Motherhood, Secondary Infertility and Salvation

COMMENTARY: When we embrace God’s plan as the Blessed Mother did, our canticles of sorrow can be turned into Mary’s canticle of praise.

An image of the Martin family hangs in the Spencer home as a reminder of motherhood, loss and love.
An image of the Martin family hangs in the Spencer home as a reminder of motherhood, loss and love. (photo: Courtesy of Susanna Spencer)

I stood with tears streaming down my face on the edge of a lake in Grand Tetons National Park late last summer in the only place where my phone had reception. I listened to my Catholic doctor explain the complicated process of making my womb a habitable place for a potential baby. Then came the agonizing days of discerning with my husband whether to proceed with treatment or just accept my health as it was. With four children on earth and three who passed during the first trimester of pregnancies, we already had much to be thankful for as parents. Further, this treatment could potentially cause more health problems.

We ended up deciding to try the treatment for several months — long enough to give it a chance to work, but not so long as to harm my own health long term. It seemed reasonable and felt right to give my body a chance to carry another child. However, we also acknowledged that my years of fertility might be prematurely over: my being able to bear another child might not be part of God’s plan.

As we proceeded with the treatment, I turned often to some of my favorite intercessors for our family: Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin and their children, including St. Thérèse of Lisieux. We have an icon of the whole family in our living room above our family altar, depicting the five daughters who survived to adulthood on either side of their parents and St. Zélie holding her babies who died in infancy in her arms and the two who died in childhood at her feet. They all gaze out from the icon upon the daily activity of our home life, and I frequently pause to gaze back, drawing strength from their faith. 

I needed their example more than ever that day in December when, after our final month of treatment, a new cycle began without a pregnancy. In Eucharistic adoration, I pleaded with the Lord for the bleeding to stop. I poured over my journals of the last three years where I prayed and wrote down verse after verse of Scripture about God making and fulfilling promises for women to have babies. But the only verse that seemed to apply at that moment was Hannah’s canticle, when she speaks of the mother of many languishing (1 Samuel 2:5). 

In my sorrow, the words of Blessed Solanus Casey, to whom I had also been particularly praying, began to fill me with peace: “Blessed be God in all his designs.” These words had followed me through the years of waiting for healing from multiple chronic illnesses only to find that my chronic uterine condition lingered on. Blessed Solanus’ words reminded me that God has plans for my family that are greater than my own. 

In my prayer I remembered the faith of St. Zélie at the end of her battle with breast cancer. She took a trip to Lourdes to pray for healing — a trip in which everything went wrong — and she came home in severe pain from straining her neck in addition to her agonizing cancer. St. Louis and her daughters sought for a sign that, surely, she would be healed. But as her illness intensified, St. Zélie resigned herself. She wrote to her sister-in-law, “The Blessed Mother didn’t cure me in Lourdes. What can you do, my time is at an end, and God wants me to rest elsewhere other than on earth” (A Call to a Deeper Love: The Family Correspondence of the Parents of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Letter 216). She had prayed for seven months since her diagnosis to be cured of her cancer. She had every reason to desire healing: five daughters to be a mother to, a business to run, a husband who depended on her. Surely, they needed her on earth. But, instead, the Lord allowed her to suffer and die before her family. And her suffering modeled for the whole Martin family a deep love and hope in God. Perhaps it was the grace of her holy death that led to all five of her surviving daughters to enter the convent, living lives of heroic virtue, and helped her husband suffer through mental illness until his own holy death.

The Blessed Mother and St. Joseph offer another example of accepting God’s plans as they come, even when it means enduring hardships. The Blessed Mother lived the truth in St. Paul’s words, “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). 

The only plan for her family life was God’s plan. God’s plan for our lives includes embracing the suffering that comes with living in a fallen world — even in the empty, longing arms of a woman who hopes for the good of being a new mother, whether facing complete infertility, the loss of children through miscarriage, secondary infertility, or still living in the single state. Yet, when we embrace God’s plan as the Blessed Mother did, our canticles of sorrow can be turned into Mary’s canticle of praise, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior” (Luke 1:46).

I can stand here at this point in my life and see how God’s plan has always been better than my own, as he has given us so many spiritual and material blessings. I am further reminded of how good God is when I think about how we were advised to wait to have children when my husband was in graduate school and how we discerned instead to start our family right away. I was blessed with six pregnancies in my 20s, four of them full term, and our third miscarriage was in my early 30s. We did not know we would face secondary infertility in my mid-30s, but God did. He blessed us with children early in our marriage, and I will be forever thankful for his generosity in that. I do not know what God’s plan is for these coming years for our family, but I do know, if I follow him faithfully, he will give my family the graces we need to enter into eternal life with him. And as a mother to seven, four on earth and three already with God, that is all that really matters.

The Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Mississippi River are seen from East St. Louis, Illinois, on June 27. Following the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on June 24, abortion is now banned in Missouri. The nearest clinics to St. Louis are across the river in Illinois, including a Planned Parenthood in Fairview Heights that was opened in 2019 in anticipation of the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

Welcome to Post-Roe America

Every year on the anniversary of Dobbs, Catholics will be able to deepen their understanding of God’s role in the conception of every child, his care for the child’s growth, his knowing each by name, and the future for which he has given each child life.