Some folks have asked if my doctors are putting pressure on me not to have more children. I usually respond with a sound like hoooooo-ho-ho-hooooo (which is not supposed to be a sound like what Santa says, but rather a hearty laugh to indicate, YOU HAVE NO IDEA).
The doctors have said this before, when I was diagnosed with the clotting disorder after getting a deep vein thrombosis during my second pregnancy, but, luckily for my third, fourth, fifth, and sixth children, I knew that they weren’t that serious when they said, “You seriously can’t have any more children.”
But now they’re saying it with extra drama, and there’s nothing like lungs full of blood clots (for me) and lungs full of holes (for the baby) to make me think that they might actually mean it this time.
So what does that mean for me? When I converted to Catholicism, to my great surprise I came to agree whole-heartedly with what the Church teaches about contraception. I do Natural Family Planning (badly), and probably have about eight years of fertility left. Am I still going to stick with it? Am I resentful of these rules? Do I even want to have more kids? If the subject lines of my email inbox are any indication, a lot of folks are curious about this; hey, I would be too if I followed someone’s blog who found herself in this situation.
So let’s go ahead and crack open that can of worms, and I’ll give you my long answer to the question: Your doctors said you can’t have any more kids. What now?
Let’s talk about risk
First of all, let’s remember that when we speak about the dangers of pregnancy or any other undertaking, we’re talking about risk. This is not certainty. Nobody has a crystal ball. It’s all just educated guesses.
This sounds obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget.
You hear a doctor say, “You shouldn’t do XYZ because it would put your health at risk,” and it’s tempting to immediately declare, “‘Risk,’ you say? I SHALL NEVER DO XYZ AGAIN THEN!” But it’s critical to do the best we can to identify what level of risk we’re talking about.
In my own case, for example, I have a responsibility to my existing children not to take unnecessary risks with my life. The word to hone in on here is “unnecessary,” though, because the reality is that we take risks with our lives all the time. I’m thinking about taking a road trip this summer that would involve driving for hours down two-lane roads with 70-mile-per-hour speed limits and no barriers separating oncoming traffic. I would be driving on a weekend, when plenty of people are on the road after having beers at nearby lakes. There is no question that my life would be in danger if I went on that trip; in fact, the danger to my health in that situation is probably not even drastically lower than it would be with another pregnancy. Yet we perceive the pregnancy as being so much more fraught than the fun road trip.
For a variety of reasons, we’re always tempted to freak out and get all fearful when it comes to new life, much more so than in other areas of life. A mother setting out to climb a famous mountain as a personal self-fulfillment project would be congratulated and encouraged, whereas another mother being open to pregnancy despite concerning health conditions would be chided and discouraged, even if the risk to both women’s health from their respective activities were the same.
So, especially when it comes to the question of more children, we need to look very carefully at the question, “How big is the risk?” There are times when we’ll take a closer look and find that the risk is real and huge and deeply concerning; but other times we might just find that the risk isn’t all that much greater than it would be with plenty of other “normal” activities, and that the doom and gloom predictions about future pregnancy were fueled as much by our culture’s fear of life than as by a reasonable analysis of risk.
The hope factor
Every risk has a flipside, and this is another area that is too often forgotten about when we’re talking about pregnancy: the benefits of undertaking the risk.
We have this problem in our society of seeing new human lives as burdens. Instead of celebrating new people, too often we chalk them up to carbon footprints and mouths to feed. We deem others (always others, not people we know) to be “overpopulation.” And I’m not using “we” rhetorically: Seriously, I’m not immune to the mentality either.
The soundtrack to all of my pregnancies is the noise of my whining voice. I always forget about the life of the new son or daughter that I’m carrying, and talk about the huge burden that “the pregnancy” is placing on me. Maybe it’s all those years I spent immersed in secular culture, but I am naturally sympathetic to the frame of mind that wants to immediately shut down the pregnancy train as soon as the doctor says the word “risk.” Especially in the case of those of us who already have a lot of children, why not? After all, how many kids does one person need?
But children are more than a number in the family birth order, and each human life is infinitely valuable. Think of someone you love: When you consider the worth of his or her life, it makes you view the pregnancy that brought him or her into existence differently. It makes you willing to accept higher levels of risk to add a person like that to the world.
Imagine that you were diagnosed with a rare and fatal illness, and you discovered that there was a doctor who had developed a brand new way to treat it. Imagine that this doctor cured you. Imagine the waves of joy and relief that would sweep over you when you found out that he had defeated the disease that threatened to cut your life short. Now imagine that you found out that he was his mother’s seventh child, and that her pregnancy with him went against warnings from her doctors not to have any more children. Would his mother seem crazy for becoming pregnant anyway? Would she seem irresponsible for deciding that adding another soul to her family was worth the risk?
Unfortunately, sometimes we need to remind ourselves what other people can do for us in order to remember the value of their lives.
I’m not suggesting that there’s never a good reason to avoid pregnancy; even aside from health risks, there are plenty of other reasons couples might decide that it’s not a good time for another kid. I only suggest that when we make those decisions, it’s critical that we make them in light of the hope that every new baby brings. When you think of making sacrifices for a nameless, faceless “pregnancy,” it doesn’t seem worth much effort. But the cost/benefit ratio changes drastically when you really think about the worth of one boy or girl’s life.
NFP is worth it
All that said, I do think there’s enough risk in my own situation that I should chill on the pregnancy front for now, maybe forever. In that case, then, wouldn’t contraception or sterilization make everything easier? To put it concisely:
First of all, Natural Family Planning can be an effective way to space children. (I’ll give you a moment to stop laughing and clean up the drink you just spilled on your keyboard.) No, seriously, if you’re willing to invest a little time to learn the ropes, it can work just as well as contraception. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not always easy, and that the challenges that come with NFP are very real. However, it’s not like the alternatives offer problem-free solutions either. As the great Simcha Fisher once said, “When it comes to facing fertility, all God’s children got angst.”
I know a lot of other couples who have given up contraception to use NFP, and not a single one of them has ever returned to contraception use. I’m not saying it never happens, but, at least in my experience, it’s rare. That’s totally counter-intuitive since NFP is a sacrifice-based system, but I think what most couples find when they give up artificial birth control to space children naturally (especially when they involve God in the process), is that the high level of personal sacrifice involved is a feature, not a bug. NFP is not just another form of birth control; it’s an entirely new lifestyle. It makes you see yourself and your spouse and your children entirely differently. It makes you see the meaning of life differently. It even makes you see your relationship with God differently. And once you’ve spent a while living that kind of life, you don’t want to go back.
Intellectually, I don’t think that contraception is a good thing. I’ve come to believe that it takes away women’s reproductive freedom, and, on a societal level, fuels abortion culture. But, when I think of my own situation, I never even get that far in the analysis. Like so many other people who have made the switch to NFP, I simply couldn’t be okay with any form of sterilization anymore, whether temporary or permanent. I don’t know how to articulate it other than to say I just couldn’t do it. On a purely visceral level, in that place deep in the heart where the most important truths about our humanity reside, I know as surely as I know anything else that those Catholic teachings about human sexuality are true and good.
So what now?
As you can imagine, I’ve gotten some flack about all of this lately, especially in light of this disastrous pregnancy. Sometimes I catch myself reacting by saying:
“I didn’t know!”
I mean, yeah, I knew that I had a blood clotting disorder that’s exacerbated by pregnancy, and, okay, there was that one just slightly life-threatening DVT in my second pregnancy. BUT! I thought that it would be fine once I took preventative Lovenox. I didn’t know that it was possible to end up with bilateral pulmonary embolisms when you were on blood thinners — I thought that I was stabbing myself with needles every day to prevent that kind of thing! I didn’t know that a one-month supply of said blood thinners would set me back FOUR THOUSAND dollars. I didn’t know that I’d end up having to undergo medical procedures that were like something out of a bad episode of Fear Factor. I didn’t know that one of my veins would turn black from having over 10 blood draws in the same arm over a few hours. I certainly didn’t know that my baby would have his own, unrelated life-threatening lung issues that would put him in intensive care for two weeks. Sheesh, people, I didn’t know!
The implication there is that I would have done something differently if I had known that I was signing up for a pregnancy that was like something out of a homeric epic.
But would I?
I look down at my sweet baby boy, who is sleeping in my lap as I type, and I am overwhelmed with love and joy at his existence. I am filled with certainty that his life was meant to be. I can barely even remember all the pain I went through to bring him into the world, because that finite amount of suffering seems so utterly insignificant in comparison to the infinite value of his life.
Yet I am also sitting here saying that it would probably be best if I didn’t have more children. It leaves me in a place of strange tension: If this baby was so worth it, wouldn’t that be the case for another one? As a mother, I certainly have a duty to my precious children not to take risks with my health; but if I’d followed that train of thought more closely before, most of said precious children would not even exist.
It is when I ponder these truths that I realize: It’s so freaking complicated.
There are no more difficult, complicated, messy decisions in the human experience than the decisions we make about having kids. In no area of life is there more at stake, more opportunities for suffering and loss, and more opportunities for joy and love and connection that will last through eternity.
I don’t have all the answers; many days, I don’t feel like I have any. I have no idea if I’ll ever have another biological child. Today I’m thinking that I probably won’t…but will I feel that way tomorrow? If I’ve learned anything so far this year, it’s that your whole world can be turned upside down in a matter of hours, leaving you with an entirely different perspective on life than you had the day before. Luckily, with NFP, you make these kinds of decisions on a month-to-month, rather than a long-term basis. I’ll have regular opportunities to re-evaluate my choices.
And so when people ask about whether I think I’ll have more children, I usually respond with a responsible-sounding answer about how I am aware of the risks and currently plan to take the prudent course and avoid pregnancy for the rest of my fertile years. But then I’ll glance over at my little blond-haired son, and sometimes his tiny, ink-blue eyes will catch mine, and I can barely suppress a smile as I think: Never say never.
The other day we got together with a friend of mine from high school named Andrew*, and his boyfriend, Tom. They moved out of state earlier this year, but a business trip brought him and Tom back through town recently, and we jumped at the chance to go out to dinner with them. This was one of the first times in a long while that we’d had a chance to sit down and talk with them, just the four of us. We caught up on life and work, Andrew and I clicking as well as we always have. I wore waterproof mascara because I knew I’d end up laughing to the point of tears, which, in fact, I did.
Then, when my husband and Tom went to pick up a round of drinks at the bar, Andrew had a question for me.
“So,” he said, grabbing a tortilla chip from the basket in front of us. “What do you think of gay marriage?”
The last time we hung out, this unspoken topic was not as palpably present as it was now. Even though our gay friends knew that we’d converted to Catholicism, nobody cared enough to bring up potentially controversial issues. But now, the mood in the world around us had changed. Throughout our country the issue of same-sex unions was being debated furiously; it had become a defining issue of our generation, and thus the average person was no longer allowed not to have an opinion about it. It was too weird to sit at the table, two orthodox Catholics and two men in a gay relationship, and not bring it up. We could no longer ignore the storm that raged outside the cloister of our friendship; the doors had blown open, and the rain had come inside.
I shrugged, trying to keep it casual. “I don’t think that same-sex couples getting married is the same thing as traditional marriage, if that’s what you mean.”
Andrew didn’t look surprised, but he seemed annoyed. “I didn’t realize you were a homophobe,” he said, only barely kidding.
“Oh, yeah, I’m terrified of you. I only hang out with you because you make the best dry martini in the world — but I’m trembling the whole time!”
“How can I hear your statement as anything but anti-gay?”
“I worry about what will happen to our society if everyone starts thinking that marriage is about any two people doing whatever they want. But that has nothing to do with being anti-gay.” I was afraid he was going to incur ocular damage from rolling his eyeballs back into his head so far, so I added, “Want me to explain?”
He folded his arms across his chest. “Sure.”
I immediately regretted my offer, wishing I’d promptly changed the subject to the weather, celebrity gossip, or any other subject inane enough that I could speak intelligently about it. I’m proud of being Catholic, and proud to stand by what the Church teaches. I converted to Catholicism in large part because I think that, through its moral code, it gives all humans a prescription for living a life of peace, in harmony with one another and with our Creator. I could not have converted to a religion that had doctrines that singled out one group of people in an unfair way, since it would seem illogical that an all-loving God would create such a system. But I knew I was going to have a hard time making my case; Andrew and I had such utterly different worldviews, it would be as if I were speaking through a distortion microphone that warps your voice and replaces every other word with random offensive phrases.
Before I could begin, the man and woman next to us caught our attention by gesticulating wildly in an animated conversation. They chatted happily over a shared plate of enchiladas, and each was wearing a wedding ring.
Andrew motioned to them. “You don’t think Tom and I are good enough to have what they have?”
“‘Good enough?’ It’s our insane culture that says that your entire life and personhood and soul are defined by your sexual attractions, not the Catholic Church. The Church articulates boundaries for behavior, not people.”
Andrew was still looking at them. They were in their late 20s, stylishly dressed, with golden summer tans. We could hear some of their conversation, and they seemed to be talking about a recent vacation. “I look at them, and I don’t see how what Tom and I have is all that different.”
“What do you see when you look at that couple? You see two people who really like each other, who decided to get married as a statement of lifelong commitment?”
“Yeah. Pretty much.”
“You’re imagining that they’re living life out of that Khalil Gibran poem, right?” I asked, referring to the famous verses that were read at a commitment ceremony we’d attended years ago. “The man and the woman each plan to do their own thing for the rest of their lives. There are no obligations on them outside of respecting one another and having fun. Is that about right?”
“Close enough. What is marriage if not a commitment? What else could it be about?” With that statement, Andrew had gotten to the core of the issue. This was the bulging pressure cooker where almost all of our culture’s misunderstanding roiled. I hoped I wouldn’t say anything that made it explode.
I tried for a silly analogy. “Have you ever looked backwards through binoculars?”
“That’s how I see our culture’s understanding of marriage: They’re looking backwards through the binoculars. They’re kind of getting it right, but because they have the thing flipped around, it’s going to entirely distort their view of things.”
Andrew sipped his drink. “How so?”
“Marriage is about new human life. All sexual morality is about new human life. From time immemorial, societies understood that people only respect human life to the extent that they respect the act that creates human life.” But when our culture embraced contraception, I continued, for the first time in human history, the sexual act was severed from its life-giving potential in the societal psyche. People began to feel like they had a right to the pleasure of the sexual act, without having to give a second thought to any new life that might be created. Not surprisingly, this tempted us to dehumanize those inconvenient lives that kept popping up out of the blue, and the destruction of newly conceived life became necessary in order for the “truths” of contraception to be upheld. As Pope Paul VI predicted back in 1968, the idea that we can and should exercise complete control over when new people come into the world could not be contained the realm of pregnancy alone, and an entire “culture of death” erupted as a result.
“Great soliloquy,” Andrew deadpanned. “So, umm, why is it that you don’t want Tom and I to get married?”
“Because marriage is about new human life. That’s what the binoculars analogy was about: Yes, marriage is about sex. But it’s about sex because sex is how new life is created — and, ultimately, it is an institution ordered toward protection and respect for new people.”
“So if you have a straight friend who’s infertile, you’d tell her she can’t get married either?”
“I said ordered toward. When a man and woman have sex they’re engaging in that sacred act that creates human life, even if none will be created in that particular act. It’s still sacred.”
“Okay, but for fertile couples, that sounds barbaric to say that they have to be trying to have babies all the time. Not everyone is as crazy as you guys.”
“That’s not what Catholics believe. Child spacing is perfectly fine, if done with natural methods. And the reason that natural family planning doesn’t lead to the same kind of cultural insanity as artificial contraception is because it’s a sacrifice-based system.”
“I’m not following. I don’t see why there’s any more sacrifice than with contraception — or, frankly, why it matters.”
I offered a brief overview of how NFP works, trying to avoid scarring Andrew for life with too many details about the signs and symptoms of a woman’s fertile time, and bumbled around to convey why abstaining during fertile periods is fundamentally different than artificially sterilizing the sexual act. “You don’t get to do whatever you want, whenever you want, even as a married heterosexual. All sexual activity must be ordered toward new human life, so there’s no, umm…” If there had been an awkwardness meter on the table, it would have exploded as I tried to elucidate this point without naming specific sexual acts ending in specific ways that aren’t licit in the Catholic worldview. I skipped it and moved on.
“Anyway,” I continued, “in this view you are constantly having to make sacrifices out of respect for what this act is all about: If you’re totally open to having kids, then there are the sacrifices that come with birth and raising children; if you’re abstaining during fertile times, you’re sacrificing. Infertile couples sacrifice by not using artificial methods like in vitro to force new life into existence. Gay men and women sacrifice by living chaste lives, as do people separated from their spouses, and people who are not yet married, or whose spouse has died. Notice that we’re all sacrificing, and that all of the sacrifices are about the same thing: love and respect for new human life, and specifically the act that creates new human life.”
“So you’re saying that gay men should never have sex?”
I hesitated. The way the question was phrased, to answer would make it seem like I see myself as some kind of moral authority. “I’m saying that every human being is called to make sexual sacrifices in the name of respect for human life. So, yeah, that would mean that a gay man would not act on his attractions. And would that be harder for him than for a single Catholic who hasn’t found a spouse, or for a person whose spouse has left him, for a married couple with a medical condition that’s not compatible with pregnancy — even for the average, healthy married couple who abstains regularly to space their kids? Honestly, I think it depends on the people. You’d be surprised at how much everyone sacrifices — not just people with same-sex attraction.”
“Great belief system you have there,” Andrew said. “Sounds like a barrel of laughs.”
“Andrew, you know me. You know how lazy I am, right?”
“And how weak I am? And how little fortitude I have in any area of life? Remember how I could never meet you guys for brunch because you met at eleven-thirty, and it was just too early to ask me to get up?”
“I have had to make plenty of sacrifices for this concept.” I told him about the DVT, my blood clotting disorder, the never-ending medical bills. “I’m not Mother Teresa in the streets of Calcutta or anything. A lot of people have it a lot worse than I do — ”
Andrew was laughing at me having used “me” in the same sentence with “Mother Teresa,” agreeing under his breath that, indeed, I am not Mother Teresa. I ignored him and continued. “Listen. Do you think that I would have gotten myself into a belief system that involves sacrifices if there weren’t a huge payoff?”
“What, does the Pope give you a pot of gold?” Andrew was on a roll.
“Ha, ha,” I said dryly. “Look, I can’t tell you what it would be like for you or any other gay man to live a chaste life. I have no idea what your sacrifices would be, and would never for a moment dream to tell you that it would be easy. But based on my own small experience, I will say this: When you get your sexuality in line with respect for human life, you get your soul in line with God, who is the Source of human life. And there is more joy there than you could imagine.” I told him about all the priests and nuns and monks who are some of the most joyful people I’ve ever met, pointing out that for thousands of years there have been large segments of society that live awesome lives without sex. I described some of the chaste single people I know who do more good for the world in a day than I do in a year. “Our society has forgotten entirely that it is perfectly possible not to have sex. Not only possible, but can even be a great thing.”
“I need a drink,” Andrew sighed, craning his neck to see if Tom and my husband were back from the bar.
“You’re not convinced?”
“You mean am I all anti-gay-marriage now after listening to your little speech?” Andrew look to the ceiling, as if appealing to the gods to help me with my ignorance. “Uhh, no.”
I didn’t expect that he would be; it certainly would have made for a weird dinner if Tom had returned from the bar to have Andrew say, “Tom! I just spent five minutes talking with Jennifer, and have decided that our love for one another would be most perfectly expressed in a chaste way! Let’s be celibate!”
“Do you at least believe that when I say that I don’t think gay marriage is a good thing, it’s not coming from a place of homophobia?” I hoped that my face expressed the depth of my concern for our friendship.
He didn’t respond right away. The silence that passed between us was palpable and heavy, as if the culture wars over human sexuality had become a physical thing that stood between us. Finally, a smile spread across his face. “You’re not homophobic. You’re just crazy, and have evidently joined an anti-sex cult!”
I laughed. “Okay. I’ll take that.” I started to make the case that Catholicism is actually quite pro-sex – so much so that it’s the only organization left in the world that demands that we respect it — but it seemed time to let the conversation drop.
The guys returned from the bar, and Andrew and I turned our attention to them. “What were you two talking about?” Tom asked.
Andrew didn’t miss a beat. “Jennifer was just agreeing with me that that shirt makes you look like you got drunk and raided Barbara Walters’ closet,” he quipped. This prompted a long and loud debate about Tom’s sartorial preferences, which would eventually end in our server announcing over our shouts and howls of laughter that the manager had asked us to please keep it down.
At the end of the evening — way too late, as always — we all exchanged hugs and promised that we’d do this more often. I watched Andrew and Tom walk away, holding hands, and prayed that I hadn’t done a totally terrible job of articulating my beliefs. I hoped that, if nothing else, he understood that there is no contradiction between me being a faithful Catholic and a close friend of his. I have converted to the religion of the crucifix, a belief system that promises joy in exchange for losing it all. Most people don’t want to sign up for that. I get that. I hope they consider it, for their own sake, since their lives would be better if they did — but it doesn’t change how I feel about them if they don’t. As the guys disappeared down the street, I hoped Andrew knew how much I loved him and Tom, and I hoped they still loved me too.
* Andrew and Tom’s names have been changed. Also, to save you from having to read thousands of words of hemming and hawing and talking around the issue, I have condensed our conversation, made both of us sound more articulate than we actually were at the time, and included elements of discussions I’ve had with other gay friends. In other words: This is meant to convey the gist of my recent conversations with dear friends who are gay, and is not meant to be a piece of journalism with precise accuracy as to how every word was spoken.
Oh, and I’ve done my best to express Catholic thought on these issues, but keep in mind that I’m a random woman with an internet connection, not the Pope. If I accidentally wrote anything that disagrees with what he would say, go with him, not me.