How Being Pregnant During Lent Helped Me Focus on Christ
Some women sail through pregnancy without incident. For others, it is an extremely painful, arduous process from the beginning. I am of the latter variety. For years after my husband, Ben, and I were married, I struggled with infertility. Due to hormonal fluctuations, I discovered after many tests and visits to my Creighton doctor (a physician who specializes in natural methods of treating women’s reproductive issues), I would need to take hormonal shots in order to prepare my body to even become pregnant, then more hormone replacements to reduce the risk of miscarriage once I was pregnant.
To date, four out of my five pregnancies have overlapped with the Lenten season. After my first baby was born (Felicity), I became discouraged that I wasn’t “doing” anything for Lent like I had in the past: offering up particular penances, giving up favorite foods, praying with a devotional, attending daily Mass. I couldn’t do any of those things during pregnancy, because I was so tired and laden with pain.
My mom visited me during one of these bouts of despondency and said, while cradling Felicity in her arms, “In times like this, you are living your Lent.”
Living your Lent.
Her statement, so simple yet incredibly profound, struck me as true. Lent wasn’t about going through the motions or checking off a list of things I could be proud of doing. It was about how I chose to live my life – how I chose to suffer the Cross Jesus chose for me instead of selecting mortifications of my choosing.
Not long ago, I read from St. Alphonsus Liguori in a daily devotional called 12 Steps to Holiness that we grow closer to Jesus when we accept the Cross He has given us rather than doing harsh penances we choose on our own. This makes sense in light of pregnancy: as women, we are not often privy to what we might suffer during those long nine months.
Anything can happen. For me, it was constant discomfort with severe heartburn, joint pain, leg cramps, and eventually degenerative disc disease in my back. I received painful progesterone shots to sustain the little life growing within me. Sleep was elusive. Headaches were common. Food tasted like iron, as did water. Everything I smelled or ate seemed altered by the metallic sensation that replaced my typical pleasant affection for food.
These are not uncommon for many women. In fact, some struggle with more severe issues, like placenta previa or preeclampsia. Hormonal shifts from extreme lows to extreme highs can be another interior cross to bear when you feel terrified or anxious one moment, followed by euphoria the next. With each pregnancy, I have experienced the severe end of each spectrum of these emotional swings, which feels foreign and frustrating.
I often wonder who I am when I am pregnant because of all the physiological and psychological changes that happen in such a short amount of time.
The most memorable Lent I spent being pregnant was with our second daughter, Sarah. Throughout the pregnancy, I was clueless about the reality that I was carrying a child with a rare craniofacial condition. I went into labor two days before Holy Week, and everything progressed smoothly for about twelve hours.
But Sarah entered fetal distress, and her heart rate soared. My body grew weary after laboring for so long without the ability to complete delivery. Because of this, my family doctor made the decision for me to undergo a cesarean after twenty-six hours. By the time surgery rolled around, I was stricken with a fierce fear I’d never known before. This ended up being the first major surgery of my life – at thirty-two years of age.
It didn’t occur to me in that moment that it was Palm Sunday. All I could think of the horror stories I’d heard from friends who’d experienced c-sections and described them to me in lurid detail. In the moment, everything blackened, and I felt both betrayed and abandoned by God. The doctors strapped my arms, outstretched, to planks off to each side of my body – perhaps to restrain me if anything happened.
My feet, too, were strapped to the gurney, and the anesthesiologist asked me to wiggle my toes after the spinal tap made its way to the lower half of my body. I couldn’t. They were satisfied. My thoughts swarmed around one thing: “My body is in the same position as crucifixion.” I was rendered helpless, at the mercy of strangers. It was the most excruciating and terrifying feeling I’ve had so far in my life.
I couldn’t pray, couldn’t muster anything except tears. But a tiny, distant voice within me said, “Say a prayer to Father Solanus Casey.” At the time, he was not yet beatified, and few people were familiar with him. But I knew his story well, mainly because he had lived the remainder of his life in my diocese. So I cried out a silent plea: “Please help me.” And I was instantly flooded with peace.
Everything that happened thereafter was relayed to me by the medical personnel in the operating room as “miraculous.” But the true testament of my faith was tried after Sarah arrived. Living my Lent had only begun.
Once the news traveled throughout our small community of family and friends, Ben received a message from a couple we’d known for a few years who had become dear friends. They were distributing Holy Communion at the hospital where Sarah was born and asked if we wanted them to stop by so that we could receive. It was then I realized, It’s Holy Week. Today is Palm Sunday. We graciously accepted their invitation.
Noah and Ruth arrived and saw us holding Sarah. She looked as if she had been in a battle: bruises on her face where I’d tried to deliver her through the birth canal; a smashed nose, buggy eyes, a protruding forehead, and mitten hands. Tears welled in Ruth’s eyes, which I noted was a rarity.
She began reading from Isaiah 43: “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In the wilderness I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers”(18-19). She paused and said, “Jeannie, I feel like God is speaking this directly to you right now. This is about your life.”
From that point on, I understood that Lent isn’t just a liturgical season that comes around once a year to help us discipline ourselves in ways we’ve forgotten the rest of the year. It’s a way of life, or at least it’s meant to be for us all. When Jesus commanded, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24), He meant that Lent was supposed to change us permanently – metanoia. That’s what happened to me the year Sarah was born: Lent came alive and has never left my life since.