Welcome to our first Blessed Chats series! Each month, we will dedicate an entire week of blog posts to a topic that affects many of us. These conversations often come up in our Facebook groups and in our real life friendships. We want to share a variety of perspectives on the topic at hand, so we’ve asked women to share their stories and how the teachings of the Church have guided and comforted them. In this first series, we’re talking all about fertility. We’d love for you to join the conversation!
We sat on the floor of his living room in a small house where he rented a room from a friend in Ypsilanti, Michigan. My feet pushed out the ottoman and my back rested against the couch. I stretched forward to my toes, arms out, forehead down. He began, “Well, we both come from families of five . . .” and the daydreaming about our someday-maybe-future family began.
I had a pretty good idea he would propose after I graduated law school in a few weeks. I had a pretty good idea of what our year apart while I worked and he finished school would look like. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what being married and having kids would look like.
I was flat-out wrong.
A few months later, we picked my wedding band with five small diamonds, partially for the symmetry and wistfully for that magic number five we joked about.
Honestly, with being Catholic and open to life and not using any birth control or contraceptives, I figured we’d have eight or nine kids. Married at twenty six with no gynecological health problems that I knew of and a mom who had no issues around babies—the sky and God’s providence would be our limit!
The Unexpected Surprise
Fast-forward to age thirty-seven, eleven years into marriage, already having welcomed four kids in six years. One evening I cried into my husband’s pillow—far be it from me to keep that mess to my own pillow—that I felt so awfully out of it, I could even be pregnant!
I had cycles like clockwork and figured this was just the hormone swing of PMS as I was on the brink of my cycle starting again. “FINE,“ I snotted into the pillow once more for good measure. These hormones will slow down in a few days.
But they didn’t.
The day came and passed. The next day came and passed. I pulled out my old stash of pregnancy strips, four years old now as our youngest was over three. One, two, three, four, five. That faint line couldn’t be it. I headed to the local pharmacy to buy the $16 two-pack tests. Both announced “you’re pregnant!” as I stared in the bathroom mirror.
I did the math over and over again: trying to figure out how this was physically possible given our peak day and phase-three intimacy. The numbers didn’t add up.
Learn and grow in our Faith and love for the Lord.
Being Open to Life While Trying to Avoid Conception
The Catholic Church provided us with insights into discerning what being open to life actually meant. The Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses trying to avoid conception in section 2368:
For just reasons (de iustis causis), spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality.
Well, what is a just reason? The Church doesn’t give us a bright-line rule but rather guidelines for the individual couple to figure it out together. In his encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI writes that:
with regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time.
The Reality of My Motherhood
For our family, the reasons evolved over time. The first two babies came with relatively easy births twenty-two months apart. Our second had the most peaceful water birth in a hospital with a midwife.
Our third babe was two weeks overdue, came barreling out at ten pounds, and left my body a bit of a postpartum Wreck of the Hesperus. I was re-hospitalized for a life-and-death uterine infection two weeks out and then treated for eight months for ongoing trouble from the two-hour repair surgery we’d undergone after he emerged.
We gingerly abstained and waited a little longer before being open to baby number four with a combination of the Creighton and Marquette Methods of NFP.
Another reason for us to avoid another babe was the crippling hyperemesis throughout my pregnancies. We managed it some with medications and IV fluids, but it made every day challenging to care for the little ones at home underfoot while trying to keep my body and the babe within healthy, too.
Our sweet and rowdy fourth baby was the one to push us deep into avoiding conception. She arrived in this world after many IV fluid bags and all sorts of unmentionable side effects to medication, dehydration, and nausea at nearly eleven pounds.
She got stuck in the birth canal with a condition called “shoulder dystocia,” suffering a brachial plexus injury and broken collar bone when she was born. My body was also broken open with split and torn ligaments, rendering me unable to walk and needing a pelvic floor physical therapist for a year postpartum.
Additionally, when she was nine months old, I began to experience a series of auto-immune disorder symptoms and have since worked with a neurological team to treat. The unknown condition left me bedridden many afternoons and evenings, another confirmation that a fifth baby wasn’t a prudent idea.
Joyful Acceptance of the Gift
So when I stood before my husband with an overflowing handful of positive pregnancy tests, he was surprised and also a little in disbelief. All of our years of obedience to Church teaching on chastity and abstinence in natural family planning flooded over me as well. How, but also why, God?
Minutes later, sitting in our little music room on an overcast morning while slurping his coffee, my husband remarked that NFP had worked. We were open to life always, even in our measured hormone levels and charting way.
So God found a way. Not a way to punish us but to stretch our hearts, minds, bodies, and trust in Him that this fifth babe was meant to be part of our family.
Never an Accident
In case you also need this reminder, as I did from my husband on that day, God never punishes us with children. New life is always a gift. Now it might take us a while to be ready to receive that gift, and that’s okay. God gives us a gift with the patient knowledge we might take time to warm up to it.
This baby isn’t an accident or a “whoopsie” (as an extended family member was quick and loud to proclaim about him). This baby is an unexpected surprise present. One who has already changed our minds and hearts and lives and will even more when he arrives in January 2021.
You might have a story like mine. You might have had an entirely different journey of finding your vocation, your number of children born from your heart or from your uterus, your “grave” or “just” reasons. But what we all encounter, and what I’m challenged to live out, is the joyful acceptance of God’s gifts. As mysterious and unpredictable as they are!
Anyone out there have stories of surprise babies? Please share your story with us in the comments below!
If you want more on the Church’s rich teachings on these engaging topics, our best-selling study, “Blessed Conversations: Rooted,” dives into the Catechism’s teachings and now offers a video companion series along with it featuring Theological Editor Susanna Spencer and Managing Editor Nell O’Leary. Get it here.