A Little Bit of Hope, A Lot of Musing

I have received 130 comments on my Fear, Prayer post, dozens of personal emails, and several facebook messages. I’m honestly overwhelmed by the response that post generated. With very few exceptions, the comments and emails were deeply compassionate. Even those who urged me to reconsider birth control were written with such obvious love and sympathy that I wanted to hug each commenter.

I know this is going to sound cheesy, but this is one of those times when the blogsophere has reminded me of the beauty of humanity. We can be deeply divided on personal, political, religious and social issues and still recognize someone else’s suffering and reach out to help. I know some of my commenters were upset that I received so many “ditch the rules” comments, but I wasn’t. I was grateful and humbled that so many people I’ve never met cared enough about my struggles to try and help, in whatever way they could.There have been many times in the past few years when I have looked at comment boxes and despaired of man’s ability to love his fellow man, but this one time, I looked at the comment box and saw overwhelming love. I said at the bottom of my post that I would pray without hoping, and I meant that I wouldn’t hope for a respite for myself, a reprieve from my own struggles. But, in fact, all of your comments left me with a hope that I haven’t felt in a long time. A hope for humanity, for all of use, that we can put aside ideological differences and choose to love each other. So thank you.

I know a lot of people were wondering, in the comment box, why I follow the Church’s rules on birth control. I think the phrasing I just used, “the Church’s rules”, or the phrase I used in my post, “the Church’s ban”, are part of the problem. I’m a convert, not a cradle Catholic. I haven’t had the rules of Catholicism pounded into my head since I was a child. In fact, I grew up Evangelical, among people who had no problem at all with birth control. I chose the Catholic faith freely, knowing what would be required of me. I went in with  my eyes wide open. I did not understand just how difficult a life of Catholicism would be, as evidenced by my struggles to live it, but I had a rough idea of what would be required of me.

In my quest to understand Catholicism, before I took on the faith, I did a lot of research about the birth control issue. I knew it would be a huge issue for me, perhaps even the huge issue, because I’m not a child-centric person. I’ve never been the girl who wanted nothing more than to be a mother. In fact, I didn’t really even like children until I had my own. Even then, it took some time. I still don’t do well with newborns. I find that stage awkward, difficult and exhausting. Give me a toddler and I’ll be set, but a newborn? No thanks. So I set about trying to understand just why the Church had this ridiculous rule.

I wrote about it extensively here, in one of my first posts. Basically what I found out is that the Church doesn’t make rules. There’s no, “do this or you go to Hell” or “don’t do this or you go to Hell”. That’s the wrong way to understand the faith. Rather, the Church, after much study and reflection, says, “these things are morally wrong, and to do them would be to commit a sin against God.” The Catechism is less a rule book and more a road map, marking areas for us that are dangerous. I understand 100% the arguments against hormonal birth control. They are abortifacient drugs, not to mention Class 1 carcinogens. They are physically dangerous drugs to ingest, both for the mother and for potential children. They also don’t work very well (evidence, Sienna). The arguments against barrier methods and sterilization, however, I’m less empirically convinced by. The idea is that sex is supposed to be both unitive and pro-creative, an anything that falsely separates sex from it’s natural life-given potential damages the integrity of the act. I sort of understand this, but I sort of don’t. After all, during pregnancy, a couple can’t have pro-creative sex. Nor can a couple have pro-creative sex when a woman is infertile. I understand, intellectually, that abstaining during fertile periods is completely different than altering the sexual act to render it infertile. Still, though, it seems like a lot of hair-splitting and philosophizing. Basically, the argument makes sense philosophically but doesn’t hold much water for me when it comes up against the practical reality of babies, and lots of them. That’s where faith comes in. I believe, to the core of my being, that the Catholic Church has both wisdom and truth. I believe that the “rules” in the Catechism are not there to ruin my life or to make me a slave to children, but to allow me to be the freest, most complete person I can be by keeping me separate from sin. I try not to see myself as “oppressed by the rules”, even though I fail regularly. I try to remember that I chose this path because I saw truth, beauty and love here.

That being said, I’m convinced that the Church does not want me to have a nervous breakdown, to lose my marriage, or to lose my faith. There simply must be a way to track fertility that allows us to determine fertile periods and abstain during them. I’m going to try the Marquette protocol for breastfeeding, and then hopefully after my fertility returns I can figure out a method that combines the different aspects of Creighton, Sympto-Thermal and Marquette that allows us to accurately monitor fertility. I am feeling cautiously optimistic about having the monitor to rely on. I’m also trying to stop myself from issuing threatening prayers at God, like, “This better work, God, or so help me, I will have the doctor tie my tubes the second the next baby is born! I mean it this time!” I’m pretty sure that’s not how praying is supposed to work, although at this point, I’m willing to bet God understands.

But I do think that there is a real problem with the Church’s teaching on the morality of birth control. It’s the same problem that many pro-choicers point out (inaccurately, I believe) when citing the Church’s hypocrisy on abortion; namely, lack of follow-through support. The Church says, “don’t use birth control, have big families” and then when we do, and when we find ourselves drowning because of it, there’s no help. No support. I was angry and upset at Gretchen’s story in my comment box, about how she was bedridden with twin newborns and two small children, a husband who couldn’t take off work, and her local parish said, “sorry, we can’t help”. That is wrong. It’s so bloody awful and heartless that it makes me want to scream. The Anchoress wrote a post about how the Church needs a ministry to young mothers. I wholeheartedly agree. I’d go a step further and say that every parish needs a ministry that provides not only psychological help and comfort, but also physical aid. There are women who are completely isolated with several children, who have no family to help after childbirth, no friends to make meals, and whose husbands can’t take time off to help. These women should not be left to fend for themselves. They often do not have the time or resources to build a network of support for themselves. The Church needs to step up and help. The days of big, extended families all living on the same block are gone. It’s more difficult than ever for a family to try and live in accordance with the Church’s teaching, and there ought to be recognition of that difficulty, and help given to those who are struggling. The more I think about it, the angrier I get at this complete dearth of support and succor for families struggling desperately to do the right thing. I don’t know how such a ministry might be started, but I think that parish pastors have an obligation to try and find some way to help the young mothers of the parish.

Anyone else have any ideas about how to get a ministry for young mothers up and running? And what are your thoughts on the arguments against birth control that I’ve outlined here?

 

  • Jennifer J in MN

    Parenting and motherhood weren’t meant to be done in isolation. I totally agree that the answer is parish support, when family isn’t available to help. I’m not sure how to get that set up in a parish, but when someone does, please post it here. It’s something that has been on my mind for a while (we have 7 children and live no where near family).
    On another note, pregnant and infertile people DO have procreative sex, if they are doing the act without contraception. Procreative describes the act, not that the act must produce children, but that it COULD if fertility is present. Procreative doesn’t equal fertile. 2 different things.
    Prayers for you. I hope you are able to find some help. Do you have a college near you? That can be a source of helpers that often will work for food and a bit of money.

  • Tom

    A wise man once told me that one of his favorite sayings was, “It’s easier to watch and criticize than participate and realize.” Now, I really don’t mean this as a put-down. I really don’t. But I’ve always felt that the best reponse to the feeling of, “I really, really think that this should be done,” or, “Why can’t those people do this seemingly easy thing right,” is, to the best of your reasonable ability, go out and do whatever it is you think needs doing or can be easily done.

    I know you’re a mother of a bunch of young children, and as far as I know you have no psychological training, but you could try to go to your parish (it’s a bit unreasonable, after all, to expect you to go to the USCCB or the Vatican with this) and get some people who can help (therapists, psychologists, exceptionally wise and compassionate people) to get this going. Or if nothing else, to blog about it relentlessly until it catches on.

  • tanya

    I think part of the problem might be that ” everyone is working” until the day they die. Our parish has a meals for new moms program but even that is hard to keep going. ( in a parish with over 2500 familes) You would think retired grandmotherly types would love to make a meal for a fellow parishioner who just had a baby but you would be hard pressed to find a person over 50,60 and even 70 that is not working. My father is over 70 and still working full time. Dh’s parents over 60 and both still work full time.

  • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com DeaconJR

    I can empathize to some extent, at least, with what you say above, at least as the father of what some might call a large family. But above you’ve written:

    “But I do think that there is a real problem with the Church’s teaching on the morality of birth control. It’s the same problem that many pro-choicers point out (inaccurately, I believe) when citing the Church’s hypocrisy on abortion; namely, lack of follow-through support.”

    I’d really suggest you could revise that for greater clarity–the “problem” is simply not with the Church’s “teaching”–it’s with the Church’s “practice,” at least as you’ve identified the problem above. The teaching itself is not the problem at all, and indeed its beauty is immense. And one of the supreme antidotes to the “problem” that makes it really possible to cope with the many challenges involved is identified so richly and poignantly by JPII himself in his “Theology of the Body”–grace.

    Grace doesn’t fix the externals of course, but it does offer remedy for much of the inner struggle we face as a result of the wound of concupiscence.

    God bless!

    Deacon JR

  • Jenny

    Have you heard of Elizabeth Ministry? It sounds like the kind of work you wish the Church would provide. http://www.elizabethministry.com/
    I heartily agree with you. These issues make me do a slow burn. The flip side of the coin is that women and families often do not spend time building community through the Church and then are disappointed to discover it does not exist when they need it.
    If it helps on the barrier methods or sterilization, I think it is useful to see the Church’s teaching on contraception in light of the unitive aspect of sex. If you do not offer your complete self to your spouse, including your fertility (whatever its state at the time,) then you are compromising the integrity of the marital act. This idea is not usually presented as important as the procreative aspect and is sometimes left out entirely. However, sex as a language of love is just as important as sex as procreation. The inadequate formation Catholics receive on this subject is another topic that pushes my buttons.

  • http://thebodyguardtob.wordpress.com DeaconJR

    One other thought that I think is worth sharing:

    We definitely have to realize that the “problem” identified is predominantly a problem of the lay apostolate. The “Church” that needs to step up and help are the same folks in the pew who probably cannot even see the problem you’re describing because they are conformed to the practice of contraception and likely see little or no value in addressing the issues in the manner that is needed. While it’s great and important to have a pastor who is in conformity with what the Church teaches, he will be able to do very little on his own to practically support the precious few families in his parish in their fidelity to Church teaching. Pastoral support? Of course. But the practical support will have to come from the community, which itself is so fractured over this issue, in my experience. In short, the problem you’ve identified is itself a significant consequence of the failure of so many Catholic couples to embrace the Church’s teaching….

    God bless,

    Deacon JR

    • Renee

      In my experience, when I had 5 small children and could have used help, the older, able to help members of the church thought I was crazy for following the church’s teachings, and told me so repeatedly. I would not have been able to ask for help from them when they were some of the very people that made having another baby challenging because of the rude comments and questions. It turned out that the small group of moms of many supported each other as much as possible, because most everyone else had the attitude, “you chose this lifestyle, deal with it.” I now have 9 children and again, it is the group of other moms that have large families that help each other. My older children help the newer moms, and we all make food for each other and support each other however we can.

  • http://www.fountainsofhome.blogspot.com Christy

    I definitely agree with the lack of support. Its something the Catholic Church has totally lost somehow in the midst of the last generation. I think it comes more from the point of view that everyone’s living for themselves, they reach retirement and think its ‘me’ time. And for some reason most Catholic parishes have lost emphasis on the family. I always think a nice thing that comes out of the Mormon Church is their inherent ability to go anywhere and have instant support as a family. It really begins by people being other focused and not self focused.
    About the monitor though, I would really encourage you to not fully rely upon it while breastfeeding. Or at the very least use the monitor in conjunction with a trained Marquette person, and to not ignore your own signs of fertility. I was using the monitor while fully breastfeeding and still got pregnant. In researching Marquette’s method they really don’t have too much actual breastfeeding data in relation to the monitor, and the monitor detects every rise in estrogen which happens a lot during breastfeeding but may not signal a return to fertility. Anyways, I don’t want to preach or anything, just a heads up.

  • Theresa

    I’ve been wondering the same thing. My husband and I are getting ready for baby #3 in March. Before we found out we were preggers, we had started training to be a teaching couple for CCL. This has been a difficult pregnancy for us and on top of having a 3 and 1 yr old- I completely understand the conflicted feelings over the BC issue. I think I caught myself more than once, unfortunately, praying for the need for an emergency hysterectomy that would more or less solve this issue for me in the future. I think this may be where we are cut of the same cloth; as much as I am personally struggling with my faith in this issue, I am really sure I’d rather cling to the Church and her teachings because I really believe there is truth and joy in them. The barrier/sterilization issues, I admit seem to be a bit on a sliding scale for me, morally speaking, but I’m also praying for the faith and wisdom to trust God and to be honest in my intentions within my marriage and with God.

    Right about the time we found out I was pregnant, my husband and I were working in our parish to present a week of activities for the Bishop’s NFP week. Although we use sympto-thermal, we presented a lot of info on the 3 models you mentioned. (If at some point you want to talk about those, email me- since my address is required to post this comment, I’m pretty sure you can get it.) Most of the stuff we see about NFP is geared toward the engaged or people coming into the Church (or both). We tried really hard to reach out more towards already married couples and made sure we offered child care. I think a successful Mom’s ministry needs to start with that option- child care. Sometimes we just need a break! Especially if we can get some of the older retired women to volunteer to watch the kids during a morning or two a week. But with that option being in the background, I think it would be a lot easier to develop other aspects of a mom’s ministry, beyond a Bible study or social get together type option. I think keeping track of moms in the parish with new babies so other parishoners can volunteer to provide meals/gift cards or offer to help at their home a couple times a week would be well received. And let’s face it, any mom, especially if she has been the recipient of such generosity, will be happy to help pay it forward later when she has reached her own new normal. I also think having a parish-based tutoring service would be good- especially in math and science. Our parishes really need to be “womb to tomb.” If we have any problem in this life, we should be able to come to our parish for help. To get it started would require a pastor willing to be supportive of such an idea and willing to help make it happen- at least by directing when space should be alotted and hopefully helping to encourage people to volunteer. I think this is part of being really pro-life…

  • Sarah B.

    Calah,

    This is a great and very thoughtful post. I think you explained both the Church and yourself very well. I agree there needs to be more done *at the parish level* to support families with many children. Our parish seems to just sort of organically have that community because *most* of the young families have 4 or more and they get how important that is.

    One thing, I have to point out. We do have procreative sex. By we, I mean people who are sorta-basically-infertile, like me. What makes the sex procreative is the intention, not the result. That’s why contraception is still wrong, even when it fails. Because when people contracept, their hearts are closed to life, even if the “method” fails and their bodies make a baby.

  • http://michelle-endlessstrength.blogspot.com Michelle

    You make a good point at you close your post. And to be honest with you, the Catholic church fails many miserably in ministry. The Catholic church is made up of Perfect Truth and Life in the Eucharist — and backed up with us imperfect human beings left to try and carry out Christ’s mission on Earth.

    I would say that just about everyone in every situation can claim that the Church is not there for them when they need them the most. Think about it…there are always more poor/hungry than hands and food to feed them. There are may dioceses with no ministry opportunities for infertile Catholics. Everywhere I look, young couples and young singles say the Church ignores them and their needs. Divorced Catholics are left out on a limb. I, myself, am guilty of blog entries complaining about the fact that I am left out of many opportunities to be ministered to because I am a work-outside-the-home mom (WOTHM). I could go on and on, but I’m sure you get the picture.

    All that is not said to discourage you or to try and make you feel like you don’t have a case: you do. Absolutely. But just like every other ministry out there that gets started — it is going to have to happen person-to-person. I pray somehow you are able to get something started that can help you and help other women like you in your sphere of influence. I know that by simply speaking up at my parish and reminding those that schedule ministry/evangelical events that I exist and I am not the only WOTHM out there, I have seen that they are trying to schedule things so that women like me can participate, whether by providing child care at the events or just scheduling them at times I (and others like me) are not at work.

    I am glad you are trying Marquette. I’ve told you before, we’ve been using it for going on 4 years now. Even though we were blessed to have no “surprises” before Marquette, using the monitor gave me more confidence in my mucous observations because I was able to begin identifying what mucous actually coincided with PEAK on the monitor and I learned what PEAK type mucous looks like and when it actually occurs in my cycle.


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