Two years ago we sat down with Caroline and John Carroll to speak to them about their journey with their daughter Claire. Claire was born with a heart defect and Down Syndrome, or Trisomy 21. At just two years old, when Caroline was only nine days postpartum with their third child, Claire was diagnosed with leukemia.
One of the painful realities for many couples who have a child facing a critical illness is that it can wreak havoc on the strength of a marriage. The stress and pain of watching a child suffer and making impossibly hard choices frequently drives a wedge between couples and can lead to strain or even the disintegration of the relationship. Yet with the help of their community, John and Caroline found ways to navigate the fear and heartache of their situation together, and when their daughter went into remission it allowed them to emerge with a stronger bond than they had ever had before.
We met with Caroline and John once again to hear more about how they learned to nurture their marriage in the midst of crisis.
Sticking Together, Literally
Following Claire’s leukemia diagnosis, she was admitted to the hospital, and John and Caroline quickly realized they had some tough decisions ahead of them.
“Since we weren’t allowed to bring our newborn to the hospital and someone needed to be with Claire at all times, I would have had to quit my job to facilitate each parent being with either our newborn and eldest or with Claire,” John explains. “That would leave zero time together as a family, much less as a husband and wife. It was a fairly helpless feeling knowing that the physics of the situation simply would never yield a satisfactory result for our family. However, within two hours of us telling our parents and them subsequently telling close friends, one of those friends reached out and offered to gather and coordinate volunteers. A true God-given blessing we never would have contrived of our own.”
This friend coordinated around the clock babysitting for the Carrolls children at home and for Claire at the hospital. This allowed John to continue to provide income for their family and Caroline to be with their newborn much of the time. This not only ensured that each of their three children had the care that they needed, but it also gave John and Caroline the opportunity to keep the health of their marriage a daily priority.
One of the ways they did this was by visiting Claire in the hospital as a couple, rather than each parent going alone. The Carrolls remember that this decision to prioritize their togetherness while caring for Claire was met with a lot of confusion by hospital staff, and Caroline often wrestled with guilt.
“Wherever I was, I always felt like I was in the wrong place, and I felt judgement for not being [at the hospital] all the time,” she says. “But our support network of family and friends who spent time with Claire when we couldn’t helped ease some of that anxiety.”
John also remembers the struggle of having to choose where to be and when: “[Our] four-year-old knew that when we were gone, we were spending time with Claire. That was hard –– having to prioritize. You can never be in the right place.”
Yet supported by their loving community, they continued to look for ways to be together as a couple while facing Claire’s illness.
“I’m so thankful we were able to do that,” Caroline says.
The Couple that Prays Together
During this season of life, Caroline and John discovered the importance of vulnerability with one another, particularly when it came to prayer.
The Carrolls had been married several years before prayer became a bigger part of their life as a couple, and John remembers the initial discomfort and timidity that came with learning to pray in front of someone.
“Aside from meal times and in groups, that was not something that we did on a regular basis,” he reflects. “It was awkward at first, to be honest. It’s a different side of you, and it’s like … ‘You’re nervous about praying with your wife? That’s not supposed to happen!’ but if you don’t practice it’s going to feel awkward.”
Tweaks to their schedule, such as going to bed and waking up early to create time together, allowed John and Caroline to deepen this spiritual practice. “Plus, I’m much better at staying awake during prayer if we do it first thing in the morning,” Caroline jokes.
The Carrolls set aside half an hour in the morning for prayer, devotions, and a quiet cup of coffee together before their children woke up, which allowed them to grow closer and ultimately led to better patterns of communication. Now, looking back, they both agree that this ability to speak openly and freely is tremendously important, especially in times of crisis.
While John states that he is an open book, Caroline admits that it can take courage to give voice to all of her thoughts and feelings. But their commitment to pray together helped them create gentle, open lines of communication –– even in conflict.
“Confrontation does not have to be a negative thing,” John shares. “If something’s obviously wrong, it’s to our benefit to sort through it and talk and adjust to each other’s needs. You can both come out winning if you talk about it, but you’ve both lost if you don’t, because nothing is going to get fixed.”
Once Claire’s treatment concluded and the Carroll family was reunited at home, John and Caroline still found that they would have to choose to make their marriage a priority. Running the household, keeping up with Claire’s therapies and homeschooling her other children kept Caroline on the run non-stop, while John found it easy to lose himself to work and household projects.
Caroline remembers feeling isolated during this time. “We really weren’t working on anything together anymore.”
“It’s like your marriage is less tangible, but you do start seeing the results of neglect if you don’t make intentional time for each other,” John says.
Both Caroline and John recognized their need for protected time together. As a result, they decided to set aside time for a weekly date.
At first they kept this date when it was convenient, but today they consider a date night to be a non-negotiable part of their weekly routine. When hiring a babysitter and going out isn’t an option, the Carrolls still make date nights special, always looking for ways to keep their time together engaging. Caroline talks about subscribing to a service called Date Night in a Box, an economical way to make at-home dates interesting. This sort of creative thinking and flexibility has allowed them to continue to invest thoughtfully in their marriage.
Advice To Others
When asked what advice they would give to other couples facing a critical illness with their child, John says: “If you’re believers, you need to pray together. You also have to prioritize time to get away, just the two of you … you’ve got to talk and decompress together.”
“Yeah, and have fun, if you can,” Caroline adds. “We went on a marriage retreat with our church back in the fall, and the topic was prioritizing the friendship part of your marriage. That’s how your relationship started. Remind yourself of that.”
“I think you can get sucked into running your marriage like a business if you’re not careful. You’ve got bills to pay, you’ve got kids to get somewhere, you’ve got house projects to do, and it’s just goal, goal, goal, goal. If you’re not careful, you lose sight of the original intent of your marriage, which is to love and nurture one another, hopefully in a Christ-centered relationship,” John says.
“But you’ve really got to set a priority. You need to make one night sacred. And you’ve got to fight past the awkwardness of being transparent with each other.”
The Carrolls are a beautiful example of a couple who have made hard but wise choices to protect their marriage and their family during the most heart wrenching and frightening circumstances. Thank you to Caroline and John for sharing your story with us!
Headline and family photo credit: Nicole Eliason Photography
About the Author
Catie Cummings-Morris is a freelance author specializing in non-profit work and food writing living in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with her husband, daughter, and a vegetable garden.
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