You may already be familiar with Bonnie Engstrom’s story from her blog, “A Knotted Life.” If you are, then you know that her son, James Fulton, was stillborn. His allegedly miraculous return to life – through the intercession of Venerable Fulton Sheen, is the official alleged miracle for the beatification of that good bishop. Bonnie is a wonderful storyteller, a talented writer, and a mother of extraordinary courage. I’m privileged to have her here today to share her story as part of the ongoing Living Humanae Vitae series.
My husband and I entered our marriage knowing the Church’s teachings on sex, marriage, and family life. We were totally on board and completely gung-ho to use NFP to have all sorts of great sex while we spaced our four to five children every two to three years. This is what we were promised, people, and this is what we were going to get!
Our first baby was eagerly anticipated, but was sadly lost early in pregnancy. Our firstborn was an NFP success story; she was born a year after my miscarriage. Ecological breastfeeding isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and so our second baby came along twenty-one months later.
Twelve months and two weeks later our third baby was born, because it turns out you can get pregnant before your period returns. There were a variety of complications at his birth so he stayed in the NICU for seven weeks and spent the next year of his life with multiple therapy and doctor appointments each week. If you were to guess that having a two year old, a one year old, and a baby with medical needs is incredibly difficult, you would be correct. We abstained for nine months that first year of his life, knowing that we needed a break and having lost all faith in my ability to chart when my body was under so much stress.
But at the end of that first year my husband came home from work and said to me, “I want more children. Today I was looking at the pictures on our desk. Our wedding picture, you and Ell, Ell and Ben, and then the one of the three kids where Ell and Ben are holding JF.” He moved his hand horizontally, pausing it with each picture he described. “And I just knew I wanted another baby.”
Less than a year later we had another girl. Her labor and delivery were hard on me – emotionally I was reliving my son’s traumatic birth and physically I was birthing an eleven and a half pound baby with no medication. It took her a minute to breathe after her birth and my husband and I were at our wits’ end. With two traumatic births, four wonderful kids in our home, and one baby entrusted to Jesus we felt like we had done our bit. No more kids, we were done.
Yet it turns out that, all rookie mistakes aside, my husband and I are on the hyper end of the fertility spectrum and another surprise pregnancy came. Our son was born when his older siblings were 1, 2, 3, and 5.
But now we were really, truly done, done, done!
But we weren’t done with Natural Family Planning. Heavens no! NFP isn’t something to be used during the times when it would be okay to get pregnant even if I don’t really want to. NFP is what we’re supposed to use when we cannot get pregnant or do not want to, and sometimes, that means lots and lots of abstinence. This time we went a year without having sex. I won’t sugar coat it: it was hard and at times very hard. Were we tempted to use contraception? Probably. (I don’t remember!) But what does it profit a couple to gain all the sex they could want in their happy marriage but lose their souls?
I might have been afraid to have another kid but I was more afraid of eternal damnation. I know that will sound harsh and maybe even dumb to many of you, and so be it. I know what the Catholic Church teaches, why the Church teaches it, and I agree with Holy Mother Church – which is why I am still a Catholic. I appreciate and respect the consistency of the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage and I believe that if I am going to expect single people, unmarried couples, gay couples, the divorced, priests, and religious to follow Church teaching in their state of life then I should hold myself to the same standard. With those convictions firm, we found the postpartum time to be about faithfulness, trust, and obedience as an act of love.
After twelve months of abstinence we successfully used NFP for another eight months before I had another unplanned pregnancy.
By now I was scared and I was angry. I loved and enjoyed my kids but I was mad at every woman who could space her children with just breastfeeding or could afford things like new minivans, babysitters, and pizza delivery.
I resented women who talked about their contraception and sterilizations and I was embarrassed by how relieved they were when it was me pregnant and not them. And I lived in the daily fear that even if I did not miscarry our seventh child as I did our first, there was a good chance, based on two previous traumatic deliveries, that this baby would not survive birth.
Additionally, I was worried. My husband did not want any more kids, as the stress of providing for five small children and a wife on a public school teacher’s salary had been building. We had finally come to a good spot – a place where we had some wiggle room in our budget and I was on a medication that made a world of difference in my PPD – and we didn’t want to leave it.
I felt like NFP was a joke, and that I had let my husband down.
To make things even worse, I learned of an online forum that discussed how horrible it was that I, personally, was pregnant again. While it may be possible that some of the women were well-intentioned, it was a horrible sucker punch to read through a series of strangers talk about what a wreck my life was, and how it was too bad that there was a new little life growing in my womb.
Regardless of how anyone felt, my seventh baby was born and we love him to the moon and back. I’m so grateful to God for adding him to our family. Babies are gifts – only and always – even the ones we hadn’t planned for.
And of course now, after those rough nine months and a c-section, we were finally D O N E.
Except ten months later I had another unplanned pregnancy. It was another instance of my nursing and hyper fertility combining with my “best” efforts at charting, but this time as soon as I saw the positive pregnancy test I didn’t cry or worry. I beamed. I thanked God, I touched my tiny womb, and told my tiny baby how much I loved her. I was nervous to tell my husband – so nervous I laughed while telling him – but he smiled too. And we laughed for joy together. We laughed through progesterone shots in the first trimester and we laughed in the operating room when the doctor held up a beautiful, healthy baby girl. She is one this June and every day with her has been a gift and a joy, and we are so grateful.
Our family is bigger than most and smaller than some.
Using natural family planning has not always been easy, but I am grateful for this tool which first and foremost requires a trust in God and His goodness. We had seven kids in nine years and it has been hard at times, but Jesus has asked me to take up my cross and follow Him, promising me that the burden would be light.
I have good kids, a husband who loves his family, and a home filled with laughter and love. God is faithful and generous. Thanks be to God.