For a long time, Connie Poulos did not read Humanae Vitae because she was afraid it would be painful as someone who struggles with infertility. It was only when she was recently asked to read the document for her work as a digital media specialist at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that she finally cracked open the pages.

Poulos was born without a uterus due to MRKH, a disorder affecting about one in 5,000 female births. She found this out when she was 16, but knew right away that she would not pursue the alternative options for motherhood that the doctor provided her with – such as In vitro fertilization and surrogacy – because of the Catholic Church’s teaching that procreation should not be separated from the sexual union of a married couple.

At the time, she was at peace with the news, because she was discerning religious life and felt that her ability to have children was most likely irrelevant. But as she continued to grow older and decided not to enter religious life, the reality of infertility became harder for her and she began to grapple with what it meant.

Poulos dug deeper into the theology behind the reasons why she could not pursue biological motherhood through other means. She understood the Church teachings but said she “didn’t really feel them.” Ultimately, she decided to trust the Church, even though she didn’t agree with it.

When she got married to her husband, James, in 2013, she said her belief in the teaching was reaffirmed, because she saw “what we have is so beautiful, that I don’t want anything to mess with that.”

Now, Poulos and her husband bear the cross of infertility together. Though they grieve in different ways, they support each other through the difficult times, which she said often come with little milestones in their lives, such as the 9 month mark after their wedding or the first time a couple who got married after them announced a pregnancy.

“We’ve been able to help each other; been able to lift each other up when its hard,” said Poulos.

After many years of struggling to understand her identity as a woman in light of her infertility, Poulos went into Confession and said that she was ready to give up trying to figure out who she was. When she did so, the priest told her, “You are His Daughter.”

“That was when God really started to fix my broken heart,” she said.

Now, Poulos said she has seen how God is working in her life through the cross of infertility.

“God uses our crosses to sanctify us and make us holy,” she said. “When things are broken, He makes it better than it was before…the beauty of our faith is that the cross is not the end of our story. There is always the resurrection.”

Though they will not be having biological children, Poulos said she and her husband still live out the two fold unitive and procreative purpose of married love as defined in Humanae Vitae, and they see how God is making their love fruitful through things like being aunts and uncles and “being able to be there when we are needed.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Spouses to whom God has not granted children can nevertheless have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms. Their marriage can radiate a fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality, and of sacrifice.”

Those three fruits of charity, hospitality and sacrifice permeate the lives of the Pouloses, especially through participation in their parish, St. Mary of the Mills in Laurel.

A few years ago, Poulos asked God to tell her what she was holding back from Him, and sensed that He was responding to her by saying, “your time.”

Shortly afterward, she reconnected with the choir directors at St. Mary of the Mills, where she had gone in high school while attending St. Vincent Pallotti High School across the street. They told her that they needed choir members, and asked her to join.

While her first instinct was to say “no” because it was a big time commitment, she remembered her time in prayer, and said, “yes” instead.

In this way, she has become open to God working in her life, just as all couples are called to be open to where God is calling them, she said. Poulos later volunteered to do social media for the parish, which ended up leading her to her current job as a digital media specialist at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Since then, she and her husband have become more involved in the parish, and have hosted the youth group in their home. Poulos even spent a week in Georgia with the parish’s youth group, and she said she came back feeling like “my heart had been stretched.”

The Pouloses seriously considered adoption about two years into their marriage, but had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right, so they decided not to go through with the process. Poulos said she eventually realized that they had been moving forward with the adoption process because it had always been their plan, but they did not do any discernment to ask God about His plan beforehand.

“At the end of the day, the point of the faith journey is being open to where God leads us,” she said.

Now, they are still open to adopting someday, but plan to wait until they feel that God is leading them in that direction.

Poulos said it can sometimes still be difficult facing the struggle of infertility as a Catholic, when many people say that the only purpose of marriage is having children.

“Sometimes it feels like there is a club in Catholicism that you aren’t a part of,” she said, noting that many Catholics with infertility feel that the Church doesn’t see them, because it often focuses on supporting newlyweds and families, which are both categories they do not fit into after being married for a few years.

“It is tempting to think your marriage is less valuable, but that is a lie,” said Poulos. “God has a plan for all marriages, and that doesn’t go out the window if you can’t have children.”

Through trusting that God has a plan even if it isn’t the one they had wanted, Poulos said she has been amazed by the many things God has placed in their lives. She has helped to plan the Archdiocese of Washington’s Day of Hope and Healing for those struggling with infertility and miscarriage, writes a blog about her experiences, and is a member of a Facebook group for Catholics dealing with infertility, all of which have helped her to make friends who are in similar situations to her.

“Infertility is a long haul. No matter where you are, it is easy to think there are only two ways this can turn happy: you have a baby or adopt a baby,” said Poulos. “But if you open your heart and let him, God can show you a whole new life.”