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Oct14FriA Salvation Army family's journey with infertility, infant loss and adoption. October 14, 2016 by Kristin Ostensen
"You have a one percent chance of ever getting pregnant.” Captain Shannon Howard sat in stunned silence as she struggled to process the fertility specialist's words. After three years of trying unsuccessfully to conceive, she and her husband, Captain Jeff Howard, had gone into the appointment feeling hopeful.
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“It took a long time for us to get an appointment, so there was all this build-up,” she says. “We would finally find out what was going on and what we could do to fix it.”
With one sentence, the doctor crushed those hopes. They were infertile.
“I couldn't wait to get out of the room,” Shannon recalls. “We went out to the car, and I cried and cried and cried.
“Up until that point, we just thought it was going to take a little longer. And he basically told us that it would never happen for us, and that was hard. Really hard.”
Trying to Conceive
Recounting their story at their home in Toronto eight years later, Shannon and Jeff still remember that day with emotion. “It was heartbreaking,” says Shannon.
It would turn out to be the first of many sorrows on their journey to becoming parents.
Growing up, Shannon had always wanted to be a mom. “I used to joke that getting married was just a means to getting kids,” she smiles. “But when I was 16, I felt like the Lord told me that I would not be able to have kids easily, and that always stuck with me.”
Though roughly 16 percent of couples in Canada (or 1 in 6) experience infertility, it never occurred to Jeff that they could have trouble conceiving. “I just expected it to happen,” he says.
The Howards, who are currently corps officers at North Toronto Community Church, entered training college in 2002 and started trying to conceive shortly before commissioning in 2004. “That was back when we thought we were in control,” Jeff says with a wry smile.
“The first year of trying is by far the worst,” says Shannon. “You expect it to happen every single month.”
Jeff and Shannon were in their early 20s when they started trying, so they weren't too concerned when it didn't happen right away. But after one year turned into two, they began to worry that something was wrong.
“The first year of trying is by far the worst. You expect it to happen every single month.”
They went to their family doctor first, and Shannon began taking Clomid, a medication that increases ovulation. “I called them 'crazy pills' because they mess with your hormones like you wouldn't believe,” she says. “It was awful. I used to apologize to Jeff all the time. 'I'm so sorry your wife has gone away. She'll come back some day.' ”
They also underwent testing and found out that they had male factor infertility. Cognizant of how infertility can drive couples apart, they faced the news with a united front.
“We approached it as an issue that we had together,” says Jeff.
“We decided that no matter what came back, no matter who the issue was with, or if it was both of us, we're married, we're one, and so the problem is both of ours,” Shannon adds.
Nevertheless, the fertility specialist's diagnosis changed them.
“Over time, it became who we were: We were the infertile couple,” says Shannon. “I don't think a day went by that I didn't think, I just want a baby.”
“For a long time I tried to ignore it,” Jeff admits. “I didn't want to deal with it. There was lots to think about—we were in our first appointment, finding our way in ministry and establishing ourselves in our marriage. I tried to push it to the side.”
But Shannon could tell it wasn't working. “He went from being great with kids to being standoffish,” she recalls.
“Looking back now, I can see what it was: they represented what was wrong in my life and so I backed off,” Jeff says.
After that specialist appointment, the Howards started looking into adoption. Living in High River, Alta., at the time, they attended an information session with Alberta's child and family services.
“We both went in skeptical that this was what God wanted us to do,” Shannon says, “but when we came out, we looked at each other and said, 'That's exactly what we need.' ”
Not long after that information session, they were appointed to Whitehorse and registered with Yukon's family and children's services when they moved. They quickly discovered that the adoption process would be long and complex.
“Sometimes, when you're dealing with infertility, people say 'just adopt' as if it were as easy as going down to the orphan store, but it's definitely not like that,” says Jeff. The application process involves an extensive home study and a six-week parenting course. “And even after you complete the process, it's still just 'maybe.' ”
Starting the paperwork in 2009, their application took a full year. Their social worker conducted interviews with Shannon and Jeff, as well as their families, covering all aspects of their background, along with medical and police checks. In July 2010, the Howards found out they were “paper pregnant”: they were officially on the list to adopt a child.
Once they were on the list, things moved quickly. In August, they received word that they had been chosen to adopt a toddler in Alberta.
“While we were in Alberta at the end of August, we were allowed to go and visit the foster family and meet our 'son,' ” Shannon recalls. “He was so beautiful—I was in love.” With blue eyes and blonde hair, the boy even looked a bit like Jeff.
They began preparing their home for the boy, whom they expected to arrive early in October. “I can't describe how excited we were,” says Shannon. “Finally, after seven years of praying for a child, our dream was coming true.
“I would sit in his room and dream of all the things we would do with him—the places we would take him, the activities we would do,” she continues. “I couldn't wait to sit in his room and watch him sleep and hear him call me 'Mom.' ”
But on September 14, all of that excitement evaporated. A manager who needed to sign off on the adoption decided that policy was not followed and put a stop to the adoption.
“That was the hardest thing through our entire journey—even worse than the miscarriages that would follow,” Shannon says. “It was absolutely devastating because we had met him, we had hugged him and kissed him.”
“It was a very dark time for us,” remembers Jeff. “It didn't make any sense. Why was this happening?”
“That set me on a year of soul searching,” says Shannon. “It rocked my faith because I was so sure that this was what God had planned for us. Up until this point, I was confident of God's work in our life. I didn't know how to deal with this. It's always hard when you're in the midst of it; it's really isolating.”
Though she didn't feel it at the time, looking back, Shannon can see how God was still working in her life. “Even when I couldn't pray, he was there. Even when I couldn't understand, and I was so frustrated and sad, he didn't abandon me.”
“I remained convinced that God was in control, and that he would turn it into something, sometime,” adds Jeff.
After the adoption loss, Shannon and Jeff began trying to conceive again. In the new year, they also started discussing in vitro fertilization (IVF), a process by which an egg is fertilized by sperm outside the body in a laboratory.
“IVF is not something to be taken lightly,” says Shannon. “We believe that the moment egg and sperm meet, that's a life, that's a human being that we need to protect.”
After much prayer, the Howards felt they had God's blessing to go ahead, as long as they used all of the embryos that were created. They flew to Vancouver in June 2012 to undergo the procedure and ended up with seven viable embryos, two of which were implanted during Shannon's first transfer.
When she took a pregnancy test a few weeks later, she saw the two lines she had been waiting for. “This was it—we were pregnant,” she says. “After all these years, we were going to have a baby.” Jeff bought Shannon a t-shirt that said “Finally!” and they announced the good news on her blog.
But as before, their joy was short-lived: Shannon miscarried at six weeks. They went back to the clinic to do another transfer, and Shannon became pregnant. But like the first, she miscarried at six weeks. “That's when it hit me that, once again, this was not going to work for us,” she recalls. “I remember thinking, Why would I have thought it would?”
Along with the physical pain of miscarrying, Shannon's grief was extended by what are known as “marker babies.”
“That happens when your friends get pregnant at the same time, and they go on to have a baby,” she explains. “All of my pregnancies have a marker baby, and so even today, whenever I see those children, I think, My babies would be that age now. That's really tough.”
On the third transfer, Shannon did not get pregnant. “It's just as hard,” she says. “Maybe you don't have the physical part of it, but this embryo, this life that we loved, died.”
In December 2013, Shannon received an unexpected e-mail. A young woman that they had known in Alberta had become pregnant and did not feel that she could raise the child. “She asked if we would be interested in adopting him,” Shannon smiles.
Because of their relationship with the woman, Shannon felt hopeful. But after multiple disappointments, Jeff was skeptical. “It wasn't that I didn't want to do it,” he says. “I thought, That sounds great, but we'll see.”
The mother ended up delivering a few weeks before the due date, catching the Howards by surprise.
“We're in Whitehorse, she's in Alberta, and we get this phone call: the baby's coming tonight,” Shannon recalls. “All of a sudden, I'm in a panic: how do we get to Alberta in time? Because I really wanted to be there when he was born.”
They arrived in the middle of the night, seven hours after the baby was born. “It was surreal,” Shannon says. “When we walked into the hospital, I thought, Is this all going to fall through? Because up till then, everything always had.
“But I walked into the room, and she said, 'Would you like to hold your son?' ”
It had been 10 years since she and Jeff first started trying to conceive. “All my dreams, all those years, was for that one moment,” she recalls tearfully. “And that was it. He was ours.” They named him Grayson Charlie James.
For Jeff, the realization that he was finally a father came the next day. “We took part in his care—feeding him and changing his diapers and stuff—and started talking with the doctors about some of the things that they wanted to do, and that's when it clicked: when we went back to Whitehorse, there would be three of us.”
After they adopted Grayson, Shannon had another embryo implanted as the Howards still had three remaining. “We got pregnant and it was our healthiest so far, right up until six weeks,” says Shannon, “and then just like that, we ended up miscarrying.”
Through their losses, the Howards are grateful that they've been able to rely on their church community for support, as well as the online community Hannah's Prayer (hannah.org), a Christian forum for infertility and loss. But Shannon acknowledges that not every parent is so fortunate. “Christians sometimes have this attitude of, 'If you trust God, then you shouldn't be sad.' So you hide all your sadness and the church becomes this place where you can't share what's going on in your life, when it should be the one place you can.”
“Churches need to be intentional about asking those people, 'How can we support you?' ” adds Jeff.
As part of their healing process, the Howards have named each of their lost children—Zane, Esme, Gabriel and Maria—and remember their due dates. “From the moment you see those lines on a pregnancy test, they're your baby,” Shannon says.
Acknowledging that is an important part of supporting a family that has experienced infant loss, she notes. “That was the biggest thing for us—having people recognize with us that these babies were real.”
Since adopting Grayson, the Howards have had another child come to them through social services. They have custody of her, but the adoption is still in process.
“After this long journey, here we are with two and I couldn't imagine not having them,” Shannon says. “When you're in the midst of it, it can be hard to see where God is, or how he's working. But deep down, I always knew that God's plan was better than mine. And no matter what, he would be there.”