When Grief and Faith Collide

About a year ago, OH and I went back to the church where we were married for the first time. I forget the exact date, or where we were on our journey to conceive, but we were definitely making the arrangements. Perhaps we’d just had our first appointment with the consultant, or had booked that appointment, or maybe we were choosing our donor. It was an emotional experience to walk back down the aisle hand in hand and know that soon we would be starting a family.

During the service, a picture came into my head as if from nowhere. I was holding a baby boy in his christening gown. Well, I believed he was a boy, although you couldn’t tell from looking at him. He had blonde hair and blue eyes and a little eczema on his face, and he looked for all the world as if he belonged in OH’s family. I felt sure that this was my son. Had that vivid mental image come from God? Was it prophetic? At the time, I thought it might be. Now I’m not so sure.

So far I’ve resisted blogging about the impact my miscarriage and difficulties conceiving have had on my faith. I’m ashamed, I suppose, of not being a ‘better’ Christian who never doubts or rages or tries to bargain with God. And I don’t want to alienate my non-religious readers, who might not relate to any of this or may even think I’m completely off my trolley. But I feel compelled to speak out about the reality of pregnancy loss and fertility problems, and for me, wrestling with God is a huge part of it. This, then, is a post about what it’s like to be Christian and infertile, and above all a question: what do you do when you thought God was telling you something, but it doesn’t come to pass or no longer makes sense?

In the weeks leading up to our first treatment, I felt exceptionally close to God. I’m struggling to write this paragraph now because it’s painful to remember how happy I was, and because there’s more background than I can explain here. But basically I had trusted God through coming off my antidepressants in preparation for pregnancy, through mood swings and heightened anxiety and the resurfacing of old behaviours, and I remained well. I had trusted God in leaving my therapy group and in looking to Him to help me with my remaining issues. I asked him to teach me how to trust, to relinquish my need for control, to learn to cope with being let down, and I could see real progress after so many months of languishing in therapy. When I faced an issue, I would go somewhere quiet to pray and the answer, the best way forwards, would come to me. It was exciting and I really felt that God and I were on the same page, that we wanted the same things for my life.

When I thought I was having a very early miscarriage, it didn’t affect my faith. I was grieving, but as before in my life, I was able to draw comfort from God. On the Sunday I made an effort to go to church even though we were in another country. The priest introduced a baby to the congregation and I cried and they felt like healing tears. I thought the pregnancy was over, it was sad but very common, and we’d be able to try again soon.

But as the pregnancy dragged on, non-viable and incomprehensible, I begged and pleaded with God to stop torturing me. I didn’t normally ask for specific outcomes in my prayers, just the strength to cope, but surely these were special circumstances? Surely He would hear me and ease my suffering. Yet still, my hCG levels continued to rise too slowly. I stopped praying. I couldn’t even pray for others because I believed God didn’t listen, not to me. And church was torture. I remember having to look happy through my tears at Harvest Festival and singing, “Can we know that thou art near us / And will hear us? / Yea, we can!” I rewrote the last line in my head and it wasn’t pretty.

Slowly, slowly, I came through it. I asked others to pray for me and I prayed to the saints (even though I’m not Catholic). I learned about my condition, pregnancy of unknown location or PUL, and could make a little more sense of things. I read Jennifer Saake’s book Hannah’s Hope on infertility and miscarriage, which was extraordinarily helpful. I let go of what I wanted enough to ask God simply to help me cope, and I began to notice the good things that had come out of the situation: how I was letting OH comfort me (normally I try to be the strong one), how the loss of my baby was miraculously healing my relationship with my sister, how I was softening and becoming more tolerant towards others. And most strikingly, while I was still pregnant I had another vision of that baby boy. This time I could feel him in my arms, the caress of his flailing hands on my face.

Let’s fast-forward a little to our second cycle of IUI. By now I was back to my usual prayer routine, my relationship with God mostly healed, even though we had also suffered further setbacks: a delay in my referral for an HSG and a treatment cancelled when I ovulated too soon. But this time I was filled with hope. On my blog I hedged my bets, saying, “I’m sure God is telling me I will have a child – He just doesn’t say when or how.” That wasn’t entirely honest; it was how I had felt immediately after the cancelled cycle, but in fact I was becoming more and more convinced that this was The One. And I knew I might be being stupid, so I sat down and prayed about it. I let go of all my conviction that I would be having a child in November – that took a lot of courage – and for a moment I was empty and grey, but then I felt hope rushing in, yellow, like the sun. And I was certain it did not come from me.

So what do I make of it all, now that the second cycle hasn’t worked and the third not either?

I realise that I have been trying to control the uncontrollable by looking for signs and imagining I know what’s going to happen. After our second IUI, I raged at God for a bit but I soon relented and prayed for help. I asked Him to help me see the good things in my life, because I just couldn’t. Over the course of that day, they came to me – my OH, my career, my sense of humour, my beautiful niece, even the state of our finances (our budget is very tight because of fertility treatment, but we have enough to live off and won’t be too affected by the government cuts for now). I asked Him to show me the way forwards and I understand I had to just trust in His timing and not try to control the process. No more bargaining with God, no more lucky toilet cubicles in the fertility clinic, no more reading too much into the magpies near our house. That’s why I went into the third cycle of treatment with no expectations and why I was disappointed, not devastated, when I didn’t get pregnant. I still cried and I’m so fucking sick of crying and waiting but at least I’m not being torn apart.

The problem is that since then, I’ve been feeling more distant from God. I’m mostly not angry with Him, just dispassionate. I think one reason for this is that since I can’t control my fertility, I’m focusing on those things I can (mostly) control: our bank accounts and our house. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting to stick to a budget or declutter and decorate – in fact, we need to do both those things to prepare for a baby – but it’s all about me, not God. I’m relying on my own resources and setting my own goals precisely because I need to feel in control on this turbulent journey. The other reason is, how can I know what God wants me to do and what he’s telling me? Either that burst of sunshine hope didn’t come from Him, or I misinterpreted it. Was it my imagination, or was he saying there’s hope in the long run? And was the baby in the visions fictitious, or a child I’m going to have, or even (it has occurred to me) the child I’ve already lost? I can no longer trust messages that I think are from God and I can no longer trust my own interpretation, so how do I pray now?

I’m sure there are no easy answers to those questions, and I don’t expect answers. What I wanted to do with this post is simply reach out and share my experience. Maybe others out there have been or are going through something similar, and maybe we can help each other. I haven’t lost my faith and I haven’t lost my sanity (in fact, that’s something else amazing that came out of my miscarriage – not relapsing) but these are very challenging times and I don’t want to walk the journey alone any more.

IUI #3 and Superovulation

I didn’t blog about our third cycle. Perhaps because it felt as though it never really happened – there was only one pre-treatment scan (we’d been visiting family in Wales), the procedure took place in a normal scan room with no need to gown up, and I didn’t have any side effects from the Pregnyl. OH was encouraged by all the things that were different; my gut feeling from the start was that it wouldn’t work. Yet somewhere along the line, I must have allowed myself to get my hopes up, because I’m devastated that my body has responded as though treatment never really happened either.

It’s so hard. I’m trying to trust in God’s timing and accept that, no matter how desperate I am for a baby, now may just not be when it’s meant to happen. I’m trying not to read anything into the magpies I see on my walk to the supermarket or imagine I know what God has planned for me. I’m trying to focus on the good things in my life (my career, my health – still sane despite nine months off antidepressants and a miscarriage! – my wonderful OH) and enjoy spending time with my nieces and nephew. I know that taking longer to conceive means more time to prepare physically, mentally and possibly financially for a child (depending on the ratio of failed treatments to months where I can’t have treatment). In some ways, this makes the ordeal a lot easier – I’m grieving, but I can turn to God for support and comfort rather than getting angry with him. On the other hand, I’m still grieving.

It was a huge shock to get my period eleven days after treatment. My luteal phase has always been 13 days before, so I didn’t think that could happen. Maybe I ovulated right after that scan, with no chance of treatment ever working… If so, at least that will be addressed by the fact we’re moving on to superovulation next. With fertility drugs controlling my cycle, we won’t have to worry so much about timing.

I phoned the clinic this morning, and they said I don’t have to come in for a blood test (hurrah!) Apparently, peeing on a stick is good enough. But they also said we can’t start superovulation until we’ve had a review with one of the doctors, which means more waiting. Sometimes it feels as though my whole life has been reduced to a series of waits.

On Being Infertile

I never thought of myself as infertile before. I was baffled when my GP used the term. OH and I sat in the fertility clinic filled with hope and excitement, though feeling a little awkward that all the other couples were straight. We knew they might have gone through years of trying to conceive naturally, only to find out that there was a problem, and that for some, this appointment would be their desperate last hope. Not so with us. Our TTC hassles were behind us – we had a sperm donor and the funds for treatment. Starting IUI in August, I thought I had a very good chance of being pregnant by Christmas.

I didn’t know, of course, that I would have a miscarriage. I could never have imagined that even though we knew from the start the pregnancy wasn’t viable, it would take over two months to resolve. I had no idea my consultant would request further tests and these would take time to organise and carry out. I didn’t know that when we tried to resume treatment, my ovaries would fail to produce a mature follicle, or that our second IUI would raise our hopes with the same symptoms and that very faint pink line – only to result in a big fat negative on the official testing day. Chemical pregnancy or side effects of Ovitrelle? My breasts feel as though I’ve been pregnant, but I guess we’ll never know.

I have never forgotten the second scan I had during the miscarriage – the one where I let a man see my vagina for the first time ever. Afterwards, he took us into a little room and asked whether we had any questions. I opened my mouth and was surprised to hear this little voice come out, asking whether the miscarriage meant I would have problems conceiving in future. Surprised, because I already knew the answer to that question. I’m a medical translator, for heaven’s sake. He replied with the same statistics that I used to give other women, and rather than thinking of them as positive, I realised I was terrified I’d be one of those rare people who cannot carry a pregnancy to term. I still am.

Then there’s fertility treatment itself. It’s hard to explain what it’s like to someone who’s never been through it, how it magnifies every emotion tenfold. Back in August, I imagined we would simply have IUI every month until we succeeded, and now we’re finally in a position where we might be able to do that. Do you know what that means? It means that in week 1, I have my period and can’t take effective pain relief because the only class of drugs that work for me sometimes impair fertility. In week 2, I have clinic appointments every other day – sometimes even every day – to check my follicles in the run up to treatment. This involves a good two to three hours out of what would be my working day, so it’s fairly exhausting juggling it all. Weeks 3 and 4 are the two-week wait, where I’m on tenterhooks, getting strange symptoms from the Ovitrelle and constantly reminded I might be pregnant by the list of things I cannot eat. Then if the test is negative, we’re right back to week 1 again. And that’s before you add in the superovulation drugs I’ll be moving onto if the next cycle doesn’t work (more injections, more scans and blood tests, and probably some chemically induced mood swings too). Or our dwindling bank balance and the precarious tightrope of earning enough without spending too much.

I feel surrounded by women who simply come off their contraception, shag a bit, and are giving birth within a year. And women who get pregnant without even meaning to. Women who have the confidence to say, “My sister’s having a baby next year,” although said sister hasn’t even started trying yet. It hurts so much. I also know many women who are having difficulty conceiving, or can’t have children due to their circumstances, or who have lost babies, but these are mostly private confidences. We suffer in secret while the rest of the world blithely clings to the idea that if you’re ‘normal’, starting a family is easy.

My excitement and expectations resurfaced with the crocuses a month ago, but I don’t know whether they will again. And I think this is a healthy thing. I don’t mean I’ve given up hope – we will certainly keep trying and we know that in the long term the odds are good – but I can’t go on imagining the next cycle will be ‘the one’. I need to try to live in the present more and trust in God’s timing, that it will happen when it’s meant to happen. How well I can do this, I don’t know, but I need to try. And with that change in perspective comes a certain amount of grieving.

Now I agree with my GP. It’s called situational infertility, and it means that because of our circumstances, OH and I face significant barriers to having a child. It’s not just about finances, as I once thought. It’s one hell of a difficult journey.