Family Planning

Fair Warning: I am about to get all kinds of Catholic up in here. And this is a post I have bitten my lip about SO many times in the past... not because I'm afraid of how people will react, but because this is not a "Catholic" blog. This is my creative space. While I deeply love my Catholic faith, and it absolutely shapes my whole life, I love having so many non-Catholic readers because it widens the conversation. I have had many enriching, uplifting exchanges with all kinds of beautiful people who come from all kinds of different backgrounds, and I want to keep it that way! 

So if you are not at all interested in Catholic biznass, just check back next week for more of my normal floaty "I love life" posts. lol. No hard feelings! I don't write this post out of preachiness or even self-righteousness... I just want to force myself to once and for all express my own thoughts on this topic that have kept popping up in the last 3 years and been quietly thought about and never publicly shared. 
Bear with me.

When I first named this blog way back when I was pregnant with Will, 
I was well-aware that my new title was also a token conservative Catholic catchphrase. One of those terms you let loose casually when meeting new Catholics to kind of, "test the waters". If you're talking to a "liberal" Catholic, you get a stepping back an inch reaction, with some stuttering and changing of topics. Or just brow-furrowing and confused looks. If you're talking to a "conservative" Catholic, you generally get some sort of veiled question as to why you don't have 5 under 5. At times, there seems to be a bit of an "all or nothing" stance taken by most Catholics when it comes to this very grey area... Either a Catholic dismisses it altogether and just decides "contracepting is what works for me!" or they take up their battle-axes and start shouting at everyone about what "grave reason" means.

Clearly, I don't have 5 under 5. Nor do I feel there is any call to do so for me. My firstborn will be 2 and a half when Baby Henry makes his appearance, and I am so excited they will be close, but the idea of a closer age gap than that is enough to give me a minor panic attack. I know myself well enough to know this would not be a pretty scenario. At least, not at this stage in my life. I may be a huge wimp, but there are some things that are very sacred to me and my relationships with my husband and children that I personally could not retain without some prayerful and prudent family planning. 

Jason and I talk a lot about the family God is calling us to have. Its a present and future thing. We love making babies and we love raising them. This is an exciting and awesome season in our lives. And we have NO clue how many or when God is going to call us to have. However, we approach it as something we have to consciously discern and say "yes" to each time. 

So here my blog has this "catchphrase" title and I am clearly not using it the way I am sure a lot of Catholics come on here thinking I will... just un-family-planning, basically, and approaching the whole thing like, "I signed up for this when I got married, now I just have to ride the track I stepped on". Maybe that is how God calls individual couples to approach it, but this is not how I understand the Church to say everyone must see it. Which begs the question, how do I see this phrase myself? How do I live it out?

"With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time."
Humanae Vitae, sec. 10 

The USCCB expresses the meaning of this paragraph a little more simply: 

"Living according to God‘s design for love and life does not mean that married couples cannot plan their families. The principle of responsible parenthood describes the way spouses can work with God‘s gift of fertility. Rooted in the objective moral order which was established by God, spouses can recognize their own duties towards God, themselves, their families and human society as they decide when to try to achieve a pregnancy or conclude that there are sufficiently serious reasons to justify postponing one." 
via this awesome Pastoral Letter on "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan"

I believe the old translation of this beautiful papal encyclical from the 60's used the term "grave reason", a term that has naturally caused a lot of anxiety and confusion in the modern English-speaking world. We do not use the word "grave" synonymously with "serious" these days. It no longer just means "not a laughing matter" or "shouldn't be taken lightly." We use it to describe life-threatening situations - a grave car accident would imply, you know, death or hanging by a thread in the ICU. A grave diagnosis from your doctor would bring your heart in your throat as you wait to hear what cancer you have.

The Church in her wisdom changed the translation of this word for us [I believe it was rather recently... but I know that even on the Vatican Website this change to the encyclical's translation has taken effect]. But somehow I still hear that term thrown around, and generally, when this happens, its rather critically. It always always comes up when people discuss what it means to plan your family, to work with your fertility, as a modern young Catholic.

For some reason, everyone thinks that what everyone else needs is this or that theologian's brilliant explanation of what it means to "be open to life". And you get a lot of dogma and teaching and helpful tracts thrown archly in your lap. Most of which, if you are even discussing the topic, you have already read and accepted. 

And this is where I think we Catholics are really missing the ball. 
We fall into thinking we each just need to get out our own "correct" opinion on what a Catholic family should look like, and everyone will be the wiser... when really, this very attitude is ignoring the nature of the Church's teachings on marriage and family planning.

If your brother told you he was struggling with discerning whether or not he was called to the priesthood... you wouldn't throw Catechism paragraphs about the meaning of the priesthood at him, as if knowing the teachings would just make everything magically clear for him! No! You would recognize right away that this is a question of personal surrender to the Will of God... a question of simply figuring out what His Will is. I'm guessing you'd probably respond by sharing your own story of how you discerned your vocation, and maybe a story of a friend who discerned a different one. And you'd encourage him that he's doing great just discerning at all; you'd most likely tell him you'll be praying for him to have peace in following God's unique plan for his life. You'll assure him that God will not leave him hanging - He'll let him know. His Will is our peace.

That is what Natural Family Planning entails for me... It's as much a discernment as when I spent a season of my life praying and trying to figure out if I was called to be a Dominican sister. The only difference is, it's every month! Except for this nice quiet season that I'm pregnant and the 6 months after Baby comes that I will be infertile. But it won't be long before this is again on the table to be discerned and prayed about by my husband and I. 

Just because you discerned you were called to marriage and embraced that call does not mean you know how many children you are called by God to welcome into your lives, and the timing of when you should do so. Obviously at this point, its not a question of whether you're being called to "be fruitful and multiply"... and that is where the openness to life comes in big time... 
But it is still a huge question of when and how many times! Taking this question seriously, knowing there are many factors - personal limitations of you and your spouse (physical, emotional and spiritual), providing for the education and nourishment of your children - both in the present moment AND 13 years from now when you may have a houseful of teenagers with very different needs!... there are a host of things, of responsibilities, that you and your spouse can only know when you're there, and only God can prepare you for. 

You may get a few surprises - actually, its unlikely that you won't get a lot of surprises! - for instance, many couples get married and then find out making babies is going to take much, much longer for them than they thought. Infertility is a cross that we have zero preparation for in our culture, because we all unwittingly buy the lie that we're pummeled with as young women - "You are by default super fertile and unless you control this disease you will definitely have 15 kids". Even for us "conservative" Catholics, most of us don't realize that true fertility is precious, a gift, and rarer than you'd think. 

Some couples are given honeymoon surprises like Jason and I were. 

I wouldn't trade this boy for all my former plans. 

But I still feel a certain joy and excitement that I get to keep dreaming. I get to keep discerning. I get to keep choosing to say "yes" to what I learn God is offering Jason and I. How do we do this? How do we approach this and know that we're doing it right, and not selfishly?

We don't.

My much-smarter-friend Theresa pointed out in an email convo about this topic, 
"If only we were infallible in all of our decisions." Damn, I thought. She is so right! We aren't and we can't ever think we are! And that is something I have felt is often missing from too many blogposts and articles and talks about NFP. 

The awareness of our own fallibility should help us understand why we must remain open as we go about our lives, planning for our futures, embracing our presents. We abide in the life of the Church... we remain in a state that we can receive the grace poured out for us. We take our sinfulness and our selfishness and our weak fallibility to the merciful throne of God each day. We unite ourselves to Him through prayer and the sacraments as often as possible in our busy lives. We strive to live in the world and not of it, such a uniquely difficult cross in our vocation of marriage. We can't just comfortably cut the world off. We have to live in it, work in it, love in it, raise kids in it. And still constantly battle the creeping contagion of selfishness that we are surrounded by. But we don't just throw out the charts and the plans and the whole discernment process because we are afraid of our own fallibility.

On our wedding day three years ago, in that glorious golden moment up on the altar before God and everybody, Jason and I held hands and looked into each others eyes (streaming with happy tears), and when the priest asked us, "Will you accept children lovingly from God, and bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church?" we said, "I do".  And there was not the slightest begrudging halt in either of our hearts. It was so clear up there in that moment that God had a plan for us, for our own family, that He had had this plan for us since our own coming into being. A plan as beautiful and intrinsically apart of who we are as His plan that brought us so miraculously and romantically together. And the process of discerning and charting and praying and communicating as we go about our lives as this little family is all tailored to help us do exactly that... accept children lovingly. With responsibility and self-sacrifice and joyful recognition that they are not just numbers or extensions of ourselves- they are persons with unique needs and gifts.  

This is how Jason and I do it - how we plan our family, how we practice openness to life. Not by anxiously or arrogantly studying lists or pamphlets or checking up with other people's opinions. There is a season and a time and place for studying Church teaching. And, let's be real, for refreshers of that teaching. And there is a season and time and place for just [just?!] growing in our personal relationships with the Lord Jesus. I love the Catechism, but I recognize that too much theology can keep me, like those good ole Pharisees, from growing in my relationship with Christ - it can distract me from just the Gospel. Just reflecting on the Person who lives and breathes and speaks through those red letters. We need this simplicity. 

This is what so many of us get so wrong. I am so guilty too! We get so focused on the nitty gritty reasons, on the logic, on the Catholic teaching, that we forget this is also, importantly, a question of relationship. It is a question of personal discernment. And each family is going to look as different as each priest, each religious order. And that's the beauty of it all. The girl who gives away everything and lives among the poor in Mother Teresa's order of Sisters of Charity is no holier than the girl who becomes a Dominican nun in the beautiful Dominican convent teaching clean, well-off children in private school. We are all called to different things - different crosses, different joys. What was it St. Therese said about the little wild flowers and the big roses? 

“I understood that every flower created by Him is beautiful, that the brilliance of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not lessen the perfume of the violet or the sweet simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all the lowly flowers wished to be roses, nature would no longer be enamelled with lovely hues. And so it is in the world of souls, Our lord's living garden.” 

- St. Therese of Lisieux

There are absolutely families out there who, like the girl called to be a Sister of Charity, are called to welcome "5 under 5", or "3 under 3", or a whole lot more children total than those around them. I see that, I do, and I truly admire it. But this does not mean they are embracing a greater holiness, or that I should look at them and feel guilted into gritting my teeth and closing my eyes and muttering, "Ok, whatever" when it comes to having another baby. We have to respond with a free will to God's inspiration, His intimate call, in order to bear fruit in our own lives. Perhaps that intimate call of God will be for us to welcome a whole lot more children someday than we ever thought we could handle. But I trust that, no matter what His unique will is for me and mine, He will give us the grace to desire it and the ability to do it joyfully. 

We need the encouragement of hearing about our different callings, our different crosses, as Katie of NFP and Me so beautifully pointed out in her refreshingly simplistic approach to the topic. Its challenging and inspiring and calming at the same time to hear about each other's personal struggles and gifts. And we shouldn't be afraid when we share it that people will respond with pamphlets and documents and pick apart our words. We are not infallible.  We are working on it. We are simply striving to know what God is asking of each of us and praying to have the courage to say Yes. 
Of all the teachings and preachings about this topic, what speaks to my heart the most besides a few powerful scripture verses, is the following by our late Pope Benedict:

“Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? 
If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, 
are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? 
Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, 
something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? 
Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? . . . 
If we let Christ into our lives, 
we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing 
of what makes life free, beautiful and great. 
Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. 
Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. 
Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.
 And so, today, with great strength and great conviction,
 on the basis of long personal experience of life,
 I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! 
He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. 
When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. 
Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ
 – and you will find true life.” 

- Pope Benedict XVI

I read this now and I feel the same full-body-goosebumps of challenge and excitement and peace that I felt when I used to read it in college, anxiously discerning whether I had a religious vocation (talk about terrifying!). The older I get in my life, the more I realize how these opportunities for discernment force us to learn so much about God and about ourselves and about His love for us. I don't think I will ever outgrow the need for discernment.

Only in a growing friendship with Christ can we know what He wants for us, for our individual vocations, for our own families. Only in this friendship can we figure out what beautiful life He had in mind for us when He created us. I don't think it should ever just be a "track" that we resign ourselves to riding out without any further deliberation. And certainly never through gritted teeth and clenched fists. It may look small and unheroic in comparison to someone else's... or it may look crazy and chaotic!... but if you and your spouse take the time and embrace the freedom to discern what is God's will for you, then I believe your life will be beautiful and free and great.

This, to me, is what Being Open to Life is all about. This is why I picked this controversial catchphrase to be the title for my very simple and easygoing blog... because I am doing this, in my own way, in every area of my life, and I want that to be the defining essence of my life as my little family grows up. Its about figuring out daily, in the joys and tears of the present moment, what exactly is the Abundant Life God has in mind for you and your own family, and choosing to say yes with a grateful heart. 

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,