Have you ever looked longingly at someone else’s cross and thought to yourself, “I’d trade places with them in a heartbeat,” while morosely focusing on your own troubles? Have you ever wondered, “I wonder what’s going on with that family – they seem to have it all together,” and figured you had a pretty good idea of what life looks like for them behind closed doors?
What if most of what we assume about other people turns out to be only that: an assumption?
What if it turned out that most people are carrying heavy, invisible crosses that aren’t apparent to the naked eye?
What if everyone you know – and I do mean everyone – is struggling with something, even if things look beautiful from a distance?
This is today’s story. It’s a story that demonstrates how none of us are usually in possession of the full story, unless we’ve been invited in. The woman who contributed today’s piece wished to include this disclaimer with her contribution: *Please do not offer suggestions about adoption, foster care, NAPRO, supplements, or other fertility enhancers, etc. It’s not helpful and I promise I have already heard about it in the decade we have been shouldering this cross. Thank you for your consideration.
My husband and I have the quintessential American family. We have two children; a boy and a girl, spaced five years apart. We can fit into a booth, a sedan, take advantage of the family deals (two adults and two children), and barely take up a fourth of a pew. It’s all so convenient, seen from a distance; the typical American dream.
We use Natural Family Planning and are open to life. And it hasn’t worked very well for us, at all.
When I say we are open to life, I mean we are wide open. We are down on our knees begging, saying novenas, reciting rosaries, lighting candles, searching for the next saint, or prayer, or petition, or prayer warrior that might make the difference this month.
Our dream was a large family. I wanted to sit across from my husband in our old age at a table filled with our children, their spouses, and their children. Each time we get a positive pregnancy test, I mentally set a place at our family table. So far, we have six empty chairs.
We have lost six children.
When my husband lost his job, we didn’t stop trying because what if that month was THE month? When we are sick, when we are exhausted, when we are fighting, when we are stressed to the point that any sane person would say getting pregnant would be the worst choice, we still try.
We don’t need NFP to space our children or avoid a pregnancy. My body does that all on its own.
We use our knowledge of NFP to give ourselves the best chance of conceiving and to hopefully save and support a possible pregnancy, if a child results. Most months, for years at a time, it doesn’t work. There is nothing and no one.
The knowledge that we gained from learning NFP has created a dilemma in the past. It’s like Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit; learning NFP has left us with knowledge that my husband and I many times wish we didn’t have.
It’s not hard for me to tell when I am fertile. I know when I am at peak. There was a time in our marriage where that knowledge created fear. My husband and I had to process what it meant for us to be intimate at those times knowing that if a pregnancy resulted, most likely that child would die. It was indescribably difficult for me to feel like I was a bearer of death, not life. That constant and continuous death was what resulted from physical intimacy in our marriage.
My body felt like a graveyard.
And NFP left us in this cyclical rut. Would we try again this month? Could we emotionally take another loss? Could I handle another negative pregnancy test after two years of trying with no success (our marriage has been subjected to both repeated miscarriages and long bouts of infertility where we can’t conceive for years at a time)? But if we avoided, what chance could we be missing? Often we would agree to avoid for a few months to give me time to physically and emotionally heal. And then fertility signs would begin to appear and I would panic and all our resolutions would go out the window. Using NFP left us in a constant cycle of fear, endless discussions, and emotional rollercoasters. I began to associate our intimacy with sadness and anger, loss and grief. It wasn’t a positive or joyful thing.
Birth control as protection sounded tempting. Not to protect us from pregnancy; but to protect us from more losses, or grief, or fear. NFP left us completely open and vulnerable, which was terrifying at times.
I also resent the culture NFP can create, especially in Catholic circles. So many faithful Catholics who use NFP look at my family and assume we are not. It’s hard to see others pregnant or see large Catholic families at conferences or events and not be envious. I have actually looked enviously at other’s Transit vans. I have poured over Sancta Nomina’s blog wishing I had another child to name and read Simcha Fisher’s weekly meal planning menu fantasizing about having a brood of children to cook for. So much of Catholic NFP culture seems directed at those that actually have a choice between avoiding and achieving and those that have large families.
It’s hard not to feel excluded or somehow lesser. It’s hard not to fear being judged.
Yet, we have also benefited from NFP.
Having the knowledge of my fertility and my body has enabled me to get pregnant in the past. NFP led us to our NAPRO doctor, whose progesterone support is probably a large reason why our son is here.
NFP has kept my husband and me communicating about our shared desires and hopes for our family and about our shared grief over our losses. NFP has also given us hope. We continue to be open, we continue to be intimate during my fertile times, we continue to pray and trust that maybe this month God will answer our prayers.
For me, each month we are open to life is a month that hope is created anew. And that hope has been a balm.
Everyone bears their own cross and I won’t compare mine to yours. NFP hasn’t been easy for my husband and me, although our struggle with it looks different than others. For us, continuing to be open to life comes with a certain kind of risk. I am not past dealing with the emotional fallout of infertility and I do have a great fear of another miscarriage.
But years ago, I decided to trust the Lord with my fertility. I turned it over to Him and put my trust in Him. I can’t say the result is what I pictured or hoped for, at all.
Joy comes in the morning.
Until then, with my husband and two living children kneeling by my side, I know I am reunited with our six deceased children in the Eucharist. In Heaven, we have a filled table waiting for us.
Our struggles with NFP seem pretty trifling compared to that.