A woman with two devastating losses currently pregnant with a miracle.
A woman in the midst of her very last round of infertility treatments after five losses.
A woman with two losses she has never felt good enough to claim.
A woman told at 16 years old she would never conceive.
Women who are all mothers, not in your traditional sense of the word of 2.5 children in the family picture, but mothers still.
I am one of these mothers; failed infertility treatments, three lost babies and learning to live life parenting from afar. I am a Licensed Professional Counselor who has been certified in the work of Dr. Brené Brown for almost three years now. I have completed The Daring Way™ curriculum with over 50 clients helping them to rise over shame and learn to live and love wholeheartedly.
A couple of weekends ago I led the four above mentioned women through Brené’s new Rising Strong™ curriculum. It was my first infertility and loss intensive, and it was four years in the making.
Click here to continue reading over at HuffPost.
A germ infested warehouse filled with bigger-than-life rainbow colored bounce houses, and we have the place to ourselves! Stomach-dropping fun for every child, a place of refuge for their tired parents, and a place of nightmares for most infertile couples.
But not for us. We worked our way out of the nightmare to be the exception.
Some call us “childless.” Some even say we will never know true love.
My heart, full of a mother’s love, albeit longing love, begs to differ.
The soft structures breathe an undercurrent hum behind the happy squeals of the only two other children who are already there. Baby Ben is sleeping in his car seat. McKinley kicks off her Crocs, my husband Chad unties his shoes, and I unzip my boots, racing to see whose stocking feet can hit the bright red vinyl floor of the bounce house first. We both run after McKinley as she hurls her tiny, not-quite-three-year-old self into the soft structure.
“Wait for us!” I yell, already immersed in breathless excitement.
All I can hear are her giggles. I fall into the sides a few times before I have my bearings, but quickly, because McKinley is attempting to scale a wall that is way too big for her.
Her smile and laughter burst brighter than the colored world we are stumbling in. She flings her body in complete abandonment, jumping so high that our faces cramp from smiling so much. For an hour we trail behind her, playing, helping her up the ladders, so she can climb walls that are too big for her tiny arms and legs.
“Hold onto the straps so you can pull yourself up,” I say.
“Come on, McKinley. You can do it!” Chad says looking down at her from the top.
“Okay,” she assures me with a nod of her tiny head, grabbing the strap.
This small teaching lights a spark under her as she races up the ladder at double the speed. My knees ache as I try to catch up to her.
All three of us perch precariously at the top of a slide that is much bigger than I anticipated, as McKinley shouts, “Race!”
My stomach drops at the steepness of the slide and a laugh escapes my smile so loud I even startle myself.
“Again, again!” McKinley shouts.
“Okay!” I shout back in a high pitched goofy voice, much to her delight.
“Myself,” she states back, brimming with threenager attitude.
This time I wait for her at the bottom, my arms open for her. Her blonde hair sticks straight up as she catches wind on the way down, her face shining with unbridled joy like only a toddler’s can.
My thirty-six year old back is telling me I need a break, so I go over to the bench where my friend Casey is holding Ben. I take Ben out of her arms with a smile silently saying to her, thank you for letting me love your children, my chosen children.
At only eleven weeks old, he has the new baby smell that fills my nose with maternal love. His eyes light up and he cracks a huge smile imitating back to me my joy. I nuzzle him, smile at him and feel his warmth in my arms, making sure to soak in every scent, smile and snuggle that I can.
Casey asks, “Want me to take him back so you can go and play again?”
“I’m good for now,” I say.
“Need a little break, huh?” Casey asks, as if to say, we are getting so old aren’t we?
She assumes my body needs a break but it’s my heart that needs one most. I glance back at Chad picking up McKinley to help her make a shot in the basketball bounce house. They are both giggling and jumping everywhere. The thought creeps in ever-so-slightly, just like it usually does.
He would have been a great dad.
God, I wanted them so badly.
Two back surgeries and a year in a body cast annihilated the first rendition of our parental dreams. A couple of failed rounds of In Vitro Fertilization with a gestational surrogate, tens of thousands of dollars and three lost babies later we ended our journey without the desired, hoped for, dreamed of and paid for outcome of our own children.
Instead, all we have left of them is a black and white picture of their eight cell embryo beings.
In our world’s most accepted definition of the word “parent,” we will never meet the criteria. I will never birth a child and we are not adopting one.
But childless we are not. We are childfull parents, birthing a rare kind of parenthood. We must seek out, ask for and remain open enough to receive the gift of being involved in our friends’ children’s lives, our chosen children. This love will be our legacy, left not in biological children we raise but in our chosen children’s lives.
My mind wanders to a scene not long ago when two sisters walked into our home with the bright eyes of children who know they are getting an awesome gift. Hannah, the oldest, handed me a handwritten note with my name spelled wrong, yet phonetically right, that read, “Thank you for the costumes Justiene.”
“Can we try them on now?” she asked.
The house was filled with the familiar smells of Thanksgiving dinner, our first with our new friends and their three daughters. “Let’s eat first, then we will have the most awesome fashion show ever,” I said.
After lunch, we all rushed to the basement. Hannah and her younger sister Maya squealed with excitement at the site of the huge trunk filled with a lifetime of my dance costumes. “We can have all of them?” Hannah asked.
“You can! But only if we make up dances and have a recital when I come over to play.”
“Thank you,” they both said without being prompted by their mom.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
I helped the girls try on all the costumes for the next hour, tap shoes, tiaras, tutus and all. I looked at their mom Izzy with gratitude, Thank you for letting me love your daughters.
All while thinking, God, I hope we’re always allowed to be such active parts of our chosen children’s lives.
“How old is he?” a very blonde mother asks, interrupting my thoughts. I notice quickly she is playing on her phone while her two kids run and bounce away.
I give myself permission to think the first thought that comes as the woman who can’t have kids, Play with your kids, lady. You get to have them.
I know all-too-well how little time and care most mothers provide for themselves, especially as a mental health therapist. Most of my work with mothers consists of teaching them how to take better care of themselves, so they don’t end back up in my office in their fifties lost and completely empty. I quickly practice my empathy and think, I’m so glad moms have places like this to entertain their kids a bit so they can get the occasional break.
“Eleven weeks,” I smile and reply to her question.
“Oh my gosh, you look aaaamaaazing!” she exclaims.
“Oh no, he isn’t mine. We’re in town visiting.” I point to Casey and say, “That’s his mom, my friend Casey.”
“Oh, well, you look great too!”
We all exchange obligatory smiles and I walk away before she can ask me where my own kids are.
Shit, Justine, don’t get sad. Breathe! Stay present.
Standing with Ben in my arms, I shift my focus back to Chad and McKinley bouncing away, as I allow the sadness to well up inside of me. Some days it comes in waves like this, waves of sadness triggered by thoughts like, It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Other days it is the longing for my three children who never took a breath of this earth’s fresh air.
Always, I acknowledge the thoughts and the feelings, giving myself permission to feel them all.
I am simply too afraid not to, because then it is like they never existed, and they are our children. Even if the only thing we have left of them, besides our longing hearts and changed lives is a picture from our infertility clinic.
I fight to take a breath and look down at Ben. He is a true miracle in my life. I take another breath, deeper and more knowing, and look back at Chad and McKinley jumping like crazy in the bounce house together. With yet another deeper breath, a space begins to open up within me, allowing the sadness to move just enough to grant space for another choice.
I am so grateful.
I am grateful for this life.
I am grateful we were given our never-to-be babies. I am grateful we were chosen as their parents if only to love them from afar.
Because they are what we have.
And, don’t we love what we get at the end of the day?
Those three babies, who I never got to meet, made me a mother; a mother who loves endlessly and who loves well.
A love with lifelong wonder of who they would have been and who we could have been as parents. A loss, I must choose, every damn day, in how it defines me for the rest of my life. Because who I become because of them is how I choose to honor them.
McKinley runs full force past me into another bounce house as Chad takes the baby from me. “Go play for a while,” he says as he kisses the top of my head.
“Thank you,” I reply allowing him, and only him, to see my eyes glistening with the slightest of tears. I run to catch McKinley headed up the ladder to the big slide. We reach the top together, Chad waiting at the bottom for us holding one of our many chosen children. I feel the pull of my forever longing and my gratitude, all at the same time. We make eye contact to silently say to one another, It is okay. We are okay. And, this is amazing still.
I hold McKinley’s hand tight, throw my head back, let laughter explode from my gut and fill my soul, as we slide down together one more time.
I wrote this piece over 8 months ago, in fact baby Ben just turned one year old! After working with my friend Laura Munson editing it and submitting it to well over 20 platforms and magazines, I decided I had been rejected and waited enough. Because I love this piece and I love these children. So I brought my bounce house home to Ever Upward, where it has belonged the whole time.
My advocacy work continues to struggle to get much footing, it seems the world continues to struggle with the story that didn’t end with 2.5 kids.
Yet, I will keep writing, filming and shouting; speaking the unspoken and giving ears to the earless.
While I fight this battle, my friend and fellow warrior who fights like hell, Pamela Tsigdinos of Silent Sorority fights the battle of holding infertility clinics responsible for their level of patient care. Today, I had to share her newest piece, The Cash Cow in ‘Fertility’ Medicine, as it definitely resonated with me.
“The only paper at the ASRM event to discuss the infertility patient experience in the U.S. reveals only 29.4% of 499 surveyed agreed their nurse mentioned resources for emotional support. That’s truly disturbing given the level of distress raised earlier (Research reveals that distress from a cancer or infertility diagnosis is equivalent, however, cancer survivors have better emotional outcomes).”
For us, it wasn’t until our second round where we only retrieved 1 egg that our doctor finally said the words (without any emotion in his voice or eye contact for that matter), “I am, of course, recommending another round, but I understand that sometimes people don’t have the finances for it.”
That 1 egg never became the healthy child in our arms. We also never had any follow up from our clinic besides a letter almost two months after we ended our journey without a baby saying they would always be there if we wanted to try again (read: $$$).
It is okay to stop. It is okay to stop putting cash in their pockets but most importantly it is okay to stop before it destroys everything good about you, your relationship and your finances.
It is also okay to keep going, only you know what your enoughs and everything is. However, you must also get counseling. This journey is simply too hard to survive, let alone thrive, without help and staying silent.
I also think and see, if you get help and you speak your truth, it could actually work more.
By God, I will get these messages to mainstream media, and especially, to the infertility clinics. Mostly because, the work I do in my office with clients going through the infertility journey and after is both the best and toughest work of my entire career.
Weirdly enough, it is also some of the easiest. Easy only in when we give ourselves permission to speak our truth and to walk into the muck of the complicated gray, life does truly awaken in color. The color and power to create our rainbow life, with or without the baby.
It is in this work, that I know without a shadow of a doubt that I was made the mother I was to help, to love, to speak and to help you do the same.
For the past four weeks 14 incredible women have shared their stories and their babies as part of the Footprints Blog Tour in honor National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. To read all their amazing posts please click here.
Today I am proud to share mine.
Please join us tomorrow night, October 15th, at 7pm in the Wave of Light in honor of all the babies gone too soon. And, please share this video far and wide, in it the stigma will be shattered, our hearts healed a bit more and our babies honored.
I work on my phone on the twenty minute drive to church. There are two months a year I am very busy as an infertility and loss thriver and advocate: April (National Infertility Awareness Month) and October (National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month). I feel the car slow and glance up to notice the string of cars with brake lights illuminated for as far as we can see.
Damn pumpkin patch (at least for this woman who can’t have babies).
It is that time of year that every week on our way to church we will pass the biggest and most popular pumpkin patch in St. Louis. I will look to my right every single week for about six weeks and see the orange pumpkins of every size with children crawling all over them while their parents try to get the annual picture.
A reminder, again, that I will never have that experience with my own children.
This Sunday is different though as I work on finding and saving pictures about pregnancy and infant loss on my phone to share each day of the month. It is different because of what I know is waiting for me in the service this week in church. I sigh and look over at Chad just as the traffic begins to pick back up to normal pace,
This is literally an infertile woman’s road of hell. Passing the pumpkin patch full of kids at a slow pace as if to rub it in even more while on the way to child dedication day at your church.
He half laughs with a sigh. I know he both gets it and doesn’t.
We walk into the enormous auditorium just as the first song plays. This is late for us, we are usually here early and have our butts planted in our front row center seats at least ten minutes before the service starts. I knew this week I would not want to be in those seats.
Front row center to the dream that will never be yours…no thank you.
The usher sees us trying to find a seat and motions us to our right, I immediately notice the chairs are marked “family section”. I shake my head and feel my heart rate rise as I make eye contact with Chad. The usher motions again to the same section. I start to feel the panic rise inside of me, Seriously God?
I look at Chad and try to get him to hear me when I say,
I am not sitting in the family section on child dedication day.
He makes the connection and follows me as I bolt to the opposite side of the auditorium and we finally find seats in the upper part of the auditorium.
The music swells and we are taken to church, just like every Sunday. After one song the lights come up and I see the families being led to the front of the stage with their babies.
Here we go.
Chad puts his hand on my leg and I clasped my hands tightly together as if the pressure will keep the tears in this year. My own grief is a tiny bit subdued this year because we have two sets of friends at the front with their adorable daughters. I am able to focus on them for the most part which means my own longing awakens inside of me just a bit.
Until I see her.
I can only see her orange shirt, her dark hair pulled into a ponytail and how tightly her husband is holding her. Her husband’s arm is wrapped around her and I know it is serving multiple purposes, to both hold her up and in and love her. She wipes tears from her face the entire ten minutes that our pastor talks about us as a congregation supporting and loving these families and these children in their walk with Christ.
My own tears escape the rims of my eyes to fall onto my cheeks. Chad puts his arm around me for only a second knowing that if he lingers too long I will lose it myself.
The music swells up. I see her take a deep breath just as her husband’s fingers interlace with hers behind her back.
She wipes more tears.
I wipe my own.
I see her.
I am her.
I only wish there had been an open seat next to her because I would have gone down to sit beside her and grab her hand while we both allowed tears to flow down our cheeks.
Last year at child dedication I was overcome by breath stealing sobs. So much so, I had to sit down in the dark during the song to try to calm myself.
The thoughts and feelings that go through a woman struggling with any version of the infertility or loss story during a child dedication runs the gamut:
Why them and not me?
Will I ever be a mother?
I will never be up there.
I am supposed to be up there this year.
I wonder if those twins are from IVF?
They seem older, I bet they had to do treatments.
My parents will never get to experience this joy.
God, have you forgotten me?
They would have been four this year.
Why do they never mention couples like us…
I am a mother too…
This year right after the dedication they played Christ is Enough.
As a believer I know this and trust it.
As a forever longing mom, my aching heart can sometimes doubt it.
My breath catches as we sing:
Through every storm
My soul will sing…
The cross before me
The world behind me
More than ever these words are true for me.
They are true and I still long for my babies.
I love even harder and more.
You are not alone. Even though it feels as if you are invisible, like no one remembers us or cares enough to see us, you are not invisible.
I see you. I know you. I am you. We are a mothers too.
A quick post of the latest happenings in this life of ever upward; the life of creating my rainbow…
A piece I am super proud of (I bought a skirt for it and everything). I submitted it for months. I was rejected from many. All to finally find a home over at Rebelle Society! Please click here to read one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever written.
My 2nd YouVersion Bible app reading plan was published last week. I will have another one coming out next week on hope. Please click here to see my self-care reading plan.
Finally, I hope you are following along with the Footprints blog tour as we gear up for National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month in October. There are been some incredible stories shared, and we are only halfway through!
As always, thank you for your support, your shares and your love. I can feel it in this journey, and for that I am so grateful.