NFP, God’s Faithfulness, and Family Size

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Painting: Mary Cassatt, “After the Bath”, c. 1901

“Is anything too marvelous for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14)

By Susanna Spencer, National Catholic Register, 5/27/18

“You know, “ I called to my husband in the other room, “If I had lived even a hundred years ago, I would have probably died because of childbearing by now.” We were dealing with yet another health issue of mine related to the wear and tear of pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing. It is not that I am sick very often and pregnancies are mostly comfortable for me, but I have had multiple hemorrhages, many infections, and several miscarriages, which seem to have been caused by a chronic health problem.

When we signed up for our Natural Family Planning courses and planned ahead to when we would use it, this kind of stuff was not on our radar. We were in our early twenties, and we were always talking about having 10 kids, but we decided to learn NFP just in case. We’d both grown up in homes where our parents had used it, so it seemed very natural to learn it and use it to keep track of my cycles.

We had our first baby right away while living on my husband’s graduate school stipend. We used NFP to give us a few extra months of space between each pregnancy once my cycles came back waiting until we felt we could handle another baby. But even then at the end of seven years of marriage we had four healthy children and had suffered two first trimester miscarriages as well. Last autumn, in our 10th year of marriage, we had our third miscarriage, and now we have had seven children—four on earth and three entrusted to God’s mercy—just three shy of the 10 we envisioned.

And now I find myself in a circumstance where I am so glad to have learned NFP, and have learned with the help of practitioners and other Catholic mom friends how to use it carefully. But the beauty of knowing how to use NFP is that you can use it when you need it to avoid having a baby, and as soon as you are ready you can use it to be open to a new life.

My first mom friendships were with wonderful Catholic women trying to navigate the world of early marriage and NFP. We shared pregnancy tests that we purchases in bulk, discussed all of the things about babies, and made each other delicious lunches of pancakes or bagel and egg sandwiches during our whole morning play dates which ended with reluctant goodbyes when our babies were overly ready for nap. We discussed budget-managing techniques, shared clothes, met at parks with our jogging strollers, and rejoiced in each other’s new babies.

The woman I was then expected to have the babies come one after the other to eventually have a huge house, and to do it all with ease. I always admired the families who were able to do this—I still do. Since then I have met so many women who struggle to even conceive one child, those who cannot without medical intervention keep a baby alive in the womb, those who have genetics that make it unlikely they will ever have a child survive, those who are so incredibly sick the entirety of their pregnancy, those who are cripplingly overwhelmed at the thought of another baby, and so on. These are the things that they don’t tell you in marriage prep about NFP—and maybe they cannot teach these things. They have to be experienced in our own lives and through our friendships.

I have heard more and more from women about they felt they hit a limit or maxed out at a certain number of children. (Most recently in this blog post by another Catholic mom.) For me it happened when my fourth was born. He was born in early summer, and I remember the warm summer evenings as I nursed him wondering how I could possibly handle more. I was juggling four kids six and under and homeschooling my first-grader, and not getting any sleep. My son started teething at three months and had eight teeth by the time he was eight months which means we had a lot of really bad nights and drank a lot of coffee.

When my cycles came back when he was over a year old, I noticed that something was not right. I was physically drained by pregnancy and nursing, and while I had tried to take care of myself with good food and exercise and some sleep, three years later, I still have health problems. I am finally learning that it is okay to take the time to become healthy, because if I am not healthy then I cannot have another baby survive.

When I go to Mass with my family and hold my almost 3-year-old “baby,” I savor his littleness, because I do not know when I will be able to have another. But I self-consciously wonder if people are eyeing my three-year postpartum bump, and wondering when another little Spencer will be on the way. I am guilty of doing this to other families—wondering when they will have their next—but the more people I hear of having secondary infertility, the more I realize how wrong I was to do this. Yet now I am finally learning to not judge a family on its size or the spacing of the children, but to see the beauty of each family and the blessings that God has given them.

At the very end of the Gospel of John after he has been forgiven for betraying Jesus St. Peter asks Jesus about St. John’s death. Jesus responds to Peter saying, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” (John 21:22). The same applies to each and every family — what God has in mind for the family in the next pew does not change my call to follow him. It is not for me to worry about, but simply love them as fellow followers of Christ. He is calling me to be in relationship with him. He gives me the grace I need to live the life that has been given to me — in the sufferings and the blessings.

As I opened a package that came in the mail recently a sticker fell out. It had the hand-lettered Bible verse: “Is anything too marvelous for the Lord?” (Genesis 18:14) I set it aside for a couple of weeks, not sure where to stick it. Then one day in conversation that verse came up, and we mused about where the verse had come from. On this day I was feeling particularly sorrowful about my inability to carry a baby for now. I flipped open the Bible to see the story of the Lord coming to Abraham telling him that Sarah would have a son. Sarah laughs in disbelief when she hears that she is going to bear a child in her old age. The verse on my sticker is the Lord’s response: Is anything too marvelous for the Lord?

It went straight to my heart; these were his words to me as well. He has a plan for my family, for my health, for my good. He calls me to use the resources he has given me to take care of myself which include NFP and my various medical treatments.

These are also are his words of hope to you — to any family that puts their faith in his promises — when we remain faithful to the truths of his Church he will remain faithful to us. Using natural means to monitor our fertility is one of the ways families in the childbearing years remain faithful to God. He tells those in the struggle with being super fertile and those in the trial of infertility—Is anything too marvelous for the Lord? I cling to this verse with the hope and faith that God has my life in his hands and that he will provide for me in his timing. In the case of Abraham and Sarah he was giving a family a single child. In the case of others he gives tenfold. Whatever the family, he gives perfectly, the right thing at the right time. Praise him.

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