Given that I am experiencing such a rough time during this pregnancy, it has given me cause to reflect on the meaning of openness to life, which I, as a Catholic Christian, am compelled to practice in my marriage.
I have to confess that recently I have been anything but open to life in my mental attitude. Right now, the idea of ever having to experience such debilitating sickness and crippling fatigue is enough to send me mentally spiralling over the edge. I am just about continuing to function, even managing to attend some of the introductory events during Fresher’s Week at University (mainly all departmental welcomes and introductions), but I am to be found vomiting in the Ladies’ lavatories immediately afterwards, followed by slipping back home for a few hours of much-needed rest.
Imogen, our ten month old, still smells absolutely abhorrent, I associate her with a terrible smell to the extent that I can’t even look at a photo of her on my mobile phone without wanting to retch and thus the thought of another baby, combined with the rigours of a then 16 month old, a 7-year-old and the demands of the start of the Summer Term at University absolutely fills me with dread.
Now I know that all this is temporary, that eventually the sickness will ease, that I will undoubtedly love my newborn and be grateful for the blessing, at the moment all this seems very far from my mind. It is incredibly difficult to look at the big picture, when you are caught up in the daily drama of continuous vomiting, crippling tiredness accompanied with a side order of depression.
This would all appear to make family life particularly difficult at the moment, particularly given the uncertainties that Robin is currently facing in terms of discerning what his future might be within the Catholic Church and the loss of his previous identity. As he said, he has had to lay down the gift of his ministry, something that he has had for the past fourteen years, in the hope that he may one day take it up again. Since he was a little boy Robin has aspired towards priesthood and recounts how he used to “play at serving Mass” much to the bemusement of his siblings. His mother tells how as a baby toddler and young child she had an irrational fear that he might die, her intuitive feeling was that he was somehow so holy that she feared that God might want him back! Indeed he did, but not in the way that she foresaw. So this loss of identity and of ministry is proving challenging to him and what he is most in need of is a someone who can be of support, not a useless wretch who can only manage to spend the majority of her days either vomiting or sleeping.
With that in mind though, our marriage has never been stronger and indeed we feel closer and more spiritually linked than perhaps at any time previously. In the light of this I have been reflecting on the issue of priestly celibacy; perhaps somewhat hypocritically I cannot help but believe that the Catholic doctrine is actually the correct line here (more in a later post) and it has seemed to me that perhaps if Robin didn’t have the encumbrance of a wife and family to worry about things would now be so much more straightforward for him, however he feels that were it not for my presence he may not have come to the decision that he did; simply the act of being married to a Catholic, exploring the issue of NFP and the Catholic teaching on sexuality as well as attending Mass with me for the past two and half years played a significant part in his journey.
With all of this, I’ve been feeling more than a tad uneasy about my current stance which consists of “no more babies ever, ever again, my body can’t endure another pregnancy, please no, I’m never letting you come downwind of me ever again, unless you are enclosed in a hermetically sealed bubble”! Obviously not what a Catholic (or any) husband wants to hear. So, I have been doing a spot of re-reading of Christopher West in order to remind myself exactly what it means to be “open to life” and why this is so important.
Something that I want to point out is that unlike common perceptions, NFP is NOT playing Russian Roulette or fast and loose with one’s fertility. It’s not the same as simply crossing fingers and hoping that one doesn’t conceive. It’s not the equivalent of putting one’s hand in the fire and then wondering/complaining when one receives severe burns. Perfect use records a success rate of 99.5% for couples wishing to avoid pregnancy with a typical use rate of around 97%. One only needs to compare this with methods of contraception to note that this is pretty efficacious way of avoiding pregnancy. Of course, there is only one way to totally avoid pregnancy, which is total abstinence. All couples know that there is a risk of pregnancy whenever sexual relations take place and indeed anecdotally, many of our friends will testify to having an unplanned child due to failures of conventional contraception. Therefore I do get somewhat exasperated by the fact that certain people seem to think that I only have myself to “blame” for this pregnancy, because I failed to act “sensibly”.
Actually, what we did do, which is perfectly acceptable and indeed encouraged within the Catholic faith, was to think very long and very hard about whether or not it would be appropriate to have another child at this current moment in time. Humanae Vitae discusses the idea that couples may have reasons or motives that are just and sufficiently serious, i.e. not frivolous or materialistic, for avoiding conception. (iustae rationes and iustae causea, Humanae Vitae, 10, 16). The Church wisely doesn’t set out explicit rules, Paul VI alludes to reasons “based on the physical or psychological condition of the spouse or external factors”. What the Church does not say, contrary to popular misconception, is that it is inherently wrong to avoid children. Indeed in our circumstances, it seemed a wise decision, given the current pressures we are under.
This does on face value seem like splitting hairs. A commentator on a previous entry expressed the sentiment, surely if the end result is the same, no baby, then what is the difference? Surely you had the same mentality as someone using contraception? Indeed it seemed she had a good point, NFP or contraception is a means to an end. However, what this omits is the question that dogs almost all of us, namely does the end justify the means? The ends (no matter how good) neither justify the means or homogenize them. Using a trite example, think of the person who wants to buy a new house or car, so they work hard and save until they can achieve this. Someone else wants exactly the same thing, but instead they steal or sell drugs to achieve this. Same end, different means.
It is admittedly possible for a couple to misuse NFP by refusing to view fertility as a gift and adopt an outlook similar to the contraceptive mentality. An example might be an affluent couple with a house, 2 cars, several family holidays a year, able to eat out at least weekly, who have no known fertility problems and yet chose to postpone children with no reason other than they wish to prolong their lifestyle. This might be stingy or fearful or fertility but it is different from using contraception.
What contraception does is to separate the two meanings of conjugal love which should be both unitive and procreative. It renders the sexual act sterile. Every time a couple using NFP have sex bodily renewing their marriage covenant, they are open to life even if they know that the chances are slim that they will conceive in an infertile period. Patrick Coffin puts it very aptly when he says “using a comparison, such couples treat God as a poker partner with whom they’re willing to share high value cards, whereas contracepting couples treat God as a partner they want to defeat”. Marital spirituality involves spouses opening their bodies and the “one body” they become in the sexual act, to the Holy Spirit. Contraception entails shutting oneself off to the Holy Spirit, as the Nicene Creed expresses “the Lord, the Giver of Life” and so every time a couple uses contraception, they are excluding God from the act.
What separates NFP from contraception is that sex on a day known to be infertile is that God Himself designed the female with a natural rhythm of fertility and infertility, and this knowledge merely determines the timing of an act of intercourse. It doesn’t involve the desecration of such acts. Though most people don’t look on it this way, actually given that ovulation (even double ovulation) occurs one day a month, abstention usually lasts 5-10 days a month, the divine design actually favours the enjoyment of unity and sexual satisfaction over the procreative meaning by a hefty margin.
It’s difficult to prove the subtle effect of contraception on the unitive meaning of sex, but it doesn’t make it any the less real. If you pick up a lump of exposed radium with your bare hands, a la Homer Simpson, you’d still be affected by the radiation even though you may feel no sensible reaction. An invisible effect is not the same as a non-existent one. I think a good way of thinking about it is that contraception effectively turns love to lust. This might not seem so, after all sex is a way of expressing love, but when you think about it contraception was invented in order that we might not have to grapple with the choice of abstinence. It was invented to overcome man’s lack of self-control and indulgence of lust. As West points out, God gave us freedom as the capacity to love. Contraception negates this freedom, it says “I can’t abstain”. Hence, contracepted sex not only attacks the procreative meaning of sex, it also as John Paull II says “ceases to be an act of love”. If you can’t say no to sex, what does your “yes” mean?
By using NFP what we were saying is “Father, we have prayerfully discerned our life situation and we believe we ought not to conceive at this time. But we want to honour you as the true Lord of Life. In partnership with you, we enter into this embrace trusting that, if it be your will to bless it with a child, we will joyfully accept him or her”. On fertile days we did other things. We watched NCIS and Dr Who 😉
I have dallied with the thought that this Catholic attitude towards contraception is misogynistic, after all, it’s very easy for a man to wish his wife to have as many children as circumstances allow, particularly when he doesn’t have to physically endure the rigours of pregnancy and the terrors of childbirth (which to date have entailed abnormal amounts of blood loss and post-birth infections, nothing worse than lying incapacitated on an operating table, baby screaming implacably, surgeons wearing what appear to be plastic tree felling visors spattered with blood, stating “I can’t seem to stop this bleed, I think we nicked a vein”). The reality is different though. Given that men are called to chastity in the same way as women, abstinence requires a real act of self-mastery which becomes increasingly difficult when your wife is physically incapacitated and incapable of intimacy for a long period of time, both during and after pregnancy. In addition to which, our personal situation is requiring that Robin is doing the majority of childcare and housework, as well as attempting to sort out some sort of employment and finalise any outstanding parish work. This pregnancy is not proving to be easy on either of us, we are both suffering yet in different ways. Though it might be easy to put a postmodern feminist gloss on everything, actually this is too glib an interpretation and simply one that is born out of frustration. As I said, it’s often hard to see beyond the immediate physical reality, and I know that Robin has often wished that he could suffer in my place.
Someone sagely pointed out that “I don’t eat meat, Caroline doesn’t use condoms. I would never ever eat meat, even if I was anaemic because I feel that strongly about it, eating meat is immoral and Caroline will never ever use contraception because she believes that it is immoral”. That pretty much sums it up. Though I am admittedly struggling with the effects of this pregnancy, with catastrophically low iron levels, though I’ve needed hospital treatment, and though it’s difficult at times to feel joyful about a baby which might well mean that I have to defer my long-awaited for degree, that is causing havoc physically, I have to accept that I am about to lose my newly regained figure (again) a source of vanity, I think really the fault is with me and not with the Church. This is a case of me coming to terms with “thy will be done” and not my will be done. It’s really easy to be pro-life, open to life if you want to be like Anna Duggar and have 19 children. This is where, for me, the rubber hits the road, where I have to put my money where my mouth is and accept the reality of an unplanned pregnancy and what it entails. Though I am no pro-life witness, I wish I was, this is, for me, melodramatic as it sounds, an act of heroic sacrifice. I am struggling every day with the physical reality of pregnancy and the concept that in a matter of months, life is not going to be how I envisaged or planned it. It’s going to be a whole lot richer.
If I were wiser or a better Catholic, I’d simply be accepting this difficult phase as a blessing or gift, uniting my suffering to that of Christ. I can’t do that, not only because it’s not in the same league, but also because I’m dreadful with illness and petulant when things don’t go the way I want them. I feel terribly guilty for not yet being able to be joyful about this baby, particularly when I know the lengths that some people go in their quest for children and it does seem terribly unfair. One of my most cherished passages in Scripture is Romans 8, 28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
Also, the example of Mary, is as ever salient here. “Let it be done unto me according to thy word”. Here was a woman who had to tell her fiance that an angel had told her she had conceived God’s child. She potentially faced death by stoning, yet she rejoiced in the news that she had been chosen by God, never once complaining, but accepting the news joyfully.
So ultimately, my troubles are yet small beer.