God’s Will in Our Fertility and Family Size

I read an article yesterday that gave me pause. Not only because it is morally ambiguous, but because it brings into question whether or not we should cross certain lines. I don’t want to wade into the moral debate right now and I know which theologians I side with in the debate. It made me think about my struggles with secondary infertility and miscarriage. It has been a long and excruciatingly painful road, but it’s been a road of great grace and growth as well.

Motherhood is deeply engrained in women. It is one of the reasons it is so vehemently attacked in our culture as the culture unhinges itself from reality. There are some women who say they don’t want children, but I’d wager the reasons are complicated and a lot of the time selfish. We have been told that our careers are more important than anything else. No, human beings are more important and being a mother changes us at the deepest levels of reality. It forces us to look hard at ourselves and see where we need to grow and change. It teaches us how to love sacrificially, which hurts. It’s meant to because only love that hurts is real love.

This Cross is a painful one for women and men who carry it. I’ve lost four babies in miscarriage and I have multiple friends who also have had miscarriages or not been able to conceive any children. There’s something about being a Catholic who can’t “be fruitful and multiply” that causes an even deeper pain. We constantly hear about being open to life and the good of a large family. I’ve sat through homilies on it. I’ve read articles and books on it. There are countless times I have sobbed my way through Confession telling various priests that I don’t understand why every child since my daughter has died. Why can my friends and others have children in abundance, but I can’t? My own daughter frequently asks me why friends of ours can have another child and I can’t? There are constant reminders of what I can’t give my daughter–a sibling–and that my body is rather broken in this department.

This pain couples feel who either cannot have a child or who are suffering from secondary infertility after having a child or children can drive people to desperation. Even Catholics can turn to immoral practices like IVF in order to try to have children. In fact, IVF preys on this desperation for profit. Our culture is told that having children or not having children is up to us. This is of course a lie, but it’s one we all buy into in one form or another.

I see this mentality to a lesser extent when people have said to me after a miscarriage that I can always have another child. Even people in the pro-life movement with me will cast aside my miscarried children and tell me that God will eventually send me another child or to just have faith. My lack of faith isn’t the problem. In fact, it was my forcing myself to have miscarriage after miscarriage even after each one decimated my body that demonstrated my lack of faith and obedience. I wanted it my way, even though I spent nearly four years in an ever deepening postpartum depression because I wouldn’t listen. Unlike many other women whose bodies can recover more quickly after a miscarriage, it takes me at least a year. My hormones wreak havoc on me physically and mentally.

My hormone issues are complex. I can conceive children easily, but I can no longer keep them. I’m now convinced that my daughter is an even greater gift because her twin sacrificed herself and went Home so she could live. The only child I have carried to term was originally conceived with a twin, which made my hormone levels skyrocket. My OB/GYN admitted that may be the only reason that pregnancy was different from my others. Even though losing Victoria has been painful for us and Michaela, God used that pain to give us our daughter here on earth.

What I have had to accept is that I am not everyone else. My path is not the same as my friend who has five children, or two children, or three children. I always wanted a son to give to God in the priesthood. I see the great need and so many families don’t want their sons to be priests. When I was pregnant with Andrew–who I lost 2 years ago–I said if it’s your will God to even send him to places tormented by violence then I will trust in You. But, once again. This was never up to me.

We forget so often that it is not up to us. It is up to God. The more we fight against this truth, the more miserable we become. We hold on too tight and place our will before God’s will. This always leads to our misery and pain. We don’t get to understand everything in this life. The vast majority of it is mystery. I don’t know why God has chosen to give my husband and me one child and not more. What I do know is that we have to reach a point when we relinquish our will and say: “Not my will, but Your will, Lord.” This is what we get wrong in our desire to become parents or to have more children.

During the years that I was struggling with my desire to have more children and the repeated miscarriages, I would talk to various priests about it. I would express my frustration, confusion, and pain. I always knew in the back of my mind that my particular hormone issues make my case more complicated since each miscarriage caused greater postpartum, but I’d try to ignore this reality. I’d accuse myself of being selfish for not trying to have more children even though the postpartum was so bad that I’d lost sight of myself completely for 3.5 years.

I even struggled quite a bit after my last miscarriage even though I was free of the postpartum depression. The NaPro shots dulled the symptoms a bit and regular exercise helped quite a bit, but I knew that the situation was precarious. I now can’t take NaPro shots, so I have nothing to help sustain a pregnancy or offset a very real possibility of postpartum depression. Plus, I have no reason to believe NaPro will be effective for me since my last pregnancy ended in the same manner as the previous three.

I know it’s difficult to not be able to either have a child or have more children. I face it every single day. I am constantly re-aligning my line of sight to Christ so that I am not comparing myself to others. Telling me I don’t have enough faith or I need to wait and see is to ignore what God has clearly told me. For His reasons, I am not going to have more children. Adoption may happen, but now that my husband is chronically ill, we aren’t so sure. I am finally listening to God.

The same priest over the course of the last few years has told me that it appears God’s will is for us to only have one child. I finally started listening when he rather directly told me he doesn’t think I will have anymore children. First, because he’s not usually that direct and second, because he keeps saying it and I keep ignoring him. Only when I really listened did the weight I was carrying lessen. God has given me an amazing daughter and she should be my focus. This is easier said than done, but it is correct. I must live the life God is asking me to live, not keep holding out for a different one.

It’s important that we come to accept God’s will in our lives. If we don’t, then we will suffer, not because God is being malicious, but because we can only be truly happy living  in accordance with His plans. Some of the kindest and motherly women I know have never been able to have their own children. What I have noticed about all of them is that they give their love to all children they come to know. They shower them with great love, care, and affection. Many of these children don’t get that affection at home, so these women are a gift to those children. In God’s infinite wisdom, he saw the gifts of these women and asks them to spread their love outward beyond their immediate family. While my personality is different from these wonderful women, I sense that God has something He wants of me too. I just don’t know what it is yet.

We have to remember that motherhood and fatherhood are great goods, but they are not the highest goods. God is the highest Good. He is Goodness Itself. Loving and serving Him is the meaning of our lives and at times we place the goods of this life above Him. If we are placing our will above His then we are putting our desire for children above Him. We are not following His call “to be fruitful and multiply” if we are ignoring the individual call He has in mind for each one of us. There are limits that we must live in relation to fertility and parenthood.

Even if parenthood is a great good, it cannot come at the cost of compromising our moral understanding or violating God’s law. We can’t constantly rail against God because it leads to our own misery. At some point we have to stop beating against Him and rest quietly in His arms. We have to give it all back to Him and remember that the glories of Heaven will make all of the pain, agony, toil, loss, and confusion all worth it in the end. That’s living faith, hope, and charity.

Turning to Mary and Trusting When It’s Hard

Trust is constantly on my mind these days. My husband and I found out that I am pregnant. Anyone who has read my previous work for Catholic Exchange knows that I have had three miscarriages and spent 3.5 years afflicted with post-partum depression and anxiety. The doctors know why I had miscarriages and my Catholic NaPro doctor told me three years ago that she could possibly help us have another successful pregnancy. In the meantime, she was able to begin treating my severe hormone deficiencies.

At that time, I had just suffered my third and most traumatic loss which resulted in emergency surgery. The post-partum that had developed 10 weeks after I gave birth to my daughter, deepened after each loss. That was not the time for another child. My husband and I knew that God wanted us to heal and walk the Cross of post-partum depression. My body also needed major healing after all it had been through. We didn’t know when the post-partum would lift and we knew the risk of me getting it after another pregnancy was high. Thankfully, NaPro offers a post-partum depression progesterone treatment that has helped a lot of women.

After that difficult time, we didn’t know or think we would have any more children, but God’s ways are not our own. It would have been imprudent to try and I wrote about the need for prudence in such decisions. God calls each one of our families to a different path to holiness and we cannot compare our situation to the person sitting next to us in the pew because we have no idea what they are going through, can handle, or what God is asking of them. Being judgmental is a sin for a reason and it stems from the destructive sin of pride. But, God is also not done with any of us. Crosses lift, evolve, or take a new shape. Old Crosses disappear and new ones take their place. In all of these we are called to trust.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Learning Prudence from Miscarriage, Post-Partum Depression, and NaPro

Two and a half years ago after my last miscarriage, I decided to stop and visit a priest friend of mine who had recently been re-located from our parish. During our visit, he told me something that I had not even considered, nor wanted to consider. It was simply: “Constance, God may only want you to have one child.” He had been our parish priest through two of my miscarriages and he had been the priest to come see me when, unbeknownst to a great many people, I wound up an in-patient at a psychiatric hospital just weeks after having my daughter because I had severe post-partum depression and anxiety. My anxiety was crippling and I could barely function. My priest friend was seeing something that I just didn’t want to see at the time and that is, God has given me a Cross and I need to decide how to live with it and that means making prudent decisions while also trusting in His love and plan for my life.

A couple of months after that visit, a Natural Procreative Technologies (NaPro) physician introduced herself to me. She had heard through the grapevine that I had experienced repeated miscarriage and she was confident that she could help me. I was stunned and had a bit of hope after 2.5 years of devastating losses. She ran an extensive battery of blood tests on me and discovered that I have very low estrogen and progesterone levels. In fact, she told me she was shocked that I had even gotten pregnant to begin with. She prescribed me HCG shots to give myself four times a month in the second half of my cycle. The progesterone corrected immediately, but the estrogen did not and she wanted me to go on estrogen. I wasn’t comfortable with that at the time. We were not actively trying to get pregnant because I was battling post-partum from my recent miscarriage in which I had hemorrhaged and required emergency surgery. Estrogen comes with a one page warning of cancer risks. While that may mainly mean women in menopausal years, it gave me serious pause. My doctor and I decided to wait to use it until we were looking to get pregnant.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange…

Catholic Exchange: Meditation on the Rosary and Miscarriage

My meditation on the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and miscarriage is up at Catholic Exchange today.

Last month we recognized Infertility Awareness Week. Infertility comes in many forms: those who cannot have children, those who suffer repeated miscarriage, and those who cannot have more children after they have one or two. There are many different types of infertility and it is something that I know well. It is the great Cross of my adult life. I have been given one beautiful and amazing daughter and I have had three miscarriages. Dealing with infertility or the death of a child in the womb, stillbirth, or after birth is deeply painful. It is only in light of the mystery of the Cross that our pain and anguish can make sense. After my last miscarriage, I began to meditate on The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary in relation to miscarriage.

The First Sorrowful Mystery: The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane

One of the hardest parts of miscarriage is all of the waiting.  When you initially suspect you are losing your child, you have to wait to confirm with the doctor.  Then the ultrasound confirms that your baby has died.  The waiting starts anew for the miscarriage to begin, or be over.  After the miscarriage itself you wait for the agony of the grief to subside.  You wait to feel joy, peace, or even whole again.  So much waiting.  It is difficult, but uniting this to Christ’s agony the night before he died can help bring you comfort.  With my last miscarriage, I was exhausted and hurting from all of the waiting.  I was waiting to bleed out my child.  It was agonizing for me.  Think of how Christ felt knowing that he was about to be tortured and crucified.  Most importantly think about how much weight he felt taking on all of our sins.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Some Honesty About NFP

Okay, I am just going to  be honest here, sometimes having to use NFP sucks.  I don’t mean because I want to use contraception.  Quite the opposite.  I know how contraception has hurt marriages, our culture, women, pretty much everybody.  Our culture just cannot see it, but the Church has predicted the disastrous results we see before us, for decades.  My husband and I do not want any part in the contraceptive culture.  So don’t misunderstanding my venting.

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This year we have had to use Creighton Method of Natural Family Planning (NFP) because I have had 3 miscarriages, and some pretty serious periods of post-partum depression and anxiety.  Using Creighton helped my NaPro doctor (Natural Procreative Technologies see Pope Paul VI Institute for more info) figure out that I have serious estrogen and progesterone deficiencies, which has led to me giving myself 4 shots of HCG each month.  NFP was essential, and has been a God send for us, as has my doctor, a fellow (soon-to-be for me) Lay Dominican.
We have had to use NFP for 7 months.  I know, there are some couples who have to do it for years, but this is my experience.  There are times when NFP is just plain hard.  My husband and I went through the NFP classes with the videos of the smiling couples telling us how great their marriages were thanks to NFP.  I know intellectually how NFP works within God’s plan for human sexuality.  It keeps us from using our partner as an object (which is what contraception does), and it forces couples to communicate about the possibility of children, struggles they are having, especially medical or financial, and to be open to God’s plan in their marriage.  It keeps the marital act free from barriers, but also follows the natural cycle of a woman’s body to decide if a married couple has discerned trying to have a child on a month-to-month basis.  Non-Catholics you must keep in mind that marriage vows in a Catholic wedding (the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony) promise to be open to children.
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My husband and I always planned to just be open to however many children God gave us.  Well, that was before I lost 3 babies and discovered some serious hormone issues.  NFP came into our marriage because of those medical issues and it has been a blessing to be sure.  To be honest, though, it gets tiresome to be denied the unitive act with one’s spouse, except for a week out of the month.  Some women’s cycles allow for more time, but mine don’t.  The gift of human sexuality is both unitive and procreative.  They cannot be separated, hence the Church’s position on contraception.   NFP does not deny either, but it is sacrifice.
Having to abstain while married is a sacrifice and that is a part of the spiritual dimension of NFP.  We sacrifice for the greater good of our family or spouse’s health.  It’s kind of like fasting.  Given what we have been through in the last 3 years, I just wanted to say that NFP is a gift, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that it is always great.  I know that the Church is fighting a battle against a culture that has swallowed, quite literally, the contraception lie, but can we at least be honest with people.  NFP strengthens marriage because of the selfless sacrifices that are required, but it is a struggle and sometimes you will say the heck with it and decide to be open to whatever happens.  No one is required to ever use NFP anyway.  So there really are no mistakes.  And if people say that NFP does not work, or that you are bad at NFP, tell them that you are good at it, but you decided to trust in God’s will this month and be with your spouse.  Perhaps you need that unitive act to bring you closer together during difficult times, or you just want to be with your spouse.  Come on!  Sex is holy.  It is a gift.  It is meant to be enjoyed with our spouse.  So, we are not bad at NFP, we just got tired of using NFP this month…lol.
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I saw a great article by a man describing his experiences with NFP.  For half the month the wife is telling her husband to keep away, and then all of a sudden she is open, and then she isn’t.  Now to our culture this sounds absurd, but the Christian life is full of sacrifice.  It is in that sacrifice that we are made selfless, as Christ was selfless.  We are to love our spouse as Christ loves us.  A very tall order that we will all fail at daily.
How about the woman’s perspective?  Well, I can only give you mine.  I have to battle my own hormones and love of my husband for half of the month, repeatedly tell him “no”, and then finally after I am completely sure based on my Creighton chart, I can say “yes”, after my body has gotten done saying “yes” for two weeks and is now in its default apathy because ovulation has occurred.  So I get to be open when my body couldn’t care less because there is no risk of pregnancy.
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Non-Catholics may be reading this wondering what I am talking about, but Catholics who have been through this will get it.  I think it is time that we are honest.  NFP is great because it allows us to naturally space children, it also helps couples conceive, and it helps women learn about their bodies.  And I would tell every single woman to throw out her pills, IUD (especially since these can cause abortions), shot, or whatever else you are doing to yourself and embrace Natural Family Planning.  Really learn about the gift that is your body and femininity.  Let’s just keep in mind that couples who love one another in marriage do not want to have to schedule out the times they come together every month.  It is okay to admit that it is hard.  That is a part of the Christian journey.  We are not breaking some rule by admitting to people that NFP is great, but hard.
I know Simcha Fisher wrote a new book on NFP that I want to read.  You can find it here.  Jennifer Fulwiler has also written about NFP.  And here is the article from a man’s perspective on NFP.
*Say a prayer for me.  I have had to add estrogen to my hormone treatments because while the HCG has fixed my progesterone deficiency, it has not fixed the estrogen deficiency.

No Quick Fixes

I have gone through my first series of HCG shots.  I am getting better at giving myself the shot, which I usually choose to do in my stomach.  If I pay attention it does not hurt, but if I do it in a hurry, I bruise myself.  The first few days I was feeling a bit better mentally and physically.  It’s the pregnancy hormone and I usually feel more balanced when I am pregnant, minus the projectile vomiting. The problem is, that it has not lasted, not that I expected immediate results (that doesn’t mean that some small part of me wasn’t hoping…lol).

I am still struggling with the same severe PMS symptoms: severe anxiety, fatigue, cravings, depression.  The HCG has had no impact on these symptoms even though my progesterone levels have risen to “awesome” levels and my estrogen is rising, it just still is not at the goal.  My estrogen levels were really low.  As my husband explained it to some of our friends, “here is average, here is one step below average, and here is my wife, way down here”.

Here’s the thing, there are no quick fixes, and I was not expecting any.  So if you decide to see a NaPro doctor, keep in mind that it will take a while to figure it all out.  Body chemistry, especially hormones, are extremely complicated.  It is amazing how much they impact our bodies.  It can be discouraging, but like me, you have to remember to be patient and not lose hope.

When you have days like today, like the day that I am having, where I am anxious, tired, and depressed, listen to your Guardian Angel and pray.  I keep hearing over and over again, “pray, Constance”.  Am I doing a very good job of listening? No, but I do know that it is all that I can do and it is the right thing to do.  I have been through these kinds of days hundreds of times, so I know that in time, things get better.  I also need to learn to cling to the Cross.  The Cross is the only thing that will set me free and my Guardian Angel is trying to smack me upside the head.  Have you seen this image on Catholic Memes:

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Keep up the good fight and remember to fall on Christ.  Have a blessed day!

Dealing with Miscarriage Part V: Answers

Do not abandon yourselves to despair.  We are a Resurrection people and hallelujah is our song.

Blessed John Paul II

One of the hardest parts about miscarriage is that for most OB/GYNs you have to have three before they start looking into underlying medical issues.  I have had issues my entire reproductive life, but none that would have been really obvious.  I had just accepted that periods of severe PMS were just a part of me and I knew that most doctors would just throw the Pill at me, which I was not interested in.  So after my miscarriage in February, the doctor finally started testing me for autoimmune, clotting, and a whole host of other disorders, which, not surprisingly, came back normal.  He then said he could do a month long hormone panel and then give me fertility drugs if needed.  I just did not see how that helped and we were moving anyway, so I was going to have to switch OB/GYNs.  Then came Dr. Karen Poehailos.

 
After this most recent loss, I really was starting to doubt that I would have anymore children.  First, because I had lost three and second, boughts of debilitating post-partum depression and anxiety were a major strain on my family.  I am really sensitive to hormone shifts.  I was an emotional mess while I nursed my daughter.  I lasted 14 months and then said, I have got to stop for my own sanity’s sake.  Quite honestly, I had almost given up hope that I would have another child and that I would spend my life on Prozac, even though I knew that there had to be something hormonally wrong with me.  My husband can see it throughout the month.
 
Karen came up to me at my first Lay Dominican meeting.  She is a Family Practice doctor who is certified in Natural Procreative Technology (NaPro) and Creighton Method Fertility Care.  There are tons of resources on the Pope Paul VI Institute website, including where certified doctors are located by state.  She told me that she could help me and she offered to let me pray in front of her second degree relic of St. Gianna Molla.
 
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Meeting Karen was my first ray of hope.  I had no idea that there were options out there, let alone options that were in line with Catholic Church teaching.  I figured it was birth control, which is not really an option, or artificial treatments, some of which are morally acceptable and others that are not.  I felt boxed in and I felt like my OB/GYN was never going to be able to tell me what was wrong.  He was more interested in a band-aid.  Don’t get me wrong, he did great work with Michaela.  I had to have an unplanned c-section when she turned transverse and he is considered the best c-section doctor in the area.  He just was not giving me any hope.
 
Karen got me in touch with the Charlottesville Fertility Care Center Creighton Method Natural Family Planning instructors.  In order to decipher what is going on with my body, I had to learn how to chart using the Creighton Method. This method of NFP focuses solely on mucus observations.  It is not the Rhythm Method.  I cannot stress this enough.  It is based on sound science and is more effective than any hormonal or barrier method of contraception out there when wanting to avoid pregnancy.  By monitoring my cycle through cervical mucus observations, we were able to see the areas where my cycle is not entirely normal. My instructor, who is awesome, taught me how to chart over Skype.  This is a great option when instructors are not in the area.  We discovered that my cycle has shifted by 2 full days since my last miscarriage.
 
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After 2 months of charting, I then had my initial appointment with Karen at her office.  She checked my chart and told me she suspected a progesterone deficiency at the very least.  I then had to do my month of blood draws.  She drew estrogen levels, progesterone levels, and tested my thyroid function (more thorough than what your normal doctor will order).  After completing the blood work, we would have a clearer picture of what is going on.
 
Earlier this week my husband, daughter, and I went back to her office, which is 2.25 hours from us.  (It is worth the drive!)  She showed me my results.  I expected there to be issues, but I was rather amazed by what she told me and showed me.  I have significant estrogen AND progesterone deficiencies.  My body is always running on low.  She then showed me that my thyroid is slightly sluggish.  The thyroid function is not slow enough to put me on a thyroid protocol at this point in my life.  The hormone deficiencies, however, clearly showed why I have lost so many babies and why I have such severe mood shifts throughout the month.  In some ways it is a wonder that I have been able to get pregnant so easily, considering my estrogen levels.
 
So, now we had the answers.  What were my options?  Karen said that she wanted to start me on an HCG injection regimen the second half of my cycle to see if it will lift my levels. If not, we will have to look at other options, like fertility drugs.  Once a pregnancy is achieved, I would need HCG and progesterone injections.  She also told me that natural progesterone is used to treat post-partum depression, so we have options, given my history.  She also feels that the HCG will help improve my anxiety and depression that seems to worsen in the second half of my cycle.  I have struggled with some of these things for 20 years and never realized that I had hormone deficiencies.  This is not something that psychiatrists or OB/GYNs are really looking for in treating women with my symptoms.  The standard is to throw the Pill at me and say it will even out my issues and when I want kids to just take fertility drugs.  Ha!
 
I left her office feeling hopeful.  I actually rejoiced and was relieved to find this out.  Why?  Because I finally had answers.  Sure, no one wants to have medical issues, but this was way better news than her telling me, “We still don’t know what is wrong.”  I called one of my closest friends who was an OB/GYN  nurse for years, and she was as excited as I was.  She was relieved that we had found the answer.  She said my ovaries are lazy and my thyroid is sluggish.  I thought it was pretty funny.  She had said to me before my last blood draw that I had better have a progesterone deficiency after all of this.  I have multiple deficiencies!
 
My husband and I turned and looked at our daughter.  We both realized even more what a gift and wonder she truly is for us.  After all, she is the only one who has made it and she is a miracle in our minds.  What a gift she is!!!
 
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Doctors like Karen are springing up all over the country.  While this technology is sponsored and researched by a Catholic institute, it is not reserved only for Catholics.  The point of this method is to help couples find natural solutions to medical issues and infertility.  They use different techniques to treat: infertility, PCOS, post-partum depression, PMS, etc.  The aim is to treat the whole human person.  If you have been struggling with miscarriage, infertility, or other Gynecological problems, then check out the Pope Paul VI Institute’s website.  There is hope and there are options.  If you live in Virginia, we have two physicians in the Richmond Diocese: Dr. Karen Poehailos in Charlottesville and Dr. Hemphill in Richmond (she is an OB/GYN).
 
Miscarriage is deeply painful.  The grief and pain come in waves.  There are periods of despair and loneliness.  Mine are not over, but I have found hope.  Even if we do not have any more children for whatever reason God deigns, at least I was able to figure out what is going on with my body.  I can hug and kiss my daughter in deep gratitude and I can continue to pray for people like you who know what it is to suffer such terrible anguish.  I hope this series has helped you.  I am sure I will write about miscarriage again.  It is a process that I am in the middle of right now. I will continue to write about my experiences with NaPro as I begin my hormone treatments.  May God bless you always.