Building the Village

We have heard so many times the phrase, “It takes a village to raise a child.” There is truth to this phrase, as parenting, while joyful work, is also demanding and exhausting both physically and emotionally. We need support from our families, our parishes, our communities, and our friends to successfully fulfill this portion of our vocation, and indeed, any vocation, without depleting ourselves. Yet, how many of us could truly say that we have this village, this network of support? How many of us enter parenthood, marriage, or life as a single person feeling alone and isolated, especially in the world of Covid?

Many of us live away from our families of origin. Some of us find ourselves moving away from communities of which we have long been apart due to jobs or other financial reasons. Others of us have tired to thrive where we have planted, and when we have seen our efforts at community fail, have perhaps cynically, given up.

For most, the days of the intergenerational family are gone. With the move to dual-income families, many times out of necessity, the effect of the lack of this built-in village is keenly felt. With no family nearby for help with care, daycare costs become a burden and one can feel especially drained by the effect of both spouses working, multiple kids in daycare, commuting to work and daycare, getting home, seeing the kids for a few hours, and then doing it all over again.

I have felt this lack of village very painfully at times. There have been times I have reached out to others and never heard back. Before Mariana’s birth, I reached out to someone that runs a parish mom’s group nearby and asked her how I could set up a meal train for after Mariana’s birth. That same mom group, under different leadership, had taken care of everything in regards to setting up a meal train after Madeleine’s birth. The person I contacted never replied. We set up our own meal train, and while the post said, “many have been asking us where they can sign up for a meal train to support us after Mariana’s birth,” the truth is this: no one had asked us at all.

There are however, two sides to this issue of the village. The one side is when we reach out to others and they fail to respond in love and support. The other side? When we fail to reach out, when we fail to be vulnerable, when we shut ourselves off from those most willing to help us.

With my first child, Madeleine, I was naively under the impression that my baby would come with a built-in village. Those from our Church and community would come to our support now that we had a child. This was true, to an extent, and we certainly received much more support after Madeleine’s birth than we did Mariana’s. But as time went on, I stumbled onto a painful truth: if one wants a village, one has to build it.

My anxiety causes me to fear rejection. In my anxiety, I will often choose not to reach out to others at all, choosing isolation over the possibility of rejection. I fear saying the wrong thing as I am building new friendships and then losing that friendship forever. If I forget to respond to a text message within a day or so, my anxiety creeps in saying, “If you respond now, they’ll judge you for not having responded sooner.” So the message sits and sits without a response until I decide, “better not to respond at all at this point; it’s been a week, what will they think of me?”

I am an awkward person. I despise small talk. I’m shy. I hate parties. In social situations, I frequently rely on my husband to do the introductions. I’m very sensitive to the possibility that someone won’t like me, and so sometimes, when my anxiety has been at its worst, I’ve simply decided that it’s better not to try.

During one of the lowest points of my PPA/PPD, around Christmas, I was complaining to Nicholas about the lack of support I felt. He looked at me and said, “And how many people have you reached out to about this? How many people are you trying to talk to on a regular basis besides me? How many times have you tried to reach out to an actual person instead of just making a post in one of your Facebook groups?” The answer at the time: none.

Nicholas gave me a homework assignment: text one person, one friend, every day. It terrified me at first. But, then the more I did it, the less I was afraid. I became more confident and less afraid of rejection. And I began to feel more supported as well.

Yesterday, I met up with one of my friends from college. As we were talking, she asked me why I hadn’t reached out to her. I explained that my anxiety causes me to feel paralyzed and makes it difficult for me to reach out. She was understanding, and later in a message to me said, “I have always wanted to be your friend, Elizabeth.”

How often do we allow our fear of vulnerability to prevent us from doing the hard work of building our village? Of reaching out for support? Of being open to the possibility of rejection? How often do we fail to reach out to those that love us because we are overwhelmed? Because we fear burdening them? How often do we decide that because others have failed to support us, that those who have known us and loved us will not support us as well? In our fear and anxiety, we end up burning our own villages.

The devil is often called the accuser. And as I examined my worries—they won’t like you, you’ll be a burden to them, people don’t want to support you, they don’t want to be your friend, you’re not [_____] enough for them, you’re doomed to be alone, you’ll just say the wrong things and hurt these people—I realized that these were all accusations. All lies. Because the devil would like nothing more than for us to have to live isolated from one another, separated from the Body of Christ that is His Church.

And so if we want the village, we have to build it. Villages are not built in a day. They take time, communication, and effort, from both sides. If we want others to support us, we must support them. We must be willing to be Christ’s hands and feet to others. We must be willing to give of our hearts, of our time, and of our kitchens. We must be willing to be vulnerable, to be open to the possibility of rejection and being wounded. We have to reach out to those we want in our village regularly. Most importantly, we must say “no” to the accuser that tells us that others will not care for us.

We are all worthy of love. We all—no matter our state in life: married without kids, married with kids, or single—deserve to have a village. We deserve to be a part of a community that will draw us closer to Christ. We must conquer the fear. We must stop letting our anxiety and fear of vulnerability burn down our villages, because that is precisely what the devil wants. We have to put in the work, to commit to building the village and showing up for others when they need the village.

It will not be easy. Often, after meeting up with a new friend or an old one I haven’t spoken to in a while, I find myself replaying and analyzing every bit of conversation: “Should I have said this instead? Did they judge me when I said this? Oh no, I shouldn’t have said that, I should have been quiet instead.” And again, this is the work of the devil, the accuser, that would rather us live in isolation than build communities that draw us closer to the heart of Christ.

So what does building the village have to look like then, practically? Reach out to one friend a day. Ask simply, “how are you?’ When you’ve successfully reached out to one friend a day for a month, make it two. Then, maybe three—this depends on how much of an introvert you are. Try to plan out time with different friends. Start with a goal of meeting up with someone once a month. Then perhaps every two weeks. Then perhaps once a week. Be there when others need you. Is someone you know having a baby? Bring a meal to them and a gift for the mom, not the baby (everyone brings gifts for the babies—make the mom feel special instead). Is someone you know struggling with infertility? Sit and listen. Is someone you know struggling with anxiety and depression? Bring them a meal and offer to just be with them.

These are the types of things we need from our village. We need others to be willing to sit with us in our suffering, to be present to us in our time of need. Building our village means doing the same for others, and initiating that even when it may be the most difficult for us, especially when we are struggling with anxiety or depression, because that is precisely when the devil would like us to feel most isolated.

Friendship requires patient listening, love, and vulnerability. The nature of friendship is such that being hurt is a very real possibility. We cannot let that stop us from having friends altogether, from reaching out in faith, from striving to love others, from building up our villages so that we can better love Christ and our families.

How are you going to work towards building your village?

The Daughters of Job(e)

I will never forget the moment when Nicholas first shared ideas for future baby names with me: it was November of 2014 and I was in his pickup truck as he was driving me to the airport…for a discernment retreat with the Sisters of Life.

At one point, he looked at me and said, “do you know what they say about the daughters of Jobe?” I did not, and so he promptly directed me to open the book of Job, 42:15, “In all the land no women were found as beautiful as Job’s daughters.”

I remember laughing and thinking to myself, “whoever marries this guy will be one lucky girl. I hope she knows it.”

That weekend, I spoke to Sr. Virginia Joy, the vocations director at the time, and she told me, “keep your heart open to marriage. Perhaps God has someone in mind for you that you will meet while you’re in Rome.” I laughed. I was certain of Christ’s plan for me, and marriage wasn’t part of it.

Just two months earlier, I went to Mass with a group of friends and met Nick when he was invited out to lunch with us. He was just starting his graduate program at UD, while I was in my second year there. If you ask Nick what his initial impression of me was at that time, he will simply say, “intense.” If you ask him if his impression was accurate, he will emphatically state, “Yes!”

At the time, Nick had a girlfriend of two plus years and I was determined to be a sister. There was no thought of romance between us.

I knew Nick had been having a difficult time adjusting to UD (I know now that UD was not his first choice for grad school, and the assistantship he was given has now been divided into two positions), so when many of our friends went on retreat one weekend, I invited him to ice cream at Ben and Jerry’s. He was quiet. It was unacceptable. I remedied this by abruptly breaking the silence and unceremoniously saying, “So, tell me your life story.” Amazingly, he didn’t think I was entirely crazy…and he told me about his life, in detail, as we walked together after finishing ice cream.

One thing we both shared was a love for Traditional Latin Mass. And so, Nicholas drove me to mass each Friday and each Friday we would have breakfast together. Looking back, it is easy to see how Mass brought us together. We became closer through our love of tradition as well as our love of coffee and bagels. When my roommates drove me nuts, I knew I could go to Nick’s apartment and write a paper in peace without disruption. I didn’t have to say anything and we didn’t have to even be in the same room, but he became a quiet source of comfort for me without my even realizing it.

But of course, we were only friends. So much so, that Nicholas actually told me his entire plan for how he would propose to his future wife (he didn’t change it, by the way, and his proposal to me is what started his rosary business). I remember meeting his then girlfriend at the time, and Nick later asked me what I thought of her. My response was simple, “I don’t know who you are around her.”

So after that discernment retreat in November, I began preparing for my study abroad in Rome. Nicholas helped me move out of my apartment. We continued texting each other throughout that Christmas break, and at one point, we realized, “wait..we could actually work really well together as a couple!” We made a pact that if neither of us was married or in religious life by 30, that we would marry each other.

And so in January 2015, I went to Rome. I began a 54 day rosary novena asking God to make the path forward clear to me. I will never forget when I was in Chapel at Santa Maria in Trastevere, and I heard Christ asking, “Will you give it all to me?” I knew this was asking me to lay it all down, to let go of my dreams, to let Christ lead. And I thought that it meant that marriage was not my vocation.

I spent the next three days miserable, until I was in Santa Maria Majore. Note the length of time: three days.

I was in prayer, still mourning the dreams I had of marriage and children, but determined to follow Christ. I then felt a strong prompting to meditate on the sacrifice of Isaac. As I reflected on this, I began to realize: God asked Abraham for his only son so as to give Abraham an opportunity to demonstrate his trust in God. God, in return, rewarded Abraham. I recall being promoted to reflect on Christ placing my hand in Nicholas’ hand, as he led us to the altar together, as Christ led us to the Cross. I heard simply, “You have shown me your faithfulness, now see the one I have prepared for you.”

For three days, I had felt utter misery, but I had trusted. Then, on the third day, there was the resurrection: God’s full plan revealed to us.

It is for that reason among many others that one of the central parts of our marriage and family mission statement says, “We will keep station at the Cross in anticipation of the resurrection.” It is why our daughters, Madeleine and Mariana, are named for Mary Magdalene and Our Lady of Sorrows respectively: these are the two women who remained at the Cross with Christ.

We have certainly had our share of crosses: family members passing, infertility, my anxiety, my RA. But there have been so many joys as well, so many resurrections amidst the Cross.

I met Nicholas in September 2014, we began courting in March 2015, were engaged in July 2015, and married January 2016. Our romance is one I never expected and could never have written, and God’s hand in our relationship is so clear to me. I am deeply grateful for him: he is my rock, my quiet place of comfort, my constant, my cross. Christ has chosen Nicholas to help sanctify me, and I am astounded by the gift of our marriage.

And what they say is true, by the way: the daughters of Jobe are the fairest in the land.

Trust: The Heart of NFP

I will forever remember the first time I tried to educate somebody else about NFP. I was explaining that NFP along with natural reproductive technology, or NaPro, could actually provide health solutions for most problems treated by the pill. My audience: my junior level morality class.

I am one of the first in a generation that has used NFP from a young age. Rather than immediately being put on the pill for the issues I was having with my cycle, my parents took me to see a NaPro doctor and a Creighton practitioner. And so at the young age of 16, I was familiar with signs of my fertility, the way in which a woman’s fertility worked, and the fact that my current hormone levels likely meant that I would struggle to have children if they continued at that level into adulthood.

I quickly saw the many uses of NFP. I saw how it benefited me greatly in preventing immense pain throughout my cycle. I wanted others to have this knowledge, too. Hence, the position in which I found myself: explaining NFP, a woman’s cycle, and the downsides of birth control to my junior morality class.

It was at that moment that I learned that many of my classmates were in fact on the pill. Mind you, this was a Catholic school. However, many of them had been put on the pill for various health issues. Most of these health issues could have been addressed by hormonal support provided through NaPro Technology. I’ll never forget the reaction though from the boys in the class who looked at me and booed me and Said to all the girls in the class “We don’t want to hear about your flow.”

Although comical now, it points to the issue of educating not only young men but also women about their health and fertility. Fortunately, my school decided to address this issue by bringing in a Creighton practitioner to talk to all the girls in the high school. Perhaps the young men could have benefitted as well.

As I became older, I found myself having discussions about NFP with my fiance. When we attended marriage preparation the way in which NFP was presented to us was a sort of prosperity gospel: use NFP and avoid kids when you want. But when you want kids, since you have been following God’s will, they will come easily!

However that wasn’t at all our experience. We faced infertility and all the struggles that went along with it. I wrote about that extensively in my infertility series that you can find here. If that is currently your struggle, know that I am praying for you.

Once we were finally blessed with our first child in 2018, we then switched to using NFP to avoid. That was not nearly as easy as it as it had been made to seem either. For both of us when I was postpartum it seemed that there were infinitely less available days for use than the happy, smiling, overly cheery couple at our marriage preparation had made it seem. There were likely many days that had been available to us but that I did not feel confident enough in using. I was using Creighton the first time postpartum, and since Creighton is a mucus only method, it became confusing postpartum. Postpartum cycles and fertility markers are very different than in normal cycles, which is why I’m using Marquette this time around.

In both cases, using NFP required trust. Trust that we would be carried through our suffering. Trust in the purifying fire of Christ’s love and suffering. Trust that any child would be a blessing, no matter that timing. Trust in one’s spouse to communicate. The center of NFP is trust, which is why this method can be difficult to embrace.

If you don’t trust your body, your spouse, or Christ, other forms of birth control can become tempting. And while there have certainly been times that birth control has seemed appealing, I know it would leave me feeling empty. It would remove the radical trust required in each intimate act. It would become a divide between us rather than something that requires continued communication and trust, as NFP has been for us.

I find that NFP mirrors the requirements of love: it requires self knowledge, communication, vulnerability, and trust to work effectively. How fitting that these elements are also required for a healthy and successful marriage. And so in using NFP to plan our family, we practice the very things needed for a strong marriage and indeed, a strong faith as well. For at the center of our fertility is Christ calling us to relationship with Him, calling us to walk on the waters, to put out into the deep, to trust in Him. Christ is calling us to know ourselves that we may know Him, to trust that we may be vulnerable with him, to be vulnerable with Him that we may be loved by Him. Will you answer His call?

St. Maximilian Kolbe

Song Amidst Sorrow

Ten men stand gathered in prayer.  Maximilian Kolbe leads the group and begins to sing.  The men join him in song, and their praises echo from within Cell 18 of Block 11.  The men are shut in an underground bunker in Auschwitz, sentenced to die because of a prisoner escape.  And yet, in the midst of this great darkness, the men were singing. Their leader, Kolbe, chose to be there.  One of the men chosen to die had been Franciszek Gajowniczek, a Polish army sergeant. But Gajowniczek began to cry out, “My wife! My children!”  Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward courageously, saying, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.”  And so after two weeks in the bunker, watching the men around him die, continuing to pray and sing, Maximilian Kolbe–instead of Franciszek Gajowniczek–died from a lethal injection of carbolic acid.

Biography

Maximilian Kolbe was born Raymund Kolbe on January 8, 1894 in Zdunska Wola, Poland.  At a young age, Kolbe had a vision of the Blessed Mother offering him two crowns–one white and one red–for perseverance in purity and for martyrdom.  Kolbe asked to receive both crowns.

The vision ignited within Kolbe a desire to serve Christ.  At 13 years old, Kolbe left to attend the Conventual Franciscan Seminary in Lwow.  He took the religious name Maximilian in 1910. He was ordained a priest and returned to Poland in 1919.

Kolbe taught the faith through radio broadcasts and publications.  His monastery near Warsaw gave shelter to Jews during the Second World War.  After his monastery published a series of anti-Nazi pamphlets, Kolbe was arrested and sent to Auschwitz on February 17, 1941, for hiding Jews.  

In July 1941, one of the Nazi commanders found that some prisoners had escaped. He ordered the execution of ten men.  When Maximilian Kolbe courageously volunteered to take the place of Franciszek Gajowniczek, the switch was allowed.

After two weeks, the guards came in with a lethal injection of carbolic acid.  They needed to clear the cell to make room for additional executees. Kolbe calmly accepted his death, never ceasing his prayers for the men that were persecuting him.

Franciszek Gajowniczek was reunited with his wife in 1946, but his two sons died in the war.  He attended Maximilian Kolbe’s canonization in 1981 and survived to the age of 93. Each year on August 14, he returned to Auschwitz, honoring the man who gave his life to save him.

St. Maximilian Kolbe and I

There are some saints that chose us, rather than us choosing them. I first remember hearing of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the saint with both the crown of martyrdom and the crown of heroic virtue, when I was in middle school. His story, that of a priest in a concentration camp that gave his life to save another, has stuck with me ever since.

For nearly two years now, St. Maximilian Kolbe has held a special place in my heart. Upon learning that I was pregnant, Maximilian Kolbe became one of my patrons as I asked for a healthy pregnancy, safe delivery, and healthy baby.

Madeleine’s middle name was originally going to be Cecilia. Neither Nicholas nor I felt strongly attached to the name. When we discovered we were having a girl, Nicholas and I knew that her middle name needed to change. There needed to be some connection to Maximilian Kolbe.

Nicholas suggested “Kolbe” as her middle name, but I felt it was too masculine. For a week or so, we prayed and struggled to find alternatives with a tie to St. Maximilian. Finally, we went to Mass.

During Mass, Nicholas turned to me and asked, “What about Immaculata?” It was perfect. Not only was it a tie to St. Maximilian Kolbe through the Militia Immaculata he founded, but also it was a tie to the Blessed Mother and a nod to me, as my birthday is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

He has been her patron ever since.

I first became fascinated by St. Maximilian Kolbe after a trip to Poland in 2015. There was no time to visit Auschwitz, but I saw multiple mentions of him throughout the trip. His courage and selflessness impressed upon my heart the great value that is a human life. Upon my return, I made him the subject of one of my creative writing assignments.

Maximilian Kolbe continued to pop up in various ways. I was working on an application to Dynamic Catholic in 2016. The topic I was assigned for my sample writing assignments? St. Maximilian Kolbe.

Last week, I began setting up my classroom. I looked at the saint outside my door, the saint designated as my classroom patron: St. Maximilian Kolbe, Patron Saint of Journalists.

I very nearly cried.

Just today, Nicholas informed me that St. Maximilian Kolbe’s birthday is January 8th. I was baptized on January 8th. Clearly, I am meant to have a connection with this saint.

This year, in all of my classes, we will be beginning class with prayers written by or asking the intercession of St. Maximilian Kolbe. He is a saint that demonstrates that there is light amidst darkness, hope amidst despair, love amidst great evil. And that is the sort of saint that many of us need in our lives to continue to hope when all else seems stacked against us.

St. Maximilian Kolbe, Pray for Us

St. Maximilian Kolbe, we ask you to help us to grow in selflessness and generosity.  Inspire us to sacrifice ourselves and our desires for the good of others. Help us to remain joyful even in the midst of great darkness and suffering, and to pray especially for those that have wounded us.

St. Maximilian Kolbe, you were willing to give your life to save the life of another.  Help us to more deeply recognize the sacredness and infinite value of each human life. Grant that through your prayers, all families, prisoners, and drug addicts may find joy and peace in Christ.

If you would like to read more about St. Maximilian Kolbe, you can find a creative piece I wrote on him here.


TTC: On the Other Side of NFP 

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.