Catherine and Daniel McNealy recently baptized Benjamin Leslie McNealy in worship. The joy of this occasion was unmatched because of the struggles leading up to this day. Read Catherine's story, and remember God always makes way for hope.
It was five years ago this month, at 4 am on a weekday before work, I first saw those two pink lines. I couldn't believe it. We'd only been trying for two months but here they were. I immediately pulled out my phone to calculate my due date. July baby! Summer! Perfect! Then the best moment, I woke Daniel up to tell him he was going to be a daddy. And I cried tears of joy. We'd been together for three years, married over a year, and it seemed like the best timing. We were so incredibly happy. Nervous, but happy. Before the end of November, however, it would be all over and I would be in shock.
When a woman has her first miscarriage, it blows her completely away. It's like a first heartbreak. You cannot understand the pain until it happens, and there is no frame of reference in your life for dealing with the emotions that come with it. I felt empty and betrayed. I took two weeks off work to wallow in my grief. When the testing came back to tell us it had been a girl, a part of me died inside. The princess we wanted seemed to have been stolen away.
There was also another feeling, again common among those who have had a miscarriage, I wanted to get pregnant again, as quickly as possible. My doctors assured me I could try again. That one in five women suffer a miscarriage and I really had no reason to be apprehensive. With a mountain of grief still on my back, we tried again and in late January, I saw those two pink lines again. Another quick check of my pregnancy app told me this one would be coming in early November. Roughly two weeks after my younger sister was due. Perfect timing again!
I was not prepared for the anxiety which comes with pregnancy after loss. It consumed me. Each day seemed like torture as I waited for my first sonogram. At seven weeks we went in. The baby was measuring a week behind. Totally normal they told me, but I had an empty pit in my stomach. The next week the heartbeat was slow and the baby wasn't growing. In another week, it was gone altogether. I want to say I was shocked, but I wasn't. I'd had a sick feeling for weeks and while I prayed for a miracle, my heart already knew this was not going to end well. Still I was devastated. I'd told Daniel twice he would be a dad and now, for the second time, I had to take it back.
Test after test followed with a number of diagnoses on why this was happening to us. The doctors I had at the time only added to the trauma of the situation with their cold bedside manner. I was rocked completely off my foundation. Daniel, my strength through it all, was shaken. We had grown closer through the sadness, but we were both hurting. With a heavy heart, after a year of trying and testing and two failed pregnancies, we put our plans on hold. We decided to focus on the present and get to a better place before trying again.
I made a vow to get myself healthy. To push my body to perform in ways it never had before and perhaps, by overcoming those challenges, I could overcome this as well. I picked up running. Very slowly at first, but then I became obsessed with it. Training for races brought me a great deal of peace. Every mile I ran, my mind was focused on only one goal, to eventually try for another pregnancy and to be successful. So many early mornings I’d run, before the neighborhood was awake, and in the quiet of the dawn, I'd think about what we'd lost. I did my best to heal my heart as I conditioned my body.
In the summer of 2016, we decided it was time again. Time to face that impossible task. We had moved and I'd found a great doctor. One who vowed to be in partnership with us as we tried again. I promised her I'd do everything she told me, so we could try one last time.
The first month in, there I was, staring at those two pink lines again. Relief and joy… and then, the anxiety. But I had every reason to believe this would be different. We had a plan. A great doctor. The medication I needed.
Seven weeks in, a sonogram confirmed what we'd been suspecting with blood tests. This would be another unsuccessful pregnancy. My third miscarriage in a row.
But what about our perfect plans?
Hadn’t we anticipated every outcome?
Unlike the first two, this was a dud. No heartbeat. No baby really. Only a mass of cells which triggered just enough pregnancy hormone to trick us into excitement.
My grief was different this time. There wasn't a lost heartbeat. Merely a terrible illusion of what could have been. A fluke. It could happen to anyone. And yet, it happened to us. Our first time trying after the losses and here we were again.
Still Dr. B was confident we could be successful. That despite all indications from the past, my body was capable of achieving this goal. But we wanted to be cautious. I had several procedures this time. And we ran a myriad of tests looking for any other possible cause that we could head off before trying again.
When nothing else presented itself, I agreed with Daniel and Dr. B to try.
One. Last. Time.
I also found my way to a grief counselor to help me finally deal with the bottled-up pain of losing the first two pregnancies and the frustration of losing this one as well. H was as much a Godsend as Dr. B.
She helped me work through the overwhelmingly complicated mess of emotions I'd had about loss, and the anxiety of putting myself through this again.
For a fourth time, on December 17, 2016, I found myself in our bathroom in the predawn hours, staring at a test with two pink lines. And I didn't even have to wake Daniel up. He was already up with me and knew as soon as I did that we were pregnant again. This time we would be different. No early blood tests. No obsessing over a million pregnancy tests. I prayed for peace through the process, and we went on with our lives. August would be a long way off and I wasn’t going to get ahead of myself this time.
Daniel took me skiing for the first time in January (with Dr. B's permission of course). The few who knew I was pregnant, thought I was crazy. But I was only six weeks along. And I'd been six weeks along before.
I was no longer going to put my life on pause and hold my breath waiting for an uncertain outcome. We saw Dr. B again for a seven-week sonogram and there IT was. Measuring perfect. Great heartbeat. I cried and she held my hand. She agreed to do another scan in two weeks. After all, we'd seen seven weeks before and we'd seen a heartbeat before. I needed more reassurance.
Two weeks later, the baby was as strong as ever and growing.
And there it was.
The thing missing in our lives for several years. Hope. But a broken heart doesn’t hope easily. It's cautious and scared. All the coping mechanics I learned with H couldn't quite overcome the worry of the first few weeks and months. However, hope has a way of creeping in, through the fear.
Through the heartache.
Through the anxiety.
We went to the doctor. A lot. Dr. B was my primary OBGYN. But I also saw Dr. A, a perinatologist whose main goal was to monitor the baby. With the tests and sonograms pointing to a good outcome, we did a private gender reveal with my best friend and her husband around twelve weeks. Made possible with early DNA testing. We opted for an exploding baseball. Daniel took a swing and… Blue! A son. My son.
Our boy. Identifying him as such made my heart long even more for him. I cried and prayed and promised to do all I could to get him here.
The pregnancy wasn't easy. Emotionally I fought through all the pain of the previous losses and through the doubt about this one. I had to take extra hormones all throughout the first trimester. And give myself daily injections for the entire pregnancy. I had more appointments then I could count.
At 26 weeks I was also diagnosed with gestational diabetes. With it came four finger sticks a day and a very controlled diet to keep us healthy. But my little bug and I soldiered on. We were determined to make it to August. Determined to meet each other. Determined to overcome the sorrow that had been pregnancy and embrace it for what it would now be.
Ben was born on Friday, August 18. A little guy at only 6lbs 4oz but he was perfect in all ways. He came out screaming and healthy. Daniel got to help deliver him and cried immediately. The weight of the years lifted off his shoulders as he placed our new baby on me. A single tear fell down my cheek.
A tinge of pain and sorrow and remembrance for what we'd lost overcame me in that first moment. As much as my heart was full of love, Ben's place was never to replace what we'd lost. There I was with my new baby, reflecting on the ones who didn't make it.
My greatest love and my greatest heartache all combined in one single moment.
Miscarriage is a part of our story. It's a part of who I am. I love more because I've lost. I'm vulnerable in ways now that I had not been before. I am more empathetic. I am open about my story in the hopes of helping others. But I hold very tightly to my village of close friends and family who have supported Daniel and I along the way. I would do anything for my son and someday he will know this story.
It's a story of sadness but also a story of great love. Our love for him. Daniel's love for me. The love with which we have been surrounded in the last five years. My love for all women who suffer such losses.
Ben hasn't healed my broken heart. That isn't his job. No child can take the place of another. But we go on despite our losses and continue to live in the light and the love originally felt in the darkest times.
I cannot ask for anything more.