My soul went groping all the past years through
Searching the barren deserts, for a dream,
A mirage, some foreknowledge or a gleam
Of that long-waited day that should bring you.
Excerpt from To D.E.C.— A Daughter by Frances Chesterton (From How Far Is It To Bethlehem: The Plays and Poetry of Frances Chesterton)
When I “re-converted” to the Catholic Church at age twenty-five after several years lost in the wilderness of this world, I devoured blogs and writings on femininity, marriage, and motherhood. These writings spurred me toward growth in the virtue of chastity and helped make sense of the emptiness and pain I felt during my time away. I felt I was discovering a long-hidden secret, like some beautiful, forgotten craftsmanship in an old building, concealed beneath the lies of the culture that I had bought into for a time.
Through God’s goodness, I began dating my now-husband, a faithful and committed Catholic and a wonderful man. As we grew more serious as a couple, I became giddy to fulfill my vocation as wife and hopefully, one day soon, as a mother. Our wedding day was full of joy, and I knew the peace that comes from discerning and following God’s will.
Naturally, my desire to become a mother grew stronger once we were married, and we waited with expectant hope each month. Month after month passed, and nothing happened. After a year we began the requisite slew of invasive tests to identify any obstacles to our hoped-for parenthood. Several medical appointments later, I remember the anxiety as we sat in a patient room in the urology office, and the shock I felt when I saw the test results the nurse had silently handed us. I immediately understood what they meant from my excessive internet searching prior to the appointment: the worst possible outcome. Short of a miracle, we would never know biological children.
The next few days went by in a blur. We went to mass. Both sets of parents rushed to our sides. I amassed the largest pile of tissues I’d ever consumed. While the original wound, the valley carved into my heart, has begun to heal, the wound is easily, and sometimes unexpectedly, reopened. As awful as the initial days were, this cross is amazingly hard to carry on those days – those days when I’m surrounded by the simple beauty of physical motherhood: the utter joy of a friend patting her pregnant belly, the young boy who can be consoled exclusively by his mother’s embrace, the wonder of my sister’s features visible in my niece. Physical motherhood is awfully beautiful, unique to woman, intimate, co-creative with God, and mysterious. To live with infertility is to grieve that motherhood. It hurts.
And yet, I find glimmers of hope, and even joy, within this struggle. I’m inspired by women like Frances Chesterton, who, though childless, intentionally filled her life with children, and whose marriage to Gilbert produced fruit that nourishes spiritual children generations later. I discovered, along with Collen Carroll Campbell in her memoir, My Sisters the Saints, the many female saints who were not mothers, pointing to the truth that holiness in this life is not dependent on fertility. I found beautiful blogs and podcasts, like Tales From the Valley, with testimonies of women who bear their crosses with faithfulness and grace. I’m more aware than ever that life is a miraculous gift from God.
When I look around, I see real, meaningful examples of a different kind of motherhood everywhere: in the memory of my great aunt who loved each niece and nephew uniquely and deeply, in the young adult minister who gave prayerful counsel and listened with compassion, in the single, elderly friend who brought out her finest china to host me for dinner, and in the many women I know, like my own mother, who care for neighbors as their own children. These women are truly feminine. They continually show me how to pray with devotion, how to accept suffering and unite it with Christ on the Cross, how to exercise hospitality, and how to sow seeds of beauty, meaning, and goodness in the lives of others. Their examples help me understand that femininity is not limited to physical motherhood; rather, it exists in a humble openness to God and a willingness to nurture and serve others with great love.
Some days, it’s difficult to believe that a life without physical motherhood can be enough, that I can be truly happy and fulfilled in other ways. Maybe, in the end, it’s not about being “happy”, or “fulfilled,” at least in the way of the world, with its perfectly-coordinated photo Christmas cards and truncated stories of family life shared with strangers. Maybe it’s not even about me. Maybe this fulfillment will come in striving to follow the example of the Blessed Mother, the most perfect woman, who trusted God so completely that she endured seven sorrows before the glory of Easter morning, and in so doing, became Mother to us all.