Category Archives: Marriage

On Privilege, Planning, and Progeny: Wading into the NFP debate

Simcha Fisher, in her inimitable style, has set off an explosion in the middle of NFP week with her lastest piece The Privilege of Saying “No Thanks” on NFP. Her assertion, in response to another blog, is that anyone who can say “no thanks” to family planning is coming from a position of privilege. While Fisher focuses most on financial privilege she notes that this is only one kind. Other considerations include the privilege of a healthy relationship between spouses, or the privilege of good health either mental or physical.

When Fisher speaks of poverty she speaks with the passion of someone who knows this suffering intimately. This powerful and purposefully discomfiting language combined with the word choice of privilege seems to have set off a wave of defensiveness from many readers. It doesn’t sound nice. It shouldn’t. Suffering isn’t nice or clean or pleasant. It makes you squirm. If it isn’t clear yet I don’t disagree with Fisher’s article, and I don’t think her words were cruel but it’s unfortunate how often we can’t hear each other because of a particular word choice.

It is unfortunate that camps exist in Catholic family planning land. I call it family planning because whether you use NFP or not you are planning. You’re making a conscious decision about how to conduct your family life. Which is really Simcha Fisher’s point at the end of the day I think. We’re all examining all the factors involved and making a good faith decision to live God’s will for us as best we can. If your will is not constrained in your choice then, well let’s call it lucky or blessed if privilege feels too loaded.

Since both camps exist in a world hostile to our lifestyle, it’s especially sad that both feel judged and attacked by the other. I can see why people who have bravely (and it is brave even if you are privileged) said “no thanks” feel that their sacrifice is somehow denigrated by the “charge” of privilege. As Fisher pointed out in her piece this was not her intention despite tone designed to shake us out of our complacency. There is no fault in being blessed. It’s just good to note that you are, give thanks, and show charity to the less fortunate.

Maybe if hearing this point feels like an accusation, looking at it from the perspective of the other will help. You are not the only ones who feel their position is misunderstood or portrayed negatively. NFP couples feel the same. Let’s flip the camera for a moment. Saying “no thanks” and having a large family does involve taking on large burdens that many in our world would not undertake. If it feels that having those burdens treated as an advantaged position seems dismissive of their difficulty realize this is actually the exact same feeling many NFP couples experience when they are discussed as a whole. Often having fewer children is discussed as a privileged, easier reality when it is one we would happily trade in.

As I wrote in The Generosity of Catholic Family Planning years ago, we find a lot of sympathy for the infertile and a lot of praise for those who do not use any method of natural family planning. But at best those couples who could have children but sometimes don’t are seen as having an acceptable excuse.

It is assumed, at least by the language we use, that all families who have less children than they might have in fact want less children than they might have and have luckily come down with a perfect case of grave cause to justify that desire. No. Couples using NFP as the church allows are very often grieving their position. First there is whatever suffering is requiring the avoidance of pregnancy. But watching the opportunity for a child come and go is often a cross itself. Of course since they have children they are not allowed to grieve. This should be enough for them to many observers. And since they have slightly fewer children their generosity must be slightly less as well to another set of judges.

On the contrary, such couples are making a tremendous sacrifice and I’m not talking about having to go without sex on the days of fertility. I’m talking about sacrificing fertility and potential children out of a conviction that this is what obedience to God’s plan requires of them at this time. Yesterday I packed away the newborn clothes. Without becoming too awkwardly personal I suffer from layer upon layer of separate health conditions which will eventually make it necessary for me to forgo more children. It is the time bomb at the centre of many family discussions. I won’t lose my fertility mind you. No the decision will be a month by month reminder that I could have more kids but shouldn’t. I sadly realized that in all likelihood this would be the last time I took out at least one set of newborn clothes, either girl or boy.  Forever I will either have way too many children for some or not enough for others. A whole set of people, the set I should have in my corner because we’re all in this crazy counter cultural open to life family life together, will forever see me as privileged enough to have only 5 or 6 while that “only” means something much sadder to me and mine.

Here’s the thing, privilege and disadvantage aren’t mutually exclusive. Joy and suffering often go hand in hand, crosses and blessings. None of this is quantifiable and comparable. Placing ourselves on scales and trying to weigh out who has it best and who deserves what praise and what sympathy will lead to jealousy, pride, scrupulosity, and anger. It isn’t a competition. Where we are blessed let us give thanks and be inspired to help each other. Reach out to the big “no thanks” family and help them. Reach out to the NFP family and help them. Heaven knows we all need it. We may find our own crosses bless us with the ability to help others with different ones. Often the best way to lighten a cross just a little is to help carry another’s. It can be a privilege.

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Through a Glass Darkly. A Love Letter On A Strange Anniversary

November eighteenth.  On this day nine years ago I married my husband.  On this day one year ago, separated by half the globe, we lost our fifth child at 21 weeks.  Mike was on a long flight when I called from the car outside the doctor’s office.  So I told an officer at the flight desk.  It was 3am before he called me back.  I sat on the floor in a corner of the dining room in a hushed house full of visitors and we talked for hours.  We cried.  We planned.  We even managed to laugh a few times because that’s how we are.  I don’t recall much about the conversation but I do remember saying “why did it have to be our anniversary? This is what we will remember every year.”

Here we are a year later.  We could not foresee that night what pains lay ahead, that we would lose another child within the same year.  Yet I feel differently about it now than I had expected, in some ways the opposite.  Now it seems apt, even right, to remember these two anniversaries together.  This last year has been a terrible one I would never choose to live.  But it has been an utterly remarkable and amazing year of marriage.  I don’t know that it can be put into words, but here is my attempt:

For the first eight years our marriage was pretty much ideal.  We two walked through lovely grassland.  The air was a little hazy, so you couldn’t see that far ahead; but the grass smelled sweet, the breeze was pleasant, and there were wild flowers everywhere.  We walked on, hand in hand, chatting desultorily, no particular direction in mind, no hurry to be anywhere.  Certainly there were trials.  Sometimes we would grow thirsty long before a stream.  Sometimes our legs would ache or blisters would spring up on our feet and we would have to sit and rest.  There were sharp stones and little gopher holes to watch out for.  Sometimes the sun would beat down too strongly, and sometimes the scenery seemed too monotonous.  Still it was a lovely journey with the pleasantest companion.

And then one day we awoke and inexplicably there was a mountain before us.  Somehow we never saw it coming.  Yet there it was, the top shrouded from view.  The only way was up.  There wasn’t a choice.  So we started to climb.  How disorienting it was at first to find ourselves in this new landscape!  The wind blew icy, cutting to the skin.  We sank up to our waists in snow, slipped and slid backwards.  Rocks bit into our hands as we struggled to pull ourselves from one precarious hold to the next.  We barely spoke; every bit of oxygen in the thin air was needed for the climb.  Our breath billowed out in clouds. Over time it became second nature to communicate instead through gestures and eye contact, anticipating each other’s needs.  Sometimes I became so tired I wanted to sit and rest but this wasn’t like back in the meadow.  You couldn’t stop to rest.  You would freeze where you fell.  You would never get up again.  So Michael would carry me.  When I saw that he couldn’t bear the weight any longer I would climb again, and rearrange the packs to take a heavier share of the load.  Occasionally a plateau would open up and we could breathe more slowly, let our heart rates fall, relax our vigilance a little.  Still the summit was nowhere in sight.  We had to reach it.  We had to.

Then, so slowly it took a long time to notice, the weather began to clear.  Through the thinning cloud we made out what might just be the summit. Best not to mention it at first.  But yes, there it was, definitely a peak.  Our footsteps quickened.  Until one day we clambered up on to the top and looked out at the world beyond.

What a view! For the first time in nine years you can see far, far off to the horizon.  Ahead of us stands a world rich with diversity.  I see deserts, canyons, mountains that dwarf our little peak, cascading rivers, sparkling lakes, beautiful fields and cool forests.  And away in the distance, shimmering faintly, the sea.

Suffering has changed us.  Our legs and lungs are stronger.  We work together with new ease.  Not only that but from our position up here we can see the possibilities, the richness of marriage as never before.  We are more genuinely aware of the potential tribulations of the journey.  It doesn’t look nearly so easy from here.  We don’t even know exactly how hard the way down from this perch will be!  It looks rather precarious I think.  But oh! It is all so breathtakingly, terrifyingly, awesomely, beautiful.  We know the pride of bravery in the face of trouble.  We know the sweet humiliation of being aided through weakness, of being carried.  We know the heart swelling fulfillment of love in bearing the other.  Trial and respite, success and failure, suffering and delight, all of it, all of it is glorious.  All of it lies ahead.  It’s almost time to start moving again.  We just have to remember where the ocean lies, and keep going until we reach the shore, hand in hand.

St. Paul writes:

Charity never falleth away: whether prophecies shall be made void, or tongues shall cease, or knowledge shall be destroyed. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child. We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known.

I am still very much a child.  I still see only darkly.  But my marriage to this wonderful man has allowed me to catch glimpses I never saw before.   I feel the immeasurable comfort of being really known so that I cannot even imagine the way God knows me, the way He knows my boys and holds them in His mind.  I see love’s breathtaking power  to overcome all else so that I cannot even imagine the love that is to come, a love my two sweet boys already know better than their parents.

And now there remain faith, hope, and love, these three: but the greatest of these is love.

I love you

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