Responsible parenthood also and above all implies a more profound relationship to the objective moral order established by God, of which a right conscience is the faithful interpreter. The responsible exercise of parenthood implies, therefore, that husband and wife recognize fully their own duties towards God, towards themselves, towards the family and towards society, in a correct hierarchy of values.
Pope Paul VI, Humanae Vitae #10
Jen: Before I got married, I honestly thought there were very rarely any situations in which a couple should avoid a pregnancy. I’m ashamed to admit that I was pretty judgy about it too. That couple says they want to be in a better financial situation…but clearly they have plenty enough money! (Don’t be me, okay?) Since my husband, Logan, and I were open to a baby from the beginning, despite our financial situation being pretty horrible, I just assumed that there were no other reasons that were “grave” enough to avoid a pregnancy.
Perhaps that’s why God decided to show me a thing or two. (See Conversation 3 about crosses, ha.) The thing about responsible parenthood is that sometimes it will look like having more children…and sometimes it will look like avoiding a pregnancy for the greater good. Neither path is easy! We have experienced both.
Two of Jen and Logan’s silly boys, right before getting pregnant with their third
After our oldest son was born, we were not exactly thrilled to experience another high risk pregnancy where I’d possibly be put on bed rest again—especially because now we had a toddler to care for. But we also knew that our very extroverted toddler needed a sibling, so we were open, and we are thankful God blessed us with another boy.
After yet another difficult pregnancy, we really were not ready for another one. But our second son was a pretty chill and laid back baby, so we felt called to be open to yet another, despite not being completely ready.
So our third son came along. Even though it was actually our easiest pregnancy thus far (thanks be to God), he was our most difficult infant…and toddler…and preschooler. And we were dealing with other situations that caused strife in our marriage. That made us realize there are other ways to exercise responsible parenthood. Some kids simply need more attention than others, and sometimes we need to take some time to work on our marriage (because that is the greatest gift you can give your kids). For the first time, we were strict about avoiding a pregnancy. God has shown us so much about the importance of caring for the family we currently have and to make sure we’re wanting another baby for the right reasons.
Mary: As a friend to many fertile women and a Creighton Practitioner, I have personally seen the importance of mental, relational, and emotional health when it comes to family planning. Again, our beautiful Church does an amazing job at emphasizing the value of every new life. Well, in order to provide every new life with the attention and respect he or she deserves, each parent needs to be equipped with a certain amount of mental, physical, financial, and emotional health- such amount is to be determined by God alone and communicated to the couple through their discernment. Healthy parenting is just as important as a healthy pregnancy! As parents, we are designed to give of ourselves to our children, but if we are falling apart, what will we be giving them?
It’s true that some of us will never feel ready to have one more child and that there will always be room for more trust in God. But it is also possible that the greater sacrifice facilitating that growth for an individual couple is to avoid pregnancy. We won’t know unless we ask Him sincerely, and regularly.
One of the many ways Chris and I bear fruit as a married couple is as a marriage prep mentor couple. The training itself has been a tremendous gift to our marriage! One of my favorite points of wisdom from Lloyd and Jan Tate’s materials are: “Pray for guidance; be on guard against selfishness: The important thing is to guard against having a self-centered attitude. Decisions should always be made prayerfully, embracing generosity toward life and rejecting materialism and selfishness.” Selfishness can be present whether our desire is to avoid or achieve. That’s why it is so important to consistently ask God what his desires are.
Emily: Mary, that is too perfect! I love how you point out selfishness can be present no matter your family planning intentions. Because I’ve heard of too many Catholic men who, because they cannot control their sexual desires or have accepted misinterpretations of Church teaching (perhaps one led to the other), end up with large families despite their wives’ or children’s needs. That is not love, or living authentically Catholic.
I do have to admit that our conversations thus far have been really healing for me. I had what I can only describe as traumatic experiences around the birth of both of my children and my second pregnancy. I know there are women who could have gone through what I did and bounced right back to having more kids. But that’s not me. I needed time to process and to heal, to sort through those mental, spiritual and emotional pains so that I can pour out the best of myself to my kids and my husband. And God bless my husband – he’s walked that road to healing right along with me.
Mary: Emily, I love how you recognized that you “know there are women who could have gone through [that] and bounced back…but that’s not you.” The point of our conversation is not to define the one or two ways a couple can be holy, but to place an emphasis on each individual couple’s openness to God’s plan for their specific situation.
Emily: Yes! Holiness is a unique and individual endeavor. No two saints are alike, even though they share similarities, particularly when it comes to prayer and rejection of sin.
Completely valid grave reasons to avoid pregnancy include those emotional and psychological aspects because parenthood and marriage involve the whole person. Recognizing and responding appropriately to my limitations does not mean I don’t believe that God can conquer all and work a beautiful good out of our deepest pain. He can and does all the time.
But that’s not how faith works. Faith doesn’t negate reason. It certainly tests reason, but it doesn’t prove it an absolute hindrance to growing in the spiritual life. God has given us science and medicine and psychology to understand our limitations and our natures and be respectful of them at the same time we seek what God wants. What kind of mother and wife would I be if I didn’t use what God has given me to make sure I’m giving my best self to my family?
Jen: Yes, yes, yes. That’s something I think about all of the time—that there are probably women who have high risk pregnancies like me who still have never used NFP to actively avoid a pregnancy. That’s a beautiful thing! But just because one woman is called to that, doesn’t mean everyone else is too. Everyone has different circumstances, personalities, and variables that make that decision personal to them and their marriage. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.
Mary: My heart broke this morning as I spoke with a good friend of mine who shared with me the judgement she sometimes feels because she and her husband have been successfully using NFP to avoid pregnancy for years. It is not immediately obvious that she has multiple chronic illnesses which are likely to become drastically worse by getting pregnant. It could kill her or give her a range of physical disabilities affecting her ability to care for the child. And what would that do to her ability to serve others in the ways God is actually calling her to right now? This woman is one of the most fruitful people I know.
Some would say that they lack trust in God, but I see two people who are solely trusting in God’s direction because they do greatly desire to have children. Either way, it is a sacrifice for them, but they are choosing the specific route to holiness that God has invited them to. Another beautiful aspect of their example is that they continue to be open about it. They regularly invite God into this decision and revisit it because they are so open to his will.
Jen: I think it’s very dangerous to promote the view that we shouldn’t use NFP and instead to let God plan our family. Because 1) God gave us free will for a reason (see Conversation 4 for more thoughts about that); 2) you never know when you might need NFP; and 3) that perspective just leads to a more judgmental attitude when you look at another family.
There’s the tendency to assume that one family is not “letting go and letting God” just because they don’t have as many kids as you think they should have. In fact, that family might be doing exactly what God is asking of them. They might be struggling with infertility. They might desperately want to have another baby (or even one baby) but are dealing with serious medical issues—like your friend, Mary. Or there may be emotional or psychological things going on—like you said, Emily—and those are all absolutely important factors to consider when growing a family. But you just don’t know what a family is dealing with, because everyone’s situation is different. Responsible parenthood will look different for each marriage and maybe even change as different circumstances arise. I know that’s certainly been the case for us.
Mary: Preach! I am cringing a little bit over here because of thoughts I have had frequently, but on the other end of the spectrum. I am certainly guilty of making my own judgements about families with multiple children due to a perception driven by my own delayed diagnosis and infertility wounds. This has alerted me to the need to work on myself and is not a reflection of an error in their discernment because I am not privy to that intimate information- nor should I be.
Even if we do know what a family is dealing with, it is none of our business. We will never have enough information to make that decision for someone else because we were never intended to. As Emily pointed out, the same exact situation could be considered grave for one family, but not for another. And that’s okay! There is a certain sacredness that exists between God, man, and wife, and what a beautiful triangle of trust it is! The most healing and fruitful thing we can do is to make our lives and marriages beautiful examples of love, patience, and mercy.
Emily: Yes! That relationship between man, wife and God is so sacred, and we have to stop judging others based on what we see. Because what we see is only the tip of the iceberg!
We also have to remember that responding to God’s will is kind of known for drawing ridicule. I was astonished at the number of people – total strangers – who had something to say about my kids. Anything from “Oh good, you have a boy and a girl so you’re done” to “my gosh your hands must be full” to even the sonographer snidely remarking when I was pregnant with my second (after seeing how young my daughter was) “I’m assuming this was an accident.” Every single comment stung and hurt and annoyed because it came from someone who presumed they knew my whole story. And if we have more children one day, I know those comments will get worse.
I had to get good at turning those hurtful comments into opportunities to be mindful of the times I’ve done the same thing. I was so guilty of being that person who sees a couple in church married for several years without kids, and thinking judgmentally to myself that they need to get off birth control—as if I am some bastion of holiness. Now that I know the prevalence of infertility, miscarriage, and chronic illness, which both of you of have been instrumental in, I pray for those couples, because it’s really a slim chance for a couple to be faithfully active in an extremely conservative parish (like the one we attend) every single week and use birth control.
Jen: You know, I think we all struggle with making assumptions and judgments about other families at some point…and it’s because of the mindset that we need to have all the babies. I know that’s what I thought when we got married until I experienced so many different situations that made me realize how important it is to talk about responsible parenthood. If we are all taught from the beginning that every family is going to look differently because those decisions are between the couple and God, we will have a lot less of those hurtful comments. I’ve been on both sides of comments, and it’s not fun. People asked when we were going to have kids when they had no idea we already had a son in heaven and were trying desperately to conceive again. When we had 3 boys ages 4 and under, we started getting comments like, “Don’t you watch TV?” And it just all comes down to the fact that each family’s decisions aren’t anybody’s business other than the couple itself and God. Pope Paul VI says it best in Gaudium et Spes:
Parents should regard as their proper mission the task of transmitting human life and educating those to whom it has been transmitted. They should realize that they are thereby cooperators with the love of God the Creator, and are, so to speak, the interpreters of that love. Thus they will fulfill their task with human and Christian responsibility, and, with docile reverence toward God, will make decisions by common counsel and effort. Let them thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. For this accounting they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself. The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God.
Emily: Mic drop!!
Emily: And that’s a really big problem with this idea that in order to be a “good” Catholic, you “let God plan your family”, aka you have to have a lot of kids. It gives license to judge those who don’t have the “right” number of kids without ever bothering to find out the whole story. When we encounter Jesus, we walk away more compassionate towards those we don’t understand. If we don’t, I don’t know who we met, but it definitely wasn’t Christ.
But I love how Pope Paul VI highlights the fact that parents must take into account both their own welfare and that of their children. Bad spouses don’t make good parents. I have a good friend, a mother of six, who shared that she knew she and her husband had to stop having children because she was not a good person when she was pregnant. In order to be a good steward of what she had – and I love that she used the word stewardship because that sums all this up so well – she and her husband felt that God was telling them they should avoid having more children for the sake of their marriage and actual living children.
Jen: I can definitely relate to that about pregnancy, and it’s one of the reasons why we had to space out a pregnancy after our third son was born. Not only did I struggle while pregnant because I couldn’t exercise or do much of anything, Logan struggled too. He had a bigger workload to make up for my restrictions, plus we couldn’t have sex due to the high risk nature of my pregnancies. Not having sex for 9 months really puts a strain on your marriage! And that in turn makes it more difficult to be a loving parent. It didn’t help that we had some other difficult circumstances that made life even more stressful. But thankfully things are different now! Now that we’ve had the time and space to work on ourselves and our marriage, we feel much more prepared for another difficult pregnancy, if God blesses us with another baby.
Mary: The words “responsible parenthood” say it all. What does it mean to be responsible? Or to be selfless? What about being charitable? What does it mean to be Christ-like? When putting these words into action, we have to consider all parties involved – not just ourselves or just our children or just our spouses.
Emily: There are so many facets for a couple to take into account when planning their family, and those facets can change from one day to the next. Responding to those using both our reason and our faith – striving to be good stewards of all God has entrusted to us – that is our duty as Catholic spouses and parents.
Mary: Yes! And it is important to remember that “having all the babies” is not the default of holiness.
Jen: I know a lot of people say that back in the day, people didn’t use NFP and had all the babies and were fine…so we just should do the same. But we can’t just compare our families to those a century ago! Society has changed so much. The world in which we raise children has changed so much. Most people nowadays don’t have the “village” that families used to have, with multiple generations living within one home or close by…meaning more adults to help. Plus, a lot of families actually had more kids to help with farming or whatever family business they relied on for their livelihood.
Emily: Right. We’ve had a complete shift in contemporary times in terms of generational mobility, with couples starting marriage often living far from relatives, and mostly in urban areas for jobs. I live 1500 miles away from mine and my husband’s immediate family. Any help we get is from friends we make, and those kinds of friendships take time to develop. This absolutely has an impact on family size. We can certainly critique the negative impact of our modern systems of government and economics on families, and believe me, I’m as frustrated with the current state of things as anyone. But we cannot conclude that because families were usually large under a different set of socioeconomic circumstances, they must be large now or else we are doing something morally wrong.
Jen: I don’t doubt that some families are called to have a lot of children. I think that’s beautiful! I thought we would be one of those families. But it turns out that it would not be the responsible thing to do in our particular situation. I, for one, am thankful for the advances in medicine and the increase in knowledge of our fertility. Because if I had lived a century ago, there’s a big chance we wouldn’t be able to carry any babies to term. So that just goes to show that we can’t make decisions now based on what life was like 100 years ago…or even 20 years ago. It’s such a blessing to be able to use NFP so that we can, in fact, practice responsible parenthood.