It’s NFP Awareness Week in the Catholic Church, as I hope many of you were made aware by your pastors. This is the week when we Catholics see our social media feeds filling up with articles about NFP, tweets about why people use it, and stories about the benefits of Natural Family Planning. What we rarely see is the difficult side of living as a faithful Catholic. God bless Simcha Fisher for her book The Sinner’s Guide to NFPP! She wrote about the difficulties that can come up for couples who are doing their best to remain faithful to the Catholic faith along with the benefits of NFP. Her book was honest and gracious, and was one of the few things I’ve read in depth on the topic since my younger daughter was born that didn’t partly make me feel like crap. Things like this are few and far between, and, frankly, we Catholics need to step up our game in the mercy department.
As someone who has (regretfully) had a tubal ligation after two nightmare pregnancies because I feared the next one that much, I don’t really qualify for Erin McCole Cupp’s Captive Panda Club posts, but I do think it’s worth taking a look at what she and her guest posters are saying:
I remember when I told a certain family member that we were pregnant with twins, he said with great doubt in his voice, “And how did that happen?” I’d been so vocal about the, forgive the word those of you who are sensitive, evils of ART/IVF, that when I was suddenly pregnant with multiples, I got the sense that people were assuming we had become big, fat, desperate hypocrites. At first that freaked me out, but what kept me from trying to defend myself was the knowledge that everybody who knew Mary probably thought she was a big, fat hypocrite too when she showed up unmarried and pregnant. So if that humiliation was good enough for the Mother of God, then I was not in a position to whine—or defend myself.
Okay, one more thing: as a Catholic homeschooling mom, I feel a sharp twinge every time I go to an outing or somebody’s house and have to park my Prius in line with all the sixteen passenger vans. Nobody ever says anything to me about it, but I often wonder if they think I’m CINO. Again, gotta go back to Mary for that.
Another perspective was shared by a friend of mine who has struggled with subfertility, as well:
I was living with guilt. I felt like a failure and I was trying to force myself into treatments to have another child even though I had just spent three years fighting hormone issues, grief from three miscarriages, and serious depression. Whether intended or not, we Catholics can make others who have very serious struggles that limit or keep them from having children, feel like grave sinners and utter failures. I had to stop reading articles debating NFP versus the always open crowd. It was devastating to read these arguments, many of which were not founded on Church teaching. I have learned not only through my theological studies, but through experience, that it is best to read Church documents and teachings ourselves and then seek guidance from an orthodox priest. Too many people mistakenly transmit their own brand of teaching to the detriment and pain of others. If you struggle with infertility or secondary infertility, do yourself a favor, do not read these debates. They will only reduce you to tears.
For me, it’s taken years not to be wracked completely by guilt over what I’d done, even though I’d been to Confession and even had a miraculous message from God that He has forgiven me. There was a day when I arrived at my homeschool co-op with my two children, was mingling with the dozen families with 3 to 6 children, and discovered that two of my friends there were both expecting. The day before, my sister called to tell me she was expecting her third child, too. I managed to hold myself together until lunchtime, and once my girls were sitting with their friends and eating, I went out to my car, called my poor husband, and proceeded to cry tears of guilt and anguish for nearly an hour. I had doubts that I’d be able to continue going to co-op any more, that I could handle being around other people’s babies when I was such a horrible sinner and I couldn’t have any more children.
There at that co-op was another friend who happened to be the Diocesan NFP director at the time. She knew my story — especially since I felt the need to explain myself all. the. time. as soon as anyone Catholic asked me if I had more than the two children who were with me. She had great sympathy for me, and was never anything but encouraging to me about it. She even asked me to write my story for the diocesan NFP newsletter, mainly to give other NFP instructors a perspective on women like me. I wrote:
After being married for four years, we started our family. We discovered on February 4, 1998, that I was expecting our first child. Within ten days, things had changed drastically.
I had been teaching third grade, and it was my second year as a teacher. I hadn’t told administration that I was pregnant yet because I had an appointment with my general practitioner to confirm it (and get the name of a good OB) on February 12. On February 11, I started to feel sick. I was worried about getting sick in my classroom, so I set the class to work with busywork and called the office. “I’m really sick today,” I said. “I know it’s the middle of the morning, but I need a sub as quickly as you can get one.” Before lunch, I had someone there, and I left. Later, the sub (a regular at our school) would tell me that I looked absolutely green when I left. I would not return to school again until the end of April. My students had no idea what happened to me except that I was very sick and couldn’t get back yet.
My mother drove me to my doctor’s appointment, me with my bowl, and my doctor confirmed that I was, indeed, pregnant. His office made an appointment with the OB I’d picked for the following week, and the doctor told me to drink plenty of fluids, especially water, and try eating crackers to ease the severe nausea. Water seemed to make me feel worse and I couldn’t keep any food down whatsoever, no matter how bland it might be. On February 13, as I lay in bed between vomiting spells, [Nathan] came home with a dozen long-stemmed red roses for me. “Happy Mother’s Day to the mother of my children,” read the card. I thanked him, smelled the roses, and as he went to put them in water, wretched again. The vomiting was around the clock by now; I was even waking up from sleep to throw up. On Saturday, we called the OB’s office and asked what to do. I met my OB that afternoon at the hospital, where they started IV treatment to rehydrate me. My ketones were dangerously high. Bag after bag of fluids were pumped into me. I was given one medication after another for the nausea, and nothing worked. …
I was scheduled for an ultrasound to be sure everything was okay. They were also curious if I was pregnant with twins, since morning sickness can be worse pregnancies with multiples. While in the room for my ultrasound, I hung on for dear life to my bowl (those emesis bowls at the hospital weren’t big enough for me) and tried not to vomit as the smell of flowers nearly knocked me out. The smell was so strong that I wondered why on earth the nurse would wear so much perfume. I won’t get into too many details, but let’s just say that the procedure was not pleasant. The ice-cold gel on my stomach was the best part.
Now we knew that I was pregnant with one child, located properly. The doctors figured out that I had hyperemesis. I was put on hyperalimentaion because I was still unable to keep any food down or drink anything. Putting anything in my mouth made me sick. The hyperalimentation started blowing out my veins, so the doctors had a Groshung catheter central line put in for IV therapy. A cocktail of Reglin and Pepcid managed to keep my vomiting down to about a dozen times a day, and I was discharged with home nursing care. My nurse, also a Catholic, told me that she, too, had hyperemesis. She was sick through all nine months of her pregnancy with her older daughter. Threw up on the delivery table, she said. She was terrified of getting pregnant again, but when her daughter was six, she discovered she was expecting. This time, she said, no HG. She was also a secular Franciscan, and she would pray for me. …
I was not as lucky as my nurse had been. When my second pregnancy was even worse than the first one, we were terrified to even leave a small chance to get pregnant. I got my tubes tied.
But even after I repented, confessed, and received absolution, I could not let go of the guilt. When this story was published in the NFP newsletter, I knew that there were several other moms in the co-op who had read it, but only one person made a comment. “It was … interesting,” was all she could manage. I still felt this uncontrolable need to explain myself — why did I only have two kids when obviously the Faithful Catholics did more? Yes, I brought this on myself, but even if I hadn’t had the surgery, we would have been avoiding pregnancy all these years. Even so, I felt as if I wasn’t good enough — not Catholic enough — within my circle of friends with their big families. For years, I felt like someone was juding me (though I suspect it was mainly just me judging myself). I did eventually stop feeling the next to explain, but that took a long time, and occasionally requires me to remind myself of what happened in that miraculous Confession.
But here’s the thing: why are we busy judging each other like this? Why do Catholics feel the need to mentally count the kids in the pew in front of them, as if there’s some magic number that will show a family is, for sure, Following Church Teachings? All sizes of family are being judged by various groups: the culture looks askance at families with more than 2 to 3 children, and inside the Church we have people looking askance at families with only 2 to 3 children, as if holiness is directly tied to how many children you have in your family!
We can’t do anything about the culture at large, but we can and should do something about the culture within the Church. We have got to keep our eyes on our own paper, and I am speaking to myself as much as to anyone else. I’ve been just as guilty of looking at small families and thinking, “Humph. They don’t look Open to Life, do they, now?” while admiring the familiy with the five kids with one on the way. I ought to know better! Maybe that family with only 2 kids is unable to have more because the mom battled cancer and had to have a hysterectomy. Or maybe they’re using NFP to avoid a medically-dangerous pregnancy. Maybe that family with the 5 kids with another on the way are so concerned with One More Soul that they’re not actually there for their already-born kids. The fact is, we can’t know the state of anyone’s soul, any more than the people of the Old Testament could have known while they were busy condemning childless couples like Abraham and Sarah. Tradition says that even the Blessed Virgin’s parents struggled with subfertility, and that Mary’s birth was miraculous.
As Catholics, we need to extend love and mercy to everyone, including those people sitting in the pews next to us. We need to give them the benefit of the doubt, assuming that they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Basically, we need to keep our eyes on our own papers, and get ourselves to Heaven without helping God judge who else is worthy of being there. As my friend told me when she asked me to write the article: The Holy Familiy was the most perfect family there has ever been, and they had only one Child.