Never say never, and other thoughts on having more kids

The following is Jennifer Fulwiler’s honest take on being open to another child when the doctors are saying that the risk of another pregnancy is too high. Ever faithful to Catholic teaching on marriage and family, this post is well worth reading, especially for those who may find themselves weighing up the “risk” of carrying another child in pregnancy.

Never say never, and other thoughts on having more kids

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:

No.

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 Welcome Gift of New Life

To be truly pro-life and truly pro traditional family in this culture, takes a lot of courage and stickabilty. Most of all it takes a profound and deep faith in our Creator and a great love and respect for the Church.

This week our family has had the joy of welcoming the birth of our latest grandchild, Nathaniel Benedict. His parents, Michelle and Brendan, knew that this seventh caesarean birth with added complications was not going to be an easy ride. In fact, Michelle had been in hospital for a week or so prior, as a catastrophic haemorrhage was expected. Now four days later I am only just grasping how close our daughter came to losing her life giving birth to their precious little child of God. With mother and baby finally together in a ward and both out of intensive care, we can reflect on the tremendous skill of the surgeons involved and the fact that generous people in the community donate their blood. With faith and the knowledge of the saints close by at all times we can truly rejoice that God in His goodness has allowed this precious family to come through this life-threatening ordeal.

Of course we know only too well of the critics and judgments made on this humble family. How could they possibly have so many children, how could he make her pregnant again? don’t they know what causes babies yet? they live in another world and so on and on … when he is going to get the big snip?

I want to tell the whole world that my husband Terry and myself, Colleen, are so proud of Michelle and Brendan. In the face of adversity, and at times even scorn, they have embraced the natural law and have willingly accepted the precious gift of life of each of their children. It is no joke when well meaning Christians make remarks about the size of one’s family.

For us, it is so refreshing to see our little grandchildren grow up in a family that does not hold to have the newest and best of everything. Who make their own cards and games and play together and pray together as a family and well … the absolute joy and excitement of a new baby arriving. The joy and love of each of these children is infectious and is truly what life and family is all about.

By the grace of God we have to find a way to show young families today not to be afraid to have children. They are our future. The natural family, mum, dad and children praying, learning, loving and giving is the only viable and natural future for this world.

Embracing God’s Plan for Love and Life

Following on from last week’s blog, “The Legacy of Dissent from Humanae Vitae” I thought it appropriate to discuss the beauty of following God’s Plan for Love and Life – which means embracing the teaching of Humanae Vitae.

The world today would argue that if it is not God’s plan for us to artificially regulate births, (by using artificial contraception, sterilization and abortifacients), then He is a cruel God for making women endure many pregnancies.  This of course, would be followed by the usual discussion of the male dominated Church oppressing women.

However, far from being cruel, God, our Father and Creator has made both women’s and men’s bodies to work in such an incredible way.  He had a plan from the beginning and once we embrace that plan instead of fighting it we are liberated and set free!  We do not need pills or condoms or to mutilate our bodies purposefully in order to space or avoid the birth of more children. God in His infinite wisdom, has created the woman’s body to have a natural cycle which can be read and understood so that in fertile times the marital embrace can be avoided if necessary.

The Catholic Church has always taught that the marital embrace is for the procreation of children and for the giving of love.

If, then, there are serious motives for spacing births, motives deriving from the physical or psychological condition of husband or wife, or from external circumstances, the Church teaches that it is then permissible to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions and to make use of marriage during the infertile times only, and in this way to regulate births without offending the moral principles that we have just recalled. (Humanae Vitae #16)

From a moral point of view when there is grave reason, for which the married couple has to decide with God, it is permissible to practice Natural Fertility Regulation.  God will ask of some couples to have one, two or three children, others may be asked to accept more children and have large families.  No matter how many children are gifted by God, the couple who practices Natural Fertility Regulation can be at peace knowing that they have done nothing to artificially prevent the birth of children whom God wished to exist for all eternity.

There are many benefits to embracing this way of married life including (but not limited to):

  • A deeper relationship with each other as more communication is required than if the marital embrace was available at all times.
  • A deeper committment to God as the couple learns to trust in His will.
  • NFR doesn’t interfere with the natural reproductive system.
  • The woman does not need to take synthetic hormones which can be detrimental to her health.
  • There is very limited cost involved (usually a teaching fee applies only).

At Family Life International we teach the Billings Ovulation Method of Natural Fertility Regulation. The method can be used to achieve or postpone pregnancy and the World Health Organisation has declared it to be 99.5% effective. This rate is comparable with the Pill and other forms of contraceptives and abortifacients. We teach the method in full accord with the Catholic Church teaching.

Please contact our office for more information regarding Natural Fertility Regulation.  Details here.

Please note: At Family Life International NZ, we prefer to speak of Natural Family Planning (NFP) as Natural Fertility Regulation (NFR).  In New Zealand the connotations of “family planning” turn one’s mind directly to the Family Planning Association who promote and enable an anti-life mentality. 

Would you like to read more about Natural Fertility Regulation?  Fire of Your Love recently had a Say Yes to Life Blog Carnival.  Here you can read what other bloggers have written about NFR/NFP and being open to life.  Please note that Family Life International NZ may not necessarily agree with all that is written in these blogs.