“I was 11-years-old when I woke up in a haze from surgery. My doctor stood over me and said these words, ‘You can always make love, but you will never be able to have children. I barely had an idea what they were talking about. It was 1983. Being 11-years-old, I had not started my period and was just beginning to learn about where babies come from. I had no idea what a lifetime of barrenness would bring. I was just happy to be alive.
A bacterium called Bacteroides fragilis had encapsulated itself in my body and then exploded. It is believed that the infection was left over from an appendectomy I had at 2-years-old. Once the rupture happened, the bacterium spread in a stealth-like manner and quickly consumed anything in its path. My right ovary, Fallopian tubes, and uterus were filled with infection and had to be removed. The surgery took six hours. Halfway through it, my parents were told the devastating news. They escaped to a room by themselves and let out a wail; one that was full of relief that my life was able to be saved, but also full of immense and immeasurable grief. My left ovary was spared; although, I would lose it later. At that time, I was the second known case of this bacterium in the United States. I am also considered the youngest female to ever undergo a hysterectomy. My ‘case’ was so complex it was studied in international medical conferences.
I was so sick. It was a fight for my life. All of it was shocking and sudden for those around me. Before my hospitalization, I had spent the weekend running around my uncle’s farmland and had danced nearly every day. There was never any indication of the ticking time-bomb hiding in my body. My parents were constantly at the hospital. They never left my side. They held my hand, whispered words of life and encouragement into my ears even though I had one foot on Earth and one in Heaven.
While in the hospital, I lost a tremendous amount of body weight. My healthy, muscular dancer’s frame had withered away to skin and bones, and I was weighed every day to keep a tally on the amount of daily weight loss that was occurring. I had become anemic while fighting the infection and received a blood transfusion. Medical booties were on my feet, which had worn tap and point shoes just weeks before.
I was at serious risk for developing bed sores, and the insurance company called into question the strong dosages of antibiotics used during my care because they never experienced claims being filed on a child in need of that amount of treatment. My blood was drawn every two hours, day and night, to check for signs of increasing infection. That means within a 24-hour period, I was stuck with a needle 12 times – for weeks. My veins collapsed so frequently that the medical staff were often trying to find new places to stick me.
After close to a month in the hospital, I recovered at home for the next six to nine weeks. Thankfully, my 6th grade teacher was the kind of teacher who always went above and beyond. He made sure I remained at my grade level by tutoring me in the hospital and at home. Although I was not fully conscious, he read the lessons to me. What a treasure that was. Other than being frail and thin, my return to school was fairly normal. I went back to dancing (on a limited basis) and got right back into enjoying the antics of the sixth grade. I don’t think any of my classmates knew or understood at all what I had just been through.
Girls my age were starting their periods. We were all learning about puberty and conception… you know… all that embarrassing stuff that pre-adolescents learn about. Do you know what it is like to be entering puberty and learn that you will never have children? Do you know what it feels like to be a girl prime for puberty, but whose period would never come? I can tell you it is devastating and confusing. I was raised as a Christian, but after my illness, I began to doubt that God was sovereign or that He really has us all in His hands.
I managed to survive middle school and high school. From the outside, I seemed to have it all together, but I internalized how different I was. When other girls complained about their periods, I was longing for one and even acted like I understood their complaints. I constantly compared myself to girls my age. I felt like boys could look at me and know I could not have children; as if other girls gave off some mysterious appeal I could not. I made some good choices and some poor ones. In many ways, I was a typical 80’s American teenager, but in other ways, I was not. I was hiding a secret. I felt like an old soul trapped in a young body. I knew infertility was a big deal. I also knew that one day it would rear its ugly head.
As I entered my early 20s, my medical junk crept back up. I developed a dermoid cyst on my left ovary. Because of this, my ovary was removed. I got through this with a bit of humor. The surgery to remove my surviving ovary occurred on my 20th birthday. Happy Birthday to me, right?! I joked with the nurses if it was my 21st birthday, they would have to slip some tequila into my I.V. I had grown accustomed to being silly and using humor as a coping skill. It seemed that if I could make other people laugh, it would cause us all to avoid the hardship and awkwardness of the situation. If I somehow comforted others, I could deflect my own pain. That doesn’t seem reasonable at all, but it served me well as a coping skill. The truth is that losing this ovary meant a lot. It was my sole survivor of what had taken place just nine years prior. It also meant I had to begin hormone replacement therapy.
The most difficult aspect of my 20s was watching my friends get married and have babies. I saw how their lives were unfolding and mine was still stuck in all the crap that had happened. I had boyfriends. I even got close to (possibly) marrying one, but he did not want to talk about my barrenness – ever. He was a great guy but did not know what to say and it was apparent our relationship would never work. For me, not being able to talk about one of the biggest hurdles in my life with a potential spouse was a deal breaker. I knew that a future marriage would not ever work if my barrenness could not be discussed.
After this break-up, I met a guy who was different. I thought I was in love with him, but truthfully, I was in love with the idea of having a special someone in my life. I had lived my entire life since the age of 11 wondering if I would ever find a ‘forever love.’ I feared being rejected because of my barrenness. I mean, who in the world would ever want to commit to a woman who could not have children and had to deal with the trauma from it? Even though I had hoped for marriage, I truly wondered if it would happen. Infertility affected my self-esteem and it made me question my worth as a female. This translated over into my relationships.
While I was dating this guy, I met one of his friends named Bruce. I loved being around him. He was humble, artistic and kind. He was different. Although the relationship I was in had ended, I continued being friends with Bruce. He made himself available for me to talk about life, music and the musings of a couple of Gen X’ers. He reminded me that I deserved better. He took all those thoughts I carried about myself and barrenness and shook them up a bit. I was able to confide in him, cry to him and openly share my well-kept feelings about how it feels to be a woman and not be able to have children. Through our relationship, I began to see myself as someone capable and worthy of being loved. Somehow, along the way, we fell in love with each other.
Bruce knew my complexity, and how barrenness affected my sense of wholeness. He also knew I had to take synthetic hormones to keep myself balanced. The internal struggle between fighting this plague of barrenness, and winning the war of normalcy, was something he was okay with. He was more than okay, though; he was empathetic and understanding. He never once made me feel less than a whole woman and corrected my false thinking that men could tell I could not have children by looking. Bruce was exactly the kind of man I needed to wrap my life around. He assured me other women did not give off a sexier or womanlier vibe because they could have children. All these things I had once thought about myself and struggled to overcome, he completely dissolved.
Bruce told me the ability to have children did not matter and that in the end, ‘We are all children of God.’ His words were, ‘When you love someone, you love them for all of who they are.’ In the moment he said this to me, I knew I had found the one. We were married in 2001, and in 2006, we decided to take a leap of faith and become foster parents. We both knew the clock was ticking for us. If we wanted to be parents, we needed to do it and foster parenting just felt right. Although we hoped for an opportunity to one day adopt, we went into it knowing that reunification with biological family is the number one goal of children entering foster care.
The day we were approved and licensed, we received a call and were asked to take in a newborn baby boy. We could not believe it. We woke up that morning without a clue that by the end of the day, we would welcome a little guy home. To say we instantly fell in love is an understatement. We were absolutely mesmerized by him.
Throughout fostering him, we worked hard on advocating for his biological mother. We supported her and developed a good relationship with her. It is hard to put into words what it feels like to love a child with every ounce of your being; yet, not know if the child will stay with you or leave. In our son’s case, the decision was made for adoption and we adopted him in 2008 after fostering him for close to two years.
It was shortly after our adoption, I began to realize that perhaps the path of barrenness I was forced to walk down was never about me, but about the unfolding of an incredible story that God was writing in all our lives. Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, I carried much confusion about my worth as a female and my ability to be a mother. I was a child when I was told I would never have biological children. I had to grow up quickly and delve into aspects of life that were beyond my understanding. Because of this, I created my own version of my story. It was not one of grace or strength or any of those things. It was about something being wrong with me… as if God knew I would make a horrible mother or something.
Although I never wanted to openly admit it, I felt resentment towards the doctor who performed my appendectomy when I was two. If he had not missed the infection, I would have grown up being normal. While fostering and after adopting our son, I knew I needed to let it go; let go of the resentment and the what-if’s. I was able to forgive this doctor. I did not have the chance to tell him or anything, but I chose to release my heart… to give it wings… to be free of the burden. Let me tell you, forgiveness is a mighty thing.
After taking a few months off from fostering, we received a call about a baby girl. Her case was vastly different from our son’s. We did not get the opportunity to know her biological parents; although, we wanted to. After fostering her for a year, in 2010, we were granted adoption.
My husband and I felt so very blessed to have a son and a daughter. Our foster care experience was extremely humbling and faith-building. It was also one of the hardest experiences we have walked through. However, we were so thankful for it. We felt our little family was complete and decided to close our license.
Even after closing our license, I had this feeling there would be a third child. I had no idea how or who but I felt the Lord pressing on my heart to be prepared. In 2012, a baby boy was born in my extended family. His biological mother is a relative of mine and at that time in her life, she was in a tough spot and knew she was not able to parent him. After much prayer and discussion, we welcomed him into our home, and in 2013, finalized our adoption.
As I look back now to my youth and the angst I felt as an 11-year-old who knew she would never biological children, I fully recognize that God weaved this tapestry of our family out of heartache and hardship, but also out of complete and total beauty. He is truly able to create beauty out of ashes.
Our children are amazing. We are not perfect, of course, and we have a lot of ‘stuff’ we deal with, but I would not ask for anything different. I would walk every step over again for my children. I would not trade my children for biological ones. The way they are, their quirks, their personalities, and their features, are a delight in my eyes. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for them.
The truth I have lived is that life is not fair. It isn’t promised to be. However, God is always faithful. He is full of immeasurable grace. I have not done anything to deserve what I have now. I simply survived a unique experience. I climbed that wretched hill of barrenness and I reached the mountaintop.
As I am getting older, I am noticing that infertility is being talked about more and more. It is not a hushed topic as it was when I was growing up. There is a part of me that has sadness for the child and teenager I was. I so wish the topic would have been talked about when barrenness knocked on my door. I desperately yearned to know others like me. One really cannot understand the isolation and loneliness that infertility brings unless you have walked through it. I honestly don’t think there is any other life experience that compares.
However, there is another part of me that is elated. Although my story is different from others who are experiencing infertility, I feel a kindred connection to them. It’s like being in a sorority of sisters who are experiencing a pain that is misunderstood, a longing that is hard to put into words and an empty space that is hard to fill. After many years of silence, I have released my voice about infertility. I will never stop advocating for those who are going through it. Infertility is a big deal. It deserves as much attention as any other issue going on. For those of you who are going through it right now, please don’t give up. Don’t let others tell you how you are supposed to feel or what you are supposed to do. This is your journey, no one else’s.
I will always be a champion of adoption and an advocate for children in foster care. Adoption is a miracle. That mere fact that our hearts carry tremendous love for children that we do not carry within our bodies takes my breath away. I wish others understood this. Our kids are not replacement children. They are not second best. They are exactly who they are meant to be in our lives.
As a young child, I was taught the greatest miracle in life is conception. I stopped believing that at the age of 12. Instead, I believe, and have since then, that love is the greatest miracle of life. Love reaches beyond biology and borders. It meets all of us where we are at and when we need it the most. Love is what matters the most.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Caroline Bailey, 46, of Springfield, Missouri. You can follow her journey on her website, Barren to Blessed. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.
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