Ann Koshute struggled with infertility for a number of years. Through periods of treatments, hope, disappointment and grief, she shared her struggles with very few people outside of her husband, parents and sibling.
“A lot of that was because I felt ashamed, I felt embarrassed that we were unable to conceive. I felt less of a woman, less of a wife. I wondered if God was punishing me. I was confused, I was hurt, I was angry, I was sad,” she said.
“It was very frustrating and very spiritually, emotionally and physically difficult, and I didn’t talk about it with anyone, outside of my family and a couple of really close girlfriends.”
And then, by design, she was reconnected with a former classmate at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Kimberly Henkel. She too was struggling with infertility. Koshute and Henkel talked with each other about their hopes, their disappointments, their trials and their grief, and then did something to help others in their shoes. They co-founded a Catholic ministry dedicated to those struggling with infertility: Springs in the Desert.
It is estimated that one in eight couples struggle with getting or staying pregnant. Springs in the Desert accompanies women and men in this struggle by offering a place of respite and solidarity where they can know God’s love and discover His unique call to fruitfulness.
Springs in the Desert is rooted in the anthropology, ethics and spirituality of the Catholic Church, and offers resources, community and opportunities to gather for prayer, reflection and support.
“The mission of Springs in the Desert is to be a place of accompaniment and support,” said Koshute.
Its website, www.springsinthedesert.org, is an oasis of resources and links, invitations to virtual retreats and in-person small groups, reflections, blogs and podcasts.
“We are here to acknowledge and walk with those who are struggling with infertility, wherever they are on the path,” Koshute said. “Whether you’re at the very beginning and you’re just finding out that you’re having trouble conceiving; if you’ve been at this for a while and you’re just getting tired; or if you’re starting to move on to a new horizon in your life, we want to be there to walk with you.”
Acknowledging the Loss
“The desire to be a wife and a mother is so beautiful and given to us by God, and that is why infertility is so devastating for those who experience it,” said Caroline Gindhart, a nurse practitioner at UPMC Divine Mercy Women’s Health and a NaPro Technology medical consultant.
As a practitioner trained in the Creighton Model FertilityCare System, she sees first-hand the challenges couples face when trying to conceive and understands the importance of treating each woman’s infertility in an individual and holistic way.
“We recognize in NaPro Technology that infertility is a symptom of an underlying disease. It’s not a disease in and of itself,” Gindhart said.
Common causes include polycystic ovary syndrome (or PCOS), endometriosis, and anatomical issues. NaPro Technology works with a woman’s body and menstrual cycle to treat the cause of infertility in a way that is in line with the Church’s moral teaching. It often employs supplements, special diets or surgery, as in the case of endometriosis.
“We work to treat the patient in a holistic way, and it’s so beautiful,” Gindhart said. “Women need to be understood and listened to, and we try to create a treatment plan that is unique to them.”
“It’s very beautiful and healing,” she said of this healthcare model. “A lot of patients come to us because they have had friends or family members healed emotionally through what NaPro Technology offers,” she said.
Still, that doesn’t always guarantee treatments will be successful, or even easy.
“Couples go through a lot of emotions and thoughts at different parts of the cycle and different parts of the treatment process,” Gindhart said. “They’ll feel anxious and pressured at the time of fertility… and anxious when waiting to take the pregnancy test…. If the woman doesn’t get pregnant, there is guilt, wondering if she didn’t eat cleanly enough or take all her supplements. When they get their period, there is a lot of despair and grief after putting so much work into their cycle, and they mourn the loss of not becoming pregnant.”
The loss and grief of not conceiving a child is important to acknowledge, Koshute said.
“Infertility is not just a challenge or a difficulty, but something that we really grieve,” she remarked. “For so long, I had resisted that notion because I hadn’t been pregnant myself. I thought, ‘Well, I haven’t lost anything, so I have no right to grieve.’ But that’s not true. This is a real loss in our lives.”
Morning of Prayer and Reflection
With the support of the Diocesan Secretariat for Catholic Life and Evangelization, Springs in the Desert is welcoming individuals and couples struggling with infertility to a morning of prayer and reflection on March 27 at the Diocesan Conference Center in Harrisburg.
Entitled “Hope in a Season of Infertility,” the gathering offers an opportunity for those who are experiencing infertility to come together in a spirit of support, prayer and community. The morning will begin at 9 a.m., and Bishop Ronald Gainer will celebrate Mass for those gathered.
“Hope in a Season of Infertility” will also include a presentation by Gindhart on “Caring for Your Mind, Body and Heart;” a session by Koshute on “Fruitful in Every Season,” and a witness talk by spouses Sydnee and Bren Blackburn on “Living in Hope during Infertility.”
“The message of hope is central to the Springs mission, and my first contact with Springs in the Desert provided an abundance of that virtue – not necessarily ‘the hope’ that I would soon be pregnant, but the more durable hope in God’s goodness and the assurance that all things work together for good,” Sydnee Blackburn said.
She first connected with the ministry after Koshute noticed Sydnee’s blog in 2020 about her and her husband’s journey with infertility and treatments.
Blackburn’s first encounter with Springs in the Desert was via a Zoom meeting with three women in the ministry, and it impacted her in a visceral way.
“During the beginning of our conversation, we were sharing our ‘how we got here stories’ and I was struck by a sense of belonging,” said Blackburn, a member of St. Ignatius of Loyola Parish in Sinking Spring, Pa., and a frequent attendee with the Mater Dei Latin Mass Community in Harrisburg.
“These women knew the emotions, the fears, the hopes, the joys and everything about this diagnosis that I had never been able to share with anyone, aside from my husband of course. And yet they all radiated joy! It was powerful and helped me greatly, both in knowing I wasn’t alone as well as encouraging me to keep living joyfully in hope,” she said.
For Blackburn, connecting with a Catholic community during this journey was a lifeline.
“You really have to have a Catholic network for infertility,” she said. “Medically, there are so many common ‘fixes’ that go against Catholic morality. Spiritually, it is vital to have a common understanding of the value of suffering; without that mindset, infertility would be a hopeless and unbearable cross. So that’s why a Catholic community is important while the community aspect is arguably the most important gain. Infertility can be such an isolating journey which makes finding a strong support center absolutely necessary.”
That’s what Springs in the Desert offers, and why those involved in the ministry hope that individuals and couples reach out for spiritual and emotional support.
Koshute said the morning of prayer and reflection on March 27 is an opportunity for anyone struggling with infertility.
“Whether you are just starting out and are actively trying to conceive, whether you’re taking a break, or whether you’re entering into menopause or past childbearing years, we want to invite you to come,” she said. “We often have women come to us who are in their late 50s and early 60s and still mourn the fact that they weren’t able to have children. This is not something that is just for the millennial set trying to get pregnant. Wounds can be carried, sometimes for many years, if we haven’t had friends or support or accompaniment.”
“We also want this gathering to be an opportunity to invite people into our community, to be supported by Springs in the Desert … to know that you are supported and you have people to walk along this path with you, and to know that you are not alone,” she said.
“Infertility can isolate. It makes us feel like we’re alone. It makes us feel so radically ‘other.’ That’s not what the Church wants for us, that’s not what Christ made us for. He made us for communion, for family and for friendship,” Koshute said. “The Church loves us; we know that She walks with us and believes that our marriages are good and that they are fruitful just as they are.”
Learn more about the ministry, resources, support and gatherings offered through Springs in the Desert at www.springsinthedesert.org. Information and registration for the “Hope in a Season of Infertility” morning of prayer and reflection is available at www.springsinthedesert.org/hope.
Hear more from Ann Koshute and Caroline Gindhart on the Diocese of Harrisburg’s “Candid Catholic Convos” podcast, where they speak with host Rachel Troche about the loneliness of infertility and offer advice for those supporting loved ones on the journey. The podcast episode will be available for download on Spotify beginning Sunday, March 6; search “Candid Catholic Convos” on the Spotify app.
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness