Thursday, October 16, 2014

"My Lost Desire, So Far, So Near in Woe and Weal"

As my husband prepares to enter pastoral ministry (soon, we hope!), I am naturally pondering the role I will play in the church. Of course, it's impossible to know what specific opportunities I'll have because each church context is different; but one way I intend to minister to the women in our congregation is to reach out to those experiencing pregnancy loss. Thankfully, my generation, largely through social media, is raising awareness of the prevalence and pain of miscarriage and stillbirth. Still, far too many times a lack of compassion or acknowledgement of such a tragic loss contributes to a grieving mother's (and father's) pain. I hope this post may minister to someone who reads it. (My title comes from Tennyson's In Memorium.)

We all know that “everyone grieves differently,” as the common saying goes. Knowing this truth, I can speak only for myself, but I would like to share my own experiences of grief beyond those first crushingly painful weeks.

In January 2012, I was keeping a little (quite literally!) secret from my family. I knew my younger sister was hoping to get pregnant with her first child, and it just didn't seem sensitive for me to announce that I was expecting Baby #3. So, I decided to wait a while, hoping Lisa might have an announcement before I couldn't hide my secret any longer. Sure enough, when she called me one night, I could tell just by her tone of voice that she was pregnant. How exciting to realize we were due within 8 days or so of each other! I anticipated comparing notes about morning sickness, weight gain, and food cravings. But that's not what happened.

I purchased some beautiful maternity clothes including the ivory lace top I wore the February day I saw the little bean of a baby on the ultrasound screen and instantly knew my pregnancy was over.

“I never like to call it myself,” the nurse practioner told me, so an obstetrician was called in. They turned on the doppler, stood watching the screen for what seemed an eternity, and told me they were sorry. It seemed so much like a scene from ER when Dr. Carter or Dr. Green would pronounce a death. I remain touched by the dignity of the moment.

“I'll just send Lisa my maternity clothes,” I told Nathan on our way to pick the girls up from school.

“Don't,” he told me. “We'll have another baby.”

He was right—yet he was wrong—I conceived twins.

Though my doctor had told me not to try to conceive again for three months, I did my research and found a huge Scottish study. (They've got that national healthcare system that gives researchers access to an enormous amount of data.). The evidence showed that the risk of repeat miscarriage was lower in mothers who conceived sooner than later. My OB acknowledged there was no real benefit to waiting, and I was pregnant again after just two periods.

A subsequent healthy pregnancy is very healing. Yet, it does not erase the pain of the loss.

My sister's pregnancy continued—praise God!-- and resulted in my beautiful niece Ellie Jayne. About a month after Ellie's birth, I woke up one morning with my gaze resting on the place our bassinet would have stood had our September baby been born. I lay there crying, all the while feeling “Twin A” moving in my belly. It's not that I wanted that lost baby in place of the twins, but the twins could not replace that child. What I wanted was the impossible: both my one-month-old infant that should have been sleeping in the bassinet beside my bed and the twins growing in my womb. I'd experienced enough of life by this time to know I didn't have to sort out these thoughts or reason with myself: I just accepted that I longed for something I could never have.

My c-section to deliver the twins was scheduled for January 18, 2013. I think it was the day before when I pulled out my photo album containing our miscarried baby's ultrasound picture and all the cards and notes we'd received from family, friends, and students. I felt it would be healthy for me to reflect on the loss before the twins arrived. Their birth was a joyous event. We couldn't believe how big and healthy they were, a true testament to God's grace and compassion.

By that time, I suppose most people expected I was emotionally healed from the miscarriage. Oh, some probably knew there would always be a scar, but not an open wound. I was, and remain, a bit surprised, myself, at how raw my pain still was, however.

I wasn't allowed out of bed for maybe twelve hours after the twins were born, but once I could get to the bathroom by myself, the sight and sensations of postpartum bleeding and clotting brought back painful memories. For the twins' first five or six months, I thought about my miscarriage every day. Different things—odd things, such as food that I thought resembled blood clots—would trigger the memories. At random times, the bathroom at work was a haunting place because it was there that I realized something was wrong with my pregnancy. Perhaps my postpartum hormones played a part in these lingering thoughts; perhaps not.

Eventually, these thoughts became less frequent, but news of a friend's miscarriage or a remembrance day such as that observed internationally on October 15 call to mind that most painful time of my life. My sweet niece Ellie turned two last month. Her pictures have never caused me any grief. If anything, sometimes they remind me what developmental milestones my baby would have been hitting. I try to picture a two-year old building a block tower or smiling as she throws her food on the floor. But the two almost-two year olds who actually are building towers and throwing their food obscure my view of the sibling they never knew and whose death actually paved the way for their life.

The experience of miscarriage is a part of my being. There is a scar, and I actually want it to remain, for other than an ultrasound picture of a baby already gone before the “photo” was taken, a book full of sympathy cards, and an ivory blouse I keep in my dresser, the scar is all I have left of that pregnancy and that child. Just as I view my belly full of stretchmarks from the twins as a badge of honor, so I wear that emotional scar. It's nothing to be ashamed of, and I think it needs to be “shown” to other women who experience the same type of loss. How thankful I am for my brave colleagues who showed me their own scars!

When I know that a woman has endured a miscarriage, I remember that she is still suffering weeks, months, maybe years later. A Facebook message, a card around the due date, and always a prayer that God will send her a healthy baby as soon as she is ready--I hope these small tokens of acknowledgement bring a modicum of comfort, and I believe they do.

To those who have never experienced this type of loss, surely you know someone who needs your compassion and love. Don't be afraid to express it, to ease the hurting in small ways—a card, a hug, a prayer.

We all grieve differently, yes; but we mothers who have suffered the loss of a pregnancy, no matter how far along, grieve, at least to some extent, all the rest of our days. To those of you who have experienced such pain, my heart goes out to you. We are members of a sorority with a cruel initiation requirement, but our Heavenly Father sees our pain and is moved with compassion. One day He will redeem this fallen world. We are not without hope!

Friday, May 17, 2013

There's Another One?

One of the greatest blessings we've received since moving to Dallas is, of course, our twin boys Ethan and Sean. Today they turn four months old and, while I can't say just yet that I really know what raising twins is like, I do know it's been decidedly easier than I'd anticipated. There's no way to wrap your mind around "It's twins" until they're in your arms.

I've been asked many times, "Do twins run in your family?" They don't, and while I don't know the actual stats, I suspect a genetic predisposition is less common than people tend to think. Still, I never envisioned Nathan and I parenting multiples.

I have a fantastic obstetrician who has cared for me body and soul for the last year. Knowing how anxious I was after losing two pregnancies, she began monitoring my hcg levels at five weeks. In the early weeks of pregnancy, a woman's hcg should roughly double in forty eight hours. Mine nearly quadrupled. "Maybe it's twins," I joked to Nathan and my mom. My mom, an RN, knew better than to think the possibility of twins was just a joke and subtily tried to prepare me for the news. "You are okay if it's twins, right?" she asked the day before my first ultrasound.

Still, I wasn't thinking about twins as I searched the (male) sonographer's face. I was just desperate for a different outcome from my last sonogram: I wanted a heartbeat. I was too afraid to look at the screen but didn't like the look on his face. What relief I felt, though, when he pointed out the sac, fetal pole, and heartbeat! "Now let's take a look over here," he told me.

"Is there another one?"

"Well--" Suddenly my trip to the doctor's office had become complicated as the sonographer showed me why he'd initially frowned during the scan. There was a second yolk sac, but it appeared empty and measured nearly a week smaller than "Baby A."

My doctor was unwilling to make a determination about "Sac B," saying it "might be too early to tell." So I left her office with a mix of emotions, elation that there was one viable embryo; a sense of pride in my superfecundity-- no matter the outcome, I had conceived twins, afterall!-- and anxiety as I hoped Sac B would become Baby B.

Google is dangerous when you're pregnant, but as I ran searches such as "two sacs, one fetal pole," I found countless stories giving me hope. I learned a good deal about twin science: it's not at all uncommon for one twin to appear less developed and measure smaller in those early days; in fact, twins may not even be conceived at the same time or even have the same father (I can unequivocally state that mine do have the same dad!)

After two weeks of waiting, praying, and wringing my hands, we received confirmation that, indeed, two babies were on the way. It's too early to tell if our guys will be double trouble, but they've been a double delight the whole way.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Ups and Downs

In just about a year my husband is supposed to walk across a stage and receive his degree from Dallas Theological Seminary. This isn't just any degree he's earning, it's a Masters of Theology in historical theology, a 120-credit "masters degree on steroids," as Nathan calls it.

I'm really getting excited about that day when we can finally say, "It's over!" This Dallas adventure has presented me with some struggles, afterall: a teaching job that gave me chestpain due to a principal who yelled at children, wouldn't let me discipline first-grade tyrants, and who ultimately gave me no choice but to resign my position when I caught her changing illiterate children's grades to A's; a revoked job offer and an attack on my personality by a school that calls itself Christian; an apartment literally crumbling due to termite infestation and sometimes crawling with roaches; the loss of two pregnancies. Yup, Texas has kicked me when I was down a few times . . .

But over the next year, I plan to remember all that has been good about this journey: the day after deciding to quit my teaching job, "the stick turned blue," Mary Kate was born eight months later, and I was able to stay home for the better part of her first year; the revoked job offer forced me to take a lower-paying job at a school whose students, parents, and employees have been like a family to me; God provided a housing miracle; and, as painful as it is to admit it, if I hadn't lost those two babies, I wouldn't have the two I have now. Texas has been quite good to me.

I plan to share some of these "ups" here on my blog. My purpose is two-fold: to preserve our story for my own memory and our children's and to, I hope, demonstate to others God's love, protection, and provision as evidenced through what He's done in our family. Soli Deo gloria.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

"Thou wilt not leave us in the dust"

Recently our Sunday school class administrator asked us each to share what he called a "God story," an example of God's working in our lives. I got my opportunity to share my story when the twins were four weeks old, the first time we brought them to church. What I shared was, I suppose, my theology of suffering.

All of my family and friends know that we now have twin boys, Ethan and Sean; but what many people do not know is that I was pregnant off and on--three times--between November 2011 and the boys' birth (births??? What does one say for twins???) in January 2013.

We hadn't been trying to conceive in 2011, but when I began experiencing my personal tell-tale symptom, restless-leg syndrome, I knew I'd better buy a pregnancy test. Sure enough, there was the plus sign. But just five days later I realized there would be no baby. I'd had a very early miscarriage the medical community now terms a "chemical pregnancy," a conception that, supposedly, doesn't implant.

To say I was disappointed is an understatement, but come January 2012, I was having restless legs again. Another test, another positive result. For a several days, I was very anxious about this pregnancy, but when I began experiencing strong nausea at just four weeks, my confidence grew. In fact, I was so confident that this pregnancy would have a happy outcome that I did what I'd never done before, started telling just about everyone that I was expecting. (I've since read that confidence is very common in a pregnancy subsequent to a miscarriage.) Thanks to difficulty finding a doctor who'd accept my insurance, the first doctor's appointment I was to have was not scheduled until I'd be eleven weeks. It seemed like forever to wait, but the nausea was so bad and I was already sporting a bump noticeable to my colleagues that I remained confident--confident till the afternoon of February 27 when I found myself dashing out of work, frantically calling Nathan to meet me at my old obstetrician's office (The practice I was planning to visit in the next week refused to see me, so hang it if I had to pay out of pocket!), and waiting anxiously for the nurse practitioner to tell me everything was fine.

As soon as I saw that little jellybean on the sonogram, I knew all was not fine. Stillness, no fluttering heartbeat so evident in healthy embryos at that stage.

Thus began the most painful weeks of my life. I didn't want a D&C, so I waited and waited, gave up waiting and took Cytotec, and still ended up with that blasted D&C. There were some very dark moments during those days. I'm not sure I've even been able to express to Nathan how oppressive those days between the diagnosis and the D&C were, so I cannot even begin to describe them here. Instead I'll fast forward to May 2012.

The restless-leg returned. Why do I even bother buying pregnancy tests? Of course I was pregnant. And this time I got the happy ending, the doubly happy ending.

When I shared this story with our Sunday school class, I said, "I could say, 'My story is that God gave me two babies to replace the ones we lost.'"

It would make a nice, tidy ending, wouldn't it? As Christians, we like our stories of suffering to be so simple: something bad happened, but then God did such-and-such for me, and now I know it was all worth it. Or, if there is no happy ending here in this life, we say, "I'll know why God allowed this when I get to heaven." But I don't think our stories should even end with heaven.

What I learned through the loss of two pregnancies was an appreciation for the Second Coming. You see, once upon a time, God really did created a man and a woman and place them in Eden, a perfect world. But they sinned, and as Milton so beautifully put it, "Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat/ Sighing through all her Works gave signs of woe." God did not create a world in which babies were to be lost, and--we, so thankful for Christ's redemptive work on the cross to save our souls--forget that He will not allow such a world to remain.

A friend of mine reminded me of Romans 8 during my sorrowful days, and I read the passage again and again. What stood out to me wasn't "All things work together for good . . . " but verses 18-25:

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Adam was once told to subdue the earth and have dominion over it. He failed, but the Second Adam will have dominion over a new earth--an entire earth that will be as Eden. Pain, gone. Genetic defects, gone. Death, gone. All effects of the curse, removed. I did not, could not appreciate the entirety of God's redemptive plan until I suffered. And now, because I have experienced the effects of the Fall in one of the bitterest of ways, I long for the day the King of Kings will make all things new.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Ministering to Women Who've Miscarried

At the end of February, I lay on an exam table knowing exactly what I was seeing on the ultrasound screen well before the nurse practitioner said, “Heather, I don’t have good news.” 

Though most of our acquaintances and friends didn’t know we were expecting, we did choose to share the news of our miscarriage with those around us, including church friends, coworkers, and my students. Their condolences were a blessed comfort.  We did, however, receive enough unhelpful comments that I’d like to share a few ways not to minister to a grieving mother.

1.       Don’t tell her “God’s plan is best.” Two of my female students selected a card for me that stated, “I know you trust God, so I won’t preach to you.” How perceptive these fifteen year olds are! Reminders of God's will being perfect, though true, don't ease the pain of loss. Instead, they suggest the would-be-comforter wants to maintain a distance from the actual difficulty of the loss, and they come across as condescending to women who have a mature faith already.

2.       Don’t instruct her about how common miscarriage is. Babies, no matter how early on in their development, should never be reduced to statistics. We wouldn’t tell a woman whose baby has died of SIDS, “You know, SIDS deaths are more common than you might think."
 Though 85% of women who’ve miscarried will eventually give birth to healthy babies, the fear of repeat miscarriage is strong. Don’t strengthen that fear by reminding her she may go through this loss again.
                 3.       Don’t remind her how blessed she is for already having x number of children or that she’s got plenty of time to have another baby. Each baby is an individual, loved and wanted for who he is and will become. Living children or future children can never replace that unique lost life.

                   4.       Don’t assume she has had a D&C or assume that the physical process is complete. Many women choose to go through the process naturally, for a variety of reasons. These women need continued support not assumptions that a miscarriage is akin to a menstrual period.

Of course, some people are acutely aware that they may make a blunder in attempting to comfort a grieving mom and commit probably the worst error: they say nothing. I offer a few suggestions for those who want to do something but aren’t sure what’s appropriate:

                  1.       Do send cards or flowers. Condolences appropriate for the death of a child are appropriate for the loss of a pregnancy. The cards we received from students, coworkers, and family not only strengthened us in the moment, but they also gave us some keepsakes to include in a scrapbook along with our baby’s ultrasound picture. Walking into my classroom and finding cards and bouquets of flowers validated my feelings of loss. Seeing the effort my students went through to comfort me told me they cared about me and my unborn child.

                   2.       Do respect the mother’s choice, whether it be for a D&C or a natural miscarriage. This is a choice made by a woman in conjunction with her husband and doctor. She doesn’t need outside criticism piled atop the tremendous emotional burden she’s already carrying.

                    3.       Do offer to bring her family a meal or to watch her other children. The physical and emotional strain of a miscarriage is exhausting and a D&C is a surgery requiring general anesthesia. Lightening her burden of caring for her family will give her time to rest and care for her own health.

                    4.       Do remember that her pain isn’t gone in a day. I chose not to take time off work after learning I’d miscarried, but walking into work that first day was daunting. Finding a card in my mailbox and a friend saying, “You are a brave girl to be here” went a long way: I knew people were rallying behind me. A week later, nothing meant more than a dear coworker saying, “I want you to know I haven’t forgotten.” 

      Miscarriage is an extremely painful reality for many women. With sensitivity and acknowledgement of the loss, we can help bring comfort and strength to women who so desparately need compassion and understanding.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Relativism in the Nursery

Mother’s Day morning I had a rare opportunity to watch CBS’s Face the Nation. Quite fittingly, the panel assembled for the closing discussion was made up of moms. Inevitabley, Bob Schieffer asked the panel for their opinions on Time magazine’s “Are You Mom Enough?” cover. Republican strategist Bay Buchanan said this:

[W]hat does it suggest? How long should we nurse our babies or should we nurse our babies or-- or what is it [sic] best? This is nonsense. This is for women to decide. We don't need anyone on the outside telling us what's best in our family to do because we all are different and so are our children. So I just think it-- it-- it's an outrage that they even suggest this kind of cover or the-- the headline to it (;contentBody).

I could have thrown an alphabet block at the television.

Quite often, statements to which many who share my core values and beliefs would say a hearty “amen” do not sit well with me. In these instances, I let the offending idea or statement percolate a while until I come to a full understanding of why it bothers me. It didn’t take me long to see what’s wrong with Bay Buchanan’s assertion.

On the surface, Buchanan’s remarks seem agreeable. Mothers are responsible for making choices for their children, and it is to be hoped that those mothers know their children better than anyone else knows them. In a perfect world, mom will always do what’s best for her child. However, I believe Buchanan’s position is based on a significant philosophical error: the belief that all choices are equal (relativism). This thinking is rampant in our society: homosexual marriage is said to be as equally appropriate as heterosexual marriage. No teacher in a public school would dare suggest Islam is a religion of hate and violence because all religions are deemed equally valid. Roe v.Wade gave pregnant women the “right” to choose between two supposedly equal options.

But all choices available to us are not equal. Not in matters of morality or religion, and not in the realm of parenting. Breastfeeding and formula feeding aren’t equal. (Ask the mom who adopted a three month old and cries because she’ll never breastfeed him.) Staying home full time and working full time aren’t equal. (Ask any mom who longs to stay home but can’t afford to. Her heart breaks every day.) Setting a child in front of educational television programs for hours isn’t equal to reading him books and engaging him in conversation. (Ask a first-grade teacher.)

I’m not saying we should go around rebuking mothers for their less-than-best choices. None of us chooses what’s best every time we make a decision. I’m not saying moms who make inferior choices don’t love their children. As a teacher, I’ve seen a few mothers make horrible choices for their children that will handicap them for life, yet I know those moms would die for their children.

Instead, I’m asking moms to be aware of how relativism has unknowingly crept into the nursery and to start evaluating their choices more carefully. Feminists, the media, countless other sources have led us to believe no choice is right for all people. Christian women wouldn’t accept that lie when it comes to issues of morality or religion. How can we accept it when it stands to rob our children of what is truly best?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

I Pledge Allegiance to . . . the Pastor?

As many IFB leaders continue to defend the actions of Chuck Phelps in the Tina Anderson rape case, I feel sickened by what I believe is a wide-spread problem in fundamentalism: an unbiblical, unquestioning allegiance to pastors and other religious leaders (e.g. college presidents, evangelists, missionaries). Let me first state that I am not on the attack against pastors and other church leaders. Though my husband is not a pastor, he does have a master of arts in Bible exposition, is a former college Bible professor, was a song leader for a retirement community congregation, and is now pursuing his masters of theology so that he can return to full-time ministry as either an assistant pastor or as a professor who will be training, among others, future pastors. I fully support my husband in his call to ministry. Additionally, I have great respect for my current pastor: he is a man of integrity who seeks to rightly divide the Word each week, as is the pastor of my "home" church in New Hampshire. 

As men who speak the unpopular truths of the Scriptures, pastors will naturally be met with opposition and possibly even disdain, from both inside and outside the church. When a pastor is being attacked on the op-ed page for stating that Christ is the only way of salvation or that premarital sex is outside God's design, the congregation most certainly should stand by him and even stand up for him. But what I'm concerned about is a far different thing. Let me cite a few examples I've come across recently. A Dallas-area pastor was arrested in May for allegedly raping a woman in West Virginia while he claimed to be at a pastors' conference. (News stations reported that this was actually the second such charge against the man. The first charge was in Texas.) A few days after his arrest, the pastor committed suicide in his jail cell. Thankfully, his assistant pastor, when interviewed by a Dallas news station, declared that he would not sweep anything under the rug, and I hope he holds to that. But, not everyone is willing to face the fact that the pastor they thought was a godly man was actually living a lie. A fellow preacher friend wrote an article praising the alleged rapist-pastor ad-nauseam as a devoted family man and faithful pastor, essentially ignoring the charges against him and instead referring to "mystery" surrounding his death.

Last week I listened to an audio-documentary referencing some of the more troubling doctrines of the late Dr. Jack Hyles. The producer played an audio clip of Hyles claiming his pastoral staff members were so loyal to him that they would jump off a bridge or drink poison had he told them to. Hyles praised this type of loyalty in all seriousness. Essentially, Hyles was presenting the rule—sometimes spoken, sometimes only implied—in fundamentalism that the pastor is not to be questioned. After all, he is "God's man," "God's anointed." 

These are extreme examples, yes, so I'll bring it closer to home. While teaching at Pensacola Christian College, I had occasion to hear many guest preachers in chapel. During lunch after hearing one guest preacher, a colleague had difficulty with something the speaker had said, but I could tell she was afraid to question him. I can't remember her actual words, but if I can paraphrase what she was saying and what she left unsaid, it would go like this: "He's a pastor, so he must know more about the Bible than I do; therefore, he's right and I'm wrong." No need to research it for herself: a pastor said it, that settles it.

No, no, no, no! I believe the Bible clearly demonstrates that pastors are not to be followed ignorantly. For instance, even the apostle Peter was rebuked by Paul on a doctrinal issue (See Gal. 2). If an apostle can err, cannot pastors of today? I suppose Paul could have taken the approach that Peter is God's man, one who learned from Christ himself. Like many of today's congregants, he could have thought, "Oh, Peter must know better than I" and left Peter unchecked, but he did not and could not.

Consider the New Testament warnings against false teachers. I'll just give one example from the many found in the epistles. Jude wrote, "For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ" (verse 4 ESV). Notice the words "crept in unnoticed." It sure would be nice if we could spot a false teacher or a pastor who's living in sin by his appearance alone, but we can't. Appearances are deceiving. How were Jude's readers to recognize a false teacher then? They were to compare his teachings to the true gospel. No blind acceptance of what the preacher said here. Jude's readers, like us, were to wear their proverbial thinking caps, filtering all they heard through the truth of God's Word. In the case of pastors who stand accused of sex crimes, abuse of children, tax evasion, and so on, we must be willing to investigate rather than take the pastor's version of events or claims that he is merely suffering persecution. A pastor who does not welcome such investigation is to be feared, for he is not allowing his congregation to heed the warnings of Scriptures such as Jude 4.

Encourage your pastor, thank him for his hard work, follow him to the extent he follows Christ (I Cor. 11:1); but remember, the only true and infallible head of the Church is Christ (Col. 1:18).