One of the things I have learned over the past 3 years of blogging is the power of sharing stories. Vulnerability is not easy, but it is often the most necessary catalyst for healing. As I share my story, many of you open up to me in my private messages or email, expressing relief that you are not alone. Oftentimes, I encourage those who share this to pay it forward – if my vulnerability helped you, be vulnerable with those close to you as well.
This is why I am so excited to share this story with you today. A young mother reached out to me asking if I’d be interested in sharing her story, and you can guess my answer. She wishes to remain anonymous, but that in no way diminishes the impact of her story. If anything, it allows you to find yourself in it easier.
Before you read her story, I wanted you to hear from her what she hopes her story will provide:
[This story is] really not about me. It is anonymous because it is extremely painful and vulnerable for me to talk about, and I don’t want to draw attention to myself or be misunderstood in any way. I really just want to offer hope and encouragement to women who may be struggling with “not fitting in” in the Catholic sense, have feelings of guilt, or are on the brink of giving up on NFP because there are some very real obstacles threatening to distract them from being open to the will of God. I really just mean to highlight that God is so much bigger than all of that, none of us are alone, and God’s orchestration of our life is more beautiful than we can even hope for.
My husband and I have been married for twelve years and are blessed with four beautiful children. I want to share with you a little about our story and our journey with Natural Family Planning (NFP). My husband and I met in college. Before we even began dating, we talked about how much we both loved children and wanted to have a big family. We were also blessed to be in an environment that promoted openness to life, taught us about God’s plan for marriage, and introduced us to Theology of the Body. When we were engaged, we were required to take an NFP class as part of our marriage formation. We did not pay too much attention because we just deeply desired to have as many children as God wanted! We were just not worried about it. I was not prepared for the possibility that we may have serious reasons to avoid pregnancy.
After I had my second child, my mental health issues became more severe, specifically my struggle with post-partum depression. I lost touch with reality and had to seek professional help. It turned out what I was experiencing was more than just post-partum depression – I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I was absolutely devastated. My parents were divorced, and I had personally experienced how bipolar disorder destroyed my family. I was afraid that my own illness would negatively impact my marriage and family. A mental health professional explained to me that this was a serious diagnosis and that I should not have any more children. Again, I was devastated.
I had to wean my baby so that I could get on medication. I was overwhelmed with the whole NFP thing because it is very difficult to know what the heck is going on with your body in the post-partum period. And remember, we had not paid too much attention in our NFP class! As a result, I ended up with a surprise pregnancy, and had to tapper off all that medication. I remember spending my entire pregnancy worried that something would be wrong with my baby because he had been exposed to medication in that first trimester before I knew that I was pregnant. On top of that fear, I was more depressed than I had ever been in my life. What kind of person gets pregnant like that when they are not supposed to? Would I be healthy enough to care for my family?
That little baby turned out to be absolutely perfect, but as a family of five, the need to avoid pregnancy became even more intense. We were sooo careful and practicing lots of abstinence, because I was so scared of getting pregnant again. I really thought that we were “done” and that this was all I could handle. And oh the guilt. I thought, “This is not what a catholic family should look like.”
A few years later, I went on a silent Ignatian retreat that was incredibly healing for me. The priest asked each of us to do a general confession of our whole life. So there I sat, confessing all the sins from my whole life that I felt ashamed about. When I was done confessing, this wonderful priest looked at me with a warm smile and said, “Your family is so blessed to have you.” The biggest grace from this whole thing is that I actually believed him. I stopped beating myself up and allowed myself to be enveloped in the love of God. Later that weekend, I had spiritual direction with this priest and told him that I was scared of having more children. He smiled at me and said, “Thank God that you have a holy husband. If it’s supposed to happen it will happen.” This reaction shifted my whole perspective. I felt an even deeper love for my husband who has been so faithful in staying by my side, supporting me, and loving me no matter what. My husband also remained open to life (meaning we did not use any artificial methods of contraception) even when it required a lot of sacrifice. Instead of focusing on my own limitations, I began focusing on the gift of my husband. He has taught me a lot about the unconditional love of God that I sometimes struggle to receive. Remaining open to life through all of this has deepened our love of God and love of one another more than I could possibly have imagined.
It was during this time that I went back to school and became a registered nurse. This helped to broaden my perspective on how many medical issues women can have that may impact the need to avoid pregnancy for a season. It taught me that we don’t have a right to judge how people balance their physical, mental, and spiritual health with family life. We all have unique circumstances and different limitations, and remaining “open to life” will look different for every family.
After a lot of research, advice-seeking, and prayer, my husband and I discerned that we wanted to have another child. Under the supervision of a good doctor and psychiatrist, I remained on medication throughout my entire pregnancy, and we had a healthy baby. Many women do not realize that every year more and more research is coming out to support women in making more informed decisions regarding how to best care for themselves and their babies. Sometimes managing anxiety, depression, or mood swings during pregnancy and the post-partum period can be incredibly important for a marriage, the mother’s well-being, and the well-being of children. It was very healing for me to experience a more “normal” pregnancy and postpartum season. It has not been easy, but it has been so worth it.
My daughter is healthy and thriving. Most importantly, she has a healthy mom to love and take care of her. She also has an amazing dad and siblings who adore her.
I have a beautiful and holy family that looks a little different than other Catholic families.
I have a beautiful and holy family that looks a little different than other Catholic families. I have to be really disciplined about self-care. I exercise, go to counseling, take medication, and I must be careful not to take on too much stress to avoid a relapse. That is ok. That is responsible parenthood for us. I know that Jesus is not limited by my limitations. In every season, our family is something my husband and I are praying through and discerning together. God is still powerfully at work in my marriage and in my children. I cannot imagine a world without these four beautiful souls in it. God has a beautiful plan for all of us.
It is ok if God’s plan for your family looks a little different than everyone else. The grace of matrimony allows us to discern with our spouse how to best live out our vocation and plan our families. We have to place our marriage and our family planning under His dominion and authority if we want to be truly happy and at peace. True love is not easy, but worth every sacrifice.
“God’s love does not impose burdens upon us that we cannot carry, nor make demands of us that we cannot fulfill. For whatever He asks of us, He provides the help that is needed.”
Pope Saint John Paul II
What struck me as I read this story was how beautifully interwoven faith is with reason, and the careful response that was made together by both husband and wife to their unique situation as it has changed over the course of their marriage. Often, we people of faith can forget that we are not just spiritual beings, that we need to pay attention to the care of our mental and emotional components, and that doing so does not limit the power of God, but respects the totality of his creation. NFP never limits the power of God. By forcing us to employ both faith and reason in family planning – fertility awareness + discernment – NFP truly makes us open to the life God has planned for us, with all its trials and surprises that test us and strengthen us. I am so grateful to this woman for sharing her story! I pray it will bless and encourage you, as I know it has me.
If you are inspired by this story and wish to share you own, whether anonymously or not, reach out to me through my contact page