Tuesday, March 25, 2014

NFP, Serious Reasons, and Spacing: More Questions than Answers

I struggle.  I know it is not a profound statement, but I struggle.  A lot.  It’s tough being mom to three under 5, a wife of barely 5 years, and keeping up appearances at work (assuming I can even just keep up with work), all while trying to keep an open mind to what is next for me career-wise.  There isn’t a day goes by that I don’t feel completely and utterly overwhelmed by it all. 

To complicate matters, I’m a planner.  I don’t like it when my life goes off course.  I’m big into setting goals and trying to accomplish them.  I believe in challenging myself.  I’m not comfortable with complacency.  I need to be focused on the next hurdle, the next hill (or mountain) that needs climbing, the next task that needs doing.  I like order and structure.  I like checking items off the “To Do” list.  Heck, I even like the fact that I have a “To Do” because it gives my days a sense of focus and purpose.  I spent 26 years of my life in this goal-setting, task-oriented achievement mode.  Old habits die hard.

For me, Catholicism has always complimented this order-and-structure paradigm that is my life.  The Catechism sets out the structure of our faith, the ideals to which we aspire and the rules that we follow.  There are centuries of Catholic scholarship behind it and behind everything we do as Catholics.  The Mass is a ritual.  It is predictable, faithful.  Even our Church leaders are organized by a hierarchy --- pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, deacons.  Catholicism has always felt like standing on solid ground.  Sturdy, dependable, organized.  The fact that our faith doesn’t change with the whims of a new pastor or new leadership or, worse, “pop culture” inspires great confidence in me.  Any changes made along the way in the details of the practice of Catholicism are well-researched and analyzed before they are implemented.  Example: The fact that our religious leaders are so attentive to the details that they revised the English translation of the Roman Missal to adhere to the original Latin text more faithfully comforts my OCD-self (regardless of the pros/cons involved in the application of this translation).  Jesus lived centuries ago.  His teaching are universal, and his message unchanging.  It stands to reason that a faith that accurately reflects Him would be as well.  But I digress. 

Back to my life.  Things had been going along swimmingly in my well-ordered life for 26 years.  I assumed that would continue.  Enter marriage and a honeymoon baby to boot.  During that first year of marriage, I became a newlywed, changed jobs, moved away from the home I had built in my early career, and had a baby.  Can we say chaos?  For me, it was.  The only thing that didn’t change was my car.  At least I had one constant!

During the period leading up to my marriage, I was immersing myself in the Catholic faith and discovering the teachings about theology of the body, sexuality, fertility, and natural family planning, which I had never known to exist (despite a lifetime of Catholic education, but that’s a topic for a different day).  What I discovered truly moved me.  Every word of it had such “truth” to it.  I reexamined much of my pop culture inspired beliefs about sexuality and children and chucked most of them out the window.  I entered marriage ready to tackle NFP head-on!  With all of the changes taking place in my life, I figured I would wait a few months before I got to the “openness to life” part.  Of course, it would figure that my fertile time would be during the honeymoon.  But, so what?  No one gets pregnant during their first fertile window, right?  Ha!

And so it goes.  Nine months after the birth of my first, I found myself pregnant again.  Barely a year after my second baby was born, another baby was on the way.  My children hit my life the way a wrecking ball hits a sandcastle. 

(Aside: Why can I no longer think of a “wrecking ball” without visions of Miley Cyrus dancing in my head?  UGH!)

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my children to pieces and wouldn’t trade them for the world.  I just never feel like I have regained my sea legs since they entered my life.  The order and structure I thrive on has been in perpetual shambles.  Every time I try to take one step forward to regaining order, something happens and I take two steps back. 

(And now Paula Abdul is singing in my head!   Miley Cyrus and Paula Abdul both crooning in the same post?!?  Clearly, all semblance of order and structure has left the building! . . . Just like Elvis, I’ll bet.  Wow, I really am a stream-of-conscious, hot mess!)

Lately, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the Catholic teaching on marriage, procreation, and NFP.  At almost 9 months post-partum, it is usually about now that I start to wonder whether I’m being sufficiently “open to life”. 

·         Are my motives purely “serious motives of responsible parenthood”?

Assuming I can answer “yes” to these questions (which is a big assumption), how would I even begin to know if I am right?  How do I know that I am not superimposing my fears, anxieties, or worries on the analysis?  In my endless quest for order and structure in my life, how can I really be sure I am open to God’s will?

To bring this post full-circle: I struggle. 

I’m not going to lie.  There is a large part of me that just wants to close my mind to the idea of having more kids for a few years.  To regain my sea legs.  To figure out how to make my life work and run more smoothly.  I get that my life will never run as smoothly as it did before I had children.  I’m okay with that.  But there are moments when I feel like I’m on the edge of despair because all I can see in every part of my life is one, big, giant train-wreck.  It’s chaos.  Is that how it is supposed to be?  Is that what it means to be open to life?

Obviously, things would be a lot easier if I didn’t work.  Or if my husband didn’t work.  Or if I could work part-time.  Or if we could afford to hire a live-in housekeeper, butler, chauffeur, and chef.  Obviously.  But none of those options are available to us right now.  I’m sure there is an argument that we could simplify our lifestyle, stop saving for retirement, and cut out all leisure, meals out, or any excesses that we allow ourselves.  We could.  But even those kinds of cuts don’t leave us where we need to be to become a one-parent-working family or to hire in.  But . . . arguably (and this is debatable), if those cuts were made, we could afford child care for another baby.  Maybe?  Does that mean we should?  Or that we are supposed to?

And what of the additional stress that would add to our marriage?  To our mental sanity?  To our ability to cope with everyday life?  When do those stresses amount to enough of a justification to wait and to space?

I have been praying a lot lately, asking God to show me if my reasons for wanting to wait are serious enough, well-grounded enough, just enough. 

When I am dragging my baby to an evening pediatrics appointment at 8:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night for the fifth time in as many weeks with the knowledge that I will still have to come home to my nightly routine of making the bottles, lunches, and snacks, after having worked an 11-hour day completely unaware of the baby’s continued ailments --- is that reason enough? 
When my morning consisted of dropping my oldest at school and dragging the baby to my physical therapy appointment, then taking an ill-timed, emergency conference call while on the way to the baby’s pediatrician appointment, which call results in me circling the parking lot for 10 minutes to keep the baby asleep and, therefore making us late to the pediatrician’s because, God forbid the baby wakes up and the partner on the phone realizes that I am not working or on the road to a hearing --- is that reason enough?
When I have to beg my husband to meet me at said pediatrician’s appointment to which I was late and finish out the appointment, so I can jump in my car, hook up my breast pump, and drive 3 hours across the state to make it in time for a high-stakes hearing for which I am not completely prepared (even though I somehow won, thanks be to God) --- is that reason enough?
When scheduling and balancing all of the parental responsibilities with the various work and after-work professional requirements of two working spouses requires a miracle-worker and a baby-sitter on standby and when it becomes too much work to even plan a date-night or fun weekend because the laundry isn’t done and the breakfast dishes from 12 hours ago haven’t been put into the dishwasher and one of the children had an accident at daycare and there is nothing but chicken nuggets to feed the kids for dinner and the diaper bag hasn’t been replenished in weeks --- is that reason enough?

When is all this chaos that would drive any self-respecting, OCD mama to drink enough of a reason to wait?  

In moments like these ones, I want to believe that God is reassuring me, telling me that it’s enough, that I’m doing enough, that it’s okay to wait.  I want to believe that He knows I’m doing everything in my power to hold it together and to do His will.  I want to believe that He is proud of me for “keeping it Catholic” and being open to so much life in so short a time, even amidst the strong worldly pressures to take the easier road.  But I am terrified that I am superimposing my own wistful thinking on God. 

And it ain’t like the stakes here are small.  Every life I bring into the world has the profound ability to shape and affect the lives of so many other people in the world.  Every life I bring into the world is another opportunity for God to use a human being to make a difference and change the world.  Every life I bring into the world is another opportunity for God to develop another line of descendants to serve Him and do His will.  Every life I refuse to bring into the world is another door closed to each of those possibilities.  Not to mention that my openness to God’s will, as evidenced by my openness to life, may very well bear on whether I make it to heaven and/or how much time I spend in purgatory.  All of these things are so much greater, bigger, and more consequential than my struggles with scheduling, balance, and keeping my home and work lives running smoothly.

How can I know if God --- who knows my capabilities and knows that I can always “dig deep” and will burn myself out doing so because I will never let myself fail at anything --- thinks my reasons are enough?   Are my reasons enough?

Alas, I struggle.


  1. I just realized that today is the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, where we celebrate Mary's "yes" to life, even in the most unexpected and inoptimal circumstances.

    The Angel Gabriel told her, "For nothing will be impossible with God." Mary responded, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” To quote from my daily Gospel Reflection, courtesy of http://faith.nd.edu/, "The Gospel also reminds us that our understanding of life and our expectations for how it is supposed to unfold can be limited and narrow. Our way, thankfully, is not always God’s way. A virgin conceives a child who will be called Emmanuel; Elizabeth, an elderly woman, believed to be barren, will give birth to a son. In the midst of the unexpected, new life abounds. Nothing is impossible with God."

    That adds a whole new dimension to this post. Coincidence? I'm not sure what to make of it.

  2. Hey there, I read this post the other day from my phone and didn't want to comment from my phone, so anyway, I'm back to hopefully offer you some reassurance in your discernment.

    First of all, this stuff is hard. Really hard. I'll be the first to commiserate that it can be a struggle! However, it sounds like you are equating "openness to life" with "having another baby." I don't think that's what openness to life necessarily means, though that is the default. As a lawyer, I like to think of it as the burden of proof is on spacing! The presumption is that it's always moral to add to your family. BUT, we are called to responsible parenthood, to use our God-given reason to discern whether it is moral in our unique situations to co-create new life. Just the fact that you are struggling with whether to space means that you are taking it seriously and aren't just imposing "wistful thinking" on God. At least it doesn't seem "wistful" to this blog stranger! We are actually CALLED to THINK about it, which is what you are doing!

    Secondly, the beauty of natural family planning is that you are, by nature, always being open to life when you, shall I say, renew your wedding vows with your husband. By saying no to artificial birth control, you are giving that part of you, your natural fertility, to your husband each time you are together, regardless of whether your intent is to create a new life or not. I think that part of it is important, because it's the one objective notion we NFPers can hang our hat on!

    So, it's subjective. What does it mean to be responsible? What is a serious reason? I know that and I really can't offer any help with that (and why would you want it..!?). But I wanted to reassure you that you are so on the right track just by remaining open to God's will through using NFP in the first place and by seriously discerning. Keep praying and discerning! Stay the course! You are in this stranger on the Internet's prayers! ;)

    1. Theresa, thank you for commenting. Your words and feedback is so comforting, especially given how tough of an issue this is! "The burden of proof is on spacing" --- I love that! And thank you so much for your prayers. I suppose only God knows for sure where I'm headed on this journey of discernment!

  3. Oh goodness, yes, I think those reasons are "good enough" to hope for a little more time to wait! I agree with Theresa that openness to life doesn't mean having another baby right now. All the reasons you are thinking about - your physical, mental, emotional, and fiscal health - are part of that prudential discernment of how you can best serve your family right now and whether it's the right time to bring a new baby into the world right now. As long as you are using NFP, then even if the answer is "not right now" you're still respecting the design of your body and the nature of marriage and the marriage act.

    This post isn't as coherent as it could be (my third baby just turned a year old and he STILL has never slept through the night once). But three kids that young, when you're working ... it's hard. I don't think it's supposed to be chaos all the time. Obviously we type-A's are going to be jolted out of our organized lives by children and things aren't going to be as calm once they've arrived. But I do think you can get to a place where you feel more of a sense of peace with how things are. Of course people do have "surprise" babies all the time that maybe they're fearful or overwhelmed by the thought of, but eventually are happy about. But I do think there are probably people who do have serious struggles with mental health or get too overwhelmed with so many. Part of my discernment so far (not an expert of course, just my experience so far) has been that there are times when I feel like bursting into tears at the thought of another little one right now because I'm just so exhausted and the kids are SO NEEDY ... but eventually I've gotten to a place where I think "this is good, things are good, and I think I am at a place where we could welcome another baby". When I feel at peace about, I feel like that's a sign God is guiding our discernment. Maybe I'm just projecting my own thoughts onto what God wants for us, but all we can do is keep praying and keep living in accordance with His design, and I do think a sense of peace - or in the alternative, well-founded anxiety (if that makes any sense) - are answers to that prayerful discernment.

    BTW, part-time work is great in a lot of ways, but you know how it is ... the clients still want you to be available, you still have to jump on conference calls and manage closings, and if your boss is out of town and you have to cover ... I resort to movies for the five-year-old more afternoons than I would like. It's nice to be present here, but still a struggle to truly be present to the kids, even at my really nice firm.

    1. Kim, thank you for your comments and encouragement. I love what you said about getting a place where you feel more of a sense of peace with how things are. The more I discern, the more that seems like where I need to head first. The "this is good, things are good, and I think I am at a place where we could welcome another baby" place. Of course, God has "surprised" me with all of my babies to date (some more unexpectedly than others), so who knows? My hope is that, in seeking that place of peace, God will not interpret it as being closed to life; and, if it is His will, He will give me another child in His time.

  4. I'd echo what Kim and Theresa said. . . . Of course it's none of my business, but since you pose the questions I can't resist but add my $0.02. . . . I found this article helpful: http://www.lifeissues.net/writers/smith/smith_24moralusenfp.html

    It's just one person's opinion, but a scholarly, well-educated one. . . . And your line about "my openness to God’s will, as evidenced by my openness to life, may very well bear on whether I make it to heaven and/or how much time I spend in purgatory" alarms me just a bit. Using contraception is a mortal sin. Using NFP . . . as far as I know . . . is never a mortal sin. (I mean, if you enter marriage intending to always use NFP and never have children, your marriage would be invalid, I think, but that's not your situation.) And even as far as venial sin . . . if you know Church teaching and try to abide by it and pray about it and discern with your spouse and frequent the sacraments . . . is God really gonna say, "oh, but there was a shred of selfishness in there," purgatory for you! I mean, maybe so, b/c the point of purgatory is to remove all traces of selfishness but . . . I don't think we should be like, "Well, better have another baby just in case, don't want to risk purgatory." That's not responsible parenthood, IMHO.

    And of course this is all my opinion. God gave us the Church teachings (vague as they are on this issue), and the sacraments, and left it up to us. We have to trust our own intuition b/c that one of the tools he's given us the tools we need.

    You're doing a great job, hard-working lawyer Momma!

    1. Laura, your comment totally cracked me up --- in the totally awesome "I need to laugh at myself for taking myself so seriously" funny self-deprecating way. Gosh, you are so right on --- I think I had been falling into this "Well, better have another baby just in case, don't want to risk purgatory" line of thinking without realizing it! Like, at all!!! So thank you! That really helped me take a step back and consider the 'responsible parenthood' component of this process a bit more. And thanks for sending the article --- it looks super detailed (which I love!) and I can't wait to dive in!

  5. Gosh, your posts are so awesome. First of all, I have to say that I don't know how you do it all! I feel like I can barely keep it together a lot of the time...and I have no babies! You are amazing! Truly.

    As to NFP or not to NFP, I think only you and your husband can know whether or not you are being called to have another child right now. As long as you are staying open to life by using NFP as opposed to artificial birth control, I would just continue to pray and discern, but not worry about it either. God knows your heart and knows that you are trying to do His will.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Lisa! Much appreciated. More prayer and discernment, here I come! :)

  6. Here is my short answer to your question: Yes, it is enough. The way you describe it, it leaves me in no doubt. It's okay to wait until you are no longer at the end of your rope!