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?

 

  • Elaine Boris

    Dear Calah,
    I know I am just one in a sea of voices right now, but I felt uniquely called to write to you. I am also a young mom with four kiddos ages 6, 5, 2, and 2months. We are financially stable but there is nothing extra. I can relate to a lot of what you are saying about the difficulties of raising very young children. I can tell you are struggling emotionally, spiritually, physically, etc. I think your honesty is good- Why should those of us who are doing God’s will with our families have to pretent like it is a bucket of roses all the time? So the rest of the world with 2.3 children who play instruments and varsity sports and never get into trouble will respect us? No. The truth is that we all struggle, and your honesty bears witness because Jesus is truth. I don’t think you would have gotten quite the voracity of emotions if you hadn’t struck a chord. So if I may give a little advice from one Holy mess to another, it would be this: First, remember who we are doing this all for, Jesus, who is never more then a breath away at any moment. He is sustaining, providing, supporting, and crying with us during the difficult times. If we could only see how he loves us through all this, we would weep tears of joy at the struggles we are facing. Second, remember that we are in a process of becoming who we are called to be. We are being stretched and molded. The moms who beautifully balance large families of 8 or 10 children- they were not born that way!! The grace and power and beauty with which they conduct themselves is the result of years of asking, begging God for the Grace to get through even the next moment or next day. St. Francis de Sales points out we struggle as daughters of Eve to become daughters of Mary. And yet, what great assistance she gives us! Third, (and I know you know this), just as now you are bewildered by why our Lord would trust you with so many children, another day you will be crying tears of joy at the precious gifts He has given you. I try not to think of myself as so important that the Lord cannot easily fix whatever I may screw up with regards to my children. I try to be faithful to all he is asking of me and leave the rest in His hands. Finally, when I get overwhelmed I ask myself with confidence that God is giving me the Grace I need, if there is anything I can change. Am I staying grounded in prayer- treating myself to adoration, saying the rosary if possible (or if I am too tired to focus, just a quick glance up to Heaven). Am I spending time on priorities that could be given up? For me, FB was a big time waster, I felt much more sane after I cancelled my account. And, am I asking for help when I need it, or is my pride getting in the way? None of these things may apply to your situation at all, but that has helped me.

    On another note, we have a great women’s group in our parish for young adult women, single and married. It has provided me with a sense of community so often lacking in our Catholic parishes, as well as given me a place to learn my faith more deeply and share my joys and struggles. The format could easily be transferred to another parish, I would be more then willing to talk you through the process if you would like to start one!

    Another St. Francis DeSales quote: “Remember strong fish don’t grow in stagnant ponds.” I would rather be a holy Mess then have missed out on any opportunity to rely more deeply on my Lord.

    Love and Prayers,

    Elaine

  • Nina

    @JoAnna

    The intent is the same. Also, anyone who is striving to have sex but avoid babies could be said to be striving against God’s design. If that’s your argument, the Quiver-full crowd has the only correct approach. And, of course, your assuming you know the will of God for everyone. You don’t.

  • Kristin

    Elaine just said much of what I was going to say much more beautifully than I was going to say it. “[W]e struggle as daughters of Eve to become daughters of Mary.” WOW! I’m stealing that.

    But here are some more musings from a 42 y0 mom of 8 from ages 14 – 1.

    Our parish priest once told my husband, “I know what you’re going through, and it SUCKS, and it’s okay to say that it sucks.” And I read once that, although joyful obedience is pleasing to God, perhaps reluctant obedience is even more pleasing and showers us with even more graces.

    And in the thick of things, I cling to this quote from Father Richard John Neuhaus’s last column for First Things:
    “The entirety of our prayer is ‘Thy will be done.’ – not as a note of resignation, but of desire beyond comprehension.” I pray for that desire everyday. He gave us the blessings, he’ll give us the graces to be their mom and dad. We just have to keep our eyes on the prize – and that’s not here on earth (even though, when I say that out loud, hubby thinks the prize is early retirement keeping bees – which gets further away every time a baby comes.) This will seem like a blip when eternity comes.

    And even though these musings don’t seem very comforting when you’re in the fire of nursing, cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring, wiping bottoms, etc., in the still times they can help focus our minds on Christ, keep us faithful, and ensure our obedience for a little while longer.

    And regarding Elaine’s comment about God fixing whatever we screw up with regards to our children, I leave you this from I Believe in Love, p 93: “A notion which is not widespread and which, nevertheless, is very important is that Jesus, when we ask Him with confidence, repairs not only the evil we have done in ourselves, but also the evil we have done around us.”

    Blessings to you, Calah.

  • nj

    You may have already heard of these, but just in case they are helpful ideas as you are considering the various NFP alternatives I will throw them out there: I think the book “Taking Charge of your Fertility” is pretty excellent. Also, I don’t know anyone who uses one, but I am totally intrigued by the LadyComp/Pearly devices. They sound almost too good to be true and are pricey, and I’m also not sure how well they would work for irregular cycles, but it seems like if they are legit one of these could be an awesome tool. I’m not a Catholic and so I speak as an outsider, but I think the points you raise about the demands the Catholic church makes of families in relation to NFP without giving them the support they need to follow through have a lot of resonance when looking at the issue of abortion and the way many churches, and not just Catholic ones, who condemn it also fail to provide the support their stated position would seem to require them to offer. If all churches would make it their priority to support and encourage young mothers, wed and unwed, fully converted or on the fence, in tangible ways, I think their pronouncements on things like abortion and contraception would receive a different hearing.

  • http://fineoldfamly.blogspot.com Sally Thomas

    I know that people say that they don’t want to have to *go* to something, but when I was a new mother with tinies, the informal moms’ group which friends of mine organized in our Episcopal parish was my lifeline. We had the parish hall to ourselves on Thursdays, and we could close it off to keep the kids in our line of vision. People had donated some Little Tikes-type toys for the kids, who were newborn through preschool (nobody in that group was homeschooling, so older kids “graduated” to school), and we spent Thursday mornings drinking coffee and talking while we nursed our babies and our toddlers played. It was noisy and chaotic, but I would not have missed it. Those were wonderful friendships, and we all lived with each other through a lot of rough spots. We moved away while my oldest kids were still pretty little, but the women I knew there are still each other’s best friends, and their kids are each other’s best friends. It was totally worth getting out of the house with the baby for that — no structured activity, no expectations, no having to look especially good (though it was good to have *something* to get dressed for sometimes). It was just face time with people who over time became my dear friends.

    Now I’m part of an email list which a friend of mine started locally last year: the St. Monica Mothers’ Prayer Group. It encompasses mothers of all ages, homeschooling and not, from all over our diocese. It’s kind of grown by word of mouth over the last year, and I don’t know how many women are currently on the list, but it’s pretty big. It is mostly a list for prayer requests, though I could see something like this as potentially a more comprehensive thing: an online group for conversation as well as prayer, a clearinghouse for those who need not just spiritual works of mercy but also corporal ones. Still, the bottom line is that it’s women who *want* to pray for each other and minister to each other in our vocation of motherhood.

    Something like this would not be hard to start, and wouldn’t need a parish base or the blessing of the priest, though our priest certainly knows about it (he may have been the one who suggested it, actually). For a while some of us with older kids were meeting on Thursday afternoons to pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy and then have tea, which was fun but quickly went by the wayside, life with older kids being the busy thing it is in the afternoons. So now we’re just online. The time requirement is whatever it takes me to read my emails and pray, though if someone needed concrete help that I was able to give, there would be that, too (and they may have, and I might have given it — I just can’t remember an instance right now!)

    Anyway, all you’d need to start would be some local email contacts, who then tell people they know, who then tell people they know. You could make a policy that people are absolutely allowed/encouraged to ask for help if they need it, in any form — that you’re all supporting each other in the discipline of humility by understanding on the front end that everybody is *needy* in one way or another, and that there’s no point in keeping that to yourself. If people wanted to plan get-togethers, that would be fine, but would not be required.

    Even working women have time to do something like this. Even women at home with littles can do this. And the thing is, people are a lot more likely to go the extra mile to help someone with whom they have established contact, even given their time crunches. It’s just a lot easier to say, “I can plan to bring Calah some dinner after work, or have coffee with her,” than it is to say, “I will commit myself to two hours twice a week to visit a new mother . . . whoever that may be . . . ” The former is community working the way it’s supposed to. And the internet is a gift to us that way. My own smalltown life, even with much older children, is far less lonely and isolated that it would otherwise have been, without my various cyber-epistolary friendships.

    I hope I’m not repeating what ten other people have already said. This just came to me in the watches of the night as something I’m seeing in action right now, and something I could see having more varied functions that are an outgrowth of prayer for each other. Meanwhile, I’m praying for you, my epistolary sister, and if I were closer, I’d come see you, too, with a clutch of big kids who love babies.

  • Anna Bragdon

    When our twins came home in 2010, two older ladies from our church came over every Wednesday night for an hour and a half and held the babies while Tarren and I went to the diner across the street. They did this for almost a YEAR. The kids were all fed and in their pjs so nothing was required of the women except to make adoring faces at and snuggle the boys. They viewed it as a mission and it was a major blessing. Also, we have a nursery at our church (and a very organized children’s ministry for toddlers on up) so our time during the service is quiet and comtemplative – a real break from it all. Perhaps you could talk to your church about asking the ladies in church who miss their grandkids to pledge a night a week or a couple hours during the day to helping overwhelmed young mothers. Well, not just young mothers. Lord knows I wasn’t young when the twins came home but I was overwhelmed :-)

  • Jennifer J in MN

    http://www.crisismagazine.com/2011/nfp-the-myth-of-the-%E2%80%9Ccontraceptive-mentality%E2%80%9D NFP is just not the same as contraception. Abstinence is NOT contraceptive.

    • Nina

      No. But it’s still birth control, and the calculated effort to avoid the sperm and egg gettin’ together is exactly the same as it is with a barrier method. Both NFP and a barrier method involve the knowledge of how the reproductive cycle works and then taking active steps to enable the users to engage in sexual intercourse while proactively doing what it takes to not get pregnant. There’s no way around the fact that couples who use NFP do so with exactly the same intent as couples using a barrier method. This “contraceptive mentality” bunk was designed to dehumanize couples who choose to use a diaphragm or condom instead of NFP while at the same time going down the unholy road of painting NFP users as somehow better people with purer hearts.

      Truth is you’re exactly the same and only God knows what is in anyone’s heart, not you. My mother used what passed for NFP back in the day and never missed an opportunity to tell me she never wanted me. But she’s good and holy because she used the Catholic birth control, while a mother who got pregnant while using a diaphragm and loves and adores and wants her child is bad and evil because she used a diaphragm. Right.

      I so tire of this kind of holier than thou BS.

      • Jennifer J in MN

        No, there is a difference between ABSTAINING during natural fertility and putting on/in a barrier and HAVING sex and thwarting fertility. Huge. And I’m one who thinks there is no way to use NFP in a contraceptive way, because you are right, it misses the point. NFP is information. Deciding to have sex or not is a decision that could have moral implications. I don’t think you are necessarily bad or evil or going to hell if you contracept, but you certainly aren’t following Church teaching, whether out of defiance or not understanding the teaching, I can’t tell or judge. I can say that using contraceptives is objectively immoral and a grave sin if done knowing and rejecting the teaching of the Church. I’m sorry that people have been rude or made you feel bad. I’m sorry you feel the need to call names, as I certainly didn’t.

        • Nina

          I didn’t call you any names.

          There is no difference between purposefully calculating which days to abstain and using a diaphragm. There IS a difference between abstaining altogether when you know you do not want another pregnancy and using any form of BC, including NFP.

          NFP is our very human, very deliberate, very calculated effort to have sex and avoid babies, just as diaphragms, condoms and hormonal/surgical methods of BC are.

          The gobbledy-gook that passes for arguments “proving” that NFP is somehow different are just that. Maybe they make you feel better about yourself, maybe they make you feel special and holy, but they are your deliberate, willful, calculated attempt to separate one aspect of sex from the other. Period. You just can’t logically argue your way out of that one.

      • pagansister

        Nina, I too have always tried to figure out how the Church can claim that NFP is acceptable but other methods aren’t. If a couple is trying that unreliable method to NOT have a pregnancy result from their love making then it IS most certainly birth control. The intent is the same—no pregnancy. Thus the barrier method is no different. Sometimes those methods fail too, but I’d say much more reliable than Vatican roulette.

        • Jennifer J in MN

          The intent of not getting pregnant can be a moral intent. Thus why abstaining is moral. NFP is not contraception. It is information about fertility. It has nothing to do with it being natural that makes it moral or the fact that is isn’t 100% effective. It’s because the ACT of sex is not changed when information about fertility is known. The ACT is changed when contraception is involved. Sex is to be both procreative (able to procreate, NOT fertile) and unitive. The Church doesn’t dictate WHEN to have sex, only that the act must be whole and complete. NFP does nothing to any particular act of sex, the sex is as God intended, whether natural fertility is there or not. It’s the same principle that allows those infertile to be married. Contraception ALWAYS affects the act, either with chemical or physical barriers.

          • pagansister

            Yes, contraception always affects the act—it prevents an unwanted pregnancy. That is very good—and allows pleasurable intercourse without having to worry about a child being the result. Intercourse is for far more than procreation, or IMO should be.

          • Nina

            Yes, but we’re not animals. Intent counts as much as the physical motions of the act. When we choose to create a system that allows us to have sex but not have babies, we are choosing to pursue the physical pleasure and emotional satisfaction of the physical act, while doing our utmost to reject the procreative aspect of the physical act.

            The morality lies in the intent. If it’s moral for a couple to decide how many children to have, and when to have them, then whether or not you get there by using the tool of NFP or the tool of a diaphragm is immaterial.

            The goal is the same — to thwart fertility. To excise it from the equation. To withhold fertility from one’s spouse. It’s that simple.

            The contortions people go through to make it sound as if there’s something different going on are ridiculous. Tools are not moral or immoral in and of themselves. The morality lies in how we use them. If knowledge of fertile periods during a cycle is the tool, then what we decide to do with that knowledge is where the morality comes in. If it’s moral to use that knowledge to refrain from having sex specifically because you don’t want another baby, then it’s moral to use that knowledge to place a barrier between the sperm and the egg specifically because you do not want to have another baby. Same choice, same intent, which is where the morality comes into play.

            Hormonal birth control involves other moral factors, so there’s an argument to be made against using it. Surgical methods may or may not be moral depending on the situation. Barrier methods don’t do anything NFP doesn’t. NFP is a mental “barrier”, if you will, and a condom or diaphragm or sponge are physical barriers. Same thing.

          • Jennifer J in MN

            The Church isn’t against controlling births. Abstinence, either periodic or total, is a licit form of controlling births. The intent to control births is not the problem, it’s the way we go about it (ends and means, read the article at the end). I’m sorry if my belief in the Catholic Church’s teaching bother you. I can hear it in the comments above telling me I’m holier than thou and that my arguments must make me feel better. Not a very Christian attitude, imho. I’m doing my best to live out my vocation with my husband and 7 children. It’s a struggle for sure, but it’s a struggle worth going though. There ARE answers to your questions, even if you choose to not believe or can’t come to understanding. http://littlecatholicbubble.blogspot.com/2011/03/important-follow-up-to-natural-family.html

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  • Jennifer J in MN

    Also, this is a great article about being in the ‘tunnel’ of parenthood: http://onemoresoul.com/news-commentary/the-tunnel-of-parenthood.html

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