No love ever mounts to a higher level without a touch of the Cross. Love that remains on a horizontal plane dies.Venerable Fulton Sheen, Three to Get Married
Emily: I feel like this topic could just be our entire series. Because each of us have such a unique cross, and yet we have all kind of learned the same lesson which is that every cross that we are given is meant to call us into deeper relationship with God.
For me, having two children when we were seriously trying to avoid was a huge cross. Our first was a user error—we used a time we knew could be fertile. But our second was a total surprise. Since I had my first via C section, I needed to wait a certain amount of time to let my body heal before trying to conceive again, and we ended up conceiving our son two stupid short months shy of that window. All because we were being faithful and using only NFP to space our kids.
I was in total spiritual darkness for that whole 9 months. The comments from strangers, and even friends and family certainly didn’t help. And then on the day I gave birth, it was like God switched the light on again, and I spent the next two years sorting through all the spiritual, mental and emotional turmoil I had been through. As I did, God turned up beauty and goodness everywhere.
What I find particularly beautiful about our crosses being different is that it shows just how God loves us individually. Even though to external eyes each one of our crosses might seem heavier or lighter, the simple fact of the matter is that if I was carrying either of your crosses, it might not be as heavy for me or it might be more than I could bear, and vice versa.
I was in prayer one day during that two year period, and I remember asking God why it still hurt even after I had seen all the goodness he wove out of the pain. And Jesus responded by repeating to me over and over: “The cross is love. The cross is love. The cross is love.”
That is so countercultural to say because in our world suffering is a curse. But because Jesus suffered and died, our suffering now has the opportunity to become an incredible gift, giving us the opportunity to turn inwards on ourselves, to see our sinful selfish nature for what it is and to begin to lift that up to God and to conquer it.
As painful as it all was, and as much as I wish there could have been another way, I honestly can’t say that I would have grown in my faith like I have without having practiced NFP.
Jen: It’s so true. We all have different crosses because we are all different people with different circumstances! And I’ve actually found that my crosses have changed—or shifted, perhaps—depending on what God is trying to teach me and the ways in which he wants me to grow. Whether it was pregnancy loss, infertility, high risk pregnancies, or utilizing NFP to postpone a pregnancy until we were in a better place emotionally and financially, God has used all of it. And every single cross is one that I would not choose for myself! But looking back, I know I’ve grown into the woman God wants me to be precisely because of those crosses.
When Logan and I first got married, we honestly wanted all the babies God would give us. But that actually isn’t what God is calling us to, and it was through our constant use of NFP that helped us discern that. It’s still a struggle, though. Just recently we were open to a baby for over a year, but that positive pregnancy test never came. Since we’re always talking and praying about the future of our family, we started to feel promptings that it was not time for another baby…which didn’t make sense, because we were finally in a better place financially, and our kids are at ages that would make it easier to handle another high risk pregnancy.
But then coronavirus hit, and it all made sense. Those early weeks of the pandemic were really not the time to be frequenting the hospital for ultrasounds and lab draws (not to mention the uncertainty of Logan’s job). I’m so thankful that Logan and I were on the same page, even before we fully understood God’s plan. But it’s still hard! Although we’ve discerned since then to actively try to get pregnant, we’re still trying to accept that it may not happen in our timing…and it may not happen at all. But through this cross, God is drawing us closer to him and to each other.
Mary: Man, y’all really knocked it out of the park with those comments. What it is saying to me is that NFP/fertility awareness has looked drastically different in all of our lives, but it has also been absolutely essential in each case!
I had health issues related to my cycle since I started my period and it wasn’t until after I had my first surgery and was diagnosed with endometriosis that I even discovered how applicable “NFP” would be in my life. I thought it was only for engaged and married Catholics.
As I began to chart, my specific risk factors and hormonal abnormalities began to pop out from the ink and stickers after only about 2 cycles. This brought me both great hope and great distress. Had I known about this major benefit 10 years sooner, could I have gotten the help I needed right away and avoided years of physical pain and infertility?
Charting became vital for me not only to target intercourse to hopefully achieve pregnancy, but to show me the precise timing within each cycle to supplement natural hormones and to monitor any changes, whether positive or negative, taking place over time. The delay in charting is likely a significant part of the cause of my pain and infertility, but these crosses have been essential in my own path to holiness and to greater unity in marriage. There are tools I have gained by using fertility awareness that have been useful in understanding myself as a whole person and the importance of growing in intimacy with my husband in areas outside the context of sex. This has been imperative as we navigate our crosses which can easily rob a relationship of intimacy.
Emily: Yes! Somehow all of these crosses have forced us each of us in different ways to see sex, marriage and babies holistically.
Jen, I do want to go back and highlight one thing you mentioned. That cross of abstinence is nothing to sneeze at, and we’ll dive into it more in our last post of this series. But that self-denial that is demanded of me and my husband when we have to abstain has been so fruitful for our marriage and has really helped to enhance that second primary function of marriage which is unity of the spouses. It’s through that tension that is created in those moments of self-denial that we’ve actually had some very deep conversations that have helped our marriage grow. They weren’t fun periods to go through, and like most tough things I wish they didn’t have to happen, but at the same time they were beautiful opportunities for growth.
Jen: Us too! There’s just something about experiencing a cross together and/or choosing to sacrifice our own desires that really brings a husband and wife closer together. Logan and I both agree that we are better spouses and parents because of the difficult situations we’ve experienced, and that was only possible through embracing those crosses together. As amazing as NFP can be, using it can absolutely be considered a cross in certain situations.
Mary: Speaking of crosses- we all have had our own unique experiences of trials, but we have no idea what other potential struggles life may bring. Jen, you and Logan’s discernment due to Coronavirus is a perfect example. Another great benefit of NFP/fertility awareness is the ability to change intentions from achieving to avoiding pregnancy (or vice versa) on any given day when that becomes necessary. Because you and Logan are experienced FABM users with the ability to define your fertile window, you had the freedom to make a switch with no lag time because that is what was right for your family.
Jen: Exactly, and that would not have been possible if we weren’t already charting or if we were using birth control. I always say that I recommend EVERYONE to learn NFP (or fertility awareness, like we said previously), regardless of if you think you need it or not, because your circumstances could change drastically at any time.
Emily: You know, as we’re talking, one thing I want to point out is just how much of a cross it is to have to avoid a pregnancy, and this is something that is rarely if ever talked about. That longing for a child, but hearing God say “Not right now” is incredibly painful, and it can come for any number of reasons. One example I hear frequently is that a husband and wife are not on the same page about whether or not to have a baby, and it is the cause of a lot of pain and tension in a marriage.
People only think it is hard to have children, which I get to hear about often when people find out how close the ages of my children are (eye roll). But it’s equally, if not far more, difficult to not have children for couples who are open to having them, as you both can attest. This is what people who say they “let God plan their family” are totally missing. The cross and fruitfulness comes with children or without children, and God isn’t limited by either scenario.
Mary: SUCH a good point! …And is it really even “letting God plan a family” if He is not constantly consulted about it as life changes?
Jen: Right?! I also think the message that we need to have “all the babies God will give us” adds weight to that cross of couples wanting more kids when it’s not God’s will. Even though I have 3 boys, it’s very tempting to look at all of my friends with 4 or more kids and wonder if we’re not doing “enough” simply because we don’t have as many kids as them.
Mary: Bingo. That’s the thing- all kinds of people are listening when that idea is thrown around, and some of those people are infertile. Imagine how painful it is to think that you’re not doing “enough” to have children when the scars and bruises all over your body from surgeries and needle marks tell a different story; or that you are not “enough” simply because the children haven’t come despite such efforts. Considering procreation as a primary good and separating it from the unitive aspect of marriage is one sure-fire way to rationalize artificial reproductive technologies.
Thankfully, I eventually figured out that God defines my worth- not my biology. The concept that it is “greater” or “holier” or ”harder” to simply “have all the children” can potentially limit God in enormous ways, either directly within a family or indirectly when it is professed as Gospel.
There I was, feeling useless and passed over when I couldn’t get pregnant no matter how hard we tried because I believed that exact lie. Then God triumphed through our cross by connecting us with the child he planned for our home through adoption and by blossoming gifts and talents he always intended for me to use in the world- gifts that would not have bloomed without bearing the cross of God saying “Not right now.”
Emily: What I’m hearing from both of your experiences is what a friend of mine called “compare and despair.” It’s this idea that just because my life doesn’t look like someone else’s, I must not be as holy. And that can come in all forms, from looking at that family’s prayer life, meal schedule, physical home, and especially the number of children. Like we emphasized in our last conversation, the number of children is not an indicator of a level of holiness, or an indication of how much God has blessed a couple. Paul’s letters are full of the theme of rejoicing in suffering, showing us that even a cross is a gift and a blessing, because as we’ve shared, they all drew us closer to God. That closeness is the blessing, and God draws us into it in all kinds of ways.
Compared to other families, none of us have a sizable progeny as of now, and we may not ever. But each of us has had to carry a cross that was heavy for us, and through our saying yes to those crosses, by God’s grace, we grow in holiness.
And for each of us, NFP has definitely been a beautiful doozy.
People judge me constantly. I had 3 before my oldest was 4. Not entirely my plan *cough cough*. NYC is full of anti-kids and I won’t repeat what people have said plus all the pitying looks and wows.
I’m a trad though so everyone at church thinks I’m some paragon of being open to life. Honestly our church is full of old people who didn’t have kids like I do so I’d hope they’d think that maybe other people had reasons like they did for not having lots of close together.
I got downright mad when last year Fr gave this long bio on traditions of St Anne and he kept saying “her shameful sterility” while never saying that it’s a CULTURAL shame, not something to be actually ashamed of! How tone deaf! Obviously St. Anne is a saint and he never said she was doing anything sinful at the time but it was so thoughtless.
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There’s definitely a huge opportunity to invite our spiritual fathers to understand these other aspects of fertility. I’m always an advocate for having them over for dinner, showing them holy family life in all it’s messy beauty, and having these conversations over a nice meal and some wine (of course, for some, the conversation may have to wait till after the little kiddos are in bed haha) 🙂