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.”

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Cari Donaldson lives on a New England farm with her high school sweetheart, their six kids, and a menagerie of animals of varying usefulness. She is the author of Pope Awesome and Other Stories, and has a website for her farm, Ghost Fawn Homestead.

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