By Christine Leigh
“Isn’t that the birth control that acts like an abortion?”
My mother’s question buzzed over the phone line. I pictured her expression — the corners of her mouth drawn down, her eyebrows furrowed.
Terrified About Having a Baby
Why had I told her about my IUD? Moments earlier, I’d walked out of the doctor’s office relieved — birth control would be one less hassle to deal with. Now I had to defend my decision.
“Does the exact mechanism of the birth control matter?” I wasn’t convinced abortion itself was wrong. I launched into a tangential tirade. If a woman wasn’t ready to be a mother…or worse, if she learned her child would suffer from serious health or mental problems…
My heart lurched and I trailed off. I was terrified by the thought of raising a child with special needs. Responsible for providing care…constantly aware of my child’s struggles…unable to fix his or her pain…
“I can’t talk right now, mom — I’m getting on a bus.” I ended the call before my thoughts could spiral any further.
The imaginary bus pulled away and I started walking. It was a brisk summer day, and my apartment wasn’t far. A few minutes later I stopped. Why had I let her question get under my skin? I thumbed through the contacts on my phone. I could use some company, and a drink.
Afraid of Pain
I hovered my finger over a friend’s name. Last time I saw her she was reeling from a painful breakup. I’d sat with her, put a light hand on her knee, and cringed at my useless words. “It’s going to get better with time…”
Then and now, her pain dug into my chest. My inability to do anything helpful dragged at me. Helplessness ballooned into an overwhelming urge to run.
Another reason I didn’t want kids: even a healthy child couldn’t be protected from emotional pain. As a parent, you were stuck — tethered to their pain — for life.
I shoved my phone back into my pocket and kept walking.
Months later I sat with another friend on her porch. I looked down at my hands, then out at the street. A dead leaf fluttered to the ground. Was I going to sound crazy, trying to describe my recent feelings?
I took a breath and let out a stream of thoughts. My life was good…everything was fine but I didn’t feel fine. I’d always thought the purpose of life was to steer clear of pain, grab hold of as much happiness as possible…I’d done that — the steering clear, at least — where was the happiness that was supposed to follow?
My friend listened, eyes wide with understanding. Then she asked — Had I considered talking to God?
I stared. Since when did she believe in God?
She went on. She’d felt something similar a few months ago. She’d started praying, something she hadn’t done since childhood. It had helped a lot.
I listened, my mind reeling. Prayer was irrational; Christianity was a relic of the past but my friend, she wasn’t irrational.
I can’t remember what I said in response, but her question stayed with me like a candle. The flame made me nervous, but I was drawn to the hopeful light it cast.
In the spring I moved into a small studio apartment. I needed a change of scenery, some privacy. I didn’t want to explain to my former housemate why books on Christian apologetics kept arriving from Amazon or why I slipped out onto the deck in the morning to pore over a paperback Bible.
Visiting a Catholic Church
Next to my new building was an old Catholic Church. It beckoned with a quiet beauty ; the dusky pink exterior and the musky scent of incense within.
One day I slipped inside toward the end of a service. At the center of the altar stood a life-size Crucifix. Arms splayed, body limp and bloodied, head hanging to one side — this was the image of God they chose to display? Tortured, suffering?
The parishioners rose and knelt and crossed themselves; I sat immobile, trying to reconcile the pain of the Crucifix with the calm of the chanting tones and sturdy wooden pews. At the end of the service, I walked out the broad doors, ushered by the final floating notes of the closing hymn.
My mind whirled, but my body was swathed in a delicate shawl of peace.
By summer I was seated in the church every Sunday. Slowly, I was making sense of the teachings I’d once dismissed. If I believed in this God, if trusted in His teachings and if He “knit me in my mother’s womb”…
I went back to the doctor and tried to explain to the nurse why I wanted my IUD removed long before its expiration date. Was I trying to get pregnant? No. Was it causing me any pain? Um, no not really. I searched for the right words and fumbled out “new religious belief” and cringed at how irrational I sounded.
I wanted to tell her that the idea of having kids still scared me. I wasn’t ready to be a parent tomorrow, but no, I didn’t need an alternative form of contraception. I’d put dating and everything that prompted me to get the device in the first place on hold while I sorted out these new beliefs.
I couldn’t explain it under the harsh lights and her wary gaze, but I didn’t doubt my decision.
Two years later I was baptized and confirmed into the Catholic Church. I’d identified as a Christian for years but was I really living out my faith? Part of the faith meant serving others in need. How often did I do that?
Not very often. It still scared me to be around people who were hurting.
Facing My Fear by Volunteering
I found a crisis hotline and signed up as a volunteer responder. It was perfect and terrifying because I’d be talking to people in desperate situations.
At the start of each shift, my hands would shake. I wasn’t the one dealing with the abuse, poverty, loneliness of the people on the other end of the line, but still , “What if I couldn’t find the right words?”
I’d say a quick prayer, “Lord, give me wisdom, empathy, and courage”.
One night I spoke to a woman fending off an abusive ex-boyfriend, struggling to scrape enough money for rent and she was pregnant.
I inhaled and my heart rate quickened. I was supposed to stay neutral when it came to her options but I’d adopted the Catholic stance on abortion that all life should be defended. I trusted in the Church’s teachings…
And yet, a small, hidden part of me sometimes asked: all life? Maybe abortion could be justified under some circumstances when it could prevent so much pain.
I sidestepped. “Where do you find the strength to get through each day?”
She replied. “My baby; I gotta stay strong for him.”
I exhaled and breathed in the warmth of her statement. All I’d heard in her story was the potential for hardship but she saw her baby as a source of hope. Maybe I still had a ways to go in my understanding of pain.
Married and Pregnant
In June 2019, I knelt in the pews of another church.
One year earlier I’d gotten married and moved to the suburbs. Six months after that, I woke up with a hope that turned to thrill at the sight of a blue ‘+’ on a plastic test. Now I tried to concentrate on the words of the Mass, but my thoughts kept darting back to my last doctor’s appointment. Your baby is measuring a bit small. Let’s schedule an ultrasound to make sure everything is alright.
Make sure everything is alright? What might be wrong? I’d Googled “baby measuring small” — now the results flashed in my mind. Placental abruption, brain damage…
I focused my eyes on the altar stop my spiraling thoughts. Below and to the left of the Crucified Jesus was a smaller statue — Mary, Mother of God. Mary stood with her hands together in prayer, her eyes cast down, her mouth arcing gently up.
Mary, hands clasped in prayer; her son, hanging limp on the Cross.
Mary couldn’t prevent her son’s pain. She suffered when she watched Him die, but she never stopped trusting God.
A wave of peace washed over me. I looked over at my husband, and he squeezed my hand. We too trusted God. Whatever lay ahead, He’d help us through it.
Four months later I lay beside my infant son. I stroked his head, watched the rise and fall of his tiny chest. My heart swelled with the rhythmic hush of his breathing.
So beautiful…it almost hurt to look for too long. It was my job to take care of him…the most intimidating yet wonderful responsibility I’d ever had. He was safe and healthy at my side…but I couldn’t keep him there forever. Someday I’d have to watch him struggle…I wouldn’t always be able to fix his pain…
I leaned over and kissed his forehead.
Lord, thank you for my baby. I won’t ask that you protect him from all pain; I’m learning that pain isn’t always the enemy. Instead, teach him to trust in the value of life — even when it’s painful. So that as a result, he may always be guided by love, not fear.