Can you remember the first time someone explained to you what the little phrase “being open to life” means in the Catholic world? I know I can. I was at youth group in high school and I remember thinking, “Okay, but practically nobody actually follows that.” It wasn’t until college that I truly understood what it meant to follow the Church’s teachings on contraception and happily consented to the idea of God planning my family while I blissfully cared for my little blessings who brought more joy to my life than I could comprehend. *Sigh*
Actually, when I had my epiphany, my inner dialogue went like this. “Oh (insert your choice mild four letter word)! This whole being open to life stuff is, like, real and makes sense and is what would be best for me and my future family and society on so many levels… and I’m going to actually have to follow the Church’s teachings and not use contraception if I get married!” Then I had a vision of myself barefoot in a log cabin wearing a plaid shapeless jumper with 10 kids pulling at my leg while I tried to sort through a sea of laundry.
When I got married right out of college, just shy of 22, I was fairly certain that I would be having 10 kids over the next 20 years. I was perfectly content with the idea of being open to life because, thanks to my mentor moms, I was able to see the beauty in family life. They gave me great advice reminding me that God would only be giving me one child at a time and the grace for each child would come with that child, not before.
(If you’re still unsure about why the Church teaches what She does on contraception get your hands on a copy of Janet Smith’s Contraception: Cracking the Myths audio talk. It was immensely helpful for my journey towards embracing it.)
During the first three years of our marriage God blessed us with a daughter and then a son, and it seemed like we were at a good pace for our 10 kids in 20 years with no bumps in the road. Then the time came when we expected that God would bless us with a third, but much to our surprise it wasn’t happening fairly quickly like we expected it to, and it still hasn’t. As our youngest has gone from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 without the announcement of another bun in the oven, not only has that surprised us, but it has also piqued the curiosity of those around us. You see, as Catholics who publicly profess our love of the Church and all of Her teachings, friends from the past to perfect strangers who meet us at Catholic events, have made comments from “So when are you going to have another” to “don’t you have three now?” to “wait, do you only have two kids?” While I know these comments are innocent I constantly find myself trying to defend our situation with rebuttals like “Only two so far” or “We’re just waiting for another” to ensure that the inquirer doesn’t judge us for only having two.
It’s a funny thing being a non-contracepting Catholic in this world. If you have more than three the world thinks you are crazy… if you have less than three some Catholics think there’s something wrong with your understanding of the Church’s teaching on contraception.
I fear this judgment only because I’ve done it in the past. “Oh, they only have two kids; they must not be really faithful Catholics.” or “They have been married for three years and still don’t have kids; they must not get it.”
It wasn’t until I started to hear stories of families that I assumed weren’t open to life for the wrong reasons that I realized just how wrong my thinking was. Stories of couples who conceived on their wedding night and haven’t been able to conceive ever since. Stories of couples who lost their first two children to terminal illnesses that took their children’s lives when they were toddlers. Stories of couples who have suffered three, four, even ten miscarriages. And stories of dozen of faithful Catholic couples who for a number of reasons, haven’t been able to conceive children at all. I slowly learned that you NEVER judge a family by its size or spacing and you NEVER make assumptions about how the family came to be the way it is. Not only are there natural reasons that families are built the way they are, but there are also personal reasons that a couple doesn’t owe us an explanation for. In Her wisdom the Church has given couples NFP (Natural Family Planning) for those times when there are legitimate reasons for a couple to postpone a pregnancy for a period of time or indefinitely.
(If you just had an adverse reaction and thought about “the old rhythm method”, let me assure you that NFP is extremely scientific and accurate, and it does an amazing job bonding couples who use it. For more info check out the Couple to Couple League or the Creighton Model.)
Infertility, or secondary infertility as it is in our case, is one of those topics I wish I had been prepared for. I just assumed, we’d be open to life and God would bless us when we were all ready: Kevin, God and me… which of course would be all at the same time. But the fact is that children are a blessing, not a right, and if God calls you to marriage you have to enter into it knowing that it is God who chooses when and if new life will be given to you. Only He can know the reasons why a family is the shape and size that it is and it is up to us to place our trust in Him with this precious gift, even if it doesn’t come in the type of package that we expected.