I’m honored to introduce you to these next contributions to the Humanae Vitae series – their story is both extraordinary and unusual, and has the potential to open a dialogue about a rarely-discussed aspect of NFP; namely, that NFP is optional.
Not optional as in “one of a variety of options for managing your fertility,” (as Catholics we believe that contraception is immoral – see CCC 239) but optional as in “there is no compulsion to practice NFP at all.”
In fact, some couples choose to place their fertility entirely in the hands of Providence and live out a radical openness to life. I’d like to introduce you to one such couple today.
When Morgan first contacted me about contributing to this series I was blown away, not because her story was “too intense,” as she told me many people have found it, but because it reminded me a bit of Sts. Zelie and Louis Martin. (Morgan disclosed that both she and her husband only ever wanted to enter religious life, but found that God was calling them to something else entirely.)
This is their story. Their story won’t be everybody’s story, and that’s okay. NFP is a beautiful discipline that, when used for right reasons in the right way, is completely in line with the Church’s teaching. I am immensely grateful to be able to avail myself of it. We are free to make discernments using NFP, and we are free to accept the gift of children coming as they may, according to our discernment of God’s call for us. Because every couple is unique, family stories can unfold in very different ways. This is a story, though, that gave me a lot to think about.
My husband Joseph and I met while we were freshman at the University of Notre Dame and were married after our junior year. We knew from the start that NFP was just not for us and that we wanted to welcome children as they came.
Our oldest son, Thomas, was born right after our graduation at the end of our senior year. Our next son, John Patrick, was born a year and a half later, and our third son, Andrew, was born a year after that.
Andrew was born very sick, but no doctor was able to diagnose him. He relied on feeding tubes, had developmental delays, would turn blue with breathing trouble, and was the fussiest baby I had ever encountered. With three boys in three years and our closest family members a 10-hour drive away, we were lost and completely stressed out.
So many nights were spent holding a screaming baby that was turning blue while we would meditate together on the suffering of our Lord. Never have I felt closer to Our Lady of Sorrows than I did those nights at home or in the Pediatric ICU.
When Andrew was one, we found out we were expecting baby number four. Even though our life was seemingly filled to the brim with chaos, it never even crossed our minds to avoid a pregnancy, nor did we ever think to be afraid of welcoming more little souls into our family.
Boy number four, Philip, was born healthy. When he was six months old we found out we were pregnant with number five. Right before our fifth child was born, Andrew took a turn for the worse and was once again admitted into the ICU. The following week our fifth son, James, was born even sicker than Andrew, and two days after that Thomas, our eldest, lost the ability to walk.
In a span of 10 days we had one child in the ICU, a baby who was born with the expectation of needing life support within days, and now suddenly our oldest son was found to have a mass in the marrow of his femur.
James and Andrew ended up both being fed by feeding tubes, needing breathing assistance, and taking more medications than I can possibly remember.
Thomas ended up not having cancer, but still has to has scans every so often to check his leg. I always thought I would be in a convent being called to prayer by bells. Instead, I found myself cloistered with infants and being called to prayer by screams, alarming feeding pumps, machines alerting me that a child has stopped breathing, or nightly seizures.
I was not spending my days adoring Our Lord in the Eucharist, but I did and do get the beautiful chance to serve Him in these children and their many needs!
For the first time in our marriage, I told Joseph that maybe we should learn NFP and try to avoid getting pregnant just until I got the hang of taking care of two kids with severe medical needs, homeschooling, and life in general. We weren’t totally at peace with the thought of NFP,but decided we would go ahead and learn.
By that time James was seven months old, and right after we decided to learn NFP we found out baby number six was on the way.
In a way, another pregnancy was a relief. The idea of using NFP did not bring us peace at all, and surrendering to the will of God will always bring peace. At the same time, I was terrified that this baby would also be sick.
I wasn’t sure if I could handle everything, and I knew putting the kids in school was not an option because Andrew and James were just too susceptible to even the most minor things. We’ve had ambulance rides and ICU stays for the common cold, ear infections, and runny noses, etc; school and the germs that it brings was simply not an option for us.
Matthew was born healthy in the midst of so much chaos. James and Andrew had nearly 20 hospital trips that year, and it was during that year that we were given some hard news: no doctor in the world had ever seen the disease that the boys have, and therefore there was no treatment, no cure,and no research.
I distinctly remember getting that news in our front yard on the phone. The first thing I did was call my husband, and the next thing I did was put a frantic call in to our beloved pediatrician.
The pediatrician gave me words that I so needed to hear at that moment and would come to really shape our outlook. He told me that Our Lord is doing a beautiful thing in asking us to trust Him over and over again. What a gift that no one in this world can help us; we can do nothing but rely on the Divine Healer.
His words have become something that we have meditated on over and over again.
What does it really mean to trust in God and hand over our family to Him?
What does it look like to radically surrender completely to God?
Well, right now it means that baby number seven is on the way.
That is seven boys in eight years. We haven’t prayed for a healthy baby, even though we know there is a chance this baby will be sick. The only thing we have been praying for is that the will of God be done, and that we are open to all of His gifts and graces. God is so incredibly generous in His giving,if only we allow ourselves to receive them.
Our story would be different if there were financial concerns, health problems for one of the adults, or an inflexible work schedule. However, with our lives right now, the only way we have found that we can respond to our call for holiness and openness to life is to set aside our fears and give a “Fiat”.
Our children might not live as long as most, and they certainly take more care than most other children, but they have the same beautiful immortal souls and are made in the image of God.
Their lives are worth the sacrifice no matter how long or short they are— how can we not say yes to that?
For our family, being open to life means also being open to pain, suffering, and to death; but, really, it means that for everyone, just in different ways.
I asked Joseph if he had any input for our story and he said, “Well holiness requires a magnanimous soul. That is all we are doing, trying to give as generously as the God who gives to us.”Every day the Prayer of Generosity is prayed in our house; may God give all of us the grace to be generous to each other, our children, and to God Himself!
“Dearest Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve, to give and not count the cost, to fight and not heed the wounds, to toil and not seek for rest, to labor and not ask for reward save that of knowing I am doing your will” – St Ignatius