Brianna Heldt is a writer, speaker, and radio show host. She blogs at www.briannaheldt.com, has been a featured guest on BBC Radio, and her work can regularly be found in other online publications as well. A convert to the Catholic Church, Brianna explores topics ranging from faith and social issues to adoption and large family life. She and her husband make their home in Denver, along with their eight children.
Being that last week was officially “NFP Week” (who decides these things, anyway?), the Catholic interwebz was abuzz with posts and statuses related to optimal child spacing, the accuracy of ovulation predictors, and whether it automatically makes you “privileged” to more or less forgo NFP altogether, and just be open to life.
The truth is that I never know quite what to say when NFP is the topic du jour. In general I prefer to write about the joys of being open to life in marriage, because it’s always seemed to me that the happy things of parenthood get short shrift. But the longer I’ve been Catholic—and privy to what can only be called the NFP wars—the more reticent I am to talk about it. Maybe that’s the coward’s way out, but it’s clear that this is just as touchy a subject among Catholics as it is among non-Catholics. I have personally never felt that the Church’s position on marriage and children was really much about the numbers, but moreso about the “yes”, the total gift of self, and the ordering of married sexuality towards procreation. But still you tread carefully when you talk about NFP and have many children because, well, there is no shortage of couples at any given time facing infertility. Then there are varying views about what constitutes a “grave reason”, or whether you have to have one at all, for trying to avoid a pregnancy. And the general assumption that if you’re not complaining or miserable or fearful of having more children, you’re being inauthentic at best, or a privileged, insensitive jerk at worst.
And I have, by all accounts, a large family. Nine kids, to be exact—four of them adopted, and five born to me. I have also lost three precious babies to miscarriage. We have had seasons where we’ve longed to conceive and haven’t been able to, and times where God sent us a new baby sooner than expected. My biological children are, somehow, all spaced roughly three years apart, in spite of the fact that we have not intentionally spaced them in any way. (A friend likes to joke that our adopted children have filled in the gaps. I suppose she is right.) We do not really “use” NFP, although of course I do keep track of things and understand the way my body works. Instead, we simply remain open to children. My husband and I are both on the same page here. This has been God’s path for us and, thus far, it has worked beautifully.
My own perspective has of course been shaped by my own unique life experiences. I’m a convert to the Catholic faith. I married young. And, I’m sorry to say that I availed myself of hormonal contraception for the first few months of my marriage. The birth control pill was, incidentally, just terrible—it made me sick, it made me crazy, and on top of all of that I later found out that it has the potential to function as an abortifacient—which was horrifying, because even as a non-Catholic, I was 100% pro-life (or so I’d thought). So that was it, for me, when it came to the pill. I threw my prescription away and never really looked back. And it turned out to be a relief, not a burden, to make the decision to forgo the use of birth control and welcome the possibility of new life, instead.
And then years later, when I finally encountered Saint Pope John Paul II’s addresses to families, along with the encyclicals Casti Cannubii and Humanae Vitae—all before my conversion—everything suddenly made sense. This is because the historic Christian position on marriage, and the role children have within it, is rooted in God’s perfect design and is, therefore, in harmony with natural law. It was, having come from a Christian background which offered little insight into marriage and children, both refreshing and enlightening to discover these gems. They confirmed what we had witnessed with our own eyes, with each and every baby, how very good it is, God’s design for married men and women. Counter-cultural, yes. Filled with sacrifices, absolutely. Marked by the occasional sorrow, you bet. But the love, joy, and beauty make it worth it. All of it. I would not trade our noisy, messy, mostly happy life for anything in all the world.
Had I actually gotten my act together and, you know, written something about NFP during NFP Week, I probably would have just said that while it may sound crazy, I’m super glad for openness to life. I would have encouraged women everywhere that while it is, indeed, a privilege to be open to children, it is a wonderful and profound one! I would have said that things are super tough when kids are little, but a lot of things get easier once they’re not. (But in the interest of full disclosure I would also have had to add that some stuff gets harder! Hello teen years!) I would have said that God’s design is amazing, and that the birth control pill is not as awesome/convenient/risk-free as people make it out to be.
So while I don’t really have a grand NFP method to recommend I can, without caveat, heartily recommend openness to children. I’ve learned that you don’t have to have the patience of a saint, the biggest house in town, or the desire to be a preschool teacher to be a mother to a few, or to many. Because I have learned that when it comes to marriage and children, God is not asking for perfection, but for our “yes”. Our hearts. Our love. And what a precious gift it is, when that love manifests itself in a baby.