Growing up, our family went to Mass every Sunday. I went to CCD (religious education) through my Confirmation, which was the day after I turned 12. I loved God so much! In fact, I had actually thought briefly of becoming a nun, but my conviction that I was supposed to be a wife and mother put that idea out of my head. My father is a cradle Catholic, but my mother was raised Methodist and converted the year I was Confirmed. I was her non-official sponsor, since I was too young, not Confirmed yet, and also related to her. But Mom took my name as her Confirmation name. That Easter Vigil, I watched excitedly as my mother became a Catholic.
Yet not everything we did was in communion with the Church. After I was Confirmed, I went to only one more year of CCD. I didn’t want to go, and my mother didn’t really want to bring me. So, much to my father’s dismay, neither my sister nor I went to any religious training past Confirmation. But neither did anyone else for the most part. We were adults to the Church now! It wasn’t really required, so most kids did not go. While our catechesis was better than some of that time (in the late 70’s and early 80’s), I know now that we were lacking some things that would have helped deepen our faith. And, since I didn’t go to CCD in high school, I was never presented with the Church’s view on sexual ethics. If the parish taught about it, I missed it because I wasn’t there. All I knew was what I saw in our home. And after my sister was born, my mother had had her tubes tied. I did not know that was considered a sin by the Church. I had a vague idea that the Church frowned on sex outside of marriage, but didn’t really understand it. My mother’s instruction when I was a teenager was that it was to be saved for the person you’d marry. Whether you actually waited until that big day was not actually a part of that. I mean, you might know that person was The One, and if you did and had sex before marrying, what would be the big deal?
For the most part, as a young adult, I was a good kid. But, looking back, I can also see a very slow process by which I pulled away from the Catholic Church. At first, I went to Confession every week. I lived down the street from our parish, Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church, and I would ride my bicycle to go to Confession every Saturday. Coming home, I felt as though I could literally fly. My soul felt light. I was right with God again. It was the most amazing thing! But later on, I started to gain friends in school, and, with that, started socializing more, too. Suddenly, I had something to do on Saturday afternoons aside from Confession. I had parties. I could hang out at the mall. I could go to a movie. I could talk on the phone for hours with my girlfriends. Confession? Well, I hadn’t done anything much wrong. No mortal sins as far as I knew, so I would just go another time. Pretty soon, I wasn’t going to Confession at all. Perhaps once or twice a year. Maybe. Sometimes less often. Eventually, I stopped altogether. Looking back, this was the first chip in the bond between God and me. I was lacking graces. And sin became harder to resist and more difficult to see as sinful.
Eventually, our family moved from New Jersey, where I’d lived nearly my entire life, to Florida. There, my cousin helped me to get a job at a department store where she worked. This really nice guy worked there, and we sometimes had lunch together (always in a large group). He was a bit annoying to me, though. He kept calling me “honey” even though I asked him to stop. You see, I had this great boyfriend who I was sure I’d marry. After working there for less than a year, I discovered that I was not making ends meet even though I lived rent-free at home. I left that job and started working as a waitress. The nice guy came in to see me twice and we lost touch.
I was still in college, trying to get the right classes to graduate with my AA degree, and wound up in a physics class. After the second class, I heard someone behind me call my name. I turned around to see the very same nice guy who I’d had lunch with. “I don’t know if you remember me, but we worked together at Maison Blanche,” he started.
“Sure! How are you, ****? You got new glasses! I like them!”
He’d told his friends after the first class that he wanted to befriend me so that he could be firmly entrenched in my life before the end of the semester. That way, he’d have a reason to keep in touch with me. Apparently, he knew the moment he saw me that he wanted to marry me. And by the end of the semester, I knew that was a great idea. In December of that year, I dumped the “great boyfriend” (who was actually very bad for me) and started dating the man I knew I’d marry.
Because of my understanding of sex, and because I knew I’d marry ****, we did not wait to be married before we became sexually active. And, since we didn’t plan on being parents right then (we were 20 and 21), we also contracepted. We started with condoms, but my mother was worried because she knew that condoms are not that effective – at least not as effective as the Pill, which she encouraged me to start taking. (Looking at this sentence here, I just realized that our parish probably didn’t cover Catholic sexual ethics, since my mother went through RCIA and did not learn contraception was wrong. As a matter of fact, I was the one who informed her of the Church’s stance on this not that long ago.) Even though I knew that I really wasn’t supposed to be having sex outside of marriage, I had absolutely NO idea that contraception was considered a mortal sin by the Church.
After dating for two years, **** and I became engaged. We went to Engaged Encounter in the Diocese of Orlando, and, for the very first time, we heard of Natural Family Planning. The couples who were there emphasized that it is very different from the old rhythm method (and told that old joke about calling those who use it “parents”), and they gave out information on how to contact the diocese about classes. They also gave information about when the next classes were. Since **** and I were both in college at the time, and we’d both taken off from work just to go to this weekend together, we knew we wouldn’t make the classes listed. But we did know that eventually we’d like to do that. But even though they promoted NFP, nothing was said about the Church’s view on contraception except that they “don’t approve” of it. (Seriously, some people need to have a clear understanding that it is considered a mortal sin. It might have made a big impact on me.) We continued to use the Pill after we were married.
After being married for four years, we started our family. We discovered on February 4, 1998, that I was expecting our first child. Within ten days, things had changed drastically.
I had been teaching third grade, and it was my second year as a teacher. I hadn’t told administration that I was pregnant yet because I had an appointment with my general practitioner to confirm it (and get the name of a good OB) on February 12. On February 11, I started to feel sick. I was worried about getting sick in my classroom, so I set the class to work with busywork and called the office. “I’m really sick today,” I said. “I know it’s the middle of the morning, but I need a sub as quickly as you can get one.” Before lunch, I had someone there, and I left. Later, the sub (a regular at our school) would tell me that I looked absolutely green when I left. I would not return to school again until the end of April. My students had no idea what happened to me except that I was very sick and couldn’t get back yet.
My mother drove me to my doctor’s appointment, me with my bowl, and my doctor confirmed that I was, indeed, pregnant. His office made an appointment with the OB I’d picked for the following week, and the doctor told me to drink plenty of fluids, especially water, and try eating crackers to ease the severe nausea. Water seemed to make me feel worse and I couldn’t keep any food down whatsoever, no matter how bland it might be. On February 13, as I lay in bed between vomiting spells, Hubby came home with a dozen long-stemmed red roses for me. “Happy Mother’s Day to the mother of my children,” read the card. I thanked him, smelled the roses, and as he went to put them in water, wretched again. The vomiting was around the clock by now; I was even waking up from sleep to throw up. On Saturday, we called the OB’s office and asked what to do. I met my OB that afternoon at the hospital, where they started IV treatment to rehydrate me. My ketones were dangerously high. Bag after bag of fluids were pumped into me. I was given one medication after another for the nausea, and nothing worked. (It did, however, give us a fun game to play when watching TV. Any time a doctor rattled off a prescription for nausea, I could call out, “Tried it! Didn’t work!”)
I was scheduled for an ultrasound to be sure everything was okay. They were also curious if I was pregnant with twins, since morning sickness can be worse pregnancies with multiples. While in the room for my ultrasound, I hung on for dear life to my bowl (those emesis bowls at the hospital weren’t big enough for me) and tried not to vomit as the smell of flowers nearly knocked me out. The smell was so strong that I wondered why on earth the nurse would wear so much perfume. I won’t get into too many details, but let’s just say that the procedure was not pleasant. The ice-cold gel on my stomach was the best part.
Now we knew that I was pregnant with one child, located properly. The doctors figured out that I had hyperemesis. I was put on hyperalimentaion because I was still unable to keep any food down or drink anything. Putting anything in my mouth made me sick. The hyperalimentation started blowing out my veins, so the doctors had a Groshung catheter central line put in for IV therapy. A cocktail of Reglin and Pepcid managed to keep my vomiting down to about a dozen times a day, and I was discharged with home nursing care. My nurse, also a Catholic, told me that she, too, had hyperemesis. She was sick through all nine months of her pregnancy with her older daughter. Threw up on the delivery table, she said. She was terrified of getting pregnant again, but when her daughter was six, she discovered she was expecting. This time, she said, no HG. She was also a secular Franciscan, and she would pray for me.
I seemed to be doing better, and I started to eat a bit more regularly. My stomach was very tender, though, and most foods were bland to try to spare me additional pain. I had another setback when I caught a cold, and the Reglin and Pepcid no longer helped me. I was sent to be under the care of a high-risk specialist, who put me in a darkened room with strict instructions to disturb me as little as possible. He put me on Thorazine, which ended the nausea but also made me zone out and look quite like a zombie. (This is something I learned later is typical of people on Thorazine, which is most commonly used as an anti-psychotic.) Before beginning my Thorazine treatments, I asked my nurse if it would hurt my baby. “I’ve known women who have taken Thorazine all through their pregnancies, and their babies have been fine.” Good enough for me. Bring on the hip shots. At the same time, I also developed pneumonia and an infection in my central line IV. I was hospitalized for two weeks total.
Oddly enough, I had great hope throughout my pregnancy. Every night I went to sleep thinking, “This might be over tomorrow.” Knowing I had so many people praying for me was such a comfort. My name was added to intentions at both my parish and my parents’ parish. Family all over the country was praying. Even my in-laws, who were struggling with the lung cancer found in Hubby’s father just after my first hospitalization, prayed for me constantly.
Finally, at about 20 weeks LMP, the HG went away and I was finally able to get off the Thorazine. We learned that our baby was a girl (something I’d already been told in a dream when I was so desperate that I asked God for a sign that the baby would be okay). We named her ****, and, thank God, she was born without any side effects from my illnesses and all the medications I had to take.
I went back on the Pill again to prevent pregnancy, especially with HG still so fresh in my mind. One day, while I was participating on a Pro- Life board online, someone mentioned that the Pill causes abortions. My heart skipped a beat. But not mine, I countered. My doctor didn’t tell me anything about that.
Wrong, answered the other person. Besides preventing ovulation, it also thickens cervical mucus in case of ovulation, but it also will change the lining of the uterus in case both of those fail. That change prevents a fertilized egg, more properly known as an embryo, from implanting.
No way, I said. My doctor would have mentioned that, I’m sure.
Check your Pill’s literature, he answered me. But check online for the complete specifications because the little paper in your Pill pack isn’t everything.
I looked up my birth control pill online. He was right. I thought back to a month when I was three days late while on the Pill. What had I done? I’ll never know for sure.
I threw away my Pills and informed Hubby when he got home that we were not using that any more. I told him what I’d learned, and he agreed completely that we couldn’t do that. But we weren’t ready for more children yet. So we went back to condoms until we could get to the next NFP class.
I loved NFP. I was glad to know that I was finally doing what the Church wanted from me. And because of the NFP, we also discovered that I had hypothyroidism. The Pill masked a major indicator of the disease, and charting helped my OB diagnose the problem. My general practitioner started monitoring me and got me on medication to alleviate the problems associated with it. But even so, I vowed that if I had HG a second time, I’d get a tubal ligation. I even told my priest, to which he only stammered, “Well, we can’t be sure what that illness does to you…” (I love that priest to death, but I wish he’d been a bit braver about it with me. I wish he’d mentioned mortal sin or something. But he was pretty fresh out of seminary when he Baptized Big Girl. Maybe it was a lack of pastoral experience. Hopefully, he’ll do better next time.)
Then, when Big Girl was nearing two, we decided it was time to have another baby. (We still viewed NFP as the “Catholic Birth Control” method at this time.) On November 1, a home pregnancy test confirmed what my charts already told us: we were expecting baby number 2! We hugged each other and celebrated. Ten minutes later, there I was in the bathroom, crying alone. I begged God not to let me suffer like that again. I was so terrified of what might be coming!
While I had great hope each day when I was pregnant with Big Girl, it was not so this time. When the HG struck me, I went into a deep depression. My OB sent me directly to the same high-risk OB as last time, and I was put on Thorazine right away. This time, though, it didn’t work as well. Whereas, with Big Girl, each night I went to sleep thinking that the next day might be better, this time I went to sleep thinking, “I have 20 weeks of this hell to get through.” It was devastating to my Faith. I knew God was there, but I felt abandoned. I could not feel Him there at all. I could not even pray. I brought my father to tears when I asked him why God was punishing me. I never, ever considered abortion with either pregnancy, but this time I would wish for miscarriage just so the pain would end. It hurt me to think it then just as it hurts me to write that now. I thank God that He knew my innermost heart, because my baby girl is such a treasure to me. I thank Him that He didn’t listen to me when I prayed for such a thing.
As 20 weeks approached, I started to cheer up. I could see the end! 20 weeks came, and 20 weeks went. I was still sick and, now, more depressed than ever. For five more weeks, I suffered through the HG. Finally, it passed. Just as with Big Girl, it took me months to gain my strength back. But in the meantime, I also told my OB that I wanted a tubal as soon as the baby was born.
Protocol called for me to wait six weeks after the birth, which I did. I went in for the pre-op consultation with Hubby. No matter what I wanted, he was supportive of me. But he also knew that in my heart of hearts, I didn’t really want a tubal ligation. He knew that I believed it was wrong. He offered to get a vasectomy so I wouldn’t have to do something against my beliefs (he wasn’t yet Catholic), but I insisted. I knew of people whose vasectomies had failed, but no one whose tubal had done so. We dropped off our children with my mother and father and went to the hospital one August morning. As I lay in the bed before the operation, Hubby read the paper while I cried quietly (he had no idea I was crying). I did not want this, but I was so afraid. Afterwards, I felt what many post-abortive women report feeling: relieved. The doctor even put two clips on each side instead of one, just to be sure. Our families were relieved, too. Pregnancies like this were hard on everyone.
It was nearly three years before I could confess this one-on-one. Our parish had Reconciliation services with one-on-one Confession afterwards, but I never did make it to the priest’s side. I would sit afterward and cry because I wasn’t sure I would be forgiven. I couldn’t forgive myself? How do I ask God for it? Finally, after moving to Virginia, I was able to go to my first individual Confession in years. All I wanted to do was Confess that tubal ligation. I think I might have led up to it with something like, “I missed Mass many times, I’ve used God’s name in vain…” then BAM! Torrents of tears, sobbing, and I confessed. My penance was small as far as I was concerned, but maybe God knew that I’d been punishing myself for years over this anyway. As I left the church with my two girls (who had waited in the narthex for me), I suddenly felt something I hadn’t felt since I was a child: I felt forgiven. I had learned as an adult that you don’t always feel different after Confession, but I always had as a child. And I knew now that it was a tremendous grace. I started to cry all over again, but, this time, they were tears of joy.
“Mommy, what’s wrong?” Big Girl, then 5, asked me.
“Nothing, honey, I was just so happy because God forgave me.”
Still, to this day, it’s hard not to feel guilty. There was a day at our homeschool co-op when I learned that two of the moms there had just learned they were expecting. Already, two others already knew, and my sister had learned she was expecting her third child. That day, I wasn’t sure I could even keep up with the co-op the next year. How could I face these beautiful, big families time and again and think of my own Great Sin? I snuck outside at lunch and called Hubby at work. I cried on the phone, telling him how much I wished I could take it all back, even if we never had another baby. I know he feels badly, too, but we both know that once we’ve Confessed it, we are both forgiven. (And, yes, when he converted this past Easter, he, too, confessed it.) The Church does not require me to have a reversal.
I know there are people who say the teaching of the Church is hard. But I’ve gone the other way. It’s harder. On my website, I posted a link to a story about a nurse in New York who had HG and now runs a ministry of sorts to help other women and their families cope with it. One Catholic commented that she’s toyed with the idea because sterilization is more effective than NFP. She, too, is scared of what might happen next time. I told her that the guilt I carry to this day is a much more difficult burden than the fear.
Today, our family works hard to live out the Catholic faith. We look forward to the time when we’ll be able to adopt children or be foster parents. We try to be active within the Church. We are constantly trying to educate ourselves, and a great part of that has been my vocation as a homeschooling mother. I’m working to teach my girls that God has a greater plan for us than we can imagine. And, hopefully, they’ll be ready and willing to follow it, no matter what size their families come in.