This is a post written in the midst of our infertility journey that I had not gotten around to publishing.
When Nick was hired by the Athenaeum (Cincinnati’s Seminary) in late February, I couldn’t have been happier. We had jumped into marriage trusting in God’s timing, and here was an answered prayer. After going out to dinner and celebrating, we began talking about the changes the new job would bring.
I was excited to move to Cincinnati, which had always been one of the two cities where I wanted to live. Nick was happy to be working for the Church and assisting the students at the seminary. We started looking at apartments and town homes, ready to be out of UD Student Housing.
As we discussed what we both felt to be a true start to our lives together, our discussion turned to children. Nick had a steady, stable job now, with amazing health insurance and a comfortable salary. Before that point, Nick was a graduate assistant at UD and we were living in student housing as part of his assistantship. I still had a semester left to finish my undergraduate. It was easy to see that we shouldn’t rush into trying to have children, though building a family together was one of the deepest desires of our hearts.
I remember the profound joy I felt when Nick and I decided to intentionally build our family together. In previous months, we had remained open, but we wouldn’t have said we were trying. At first it was easy to remain hopeful and excited each month, but after a few months of trying, it began to weigh on both of us.
Suddenly, communicating about my fertility became a big deal and a source of anxiety for me. I wanted to allow Nick the chance to initiate, but I knew he also needed to be aware of the changes in my cycle. I didn’t want to put pressure on either of us, but as the months passed I felt a growing sense of urgency and the need to take advantage of every opportunity. It was exhausting for both of us and it became a strain on our marriage.
In our marriage prep, we’d heard about the stresses of NFP. We’d heard about the difficulties of choosing to abstain during times of fertility rather than choosing a form of birth control. We’d heard that NFP could cause fights and at times resentment.
Everything we’d heard about the difficulties of NFP prior to our marriage was in the context of using NFP to avoid having. children (or TTA).
Clearly, we weren’t using NFP to avoid having children at this point in our marriage. It followed then, that there should be no difficulties caused by using NFP, no stress, no strain on our marriage.
We didn’t have to abstain at any point in my cycle! We didn’t need to worry anxiously about being pregnant when we weren’t ready! From the point of view of anyone that was currently trying to avoid having children by using NFP, we’d struck gold, and we should take advantage of this fun and exciting time in our marriage.
And while for a few months we felt that excitement and gratitude for our situation, as stress and worry about fertility mounted, the excitement and gratitude faded away.
Our marriage prep failed us. I realize that may seem to be a drastic statement, but I believe it’s true. When the couple you bring in to talk about NFP is the couple that “gets pregnant when the husband sneezes” (something the wife actually said while teaching us about NFP), the only side of NFP that you will hear about the crosses that come with NFP are those related to trying to avoid children. But there are a whole other set of crosses and struggles when a couple is trying to conceive (TTC) and it doesn’t happen. Even if the couple doesn’t ever meet the standards for being called “infertile” (6 months to a year of trying, depending on age as well as the doctor you ask) trying for two, three, four months is still stressful. It can still create issues that need to be addressed. The Church does newlyweds a disservice a when the struggles that come with TTC (and not just avoiding children) are not included in the marriage prep discussions about NFP.
I truly believed that trying to build our family would be a time of joy and excitement in our marriage. Sometimes, it is a time of joy and excitement. But other times, it can be a time of frustration, stress, and worry. It can drain Nick and me, although in different ways. It can cause tension and resentment between us, something we were not prepared to work through when it came to the intimate issue of building our family. As newlyweds that followed the Church’s teachings on sexual morality, intimacy was already new to us. It was already a struggle to communicate about issues related to intimacy, simply because we didn’t even have the language or the knowledge of how to do so—as is true of all newlyweds that choose to follow Church teaching. Now, because we were trying to have children, there was an added set of issues we needed to discuss with each other related to intimacy—on top of simply figuring out how to communicate with each other about intimacy in the first place.
I truly believe that had our marriage prep included a discussion on the tensions that can arise in a marriage while trying to build a family, that we could have dealt with some of these issues more gracefully. It would’ve helped to simply know that what we were going through was normal. It would’ve helped simply to know that we might expect some additional tension at times. We had learned things about arguing, finances, dating each other while married, compatibility, temperament, and love languages. We certainly didn’t follow through with everything we learned (and are still working on it, as are all couples), but simply having the knowledge was a great help to us. It helped us feel that we had at least some of the tools we needed to address the situations that arose between us. But when it came to building our family together—and intimacy in general—we did not feel that we had the tools we needed, and so we had to seek out the knowledge ourselves.
I know I am not alone in this struggle. I know of many married woman that say that they felt wholly unprepared for the struggles that came with marital intimacy. I have had numerous discussions with other couples about how the Church needs to be more upfront about issues that can arise with sexuality in a marriage as well as how to deal with them. I have read countless stories about women–and their husbands–who were utterly blindsided by the problems that accompanied trying to have children.
For those that have started trying to build their family, whether it be the first or seventh time, know that you are not alone in these struggles—whether it’s the first, third, or seventh month, or whether it’s been years, it doesn’t matter. There are always difficulties that accompany the TTC side of NFP. I believe this is the silent side of NFP, the side that people don’t talk about, because after all, Catholics can easily pop out ten babies. And we all know that NFP is all about creating happy families, because that’s what good Catholics do, right? We all know that NFP is the natural option for family planning, and so it naturally follows that when you don’t abstain during fertile times, that your body will naturally do what it’s created to do!
These statements aren’t true, and yet within Catholic circles we seem to silently accept them as such. Trying to have a child isn’t as simple as checking in with your spouse monthly and deciding that yes, we are ready for a baby! Deciding that you are ready does not mean a baby will follow, and yet this was the impression that was given in our marriage prep–and the impression I believe is given among most Catholic circles. There were almost elements of the prosperity Gospel, since there was this idea that if you follow God’s plan for sexuality and don’t use birth control in your marriage, that God will bless you abundantly with children and shower blessings on your marriage. We should follow God’s plan for sexuality out of love for Him and because it respects our spouses. We should not be convinced to “buy in” to NFP by hearing the stats about how couples that use NFP have better commmunication, better experiences with intimacy, etc. We need to be honest with couples preparing for marriage about the difficulties that can arise with sexuality, trying to avoid children, and trying to have them—in so far as is appropriate and prudent for couples that are not yet married.
We reached a point in our marriage where intimacy was a chore and an obligation. Intimacy became a source of anxiety as I examined my chart and started feeling “it’s not enough if we want a baby.” I relied more and more on my understanding of health and cycles to try to optimize our chances for success—acting as if I could control whether we had a baby. I pinned the success of my health goals on two pink lines at the end of the month. I made Nick feel objectified and as if I was only interested in having a baby. I felt Nick didn’t care enough and didn’t understand what I was going through. It resulted in a myriad of issues that all came to a head around our first anniversary, pushing us to question whether we needed marriage counseling.
Thankfully, because we were able to recognize the issues that were disrupting and straining our marriage, we were able to develop a plan of attack to address these issues. We began having intentional, vulnerable conversations with each other about our struggle. I was able to listen to Nick’s concerns and adjust the way I approached him and our fertility so that both of our needs were met. I began focusing on the many blessings in our marriage, and this ignited a new, deeper intimacy between us. We were able to do this because our marriage had a strong foundation in our faith. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of all newlywed couples in the Church that are experiencing this struggle.
We need to have frank, open conversations about the struggles couples can encounter in their sexuality, especially when using NFP for any purpose. I would strongly encourage those involved in marriage prep to have multiple presenters for the NFP talk, so that a variety of experiences, struggles, and blessings that come from using NFP may be presented. There is no singular experience of NFP or married sexuality, and the way we prepare couples entering into marriage should reflect that reality. When we avoid these difficult discussions out of a misplaced sense of propriety, we are doing a disservice to newlyweds. There is a difference between speaking imprudently about one’s very intimate experiences with one’s spouse and seeking to educate and inform those entering into marriage about the difficulties they may encounter.
Despite the Church’s beautiful teachings on Theology of the Body, speaking about the struggles and joys that accompany married sexuality still remains somewhat taboo. We remain silent so to avoid scandal, but in being silent, do we produce scandal by failing to adequately prepare couples for the realities of married life?
We cannot remain silent on these issues, and yet while these realities require frank discussion so as to adequately prepare couples, they also require a certain delicacy and restraint. These are matters of a deeply intimate and personal nature, and we must recognize and treat them as such. We must maintain the sacredness of the intimacy shared between the couple. Walking this fine line is certainly difficult, yet I firmly believe that it is a line we must walk if we wish to truly form couples in the Church’s teachings on sexuality.
We cannot continue to fail newlyweds. There is much that needs to be reformed in marriage preparation, and I strongly believe that the treatment of sexuality is one topic desperately in need of greater emphasis in marriage prep. If we are bold, yet prudent, in our discussion of married sexuality, we can address a myriad of potential issues before they even begin in a marriage. We can encourage those in need of healing from previous experiences to seek help. We can invite couples into the struggles and sufferings that married life carries with it, particularly with the use of NFP for any reason. Ultimately, in choosing not to be silent on these issues, we can raise up a stronger and more faithful Church, built upon the foundation of strong and holy marriages.