This is hard. It’s hard to write about, hard to open up about, hard to think about. As a practicing and devout Catholic, I worry people will think I’m a hypocrite. No one wants to feel judged, much less invite scrutiny. I made my choice with full knowledge of Scripture and Church teaching, so I can’t plead ignorance. I knew what I was doing, I thought. I was confident in my decision. What I didn’t anticipate was the tumor of regret that has continued to grow since then.
Five years ago, after my third natural birth, I started having some gynecological issues. Moms, you know what I’m talking about. Trampolines were out, my running days were over, and intimacy with my husband was sometimes uncomfortable. They were inconvenient but arguably tolerable issues. Then I started having persistent pelvic pain, to the point I was struggling with everyday mommy tasks, especially with a toddler and two preteens.
I was also in treatment for severe postpartum anxiety and depression. With each birth, the PPD became progressively worse. With my third child, we even considered my hospitalization or a home care nurse because I was struggling, really struggling. My greatest fear was that with a subsequent birth, I wouldn’t be able to care for my children or worse, that my children wouldn’t have a mother because I would make a fatal decision.
When I found a gynecologist who was gentle and compassionate, I hoped together we could make a treatment plan that would help both my physical and mental health concerns. After some work-ups, I was diagnosed with moderate to severe endometriosis. The only treatment was exploratory surgery. We discussed my other issues and decided they, too, could be corrected during the same surgery. That’s when my doctor broached the subject of a tubal ligation.
Given that I was at the end of my childbearing years, and that my PPD was worsening with each pregnancy, sterilization was a logical treatment choice. It would relieve the looming anxiety of a potential pregnancy and a deeper descent into depression. Statistically, he told me, many women experience relief and enhanced intimacy when the worry of pregnancy is gone. He gave me a consent form to sign, which I did without hesitation.
My husband and I really didn’t discuss the sterilization much. He saw how much I was struggling, how my last pregnancy at 40 was difficult, and he knew he couldn’t be a constant source of support. As a former military pilot, now civilian pilot, he is usually away more than he is home. He wanted me to be healthy, and happy again. We trusted my doctor completely and truly believed this was the best choice not just for me, but for our existing family.
I met with my doctor again the week before my surgery, when I signed a second consent form that looked like it had been Xeroxed 800 times since the 1970s. This time, I paused. I’d had time to consider what I was doing and to accept I was relinquishing any more babies. My eyes filled as I scrawled my signature and my doctor asked me if I was sure. “I know this is what’s best,” I answered.
The surgery was successful in correcting all the issues I’d been having. Recovery from some parts of the surgery was difficult, but I was looking forward to getting back to running, playing with my kids without clutching my abdomen in pain, and having unfettered intimacy with my husband.
What I didn’t anticipate, in any way, was the loss I felt. It crept in slowly and I would have moments of acute sadness, especially when I saw new babies. Then I would brush the feeling off and remind myself how relieved I should be, how thankful I was that I didn’t have to go through all the sleepless nights and crippling depression again.
What I didn’t anticipate was that sex would change. It wasn’t joyful anymore. It wasn’t something I looked forward to or initiated. I didn’t feel desirable. It didn’t feel like a gift anymore, like something we were sharing. It was an act, and I participated because it was part of being married. It was dry, uncomfortable and unsatisfying, and very different from what my husband and I had shared before.
What I didn’t anticipate was feeling so unfulfilled and directionless. I’d been so satisfied as a full-time mom, and felt called to it. My three children kept my life busy and full and I loved having a full calendar, noise, activities, volunteer work, church, and the constant chauffeuring. Within a few months of my sterilization, I started to feel … unmoored. The life that was so satisfying before now seemed shallow and endless. Being a mom is so much more than just giving birth, but my children’s births gave me my direction, my vocation. I had willingly given up the possibility of any more gifts, the best gifts I had ever received. I questioned whether I could be the same mother I had been.
What I never, ever anticipated was losing our 12-year-old son last year in a tragic accident. His absence has left our house so terribly quiet, even with a 5-year-old and a 15-year-old still occupying the same space. The constant hum of activity, punctuated by the occasional argument, is gone. The noise and mess generated by a preteen boy is acutely absent. Our son can never, ever be replaced, but the void that exists now in my life, and in my heart, aches for a third child. I ache.
At the time, I thought I was making a wise decision, choosing sterilization. I had a list of reasons to justify it and only one glaring reason to refuse it: the clear and deep wisdom of the Magisterium.
“The spouses’ union achieves the twofold end of marriage: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life. These two meanings or values of marriage cannot be separated without altering the couple’s spiritual life and compromising the goods of marriage and the future of the family.” (CCC 2363)
By separating biology and spirituality, I compromised my marriage.
I regret that I didn’t do more homework. I didn’t ask about the possible negative side effects of sterilization, nor were they offered. I didn’t research other women’s experience or ask many questions, any questions, really. If I had looked, I would have quickly discovered the Coalition for Post Tubal Women. Reading their stories is both heartbreaking and validating. I know there are other women like me who made a well-intentioned but remorseful decision.
I took this to confession many times. My priest finally told me, gently and lovingly, “You have been forgiven. You need to accept that forgiveness so you can heal.” More than once since our son’s passing, my husband has suggested we look into foster parenting or adoption. My body won’t accommodate any more children, but my heart certainly can. I just need to fully accept my mistake didn’t negate my vocation, and that I’m still a good mom, the best mom, and a loving wife.
With counseling, prayer, sacraments, and medical treatment for the after effects, I’m finding healing. My marriage, too, is healing. Grief has complicated the process but hasn’t halted it. If anything, grief creates a void that allows more room for grace, and with grace, there is peace.
“Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)
Copyright Dawn Wright, 2015, all rights reserved
Photo: “Surgery-688380_1280.jpg,” 2015, via pixabay.com, public domain.