When NFP… isn’t (NFP Awareness Week)

It’s NFP Awareness Week. For years – since before I became Catholic – I’ve been reading blog and Instagram posts by Catholic women (it’s always women) about the struggles, blessings, disappointments, and gratitude that come with practising NFP within a marriage. Some of these women experience hyperfertility and have struggled to space babies as they’d like. Others have used it to try to conceive, without success. And there are the couples for whom it seems to work perfectly, to space when necessary and conceive when desired.

But what about those of us whose spouses aren’t Catholic? What does NFP mean for us?

Of course, I can only speak for myself. However, I rather suspect that there are many of us who are afraid to share our stories, worried that we will be judged or rebuked. And perhaps we will, but I am a firm believer that when we vulnerably share the parts of our story that we prefer to keep in the shadows, we are better able to connect with pretty much everyone.

So I’m just going to come out and say it: we don’t use NFP in our marriage. I wish we did. I pray that we will one day. Right now, though, we don’t.*

You see, for a while we did – in a way, at least (I’ll clarify what I mean by that in a minute). I explained to my husband why it was important to me, and he agreed that he was willing to try it and see if it “worked.” However, it would seem that I am on the very fertile end of the spectrum, and I fell pregnant twice during the few months that we tried it (one pregnancy ended in miscarriage, and the other was the baby I’m pregnant with now). This didn’t exactly fill my husband with confidence in the method, and the subject ended up putting a lot of pressure on our relationship.

I consulted a priest (a very orthodox, FSSP priest, fwiw) who provided me with wise and gentle counsel. He told me that I must pray sincerely for a change in heart for my husband, and that I should ask the Holy Spirit to guide me as to when to raise the topic with him again. I must not be the active user of artificial contraception, i.e. take the pill, get an IUD, etc. But if I’m doing these things, with a sincere desire to practise NFP, then my main duty is to nurture my marriage. I’m not “off the hook”, per se, but he advised me that if I keep doing the things mentioned, then I am not obliged to bring this to Confession every time (although, I usually do).

What did I mean when I say we used it “in a way”? As all well-formed Catholics know, NFP is about much more than the absence of artificial contraception. It’s about openness to life,  three-way communion between you, your spouse, and God, and an ongoing state of discernment. So although we went through a phase where we did not use artificial contraception, these other elements were impossible. They require both spouses to be committed to their faith, and to have trust in God. And my husband doesn’t.

You see, it’s easy enough to explain to a non-Catholic (or non-practising Catholic) why hormonal birth control is bad. There’s science to back it up, and secular culture is increasingly critical of it. However, it is much harder to explain the problem with barrier methods. To someone who doesn’t believe in NFP, there is nothing wrong with a couple simply deciding month-by-month whether or not they want to get pregnant, and deciding whether or not to contracept accordingly; there is no problem with postponing pregnancy simply because you don’t feel like having another baby yet (or ever).

Openness to life requires an understanding of your vocation to marriage that is meaningless without a true belief that God is calling each of us to sainthood. Discernment means you must be praying daily as individuals and, ideally, as a couple, to see what God is asking of you. And don’t get me wrong – I am blessed to have a pretty good communicator for a husband, and we talk openly and regularly about what we think our family life should like today, next week, next month, in a year, in a decade. You don’t need me to tell you, though, that these conversations cannot take the same shape that they would if we both had active prayer lives.

I could go on about this for another 1000 words, but I’ll stop here. I want you to know that if NFP isn’t a part of your marriage but you wish it were, then you are not alone. And if NFP is a part of your marriage and you think any Catholics who don’t use it are doomed to Hell… well, pray for us, before you condemn us. It’s likely breaking our hearts.

 

*Right now I’m pregnant, so it’s somewhat irrelevant. If I weren’t though, and once the baby is born, then NFP isn’t our reality unless a miracle happens.

St. Gina, Patron of Nominally Catholic Spouses

Sometimes – quite frequently – I ask myself the following two questions:

  1. What would have to do, in my particular circumstances, to become a saint?
  2. Which living Catholics do I think should become saints?

The answers to both questions tend to lead me to the same answer, but unfortunately it’s one that I seem to forget even more often than I think about it. I think the answers are something like this:

  1. Seize every opportunity in my life that defines my life as my life to turn towards God.
  2. The people who seize every opportunity in their lives that define their lives as their lives to turn towards God.

Essentially, if I ever want to become a saint, I need to stay in my own lane and focus on getting holy right here. I think that many of us among the “non-(practising)-Catholic-spouse” crowd feel like we have somehow already excluded ourselves from the possibility of sainthood. The saints will be the ones who waited and waited until God provided them with the Perfect Catholic Spouse to raise the Perfect Catholic Family, we tell ourselves.

And for some people, that is their path to sainthood. I am not undermining the goodness and holiness of spurning the ‘wrong’ men in the patient and unknowing wait for the ‘right’ one. Nor do I wish to undermine those Catholic families we all see on Instagram who celebrate several feast days per week, wear coordinating outfits for all the major Holy Days, and seem to have their entire existence infused with Catholicism. Those people do a genuine, holy service for many people by exemplifying how beautiful a devoutly Catholic family life can be.

But, God is not asking me to be one of those people. He genuinely isn’t. Nor does He think “well, you’ve made some wrong choices so I’ll just do my best with an already messed up attempt to be holy.” My capacity for holiness is no less than that of Mrs. Daily Mass with 12 Kids (that’s not meant to be aimed at anyone in particular!). My capacity for holiness lies in my willingness to trust God with the life He has given me, to turn towards Him especially in the moments where I can’t see Him, and to pray for the holiness of everyone around me, regardless of where I think they relate to me on the scale of sanctity.

As a young Catholic woman, wife, and mother – early in her journey of each of those three things – what can I be doing to become holier than I am now?

  • Above all, praying for greater trust in God
  • Praying that I will be a good wife and mother
  • Praying that my husband and kids will see God’s light shine through me
  • Love and serve my husband and kids, even when I don’t feel like it
  • Prioritise prayer and Sacraments, avoiding excuses about why I don’t have time
  • Pray that I’ll be attentive to opportunities to grow in holiness
  • Love everyone I encounter to the best of my ability

That’s just an “off the top of my head” list, which could very easily be several tens of pages long. Many of the things I should be doing are the things that we should all be doing, and others are of particular importance in my life and situation. The point is, I mustn’t throw my hands in the air in despair and say “well I don’t have any chance anyway, so what’s the point?” I should be living my life as though my chances of making it to Heaven are just as good as anyone else’s – which they are.

I like to think that if I make it there, I’ll be interceding for people struggling with being the sole carriers of faith in their families. I would like to continue the work started on this blog once I have actual access to Jesus! What about you – what will you be patron saint of?

 

Finding holiness in “it’s not fair!”

This past weekend, my husband was out of town. My dad had come to stay with me and my toddler, which was lovely, but my toddler has been going through some major separation anxiety and melts down if I leave the room for even a few seconds. So, as Sunday rolled around, I realised I would just have to deal with taking her to Mass on my own. (My dad is a committed anti-Catholic ex-Catholic).

Perhaps I should have prefaced this by saying that I usually go to Mass alone, leaving my toddler with my husband. I know, I know, all the Good Catholic Mums would be telling me how important it is for her spiritual formation that she gets in the habit of going weekly now. But for the moment, that’s not where I am. Seeing as I don’t get any spiritual community at home, I enjoy being able to go to Mass and soaking in being surrounded by people who share my faith, without having to wrangle a toddler.

So back to the point. This Sunday, I had to take her. As it approached, I was overwhelmed with the “it’s not fair!” feelings that often accompany solo-parenting at Mass. It’s not fair that my husband isn’t here to help me. It’s not fair that I’m single-handedly responsible for transmitting the Faith to my child(ren). It’s not fair that my husband wouldn’t care if I just decided to skip Mass altogether, ignoring my Sunday obligation. It’s not fair that if the toddler flips out before we make it to the First Reading, I’ll have to choose between disrupting the Mass, or leaving, therefore missing out on the Eucharist. And on, and on…

It occurred to me as I inwardly whined, though, that this was an opportunity to do exactly what I’m always talking about on this blog. It was a chance to choose God, to choose to set a good example for my toddler, to choose to do what a saint would do: go to Mass, with my toddler, and do my best. Pray for my husband. Pray for my toddler. Pray for my baby in utero. Pray for myself, to grow in holiness. Pray for the grace to stop complaining.

Guess what? I went to Mass, and my toddler was an angel. She sat quietly for  almost the entire Mass in her stroller (with the help of an applesauce pouch). I received the Eucharist, she received a blessing. We left before the recessional, because she did start to get a bit cranky after Holy Communion. But God seemed to say to me, “See? That wasn’t so bad, was it? Your own anxieties are your worst enemy.

What’s more, when I looked around, I noticed that there were lots of littles running around, being rambunctious, and mainly just making other parishioners smile. It’s normal; most people realise that small children can’t be expected to be calm and reverent for an entire Mass (although I know there are some people who do expect this…). There was even a mum on her own with a girl around 5 years old, a boy who was probably the same age as my toddler, and she was pregnant. I have no idea why her husband wasn’t with her, but I admired that she had brought her children alone. When she knelt during the consecration, her toddler came and knelt beside her. I realised that if I don’t bring my daughter to Mass, I can’t expect her to start imitating behaviours of reverence and devotion.

I’m not delusional; I certainly don’t expect that my toddler will behave so well every Mass. That’s OK. Even if she doesn’t, God will still be happy that I showed up, and that I brought her to see Him. I’m not promising that I’ll start taking her every week, but I’m emboldened to make an effort to take her more often.

What about you? Where are you letting your own anxieties hinder you? And what’s making you say “it’s not fair!” that may actually be a chance for holiness?