In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae this summer, Sick Pilgrim will be featuring a series of essays on Natural Family Planning, the only acceptable method of achieving or avoiding pregnancy according to the teaching of the Catholic Church. These essays will not present ideological stances or theological arguments, but will simply offer unvarnished testimony from individuals who have used NFP. The struggles and sufferings that NFP carries with it frequently go undiscussed, and we wanted to offer a space for honest conversation. The essays are being posted anonymously to protect the privacy of the writers, who otherwise might not feel comfortable telling their stories. When it comes to NFP, “all things conspire to keep silent…half out of shame perhaps, half as unutterable hope” (Rainer Maria Rilke). We want NFP to work, and when it doesn’t, we keep silent and believe our struggles are unique. It is the hope of the editors of Sick Pilgrim that these essays will be a source of hope to those who struggle with NFP, and will convey the message: You are not alone.
I was raised in a household where moral theology and natural law were regular dinner-table topics. I read Humanae Vitae on my own, in the sixth grade, for fun. (I was both precocious and socially awkward.) My husband and I attended Theology of the Body talks and went to daily Mass together while dating. Throughout 17 years of marriage, we’ve practiced NFP (sometimes well, sometimes poorly), and have warmly welcomed all our children, surprises or no.
In recent years, however, we have become more attuned to the latent sexism that often seems to be packaged with NFP. I don’t know many couples who practice NFP with a working mother–or who find working mothers desirable at all. Our parish priest, who is very supportive of NFP and traditional Catholicism, has said from the pulpit that women should be submissive to their husbands, and that it’s the vocation of men to work outside the home.
Additionally, in NFP circles there is a tendency to blame unintended pregnancies on women or couples. Even the USCCB website states that perfect use involves a 2% failure rate, but that “less motivated” couples “will not consistently follow the method’s guidelines” and therefore are likely to have failure rates of 10-20%. Such language seems to suggest that the blame for NFP failure lies on the couple (and implicitly, I’d argue, on the woman, who generally bears most of the responsibility for charting and making decisions about fertile periods). I have found myself beginning to question not NFP itself, but the larger culture in which it seems to be situated.
In the context of these reflections, I gave birth last summer, at 39, to our fifth child, a girl. My husband and I were sure our family was complete. We felt confident that this was God’s will. We have Catholic school tuition bills to pay. We provide substantial financial and emotional support to an elderly aunt who depends on us. Several of our kids have chronic illness which, while in remission, could recur at any time and cause severe physical, financial and emotional stress. We carefully spaced our last two children so that we would not have to pay daycare costs for two kids, as I work full-time in a field oriented to social justice. The last time I had two babies under two, I had severe postpartum depression accompanied by both OCD and rage. We felt it would be irresponsible to risk that situation again. Having had previous success with Marquette, we jumped right back in. We may have grumbled a little bit about long stretches of abstinence in the postpartum protocol, but we were confident that the method would serve us well.
You can probably guess where this is going. Our adorable baby was born tongue-tied, making breastfeeding difficult, and she weaned before six months. Cycles at 40, near perimenopause, are very different from cycles at 29 or 35. When our 5th child was seven months old, I found myself pregnant with a method-failure Marquette baby, having ovulated eleven days earlier than expected. (And, despite the USCCB’s take, it was not because we were “less motivated.”)
There is, I think, always an “Oh s*&%!” moment when you find out you’re pregnant–even if you’re excited and overjoyed. Usually for me, the “Oh s%^&!” moment gives way to excitement and anticipation within about ten minutes–whether the pregnancy’s expected or not. This is my 11th pregnancy (5 live births, 5 miscarriages). This time, excitement and anticipation have yet to kick in. On the contrary, I have had severe prenatal depression the past two months – something that has happened with only one other pregnancy, which ended at 11 weeks.
When I say prenatal depression, I don’t mean baby blues. I mean existential despair. I mean crying jags every time I’m in the car or the shower alone. I mean snapping and lashing out at my kids when I shouldn’t. I mean dreading every moment of the next seven months. I mean wishing for 2018 to be over because there is nothing to look forward to anymore. I mean thinking that, if I weren’t alive, I wouldn’t have to be pregnant. Every morning when I wake up, I’m happy for a moment–and then I remember that I’m pregnant and it all comes back. I have a doctorate in the social sciences. I’m well aware of available treatments, the value of therapy, and the evidence for various meds’ safety and efficacy. I’m better positioned than many women might be to access all of these. But it’s still awful, and I struggle each day, wondering how a loving God could put me in this difficult position if, as we truly believe, every unintended pregnancy is a direct act of God.
I’m sure at this point, some devout reader will assume the problem is that I’m not praying enough, so let me assure you–I’ve prayed more in the last two months than any time I can remember. Existential, soul-crushing despair will do that to you, even if it’s hormonally induced. In addition, my husband has been absolutely wonderful–truly my rock over the past two months.
Have I mentioned this devastating depression to my doctor, who is a Catholic NFP-only OB?
Yes. Twice. Her reaction each time was, “Oh. OK.”
Have I mentioned this to family (we haven’t yet told friends, or our kids, about the pregnancy)?
A few relatives–one of whom doesn’t even believe in God–have been quite helpful, reaching out to offer moral support, planning to visit and help when the baby arrives, and so on. My more dogmatic relatives, however, have said things to me such as, “God will provide!” “Babies are so great, AND so much work!” “Well, I guess you shouldn’t have told people you wanted to be done by 40, hmm?” Some have sent me articles about Humanae Vitae, and about how NFP is worth it all at the end of the day. When I texted back, “I know you mean well, but that’s not helpful right now to someone experiencing PPD and a crisis of faith,” I got no response. Not even a cursory, “Hope you feel better.” Just crickets.
I don’t think it’s an effort to be mean-spirited. I think the orthodox Catholic community just doesn’t know what to say to women who are unhappy with unlimited gestation. As a result, there’s genuine uncertainty about how one is allowed to respond to someone whose experience threatens the narrative.
We find ourselves wondering how our crowded house will function when it’s even more crowded. How will we balance increasing responsibilities for our elderly relative while caring for two infants? How will I parent without scarring my kids if the crushing depression sticks around postpartum? How will we pay for double Catholic high school tuition and double infant daycare? (Spoiler alert: it will involve scaling back my time in the office and doing more from home, with two infants underfoot, while trying to get the promotion that’s supposed to pay for Child #3’s Catholic high school AND trying to avoid postpartum depression.) This pregnancy has involved new-onset medical issues, none of which are life-threatening to me or baby, but each of which increases my stress.
None of these factors are insurmountable obstacles, but all of them are significant. And as we prayerfully contemplate all of these practical concerns, along with my own health and state of mind, the one thing we do know is that another surprise baby after this one would be insurmountable. (I should mention my mom had me at 46, so the genetic odds favor at least one more surprise baby.) It would absolutely break us, financially and probably emotionally. It would be irresponsible in the extreme.
As a 12 year old reading Humanae Vitae for fun, I never thought I’d say this–but I’m planning to switch OBs and hospitals so that I can have my tubes tied after this delivery. Is that great? No. Is it sinful? I used to think so, and now all I can do is trust in God’s loving mercy and hope that, for someone in my circumstances, it’s not sinful enough to cut me off from God’s everlasting love. I truly cannot see any other choice. I hope it’s not sinful when the alternative includes sacrificing my kids’ well-being; stressing our marriage to the breaking point; giving up our retirement savings to become a drain on our own children down the road; and severely jeopardizing my mental health, as well as that of my kids.
We used NFP for 17 years. But staring down a method-failure pregnancy, with odds for the method to become less, not more, reliable in the next decade, it seems our options are either near-complete abstinence (given perimenopausal cycles and what would likely be Phase III-only NFP), or finding a better method. As a social scientist who reads experimental studies and analyzes human behavior for a living, I know the odds don’t favor near-complete abstinence as an effective means of preventing pregnancy. Near-complete abstinence doesn’t seem like a reliable way to avoid pregnancy when you are reading charts in a sleep-deprived state and making decisions on the go about which day is a “good” day, and when you are facing night after night of going to bed without being close to each other, for months on end. It seems instead like a reliable way to make charting errors or to succumb to human weakness at exactly the wrong time.
And for that reason, it seems like tempting God.
The essays in Sick Pilgrim’s You Are Not Alone series are written anonymously by Catholic women and curated by editor Maren Grossman.