Five years ago this time we were in our first, and what we thought would be our only, two week wait.

I only did the math because Facebook reminded me via the On This Day reminder the other day, as five years ago I posted a vague post about the two week wait.

Then I posted nothing else about it… It seems my brave-speak-the-truth advocacy did not develop until after our journey ended and fought my way out of my fetal position to rise from the ashes.

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Five years ago I remember we went home to Iowa for Christmas showing off black and white pictures of bubble globs to all our family. Those globs being our eight celled embryo babies.

The babies we never got to meet. We were positive it had worked.  It had to work, as it was our only chance.

That only chance was crushed with a one minute phone call followed by me trying not to throw up in the trash can and Chad literally holding his tears in as I lost my shit.

We took the loan out the next day for another try. That one didn’t work either.

And as my life would have it, four years ago today, our last embryo was to be born. Had that last round of IVF worked, we would have a four year old today.

Oh yea, and it is the damn holidays.

That is some timing, no wonder I struggle in December. I am haunted by dates that will be forever seared into my heart and soul.

Dates that are sad and dates that made me a mother.

Once again, I am reminded by a decent smack upside the head, as He often likes to work with me, of my own work. The work to embrace the complicated gray, and to choose the joy within this sadness, as there is always room for both.

In the midst of many desperate-on-my-knee prayers this week, I had the realization and the reminder of how strongly we can feel two “opposing” emotions at the same time.

  • I am forever longing and sad and also grateful for the mother He made me, even if they aren’t here with me, longing joy.
  • I love my life and how much I have worked to thrive after loss and I miss my three more than words can say, grateful guilt.

This is the hard ass work of walking in the freeing truth of the complicated gray.

And, the more I think of it and learn, we are nowhere near the first to walk this walk. Perhaps, we had a model who did it best a long, long time ago.

Jesus longed and loved. He angered and loved. He grieved and loved. He struggled and He trusted His Father,

…not my will, but yours be done. Luke 22:42

And yes, I am that kind of Christian, I just said ass and quoted Jesus all within a few lines.

He knows me. He sees me. He understands me.

This faith and truth does not make the complicated gray easier to feel and muster through. It does, however, ground me and help me to stand my sacred truth. That even though I shake my fist at Him on some days because the story He has written for me hurts like hell, makes me sad and feels unfair, I know and trust that He’s got this, that He knows me (and best) and that He has my ending.

My only job is to emulate His love, walk in my truth and to choose joy.

Because when I do that, I honor my three and myself.

And, that my friends, is the best thing any mother can do for herself and her children.

My Facebook status last night...

My Facebook status last night…

End note: After working on this piece I met a friend for dinner and shopping at the mall. Of course, I was sat at a table looking head on into the long line of families waiting to see Santa. I chose joy, sure it was in chips, salsa and wine but joy still.

Said to me from my brown leather couch in my sun-drenched office,

I can’t even go to church.

Written in a social media post,

I can’t go to the baby shower.

Shared in a blog post,

I can’t believe she’s pregnant…again.

From my own mouth,

They are everywhere.

In the journey of infertility these are all statements we probably have said out loud or to ourselves. I hear them in my office all the time. I also have no doubt I said them to myself in the midst of our trudge through hell a few years ago.

Only now, a few years into Ever Upward and working with clients through and after this journey, are they the phrases that make me the saddest.

When we are fighting, what at times feels like a losing battle, to have babies we often find being around children too difficult. We find it so difficult that many of us cut them completely out of our lives.

We cut out the very thing we are fighting so hard for.

But, this isn’t the saddest part.

When we cut out all the children from our lives, we also shame, blame and deny, the mother we are so desperately trying or wanted to be.

We do this out of self-protection. It is natural and I suppose works decently for most of us. But I am finding and discovering that perhaps it is really only help for the most part because it is avoidance and numbing.

Both of which are short lived and not part of this wholehearted life.

Because the fact is, there is no way around this pain.

Despite our best efforts to numb and avoid, we can’t. We simply, albeit not easily, must feel it, feel it all, move through it and find our ways of moving forward into our sacred truths.

Admittedly I’ve been on my own struggle bus of darkness this December. The other night when I was seeking support from my friend Sam I realized something else about the danger of numbing and denying our motherhood. The kids in my life, my chosen children, see me. They truly see me. They see me always, with curiosity and unconditional love. Many days I walk this earth feeling invisible, especially during these holidays. I don’t have kids who are excited about Santa. I don’t have every weekend booked with the Polar Express, Breakfast with Santa and basketball or soccer games. Instead, this year I am struggling like hell to even finish decorating my Christmas tree. But my chosen children, they see me. Which also means I need to be around them.

No matter where you may be in this journey of infertility and loss, hell even if it is a different, yet so much the same, journey, I want you to ask yourself: Am I avoiding and numbing from the very changingthemeaningwe-haveattachedmeans-choosingjoything I miss and want so much? 

Chances are the answer is yes.

To which, I guess, I’d like to challenge you a bit. What if choosing the joy in it is the very thing that helps us not completely lose ourselves? What if we changed the meaning we attach to it?

We can either choose to think of being around kids as the constant reminder of what we don’t have. How sad, mad and unfair that can feel. Or we can choose to love them hard, laugh with them and invest in them. Because in that love, laughter and investment we honor, not only, the mother we want to be, we also we honor the mother we are.

The lights cast a glow throughout the house that is both calming and unnerving.

The scent of pine brings both joy and sadness.

The stubborn ache in my chest like a constant reminder of what could of been and the gift of what is.

December is kicking my ass this year.

I am tearful easily. I am overwhelmed with it all. And, I know I am not alone.

Most people, even my closest loved ones, have asked, “But, why are you struggling so much?”

Side note: This is not the most empathetic way to ask…

Then there are my fellow warriors and even my always trying husband Chad, who have asked with empathy and love, “Is this different or harder than last year? How come you think you’re struggling so much?”

to-feel-the-ache-and-the-awe-the-longing-and-the-joy-my-worth-his-love-and-my-threeI am as surprised (and annoyed honestly) as anyone else, as I would like to say this gets easier.

Every year that passes there is this naive part of you that thinks it won’t hurt as bad, maybe just maybe, it will get better. But as I always say, it just gets different.

There are a myriad of reasons this Christmas season is kicking my butt. Bottom line infertility and loss changes you forever. If we choose to do the work it changes us for the better, I promise. No amount of twinkling lights, carols, jingle bells and damn glitter (literally, damn glitter, it should not be on cards in my opinion) lessens the longing in my soul that I wish my three were here with me on earth. In fact those lights, carols, bells and glitter only remind me of everything I do not get with my own children. They remind me of what I am missing out on and of what is missing of me.

Admittedly, all that missing out and grief stirs up the voice in my head and the ache in my heart that tells me I am not enough, that I will never be enough, especially because I am not a mother.

Yet, I have done the work, I know this is not my truth.

And still, shame weasels in so easily and steals my light.

I have changed that story…most days. Through the work I have done and especially in my faith I know my truth is that I am worthy, I am enough and I am a mother.

This December it seems, my shitty first draft of I am not enough is winning more days than not.

Perhaps you saw me Sunday on the live stream of my church service desperately taking notes and attempting to control my tears. As soon as we sang O Holy Night with the lyric, and the soul felt its worth, a peace settled into my soul right next to my forever longing.

Be still, my child. It is Me and it is about Me. I am here with you always.

My worth is not in children by my side, in being called mom or being seen as someone who matters by society. My worth is in Him and what better time of year than now to remember that.

And, as my amazing friend and fellow blogger Caitlin says,

In the end my identity doesn’t come from hearing a child call me mom but knowing the King who calls me daughter.

Deep complicated gray breath.

I still have not fully decorated that lit tree or put up any other Christmas decorations, and I am giving myself permission that this is okay this year.

This hurts, and it always will. I am sad, and that is okay. I may feel invisible, and I am worthy.

These are my truths.

So, I look through the glow of the unadorned lit tree filling my lungs with the scent of pine in a deep knowing breath to feel the ache and the awe, the longing and the joy, my worth, His love and my three.

 

“You ready?” my parents asked me.

“I have to get a picture of the glasswing butterfly first,” I replied. “Chad saw it a few minutes ago.”

The butterfly aviary is one we are familiar with as we visit it every single year we go to Branson. In fact it was a year ago that I met Julie who then sent me information on the glasswing butterfly after reading my blog.

The glasswing ,well and the monarch, are my mascots. Spirit animals? Whatever, their existence helps me to survive my own.

The air is cooler than normal in the aviary and not as humid as it usually is, which also means the butterflies are not as active that day. We had already had a huge surprise when we first got there when I spotted my coloring journal Taking Flight. I had completely forgotten they sold it there in the gift shop.

I love butterfly houses but I also knew I needed pictures to use for this very blog, so it was both work and pleasure, the always delicate balance of my life. I had all but forgotten about the glasswing until Chad finally spotted it a few minutes prior.

Every single time I would get close enough for a shot her transparent wings and tiny body would become a blurred flit in the air challenging our eyes to keep track of her. Her frantic movement reminded me of my life these last several weeks. I have been busy, busier than I have ever been. Yet, I have also tried to stop referring to it as busy because that can become such an excuse for so many of us. I am too busy, has become like nails on a chalkboard for me

It is a fact, we are all busy. Life will never get unbusy.

We must, I think, choose our busy.

Much like the crazed glasswing butterfly, most days I feel like a crazed flit in the air that no one can catch.

There was a difference though, this butterfly lived in a home decked in Christmas joy of music and decorations. I, on the other hand, have yet to put up a single snowman or glitter garland. Christmas is less than 20 days away and I don’t have one bit of Christmas jolly in my house. My excuse has been my crazed business and being out of town so much.

Or so I thought.

Then yesterday on a gray and chilly St. Louis morning God stopped me in my tracks. As my gigantic-never-gets-all-the-way-done to-do list ran through my head I caught a glimpse of movement in the backyard. At first it was only the whites of their tails that caught my eye against our tree line that has gone mostly brown already.

Three deer standing in a row.

Three.

My three.

They all stop to look at me in their statue-like grace as I step onto a chair to get a better view of them through our back windows. I find myself taking a deep breath; a paused, deep breath in spite of my looming to-do list and every passing minute that nothing is getting crossed off of it.

My chosen busy lately has been a ton of amazing travel, continuing to see a full-time case load of clients (including doing more Rising Strong intensives, which I love), working on the second book proposal and building my Plexus team.

It is all stuff I absolutely love and wholeheartedly believe in.

It is on top of that chair seeing God’s not so gentle reminder of my three, that I realize I have also been busy because I am passing through another damn holiday and looming due date without my three.

We are “supposed” to have four year olds this Christmas. Four year olds in their matching Christmas jammies giggling with magical excitement as they leave a note, cookies and milk for Santa and sprinkle glitter on our front yard for the reindeer.

Instead, I tortured our three little dogs with their own Christmas jammies for this year’s holiday card.untitled-design-7

I got the shot of the glasswing butterfly, because I am one determined woman running three businesses with the frenzied grace like a glasswing butterfly.

I still haven’t crossed everything off that damn to-do list, and probably never will. I will keep on in this wholehearted hustle knowing I am always enough (or at least telling myself that).

With God’s gentle, for now reminder, I will stop and feel the forever longing joy. I know better than to think I can busy myself enough to forget about the grief of my life.

They would have been four. I miss them and wonder always. I am thankful and I am sad.

The holidays only make all of the above more palpable, no matter how long that to-do list is.

Be still my child, He must constantly remind me of.

As I finish up this piece, I sit with my three little jammie-less dogs flanked on both sides of me, our noses filled with the slightest scent of pine.

You see, God, also gave me Chad. Last night after my dinner out with friends I walked into the house to see an oddly shaped, delicious smelling and plain as day Christmas tree. “You said you wanted a real one,” Chad said with love in his eyes.

My eyes filled with tears, “I did.”

He looks back at me with confusion, as to him it is only a tree and a nice gesture for his wife.

www-everupward-org-6To me it is a tree that reminds me that my house is missing a few four year olds to help me decorate it, and so it is also one more thing on that never ending to do list.

I am finding you never quite know how grief will hit you year to year, especially with the holidays or special dates. What I do know is that we cannot busy ourselves enough to forget about it.

It is a huge part of us, and always will be. I am honored and grateful to be their mother, all within my forever longing for them.

So I guess the question really is: How long will the tree stay bare?

Not as long as my heart will ache.

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.

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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?

because-who-i-become-because-of-them-is-how-i-choose-to-honor-themThose 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.

3 years. 302 posts. Over 126,000 views and 65,000 visitors
Too many words to count.
Lots of tears.
Many triumphs.
Broken silence.
Babies honored.
Lives healing.
More friendships than I ever could have dreamed.
A women completely changed; from scared, desperate and broken to thriving, tenacious and rising.
A world changing with every spoken truth, one written word at a time.
To stop proving it. To truly own it.butterflies breaking out cleaner copy (2)
To break the silence. To embrace it all.
Living wholeheartedly brave.
Honoring the longing joy.
To awaken to live in color.
This is my story. This is our story.
This is ever upward.
Thank you.
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