, the anxiety I faced over flying at 30 weeks of pregnancy to spend Christmas in California with extended family, the excitement of my mom coming to the first baby doctor appointment with me shortly after the New Year, and how I felt hearing the heartbeat of the baby for the first time. I still have that video saved on my phone and I listen to Charlotte’s heart beating from within me from time to time. Jesus is there.

Even now, seven years later, each time I see a pregnant woman, I am filled with simultaneous joy and sadness: joy for the friend who is growing a new life within her and overwhelming sadness over not being able to carry another precious little life. In these moments, I remind myself that we did get to experience that once, which is more than some others, and I try to redirect my sorrow into gratitude and an attitude of prayer for those who struggle to conceive with no answers to their questions. Jesus is there with all of us living with primary and secondary infertility. He weeps alongside us.

The cycle of sorrow and gratitude is one I’m usually able to keep at bay by drowning myself in work and social commitments, but as the semester winds down and the holidays inch closer, I find that it’s not as easy to fill my mind up with to-do lists and grading. I need to pray more and to face these feelings, which can be hard – super-duper hard.

My Advent reflection prayer from last night said that God puts us in a place for a reason. I have to be careful not to lose myself in the sorrow, despite being reminded, yet again, that we reside in a predominantly Catholic town of huge families, that I work at a place where the joke is that the average family has nine kiddos, and that I’m in a profession that revolves around children. I am constantly reminded of what I had always wanted for my future family. Like in Inside Out, so many of my previous memories, hopes, and lived experiences have shaped me into who I am today.

I’m thankful that Jesus is still there, despite my struggles. He loves me, His sometimes-Prodigal Daughter, even when at times I focus on other things, rather than on Him. He squeezes in through the cracks, through the busy-ness, through the moments of despair, through the prayers of others, and through the darkness I find myself swallowed up in from time to time since my daughter’s fateful birthday. These are sweet moments, but they are also tinged with some tartness, because I want to stay in these moments forever and not leave them behind. I suppose, in a way, that is what I’m doing; I am clinging to what I thought would have been, could have been, should have been and I am scared to face what actually is since this state in life wasn’t my plan.

The fundamental belief that my husband Adam and I subscribed to, from the beginning days of our courtship, that as Catholics we would always be open to life, was perhaps one of my biggest struggles when we first started on this path of secondary infertility. We were and are so open to life, but my body is not physically able. This desire at my core is one that, as a wife, I can’t provide; still, I turn toward the light to remind myself that there are other ways of providing life and of being fruitful such as through my job, in the community, and through my interactions with others. Jesus is there in it all.

This Advent, I have prayed about how I want to focus on the positive and actively continue to embrace the cross in my role as physical mama to one and spiritual mama to many. I used to think that the many opportunities I’ve had to spiritually mother – through babysitting, nannying, teaching, and being an aunt – were simply to “get me ready” for when we got pregnant. Now, I view these previous experiences in a different light. I believe God was preparing me to continue to live out spiritual motherhood simultaneously as we raise Charlotte. I realize now that I must actively embrace this role God has in mind for me instead of lamenting over what was lost. I see what a blessing it is to be entrusted the care of this sweet precious daughter while also being able to nurture and tend to so many others, equally as sweet and precious as children of God, through my vocation and state in life.

Advent is a season of joyful hope and waiting, similar to how a family waits for the arrival of a new child. May this year be joyful and full of hope in a new way for us all and may we have the eyes to see the joy and hope in the waiting. Jesus is still there. Let’s not lose hope as we anticipate Jesus’ coming. Let’s lean into this knowledge and cast our cares on Him. May He grant us eyes so that we can recognize the glory and beauty all around us.

This beautiful prayer was penned by a friend who is facing some difficulties of her own this Advent; yet she’s choosing to lean into the joy (what a role model and sister in Christ she is to me!):

Oh, my Christ, may I ever be aware of your gaze of love! Always surround me in the strength of your caress, so tender and full of mercy! Save me from the distraction, forgetfulness, complaining, indifference, and pettiness that can make me close in on myself. Instead, fill me with the gift of simple gratitude and let my eyes overflow with your creative goodness that has loved me into existence and loves me into life at each moment of my journey here on earth. May Mary, whose heart has ever been open toward the sheer overabundance of your love, be my teacher, guide, and example so that I may become like a sunflower, always tilting and stretching my face toward you, or better: like the full moon, soaking in and reflecting out your compassion and goodness for the world. Fill me so full with the knowledge of your love that I ache and burn for more. Amen.

Megan Reister, wife to Adam and mother of one young daughter named Charlotte, loves peanut butter and chocolate combinations, puppies, and her home state of Pennsylvania. Now an Ohio resident, she is a teacher who enjoys working at a Catholic university and helping preservice teachers become advocates for the children they will serve in their vocations. Spiritual motherhood has always had a place in Meg’s heart, and even more so as she and her husband face secondary infertility. You can read more from Meg on her personal blog.