On Being Open To Life

So in light of the recent Washington Post Article on NFP and some of the interesting dialog it’s generated, I took my friend Grace’s advice and am re-running this post I wrote on my personal blog almost a year ago.

Before you go and read it, I’d like to make a couple of things clear, in the interest of full disclosure:

1. My husband and I have never been formally trained in NFP.  We weren’t married in the Catholic church, and so didn’t have any exposure to it in pre-Cana classes (which we didn’t have anyway).  However, after talking to lots and lots of women on this topic, I have the understanding that most couples married in the Church didn’t have exposure to it in their pre-Cana, either.

2. As part of our conversion process, we learned about, struggled with, and ultimately came to see the wisdom in the Church’s teachings on proper use of human sexuality.  It doesn’t mean that the struggles with it are over, but we see that the option offered by the Church is ultimately the most logical one.

3. I hesitate to say that even now we employ NFP.  We monitor fertility signs, but we don’t take basal temperature, chart, etc. etc.  I certainly don’t feel like we use the science to its fullest potential, and so I would hate for someone to look at our track record and use us as a “See?  NFP doesn’t work!” example.

4.  The point of re-running this article isn’t even to add to the NFP discussion, per se.  It’s more meant to explore an aspect of being open to life: namely that being “open to life” means all life- not just the the possibility of new life.  NFP certainly helps us connect reason to biology in the area of fertility, but it is, in and of itself, a neutral thing.  It is not a virtue, nor is it a vice.  The real virtue lies in learning how to trust God’s plan for our lives, and agreeing to participate in that plan.

________________________________________________

Some time ago, my dear dad and I were sitting down talking.  He got sort of serious, and asked me, “So how many more kids do you and Ken think you’ll have?”

This was a totally fair question, coming from a man whose daughter had been married with the intention to never have children.  A daughter who had recently caught religion, and went and converted to Catholicism of all things, after having been known to declare that “the Catholic Church will be crushed under its own bloated weight” (I remember thinking that was such a clever remark that I would say it often).  A daughter who now had three children, ages 5, 2, seven months, and was pregnant again.
I, for my part, did not consider his question very carefully, I’m sad to say.  I sort of shrugged and gave a flippant remark about “how long until menopause?” and we sort of drifted over to other topics of conversation.

Now, three years and a fifth child later, I have different, shorter, less flippant response.

I don’t know.

I can honestly say that I don’t know how many more children I’ll have.  I can’t even tell you how many more children I want to have.  But I do know that I’m ok with the uncertainty in both answers.

When I converted, and started fumbling my slow and painful way through the Church’s teachings on human sexuality, I labored under the same assumptions many people have of it- the Church says sex is only to be for procreation, not recreation, the Church says you have to have as many babies as you can, the Church keeps women in a medieval state of perpetual pregnancy because it is a misogynistic organization.

I can promise you that it was only the grace of God that helped me drag that load of misconception during my conversion.  Without that supernatural help, I would have hightailed it out of Catholic land faster than you can say, “buy stock in Huggies, ‘cause we’ll be buying them for life!”

I am not an apologist.  This is not a post explaining the Church’s teachings about, and wisdom behind, a proper expression of human sexuality.  I could probably point you in the direction of some good sources if you’re interested in hearing about it, but that’s about all I can offer right now.

What I need to write about now is the Church’s understanding on being open to life.  It’s such a cliché, almost, at least in the circles I run in, but it’s a cliché that took me a while to crack open and begin to explore.

Being open to life, in part, means being generous in regards to the children that a married couple welcomes into their lives.  It means trusting God will give you strength to walk with Him when you’re blessed with a girl, then a boy, and people wonder why you’re still having more.  It means trusting God has a plan for each of His children when you realize that you’re not going to be able to pay for college tuitions.  It means trusting God keeps us, as Psalm 17 says, as close as the pupil of His eye, even on days when you’ve run out of diapers and five kids are fighting like cats and dogs and you need to go grocery shopping but all you want to do is run away to some imaginary glittery life in Province or Moscow or something.

This is what being open to life means.  It means being open to life, all of it, from the babies to the toddlers to the tweens to the spouses.  Being open to them, and striving to love them as God loves them.

When a new baby is born around here, being open to the possibility of ever again adding new life to the clan follows this same pattern:

1.      Look at the baby!  The baby is perfect and amazing, and I cannot believe how blessed we are to have been given him!

2.      Look at the baby!  The baby is perfect and amazing, and I really love how his brothers and sister adore him.  I cannot believe how blessed we are to have been given this family!

3.     Look at the baby!  He eats a lot.  I don’t really remember what sleep was like.  The house is a total mess and if I don’t get some sort of order imposed on my household, I’m pretty sure I’m going to lose it.  But, still, blessed and all that….but I think I have enough blessings now.

4.      I would kill someone for 5 hours of sleep in a row.  And I still really need to get some sort of order imposed on my household.  Blah, blah, blah, blessings.  I’m done with this child bearing business.

5.     ORDER OR DEATH!  Everyone has a written schedule, workout routines are followed with strict discipline, meals are absolutely nutritious but uninspired, who needs blessings, I’ve got an iron fist with which to rule this house!

6.      Order is cool, but so is spontaneity.  A nice little routine has fallen over the house, and I’m finding myself managing to remember gratitude once again.  Life is sweet, isn’t it?

7.     Look at the baby!  He’s not a baby anymore!  He’s walking!  He’s sleeping through the night!  The house has completely and utterly absorbed him into its routine!

8.     I do head counts of children and always come up one short.  I have to be reminded it’s because we only have X number children, and I’m counting one higher.

9.     I realize the family is so beautiful and so amazing that I want another child to know this love.

That’s how it always goes.  The amount of time it takes me to get from point 1 to point 9 varies, but through the course of five children, the road has been the same.

So now I find myself at point 9 again.  I realize that God has waited so patiently for me to adjust and grow, and He’s never once pushed me into anything.  I realize that for a while after the last birth, “being open to life” was only in the most nebulous, abstract sort of ways, and that was ok with God- He would wait.

The other day, I tell Ken that I’m ready for another baby.  He makes it clear that he’s not.  My first reaction is of irritation, then of the sort of sorrow that you feel all the way into your bones.  He says that he’s happy where we‘re at now.  He’s looking forward to being out of diapers, out of potty training and constant supervision.  He’s looking forward to going out with just me, when the kids can stay at home alone, and when he can interact with the kids in a deeper, more obviously meaningful way than one does in the early childhood years.

I want to pout and cry and threaten.

But I don’t (much).  I don’t because I’m suddenly able to understand that being open to life means being open to all life- the infant life, the elderly life, the life of a criminal, the infirm, the inconvenient.   It means being open to the lives of those nearest and dearest to you, and striving to love them as God loves them.  Emotionally blackmailing my husband into having another child would not be loving him as God loves him.  It wouldn’t be loving him as God loves me.  It certainly wouldn’t be respectful of the path God’s taking him down.  When God brought us together as husband and wife, He put us on a journey together, but that didn’t mean that I would always be the one doing the navigation.

I do my best to avoid making this a situation where someone wins and someone loses.  I do my best to realize that I’m being given a great grace in this- one where I get to trust in God’s will entirely.  I think about how my sadness is a tiny reflection of the sadness of couples struggling with infertility, and I pray for them constantly.  I think about how my desire for another child factors into my unbridled, unstoppable love of life.

I think about how much my conversion has allowed me to throw my arms open to life and say, “Yes.”  And so if I were to have that same conversation with my dad again, when he asked me how many children Ken and I thought we’d end up having, I’d say, “I don’t know.  But I’m open to what we’re given.”

Cari Donaldson

By

Cari Donaldson is the author of the upcoming book Pope Awesome and Other Stories . She stepped through the looking glass when she married her high school sweetheart in a Presbyterian ceremony back in 1999. Since then, she and her husband have found themselves the parents of six children, and on the corporate gypsy trail, with transfers moving them from the Midwest to the deep South to New England. The most startling developments however, have been the conversion to Catholicism in 2006, and the discovery that blogging provides an excellent creative outlet. You can find Cari on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/clan.donaldson and Twitter at @CariDonaldson and here on Catholic Exchange.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • I need a palm tree.

    Your wisdom in so many areas is so fantastic!  I often get angry with my wife for being very closed to life, to God, etc., and I had no idea how to go about it otherwise until reading your perspective here.  I’m going to re-read this more slowly so that I can let it soak in.  Thank you so much for this!

  • Ana Hahn

    Beautiful again, Cari. Thank you! 

  • http://twitter.com/HouseUnseen Dwija Borobia

    Love this.  Despite always being technically open to life, I sometimes have a hard time putting my heart into it in the joyful way you describe here.  You make me want to be a better person!

  • JoAnna Wahlund

    I’m somewhere between #4 and #5 right now, and you’re absolutely right. That’s generally how it goes. 

    I wish I could get my father-in-law and brother-in-law to read this article. The former thinks we should stop having kids because we are running out of room (hello, we have four bedrooms in the house, and we’re A-OK with kids sharing…), and the latter thinks we have 4 kids because neither of us have any self-control whatsoever. Sigh.

  • http://www.clan-donaldson.com/ Cari

    We have four bedrooms, too, and I figure that’s what bunk beds are for, right?   

  • http://www.clan-donaldson.com/ Cari

    I remember discussing the same thing (technically open to life, but heart totally not into it), with a priest after the birth of Jude.  He told me that when you read about Jesus being in Capernaum, you had to realize that Capernaum was a kind of resort town at the time.  So Jesus going to Capernaum (even though still engaging in His ministry while there) was a way of conveying that Jesus was taking a break, a sort of vacation, and so we should try and do the same in our life.  We could continue our vocation, while being relaxed and gentle with ourselves the way we are during vacation.

    After he told me this, and trying very hard to cut myself some slack, I was amazed to see my heart soften and be better able to trust in God’s plan.

  • http://www.clan-donaldson.com/ Cari

    I’m so glad you’ve found it helpful.  I know that on issues very close to my heart, like the growing of our family, I often respond with anger if my husband doesn’t share my views, but what I’m really feeling is hurt.

  • JoAnna Wahlund

     That was my exact response!

  • Colleen

     We are DREAMING of a house with four bedrooms.  We have three and still have 5 kids :)  Bunkbeds and close spaces for now !

  • steph

    I think this might be the best post (esp. in regards to nfp) you have ever written… you need to have your followers come back to it often and remind us all that Gods plan for us is ALWAYS better than our own…esp. in regards to children :) 

  • http://www.clan-donaldson.com/ Cari

    Thanks, Steph!  I know I need to remind myself that while God’s plan for me is perfect, I’m not, and if I struggle with what God wants for me, that’s ok too.

  • Tmkalpakgian

    beautiful. You are so right.

  • alpal1

    Cari, your blog just brought me to tears, in a good way as I have never read something so real about the struggle with being open to life in our minds but not necessarily always “feeling” that openness.  I have 5 children with another on the way and your list of 1-9 is priceless!  I loved it.  I have thought every single one of those thoughts.  And I find I put extra pressure on myself when I don’t feel overly grateful as I want to be a good example to those around me who aren’t open to life (most people).  This was great to read that other people have felt these things.  Absolutely loved it!  And, I’m at number 9….can’t wait to meet our number 6:)  

  • http://www.clan-donaldson.com/ Cari

    Yes, I’ve found that I’m far less likely to be patient with my lack of enthusiasm about being open to life than I am with other people’s, and I think it’s because I want to  be some sort of good example too.
    But maybe a good example is more effective if it’s honest.
    Congrats on no. 6!!! (and nos. 1-5 as well!)

  • Micaela

    Wow, Cari. Just wow. I am at #4 right now, with baby number 4. The conversation you described between you and Ken has happened EXACTLY between DH and me. I love how you put is, all of it. Thank you!

  • chaco

    I’m thinking that so much of our anxiety about more responsibility comes from not knowing the future. I got a good perspective watching “Star Wars”3-D;  The older Jedi was walking with the younger when the younger said; “But didn’t you say that we should be concerned about the future ? Older responded; “Yes, but not at the expense of the present.”  Doesn’t AA promote “One Day at a Time” ?

  • kelly

    Beautiful proof that our teachings help us be honest people.

  • Materfamilias

    Well said. As a couple with five under ten, and always open to life, we are at the point of wanting to enjoy our children in a more meaningful way, as well. So often people like to speak about the sacrifice of growing your family for God, and being open to more children if that is what God gives you; too often I think we forget to consider our current children, and the children we have right now need their parents to be fully engaged as the older children are beginning to discover the world around them and the younger ones are somehow so much more needy than their siblings before them. The real sacrifice for us, right now, and hopefully temporarily, is that we love new babies, and all our friends are having new babies, and for some really selfish reasons we want another baby too, but that would not be best for our current children right now, and that is the real sacrifice that being open to life and practicing NFP has afforded us. So how many kids will we have? My answer is always hopefully, one more

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Megan-Karcher-Jeffery/700537010 Megan Karcher Jeffery

    I loved this post. I feel like I could have written it. I always tell people it takes me a number of months to incorporate a new baby into the household. One of them took me a full year! My husband and I were just plain out of sync with each other for 8 whole months that time, too. It was weird. But, we are having number TEN. 10. Seems like such a huge number to me, but when I look around at our family, it is “just us”.
    I am afraid I am fairly guilty of sort of conning my husband into this last baby, and honestly, I hadn’t really thought of it that way until I read this post. He will be 50 this year. I am 41. It is time, most likely, to concentrate on what is happening here. The kids standing around looking at me. But, this last baby (probably, maybe, hopefully?) will never be something we regret, and he or she will be smothered in love. We love new babies. I have greedily had a new baby every two years since we got  married. This post has given me a lot to think about. We have always been open to life, but somewhere along the way, I didn’t really consider how that relays to the life that is going on all around us. Thanks for that…will be thinking and praying. Blessings to you and your family.

  • ddd

    Good post. The question of ‘how many children will you have’ and other number-related questions has always been odd to me, especially when the question comes from a Catholic (not the case for your dad, of course), as if the numbers are what matter. God’s plan for us is always unfolding and something that only a couple (and a priest/spiritual director if necessary) can fully know in the here and now. What I desire and what others expect of me cannot determine whether the gift of a child should be ours. It takes three, Christ and the married couple.

  • j rus

    The Catholic teaching is that it isn’t illicit to use NFP to prevent pregnancy for well-grounded, serious reasons. Show the catechism or Humanae Vitae to your husband and see if he thinks his reasons are well-grounded, serious, non-selfish. Talk to a priest about the conditions where NFP to prevent pregnacy would be acceptable.

    I think about the bible that is filled with people who God placed His will upon and they just accepted it. Why do we think we don’t need to be subject to His will. Personally, I think we have created loopholes for ourselves, overused NFP being one of them.

MENU