This week, I had the distinct privilege to ask some personal and thoughtful questions of two people I admire tremendously, both personally and professionally. Stephanie and Andy Schoonover founded Carrying To Term out of the deep love they carry for their daughter Grace.
Carrying To Term's mission and vision are the result of two broken-hearted parents who love with abandon and genuinely want to see the standard of care improve and change for other parents facing a prenatal diagnosis of a life-limiting condition.
Daily, I am inspired by their willingness to use their own experience to inform, equip, and support families, their network of support, and the medical professionals who selflessly enter in and provide care. Carrying To Term was always designed to be bigger than their own experience, but the profound love and sacrifice Stephanie and Andy have displayed for their daughter Grace will always be the starting point for why Carrying To Term exists and advocates so passionately for all families to have the option to carrying to term. To learn more about Stephanie and Andy's experience carrying and meeting their daughter, Grace, please read their full story here.
I could not be more excited for you to read their words and hear their heart for you, whether you are a parent facing this journey, a friend or family member supporting a parent, or a medical professional providing exceptional care. I hope this conversation makes you feel connected, understood, and loved. That is always the mission.
Carrying To Term helps families celebrate the moments they have and make memories with their baby during pregnancy and after delivery. What is your favorite memory as a family with Grace?
Stephanie: The very moment Grace was born. Due to the nature of the diagnosis, every day with Grace was unknown and ultimately limited, so when she let out a beautiful newborn cry, we felt a rush of love like any new parent would. In that moment, the conviction I had previously felt – that we would love, and did love, Grace with abandon – was strengthened.
Andy: We never thought we would have 10 hours and 32 minutes with Grace, so we were so thankful for that time. After she was born she snuggled in on her mom, stabilized her breathing, and comfortably lived out her life. It was special being together as a family.
What is the one thing you want people to know about Grace?
Stephanie: The world tries to tell you that babies with life-limiting conditions of prenatal diagnoses have no value or nothing to offer, but I want people to know that through Grace’s life I have learned invaluable lessons and gained life perspective in a way that no one else has ever had influence over my life.
Andy: When we tell people about Grace, the first reaction is typically “I am so sorry.” We do not think of Grace’s life as something to be sorry about. Her life was brief, but her impact has been huge, both within our family and beyond our reach.
Part of how we fully inform families is by being honest about the realities of carrying to term, positive and negative. What was the hardest moment of your journey?
Andy: The hardest moment for me was probably when we first found out about Grace’s diagnosis. Those words “incompatible with life” come out of nowhere. They are unexpected and impossible to process in the moment. It was a whirlwind because you go into the appointment dreaming about the life you will have together, and then you leave processing and trying to figure out how you are going to cope with the loss of an unborn child you hardly know but deeply love.
Stephanie: The diagnosis was extremely difficult, but for me, it pales in comparison to the physical yearning I had to experience more of Grace since meeting her. It is impossible to put words to the excruciating pain that is being discharged from the hospital and going home without your baby. As I shared in Grace’s eulogy, our arms feel empty without the weight of her body, but our hearts beat for our baby girl.
Do you have any family traditions to honor Grace?
Andy: My favorite family tradition is to visit the room she was born in on her birthday. We get the opportunity to pray over that space and thank God for allowing us to be her parents.
Stephanie: I agree with Andy. About four months after Grace’s birth and death, I felt I needed to revisit the room as an intentional step towards healing. We took all the cards and letters we had received after she died and spent time opening them in room 246. That was such a powerful experience that we decided to make visiting the hospital on the anniversary of Grace’s birth each year a tradition. We bring treats for the doctors and nurses as an expression of our gratitude, revisit the room, and recall all the memories we made together, and now, leave with a feeling of peace.
As an organization, we are dedicated to ensuring that women and families are fully informed about the carrying to term journey. What do you wish you knew before starting your journey?
Stephanie: I am eternally grateful that I felt fully informed and equipped throughout my pregnancy thanks to our care team. I wish I had spent some time in prenatal counseling following the diagnosis to understand anticipatory grief, triggers, and how wives and husbands grieve differently. Grief and mourning are completely natural processes, and we had prepared for all the practical issues that come with death, yet I knew very little about the bereavement period until I entered into counseling. I regularly attended counseling for 14 months after Grace died, at which point, I became equipped to handle all that encompasses a loss of our magnitude.
Andy: Grief is really hard. After the loss of Grace, I processed with my head and Steph processed more with her heart. We did well when we were able to recognize the differences in the way we processed grief, but we stumbled when we got irritated that the other person was grieving in a way we could not relate to. I wish I had been mentored by another husband and loss dad so that I could have honored both our emotions, and better served my wife.
What are you most proud of throughout your whole experience?
Andy: I am so proud of my wife for her courage. She carried Grace so, so beautifully and now has dedicated her life to helping families who are experiencing similar diagnoses. She is an amazing momma to Grace, and she gave me so much grace as I tried to figure out how best to lead our family during that time.
Stephanie: I am most proud of how intentional Andy and I were during my pregnancy and in the moments following birth. We were unified, deliberately embraced our experience, and were on mission to make the entirety of the experience the best possible experience we could. Our imperfect life was full of perfect moments, and we cherish our time together.
If you could go back to any point in your journey and tell your network of support anything, what would you tell them?
Stephanie: To prepare to be on a life-long journey with us! In all seriousness, we have formed wonderful relationships with doctors and their teams, and it is an honor to come alongside them and have their support of our vision. Our family and friends continue to honor Grace through our efforts at Carrying To Term, and we feel very thankful for their ongoing support.
Andy: “Thank you.” Our doctors and nurses were so compassionate. During Grace’s birth and passing, I wish I would have been able to extend them the gratitude that we were feeling in that moment.
You have such big and profound vision for Carrying To Term. How has this vision and mission changed you, and why is it so important to you?
Stephanie: I have learned that while we are changed by our experiences, the meaning we create from our experiences shapes us most. Following Grace’s diagnosis, we began asking ourselves, how much love can we give? How will we make the most of our days? How does the diagnosis change things? Carrying To Term’s mission to fully inform and our vision to equip was born out of a desire for others to consider the story they are choosing to live. The only way women and families can do this is if the medical community supports them, helps them understand the journey, and gives them the option to continue their pregnancy.
Andy: It is so important because we know the beauty in carrying a baby to term. They are beautiful masterpieces formed by God, and they can have a profound impact on families, communities, and even the world if only given a chance. That is why it is so important for the conversation between the mother and the doctor to be all encompassing. There is a choice to carry, and if you want to do that, you should be given the option. We at Carrying To Term want to support you through your journey.
You have mentioned your faith throughout your answers above, but Carrying To Term is not a faith-based organization, correct? Can you speak to that?
Stephanie: The God we know loves people above all else, and we are told to confront others with truth and love in respect. We have taken this belief and built Carrying To Term on the same foundation, so that everyone, of faith or not, feels embraced, empowered, and supported by the non-directive stance of our organization. This is God’s love in action.
Andy: This was intentional. Our family philosophy can be summed up as prayer, care, and then share. We will pray for you, care for you, and if the opportunity presents itself, we will share our faith. There is no agenda that way.
If you had to sum up the carrying to term journey in a single sentence, what would it be?
Stephanie: Stand up for a cause bigger than yourself and you have the opportunity to advance your own life and values.
Andy: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28