infertility, Living Humanae Vitae, Marriage, NFP, Suffering

Think you know a “perfect” family? Maybe you can’t see the whole picture {Living Humanae Vitae part 4}

June 4, 2018

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.

21 Comments

  • Reply Martha June 4, 2018 at 3:49 pm

    What a beautiful story. How hard it must be at times to worry about feeling judged; to wish you had more children here in this life with you—but how amazing that you know you have a large family awaiting you one day in Heaven. Thank you for sharing your story. Another reason to keep my own sob stories in check but also remember we never know all of what others are enduring!

  • Reply Kellie June 4, 2018 at 3:59 pm

    “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.”

    I was so struck by this passage. What a searing, insightful image.

    Thank you so much for this series, Jenny. The stories have been amazing.

  • Reply Kristen June 4, 2018 at 4:46 pm

    Thank you for including infertility in this series. As someone who *struggled* with secondary infertility the past 2.5 years, I could relate to several things in this post. I do really wish the Catholic culture put more emphasis om every family is a beautiful family, no matter the size, then I feel it does. Again, thank you for including this story.

  • Reply Karen June 4, 2018 at 5:46 pm

    Thank you. There is so much judging among Catholic families, IMO, regarding family size. My first was born via a traumatic emergency C-section, and I was unable to breastfeed due to a congetial condition I have (which I didn’t know before I had children), and all of this led to me having what was practically PTSD from his birth. My brother died unexpectedly when he was 8 months old, which left me and my family reeling. We practiced NFP to avoid, for my mental health. It wasn’t until he was nearly four that I felt healed enough to be open to another child. Meanwhile we were members of a very traditional Catholic homeschooling group, and the other mothers kept steering me towards other mothers who “also have ‘only’ one!” as if they couldn’t relate to a mother of one child. When I did joyfully become pregnant with my second, one mother crept up to me when I started showing and whispered, “I’ve been PRAYING for this!”

    I know she meant it well, but she really had no idea what was going on. I wasn’t infertile, I was mentally healing from many traumas. I was struggling with the confidence to attempt a VBAC (which I did, three times, with the help of a great doctor and doula). Nobody asked why we had one child, they either assumed I was infertile or unwilling. Neither was true.

    • Reply Karen June 4, 2018 at 5:49 pm

      I meant to write, “My brother died unexpectedly when my son was 8 months old.” I realized after rereading that it makes it sound like my brother was 8 months old when he died; he was 30 and my son was a baby. It was a tough year.

  • Reply Cami June 4, 2018 at 7:24 pm

    “In Heaven, we have a filled table waiting for us.”

    This is a beautiful thought and brought me to tears. Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply jeanette June 4, 2018 at 9:24 pm

    My oldest sister has 6 children. She and her husband practiced NFP, and miscarriages happened to her. She had 6 miscarriages as well. I only knew about 2 of them until very recently, which is decades after the fact. The two I knew about were quite serious. She also was confined to bed during the last month of pregnancy for her sixth child, and I was helping her husband out during that time. That’s just one example of one woman in my life, and there are others. My husband and I could not have children but we did adopt some. So, each woman has her own fertility story, and much of it is hidden to the rest of us.

    I don’t know if I have anything helpful to say, but I hope this gives you something to consider on a spiritual level.

    To the degree that “NFP” simply refers to an awareness of fertility, and that “practicing” NFP means using that knowledge to achieve or postpone pregnancy as well as understand what is happening with one’s body, it seems that the third aspect of this area of the intimacy of marriage is overlooked: at times one can choose not to be aware of one’s fertility because there really is no reason to be aware. There is, after all, no requirement by God that one has a precise knowledge of their moment-by-moment fertility at all times.

    NFP is simply a help towards regulation of births which does not interfere with our fertility, but not a mandated practice. It is heavily promoted because it is the response to our culture, in which contraception is so widespread and acceptable against God’s greater wisdom. So, yes, NFP is helpful. But in the end, we never have complete control over our bodies, and the act of trying to feel a certain degree of control comes with a heavy burden of grief when that control doesn’t really exist. As Paul VI says in Humanae Vitae: “married people collaborate freely and responsibly with God the Creator” and that is an important point to reflect upon, because responsibility implies something bigger than control. He also goes on to say that “they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. ” And he further teaches, “But to experience the gift of married love while respecting the laws of conception is to acknowledge that one is not the master of the sources of life but rather the minister of the design established by the Creator. ”

    The Church does not tell us to have any particular number of children. Some couples desire large families, some are afraid of them, some just see what happens, some try to achieve a certain number of children. Regardless, one must practice trust in God to give you the number of children He has in mind for you and realize He didn’t completely burden us with that detail. We are partners in this act of creating another human life, we are working with God on this, not just our spouse. This act of surrender will bring greater peace than agonizing over the number of children one has or what anyone else might think about your family size or even what your own desires might be. If it is not a time to wait on pregnancy for some serious reason, then just be ordinary everyday spontaneous lovers, meaning not working towards any particular outcome but just that giving of oneself to the other. That is a way of engaging in the unitive aspect of marital intimacy while remaining completely open to the procreative aspect without any agenda of becoming or not becoming pregnant.

    As Humanae Vitae teaches, there are two dimensions to this relationship between spouses that are intertwined, it is not exclusively procreative. This kind of openness one has towards pregnancy should free you to give yourself to your spouse without any particular plan. Maybe in certain times of marriage that is the joy God wants you to experience, neither the fear of pregnancy, nor the fear of grief, nor the fear of loss, nor the sorrow of failure to be in control. Just the joy that is love. Not a production orientation as though one must plan each and every pregnancy. It’s like He is saying, “Relax a little and be open to the possibilities I have in mind for you this day.”

    Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” and we can think about that when we see the complexities of life burdening us. We can reorient ourselves to see the ways in which Jesus is acting in and with us to perhaps lead us in some other direction than what we think we should be headed in. Following His direction tends towards interior peace.

    As for grief over losses, it is real and it needs to be acknowledged and worked through. But marital love can have the healing power to overcome grief, as two become one flesh because God created you to be that way with one another. If it becomes too focused on the possibility of pregnancy one way or another, the heart will continue to be burdened with fear rather than experience the joy God meant for us.

    • Reply Sarah June 5, 2018 at 11:14 am

      Jeanette, you have written some beautiful things here and there is no doubt humanae vitae is chock full of incredible lines to be taken to heart.

      The one problem, for lack of a better word, with this third option is that for some couples it isn’t possible to be unaware of their fertility. Maybe ovulation comes with pain, massive amounts of mucus, emotional changes, etc. And in these cases one cannot be blissfully unaware. I think this actually speaks to what today’s writer is talking about (though I would hate to misrepresent her in any way!) When your fertility cycle is so obvious it cannot be ignored then there comes a conscious decision, with all the conficts that may be present in one’s own particular story. Maybe there is also a personality component at well that some people are naturally (or created by God!) To be more analytical, emotional, aware and that must fit into this puzzle too.

      • Reply Kati June 5, 2018 at 11:28 am

        I was JUST writing this exact comment and I somehow closed my browser – then I came back and saw this. Is this my sister Sarah?! Because….Yes. Thank you. Exactly what I was going to say except you said it better.

      • Reply Sarah June 6, 2018 at 6:46 am

        It felt negligent not adding that I probably actually live this third option in my own life, or closely to it. I think there is absolutely a place for it so I wasn’t criticizing. Mostly just making clear that it isn’t an option for everyone (which I know from dear friends and family, not my own experience).

    • Reply Rebecca June 5, 2018 at 4:44 pm

      Some married women, like me, have to keep track of their fertility whether they like it or not because they have to take progesterone during the post-peak phase of the cycle to avoid miscarriage should pregnancy occur. I would love to be able to throw NFP out the window and be blissfully unaware, but that is not an option for me. It makes it tough when you’re struggling with infertility and so tired of always having scheduled intercourse.

  • Reply Katie June 5, 2018 at 3:41 am

    Weeping for this faith-filled disclosure. I will carry this couple in my prayers and offer my sufferings for them.

  • Reply Sheila June 5, 2018 at 6:36 am

    Brought me to tears. You & your family will be in my prayers today, sweet Mama!

  • Reply Cassie June 5, 2018 at 6:52 am

    Beautiful story. Yes, we never do know what crosses others carry, do we? This life sure isn’t easy, which helps to make us long for Heaven. I pray that I will make it there to meet my 3 lost babies also! May God bless this sweet couple and provide many consolations!

  • Reply Carolyn Astfalk June 5, 2018 at 12:00 pm

    How I love this post and its honesty. I’ve said that in the pregnancy that followed three miscarriages, going to a sonogram appointment felt like going to my execution. Being open to life is alternately wonderful and frightening – and those possibilities don’t neatly match up with whether you are hoping to conceive or avoid a pregnancy. The only consistency, which is so beautifully apparent in this post, is that it requires surrender to God.

  • Reply Laura June 5, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    Thank you for sharing this. I am a single Catholic woman and this really touched my heart, as I have long wanted 8 kids, although that will be up to God if and/or when the time comes. This is such a reminder that everyone has their own cross, and it’s humbling to me to see that marriage is not free of its very real difficulties, too. Thank you for being so vulnerable, so real, and so faith-filled, and for shedding light on feeling judged for having a small family. I will definitely remember this the next time I see a small family in church and am tempted to be jealous that they are married/question why they do not have more kids. What you said about being united with your children through the Eucharist is beautiful. God bless you both.

  • Reply Tami Urcia June 6, 2018 at 9:14 am

    Thanks for your courage to share this beautiful and vulnerable and very real story of your life. God bless you and your family.

  • Reply Val June 6, 2018 at 2:39 pm

    Thank you for being so open and honest with sharing this post. Blessing to you and your family!

  • Reply Brindy Bartlett June 6, 2018 at 9:23 pm

    This too is our story, with only four babies in heaven, instead of six. Thank you for sharing it. It means the world to know that another family is carrying an almost identical cross. You are in our prayers.

  • Reply Beth June 7, 2018 at 6:24 am

    Thank you. I’m experiencing this same struggle. After feeling terribly alone, this is an answer to my prayers.

  • Reply Allison June 8, 2018 at 1:40 pm

    Bless you, sweet Mama! That is one full table in Heaven, brimming with joy and peace and centered on Christ’s victory. Thank you for sharing your journey and trust that my prayers are with you!

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