Both of our parents made it clear that they wanted us to wait to have children until my husband graduated with his Ph.D. When we married in July of 2010, I would be finished with my bachelor’s degree but my husband would have two to three years left in his Ph.D. program. Our parents stressed the difficulty we would have raising a child on a grad student’s salary and the extra stress a baby at home would put on David as he worked to finish his degree. Their reasoning made sense and we agreed that we wouldn’t intentionally get pregnant until David graduated and found a job.
I say we agreed not to intentionally get pregnant, because we acknowledged that there was always the possibility that I would “accidentally” become pregnant. We knew that we would use Natural Family Planning since it was the only option available to us as devout Catholics. I feel very fortunate that the Archdiocese of Denver, where we were married, requires NFP classes for all couples going through marriage preparation, because that meant there were many options available to us for good instruction with knowledgeable teaching couples. I learned the basics of charting and was confident that I would be able to effectively avoid an unwanted pregnancy.
However, many people (my own parents among them) were very negative about NFP and constantly told me that it would not work. On several occasions, my parents attempted to change my mind by describing how disastrous it would be if I became pregnant before my husband graduated. My father “assured” me I wouldn’t go to hell if I used birth control, after all, did I think my mother was going to hell for using birth control? My mom constantly reminded me that if NFP worked, there wouldn’t be so many large Catholic families in the pews of our church on Sundays. It didn’t occur to her that maybe there were so many large Catholic families because they chose to have many children, that maybe there was something about the Catholic faith that embraced children as gifts. But then again, at that point, it didn’t occur to me either.
Despite attempts to persuade us otherwise, my husband and I remained determined to use NFP. My husband is a very strong Catholic who was raised in a devout family and I know that he would never have consented to use any kind of artificial birth control. If I hadn’t had his strong support, I can’t say that I would have been strong enough not to have bent to the pressure to use birth control. I would like to say that I would have stuck with my morals through thick and thin, but my main motivation to use NFP came not from my desire to do God’s will but to prove my naysayers (especially my mother) wrong. I would use NFP and I would not get pregnant! This thinking was detrimental and poisonous to our relationship as husband and wife and to our spiritual wellbeing.
At that point, if I were to get pregnant, we would have viewed it as a failure. Of course, we would have gotten over the initial disappointment and would have welcomed our child into the world, but it is a dangerous mindset that would describe the conception of a child as a “failure” and a “disappointment”. Although I was using NFP, I was missing a important facet of the Church’s teaching on procreation: that NFP was not to be used in the same way that artificial birth controls usually is, separating the procreative “consequences” from sex. NFP is only to be used to “postpone pregnancy” (I love this phrase, so much more consistent with openness to life than “avoid” or “prevent” pregnancy) if there is a “just” and “serious” reason. Here is the passage from the Catechism of the Catholic Church that explains the Church’s teaching on postponing pregnancy:
For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality. (CCC 2368)
And the corresponding passage in Humanae Vitae:
Those are also to be considered responsible who for serious reasons and with due respect for moral precepts, decide not to have another child for either a definite or an indefinite amount of time.
My husband and I weren’t blatantly disobeying or ignoring the Church’s teaching. Throughout our dating relationship we were committed to making our relationship as Christ-centered as possible and as we approached our wedding, we were even more determined to start our marriage in a holy state. But it is now obvious that we didn’t have the knowledge we needed to do this.
No one had ever told us that we should not postpone pregnancy unless we had just and serious reasons. Even our NFP class presented it as an “moral” alternative to birth control, comparing it’s effectiveness with birth control pills, condoms, etc. Never was it mentioned that there should be a different mindset toward children and procreation that came along with NFP. So our mindset defaulted to that of our society at large: We shouldn’t get pregnant until we want to. God wouldn’t enter into our decision until we decided that we wanted to get pregnant, then and only then would He be needed to help us get pregnant on our terms. I know, how arrogant that sounds! We had turned God into an errand boy that we would beckon when we needed Him! Had I really thought about our approach to family planning, I would have been appalled, but I didn’t initially have any reason to question it or think about it too deeply, so I never did.
So, in light of all this, you may be wondering what significant incident changed my mind? The simplest of things really - a conversation over Facebook. Yes, Facebook! A few months before our wedding, I was chatting on Facebook with an acquaintance from my church whose own wedding was coming up as well. I knew that she was planning to use NFP as well, and I asked her a question that had been bothering me for some time - Were she and her fiancé planning to abstain from sex on their wedding night and honeymoon if it happened to coincide with the fertile time of her cycle? Her response shocked me - they had taken NFP classes but couldn’t come up with a good enough reason to use it, they were simply going to leave it in God’s hands and welcome a child if it came.
“Not a good enough reason?” I thought. “Her fiancé just graduated and didn’t yet have a job! How could they possibly support a child?” She had a job, she told me, and her husband would have all the time before the baby was born to find a job. Besides, they trusted God would provide. Her response sounded a little irresponsible to me, but it seemed like they had thought it through.
But I continued to ask her questions, “Didn’t they want to have “alone time” as a couple before they had children?” Her response: they would have at least nine months to be alone, plus they had time together as a couple before they married and it was God’s plan that married couples should have children. Well, of course I too believed it was God’s plan for marriage to produce children, but God didn’t care when… right?
“But God surely wouldn’t mind if they waited as long as they used NFP,” I added, as if trying to convince her to change her mind. Thank goodness she was patient with me. Unwittingly, I had become just as much the naysayer as my mother had been for me. Then she told me something that I had never heard before, that NFP was only to be used if there were valid reasons to postpone pregnancy. And she went even further, to detail for me the many people she knew who had been open to life and who God had blessed with children and a way to provide for them. A couple who got pregnant on their honeymoon and were never able to have children again. A young couple who was raising two little ones on the husband’s grad school salary (this one particularly hit home).
The conversation ended shortly afterward and the subject never came up again. Although she surely gave me something to think about, it was easy for me to rationalize our use of NFP as “just” due to my lack of a job and David’s paltry grad student stipend. Sure, other people didn’t see that as enough of a reason, but they weren’t being realistic. My parents had raised me firmly under the belief that “God helps those who help themselves”. We would have children in a few years as soon we were financially stable and ready for a child.
Yet I couldn’t brush her words completely out of my mind. I mentioned them shortly afterward to my fiancé and I was very happy when he confirmed my thinking - he too had never heard that NFP was only to be used to prevent pregnancy in serious circumstances. Since he came from a devout family, if he hadn’t heard of it, I was sure that it wasn’t the Church’s teaching. Only overly zealous Catholics took it to that extreme, we assured each other, we surely were doing nothing wrong by being responsible.
And so this was the mindset that we took into our marriage in July of 2010. Sure enough, my original fear had materialized and we abstained from sex on our wedding night and throughout our honeymoon to prevent pregnancy. For the first few months of our marriage we were fastidious about our charting out of fear of becoming pregnant. During the time of month when we had the green light to marital relations, we didn’t enjoy them fully because the fear was still there. We realized we couldn’t fully enjoy God’s beautiful gift of sex because we were trying to fully disengage it from it’s life-giving aspect. I felt that we were somehow being cheated of the marital unity that God intended for us. And every time I thought about this, I was brought back to that conversation I had over Facebook months before.
Instead of dismissing and rationalizing these thoughts yet again, I decided to research them. I scoured the internet for the Church’s teachings on postponing pregnancy and for practical advice (“What are just reasons for postponing pregnancy?”). I ordered and read many books on the topic (the most helpful of these was Called to Give Life: A Sourcebook on the Blessing of Children and the Harm of Contraception by Jason T. Adams, which seems to be no longer available). I began to realize that I was wrong, that just and serious reasons were necessary for postponing pregnancy and in turn this made me angry. How had I grown up in the Church as an active member and never been told this before? Why did it seem that the Church was reticent to give this information to its members? (My opinions as to the reasons I never heard about this before will have to be a topic for another post.)
Unfortunately, none of the websites or books had the answer to the question I was looking for: What is a “just reason” to postpone pregnancy? (translation: Someone PLEASE tell me we have a just reason to prevent pregnancy!) At this point, I was definitely hoping that God wasn’t calling us to be parents just yet. I was enjoying our newlywed life just the two of us and didn’t quite yet want the responsibility of a child. I was having fun! But I know that I owed it to God, to my husband, and to myself to actively question (together with David) the validity of our reasons to wait to have children. And if we came to the conclusion that we didn’t have just reasons, we would submit to the will of God, regardless of our own feelings.
I want to be very careful here, because I do not want to seem like I am making blatant judgment calls as to what is a just reason or not. Every couple has different circumstances and only that couple, through prayer, discussion and collaboration with the Lord, can determine whether their circumstances are “just reasons” or not. Of course, some situations are more clear-cut than others, for example medical conditions that would endanger the life of the wife if she were to become pregnant are much more easy to classify as just and serious than financial difficulty due to one spouse being a grad student. Yet, just because my husband and I decided that his measly grad school salary was not good enough of a reason to postpone pregnancy doesn’t mean that another couple in a similar circumstance should conclude the same.
In our case, our justifications just couldn’t hold up to the “just and serious” criteria. Yes, my husband is a grad student, but we were surviving well on his salary and the small financial contributions from my job. If we were even more careful with our finances, we would be able to survive on his salary alone. We looked more into the cost of having a child, and while I won’t claim that it’s cheap, we also realized that perhaps the cost was overinflated. We would breastfeed (if everything went well) and use cloth diapers. We would buy baby items second-hand and I wouldn’t get every toy or contraption made for little ones. We could make it work. And there it was, the decision I was hoping to avoid was there - we should no longer postpone pregnancy.
Yet suddenly we realized that the decision we were hoping we wouldn’t come to was the one that would make us ultimately happy. We not only decided that we would stop postponing pregnancy, but we would actively seek it. Once we looked carefully into our situation and realized that we no longer needed to be afraid of having children during a time that our society would have deemed “difficult” or “imperfect”, we realized that we were excited to have a child. Our fear had masked the desire that God had put into our hearts to have a little one. In December 2010, five months after we were married, we started using NFP to conceive.
The change in our relationship was remarkable. We were instantly more relaxed and in sync with one another. And yes, our intimate time together was much improved. Instead of feeling relieved each month when I realized I wasn’t pregnant, we were sad, but we trusted God’s timing. In March of 2011, we conceived our little peanut and we couldn’t be happier. Everything is just the same as it was when we got married, everything except our hearts. My husband is still a grad student and we are living on a small stipend. In fact, our situation would seem even less welcoming to a child than it was when we were first married, as we are moving in about three weeks for my husband’s schooling to a place where we do not have family or a support system. Yet we are so at peace with our young, growing family. Our hearts and lives are very different than when we married less than a year ago and we look forward to the future together in the way that God intended it: open to life.
We have decided that after our little one is born, that we will not be using NFP in the foreseeable future. We recognize that there may be reasons in the future that we will need to postpone pregnancy, but we are much more confident in relying on God’s timing and his protection regarding our family.
As for the young woman who planted the seed of truth in our lives, I have yet to tell her how drastically she changed our lives and repaired our relationship with our fertility, with each other, and with the Lord. I feel like it’s a conversation I’d like to have with her in person someday. She and her husband are expecting their own little miracle in August.