Thursday, January 31, 2013

Vow renewal plans

Alex and I are getting ready to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary in a few months.  Pretty much since getting married, we have talked about renewing our vows on this anniversary.  Alex doesn’t think he had enough input in the original celebration, so I am releasing the reigns to let him have creative control over our renewal.  That’s not to say that I don’t have some ideas of my own.

I definitely had a very specific goal in mind when planning our wedding.  I was a feminist, and this shone through the decisions that went into various aspects of our wedding.  To start with, I refused to wear a veil.  My understanding of veiling was very limited 10 years ago.  I took at face value other feminists’ critiques of various conservative traditions.  I bought into the notion that veiling meant I was submissive to my husband, and as a feminist, that just wasn’t going to fly.

Now, technically, marital submission is indeed an aspect of veiling in Christianity, but, especially within Catholicism, for a woman to wear a veil means more than just that she accepts the place in the world that God gave her.  By veiling, a woman honors herself as a temple of God.  We veil what is sacred, and women are sacred.  I can get on board with that reasoning! 

Catholic women traditionally cover their hair when in the presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist.   Not only did Alex and I get married in a Catholic church, but directly on the altar of the chapel, right in front of the tabernacle!  Yet I refused to veil.  A lot has changed since then.  I have regularly covered my hair to some degree while at church for two years now.  Renewing our vows at church means I have to find an appropriate way to cover that won’t clash with my outfit.

Ahh, yes – my outfit.  Not only did I refuse to wear a veil 10 years ago, I also refused to wear white.  I took offense at the thought that I was expected to be a virgin, and to advertise this fact, while my husband’s premarital virtue was a non-issue.  But not only that, I simply did not look good in white.  Perhaps part of that was psychological – I didn’t want to look good in white, so I didn’t think that I did.  In the end, I found an ethereal ankle-length spaghetti strapped dress in gorgeous bright red!
Did I mention my wedding dress also revealed my tattoo? :)
If a bride’s goal on her wedding day is to feel like a princess, then my beautiful red dress did just that.  I can’t imagine feeling as special, feminine, attractive, in any other dress.  Another bonus to wearing a non-white dress was that I took pride in being able to wear it at other times in my life.  I thought it was such a waste to purchase an article of clothing that would never be worn again.  For our first anniversary, Alex booked us a fancy dinner cruise, and we dressed up in our wedding attire, so I got my wish!  After that, we simply posed for a photo op each year, so that I could have an excuse to put on my wedding dress, both to show that I still fit into it, and just to feel beautiful. 

I hoped to bring the first 10 years of our marriage to a close wearing the same dress that was there in the beginning, if for no other reason than because I can.  Yet as I think about it now, I’m not sure how I can pull off this dress with a veil?  And it’s not just a veil that I’d need to find to match the dress.  I also lean more conservatively on the modesty scale now.  My exposed shoulders and upper back feel a bit risqué for who I am today.  So I have some work to do in this department.

The only other thing I’m holding onto as far as control over our renewal is the budget… and Alex is fighting me every step of the way on that!  I'm sure we can work something out to our mutual satisfaction soon.  Stay tuned! :)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Resolution of infertility

"My peace I give to you," says Jesus in John 14:27. And He really does.

Many people have shared obvious observations about life with me over the years when I wasn’t yet ready to hear them.  

“It could be worse.” 

“Count your blessings.”

“You love to sleep in.  You hate noise.” 

“Think of all the things you can do because you don’t have kids.”

These are all true statements, and they were true several years ago when I would get upset by them as well.  What’s changed?  My perspective. But it’s important to note that this is not something that you, as a well-meaning friend or relative, can bring about in someone who isn’t there yet. 

Many people are familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bartering, sadness, and acceptance.  But many people do not automatically think to consider infertility as something that would qualify as a life event that would spark the grief process.  Yet it does.

Events that may set the grief process in motion include divorce, migration, loss of job, infertility.  The death of a loved one seems to be a universal experience, whereas these other life events are not.  Maybe that’s why people who have never experienced them find it difficult to understand that they also mark the end of something one has grown attached to.

Telling someone who has just lost a loved one that “at least they’re not suffering anymore” might be better left unsaid for someone whose heart has just been wounded by their loss.  It doesn’t matter if the comment is true or well-meaning.  The best thing to do when around someone who is grieving is to be quiet, but be there, and listen if they want to pour their heart out to you.  You do not need to try to fix this for them because you can’t. 

It would seem that I have arrived at the final stage of grieving our infertility, acceptance.  It sort of snuck up on me.  For five years, I put my life on hold and made decisions based on the assumption that just around the corner, our forever child would show up.  It sucked the life out of me.  I didn’t look forward to anything other than becoming a mother. 

I didn’t go through the stages of grief in order.  In fact, I was still bartering with God last summer, as I sought solutions in desperation in a renewed state of denial!  Every time I came across a parent not living up to my expectations of what a parent ought to be, I experienced anger.  Sadness crept up every time we hit another disappointment. 

I assumed that the only way our infertility would be resolved, the only way that it COULD be resolved, is if/when we finally became parents.  But now I know parenting and resolution of infertility are not necessarily related.

I’ve met parents who nevertheless continue to grieve the fact that it isn’t as easy for them to conceive as it ought to be, or who didn’t start to experience infertility until after they had their first child without any trouble. I’ve also met folks who never did have children yet found a way to embrace the life God gave them anyway.  The more I think about it, the more I find myself in this second category.  Maybe I will be a mother, maybe not.  But I’m already “complete”.  I’m already at peace with my life as it is.  I’m already joyful with the many blessings God has given me. 

Today, I can say with full authenticity:

“Indeed, there ARE many things I can do that I probably couldn’t do if I had children, and I ought to enjoy them to the fullest!”

“I DO love to sleep in, and I DO hate noise, and I don’t have to feel bad for either because I don’t have children.”

“I DO have many blessings to count!”

“It COULD be a lot worse!”

There is nothing left for me to complain about.  Life doesn’t always turn out the way we hope or plan.  So what?  God is in control.  I trust Him completely.

Numbers 6:24-26
The Lord bless you, and keep you;
The Lord make His face shine on you, and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Making peace with disappointment, twice

(This is the sixth installment in our detailed journey.  Start here, or go to part 2, part 3, part 4, or part 5 .)

While in Germany, I took it upon myself to use the time to try to make progress on my dissertation.  I wrote and submitted the first draft of the first chapter to my advisor, but when her feedback came back, I was faced with the realization that there was nothing left for me in this program.  There was no more motivation, no more inspiration, no more desire left in me to continue.  I was now looking at the prospect of making my peace with having spent the last five years of my life, and the 20,000 or so additional dollars I spent after getting my Master’s degree, on coursework and independent research tuition that would never result in another degree.

I had changed my topic slightly from the original pregnancy magazines to parenting magazines when we had been pursuing adoption for a while because it became painful for me to be reminded of other women’s pregnancies.  But that proved to be too little too late.  I agonized over the decision to withdraw from the program for several days.  Many tears were cried, but in the end, it just didn’t make sense for me to continue.

What makes this decision bittersweet is the alternative goal with which I replaced my near-life-long hope of a PhD: motherhood.  Two years have come and gone since I thought I “chose” motherhood over a PhD and a career, and I now have neither desire of my heart.  

In the larger scheme of things, this heartache proved to be a crucial turning point on our journey. I finally agreed to bite the bullet and pursue adoption via an agency.  It didn’t hurt that my mom, bless her heart, offered to fund the adoption with what I later found out was her retirement savings.  Given that adoptions from El Salvador, Alex’s native country, were closed to Americans, we chose to go with international adoption from my native Poland.

After some comparison shopping, we began the process with Lutheran Services out of New York in November of 2010, the month after we came back from Germany.  Finally, after three years, this was going to be a guarantee.  We invested $7,000 into this adoption attempt before withdrawing.  Crazy, I know.  Why would anyone withdraw from a near-guarantee?

My lack of patience played a big role.  We needed to get our homestudy updated before proceeding, and for some reason it was stalling.  What should’ve taken a couple of months was taking nearly half a year.  With anxious anticipation, spending lots of time online, I happened to peak on a fertility forum I had once been active on.  I don’t know what changed in my approach that led me to consider if there were things we might do to bypass our diagnosis. In the process, I came across a way to do IVF without the extensive hormonal preparation.  One of the only two clinics in the nation that specialized in natural cycle IVF just happened to be within commuting distance to us.  

We proceeded to schedule a TESE, testicular sperm extraction, with a consultation at the IVF clinic the following week.  I had become convinced that, since there was no identifiable reason for the azoospermia, it may be a matter of very low production that can be accessed via biopsy.  We drew closer to each other in faith in preparation for this procedure.  I spent the two hours in the waiting room reading my Bible and praying for good news.  I hadn’t yet learned to surrender my will to God.

When the doctor pulled me into a private room post-op to discuss the findings, I didn’t expect what she would tell me.   There were no sperm to be found.  Sertoli-Cell Only Syndrome.  Sperm were just not being produced.  In the grand scheme of things, if there’s anything that Alex’s body wasn’t going to be producing, we should be grateful that it’s not something necessary for his life.  On the other hand, it’s the one thing necessary for the creation of life for our mutual child.

I remember trying to make sense of what the doctor was telling me.  Surely, ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) is the cure-all for all things sperm-related, so at least she found some guys, however weak, that we could use in ICSI, right?  But she just shook her head and reiterated that there is nothing there.

After a moment to compose myself, I called the IVF clinic to cancel our consultation. Then, it was time to see Alex and break the news to him.  The doctor had told him, but since he was coming out from under anesthesia, he didn’t hear or understand her. When he saw me, he asked “Well?”  I tried to delay having to tell him.  I remember this tiny moment frozen in time, the moment before we both knew that a mutual biological child was definitely not going to happen.  When I told him, he did the same thing I did, asking in disbelief: “Nothing?”

The drive home was like a blur.  I drove while Alex napped on some ice.  He spent the next few days on a bag of frozen peas, sore and disappointed.  But thank God, he was back on his feet and at work soon, and his stitches dissolved on their own.

Before this experience, I hadn’t ever mourned the loss of a mutually biological child.  But as we prepared for the TESE, a spark of hope was ignited.  I imagined all the wonderful things about Alex mixing with all the familiar things about me in one unique individual, a walking manifestation of our love for one another.  I basked in the glorious way that God designed marriage to result in the next generation, how He shared His creative power with us, His creation.  I was empowered in a totally different way, thinking of the honor it is to be a child of God.  And now that I had developed a desire to share this gift with God, it was being taken away from me.

I was utterly confused by God’s will.  “What do You want from me, Lord? I thought You wanted us to adopt, but that hasn’t panned out.  Then I thought You wanted me to surrender my fear of fertility treatment, and again this isn’t panning out.  What else is there?”

(Part Seven to be continued...)

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Adding Insult to Injury

(This is the fifth installment in our detailed journey.  Start here, or go to Part Two, Part Three, Part Four.)

A week before the final court hearing, mom had VV for an unsupervised visit.  She returned her to our home with VV’s hand bandaged up.  They had been at a picnic, it was very hot, and VV unwittingly grabbed a hold of a metal leg on a grill and burned her hand.  Alex had been certified in first aid and medical response in the Army, so he proceeded to question mom regarding what had been done in addressing the wound.  Appropriate ointment had been purchased and applied right away, and the wound was properly bandaged.  Mom reacted as expected, so we unwittingly thought that was that.  VV was happy and smiling, so we decided to continue with our plan to transition VV without any undue headaches for her mom.

Still, the next day when I dropped VV off at daycare, I spoke with the daycare director about what happened.  I showed her the wound and asked her if she thought VV needed to see a doctor.  The director reassured me that “these things happen” and that it wasn’t necessary to take her to the doctor.  Reassured by both Alex and the daycare director, and my own sense of lack of urgency, I gave VV a big squeeze as always and went to work.

I had completely forgotten that VV and her mom had an appointment that day to which a social worker was providing transportation.  When the worker picked up VV and saw the bandaged hand, all hell broke loose.

She was taken the her pediatrician, who eventually washed his hands of the injury and referred her to a burn unit at a hospital.  It was there that Alex and I were reunited with VV.  She had been examined, observed, and treated, and the doctor determined that everything that needed to be done was done, and VV was released with instructions to essentially keep doing what we were doing.

The next day, we would drop her off at daycare for the last time.  I got a phone call at home from the social work director notifying us that they were removing VV from our care pending an investigation.  She made it sound as though this was a temporary situation, and that we’d get VV back.  We had every expectation of her being home with mom that weekend.  We had every expectation to be able to transition into an ongoing relationship with VV and her mom, without the interference of social services. But the last month of VV’s time in the care of social services was just awful, and I hate that we were unable to prevent it.

She was placed with the same emergency care provider from whose house we picked her up 10 months earlier.  There, she was not given her medication or her regular clothes (provided by us), and she was in an environment with no child-proofing aside from a single gate.  I know this because I was able to go visit VV before the provider got word that this was not allowed.  I saw that she had at least 5 other toddlers running around, and there were countless choking hazards laying around on the window mantle within reach.  VV wasn’t being fed through her specialized bottle nipple (she was in need of solidifying her liquids), and she was dirty and her hair unkempt.  

She was happy to see me but sad to see me go.  I cradled her in my arms and shushed her as I always did.  I started singing our bedtime song, too: “Won’t you take me to, Sleepy Town!”  It broke my heart to hear her cry and be unable to stay with her, and it broke my heart even more to see how completely unmoved the provider was about her tears or anxiety over separation.  Notice I’ve called this woman a “provider”, and not a “foster mother”, because the title “mother” has to be earned.

In the days that ensued, it went from bad to worse.  VV had an appointment at the doctors, and I used that opportunity to drop off some medication that I found I hadn’t packed in her original bags.  Of course, I hoped for a chance meeting with VV in the process.  And of course I was vilified for what I considered a normal reaction of a parent towards a child with whom one has developed a healthy attachment.  They told us to treat our foster child as our own child, but when we did, we were “out of line”.

The provider immediately called social services when she saw me.  I tried to explain why I was there, but she wouldn’t hear of it.  You’d think I was some sort of criminal with a restraining order to my name. In the waiting room, it became obvious that VV was in need of a diaper change, yet neither the provider nor mom had brought any diapers.  I tried desperately to play off the awkwardness of the situation, suggesting that I go get some diapers for her.  I was told in no uncertain terms to leave.  I sat in my car a bit numb, feeling ridiculed and vilified for loving this child that had been in my care for nearly a year.   

When I finally gathered the strength to drive home, I received a call from the head honcho of social workers.  To his credit, he was very diplomatic and expressed sympathy for my lot, yet he said that I wouldn’t be able to regain custody of VV if I didn’t abide by the restrictions of the investigation.  I of course didn’t care about that originally, since I had expected VV to be going home, not back into foster care.  But they had also launched an investigation of mom, and now I imagined all the horrible possibilities that may await VV, none of which would be “in the best interest of the child”, something social services claims it’s in the business of pursuing.

During the next few weeks, VV’s mom returned the favor of our attempt for a smooth transition by bringing VV to our house for a visit.  It was so good to see her again, and we were so touched that her mom took this risk.  But with hindsight, none of our actions during those last few weeks were very smart.  We were operating with the assumption that parents and caretakers know what’s best for their children, but we were dealing with an agency whose job it was to interfere and enforce their own version of “ideal parenting” on children unlucky enough to have fallen into their custody.

In the end, VV spent an additional month in foster care.  A week after being moved to the emergency provider’s house, she was moved again.  The provider was leaving the country, something that was known at the time of placement.  At the second foster home, VV was bitten on the shoulder blade by another child, and her mom provided us with a photograph of the scar. But thank God, VV is a resilient little girl, and the month of instability proved to be insignificant in the larger scheme of things.  The investigation against her mom was resolved within that month, while the investigation against us continued for another month or so!

But God provided a most unexpected outlet for us in this time of need.  Alex was given the opportunity to spend 3 months on a job in Germany, and as soon as my summer semester was over, I joined him.  The time we spent in a completely different environment was just what we needed to readjust to life without VV.  I don’t know how I could’ve recovered without this change of scenery.  By the time we returned home, it didn’t hurt as much to be reminded of the many memories we shared with VV over the 10 months that we were her parents.  

(Part Six to be continued...)