It is NFP Awareness Week and I’ve seen a lot about proper use of it; the struggles of faithfulness to this part of Catholic life, and many other important topics. What I would like to add is for those who have managed to be faithful and have found this faithfulness rewarded with suffering, loss, or infertility.
NFP week isn’t just for big families welcoming new members, or families avoiding pregnancy for important reasons. It’s for all couples, including the unintentionally small family, and the tragically childless family. For the first years of my marriage NFP was about the standard questions for our family as we quickly had four children in five years. But this year I’ve learned a whole new set of harder lessons about NFP and the full meaning of Openness To Life.
This week I found out that our sixth child has died in utero at 17 weeks. A mere month ago we were watching the baby scoot around on ultrasound, measuring in the 78th percentile, little heart beat thumping away perfectly. Everyone was thrilled and excited. Except me. I was sure then that this is where we would end up. Sure because we lost our fifth child less than a year ago in precisely the same way. Nobody knows why. There will be much testing in the following days and months, but the doctors are already warning us we may never know why.
It’s easy to think being open to life means that God should give you what you want since you’re being generous and brave. It doesn’t. Being willing to have kids doesn’t get you a free pass from suffering anymore than not being open is a recipe for it. God isn’t in the business of rewarding or punishing people here on earth much anymore. In fact, I think being open to life means being open to suffering, to grief, to fear, to death.
There’s a saying that having a child means being willing to have part of your heart walking around outside your body. When we were pregnant with our oldest, dear friends lost their child in amn accident. I remember thinking, oh little baby never come out. You are safe in there. Now I know there’s no place safe. As soon as you welcome a child into your heart, into your body, you’ve welcomed in risk and possible heart break in countless ways.
On Saturday I decided to go to confession and mass with my kids. Quite a project with Daddy deployed, I usually would wait to have the full team but I wanted to go. So we went and I lined the big ones in a pew and brought the toddler into the confessional with me. I talked to the priest about how hard it was to pray for my unborn child because of losing the last one. I knew first hand prayers aren’t always answered the way you want. It was a visiting priest to my surprise. He said to go pray for each of my children and give them to God: the living ones, the one who died, and the one in my womb. To offer them to Him and believe he loved them more than I did.
I went home and meditated on several passages from scripture. I thought about Mary who watched her son suffer horribly and die on the cross. I thought of Hannah who prayed and prayed for a son, and when one was granted gave him back to God in his temple to see him only rarely. I thought of the Maccabees and their mother who would rather see them die for the faith in this life so she could be with them for eternity. And I thought of Abraham and Isaac. I prayed that like Abraham I too would not withhold my child if God asked it of me.
Two days later He did. And I thank Him for sending me to that confessional on the same day He sent that priest. I have given Him another child and I will not grudge Him a life that was always in His hands and never mine. But it occurred to me that this is the heart of a pro-life mentality. We do not withhold our children.
We do not withhold their very existence in a world that says they are inconvenient. In a world that says we would be better off without them. In a world that says children with disabilities are better off dead. In a world with no room for suffering or uncertainty we do not withhold our children. By participating in their creation, from that first moment we are placing a new life directly into the hands of its maker and accepting that He will be in control from the first to the last.
So if you have been open to life and that generosity has ended in miscarriage, stillbirth, childhood death, suffering in illness, or any other affliction, indeed if you have been open to life and not been granted a child, know that your gift to God is still a beautiful, brave, deep gift. You were willing to give, to submit and not to withhold. He will accept this offering and bless you for it. And know I and the many women who have given our children back to God sooner than we might have wished pray for you and grieve with you.
“I do not know how you came to be in my womb; it was not I who gave you breath and life, nor was it I who arranged the elements you are made of. Therefore, since it is the Creator of the universe who shaped the beginning of humankind and brought about the origin of everything, he, in his mercy, will give you back both breath and life, because you now disregard yourselves for the sake of his law.” 2 Macc 7:22