|Graphic courtesy of http://www.iusenfp.com
I grew up in the deep South. Being Catholic was NOT the cool thing to do (I can go on and on about how we were treated, but let's just say you were the target of most of the Protestant religions. Masses were crashed and priests spit on, I was once the focus of an "intervention" by my friend's parents to "save" me, etc). My parents, who are very much "cafeteria Catholics", scrimped and saved to send me and my siblings to a Catholic high school. The only one in a 4 hour radius, to be exact. I am not at all exaggerating when I say that this decision on their part saved my life. I went through a DEEP depression in college, and it was the Truth that I was taught there that kept me from killing myself. The beacon of the Church was the ONLY thing I was able to cling to during that time period. (I actually haven't talked about this time period in my life with anyone other than my husband, so those of you who know me IRL....umm...surprise!).
One of the things that this school did well was teach the Faith as a tapestry - it permeated every aspect of our education, like Catholicism does in real life. This included the sciences - I was taught an incredible amount of anatomy and physiology....concurrently being taught Catholic moral theology (which includes these sexual issues) in my religion classes. We were taught a basic form of mucus-only NFP, WHILE being taught about the dignity of both male and female and life. Basically, it wasn't "Don't do this, don't do that," it was "you are made in the image and likeness of God and your worth and dignity is found in that truth...and you should NEVER be exploited." As I came through the early part of my 20s (the deep depression), I started to realize just how much that foundation was the saving grace for me. If I had NOT been taught about this innate dignity - as well as the intricacy of human reproduction - but instead, relied on what I was being told by my OB/GYNs and the culture, at large, I'm pretty sure I'd either be dead or at least divorced at this point. Even though the culture and the medical world was telling me that contraception and casual sex was the way to "empowerment".....it lead me into a deep, dark place full of bitterness and hurt (every time I think of CS's comment about the "constant sobbing", I flash back to college life and my contraceptive years).
My husband and I met early and started dating young (18 - he was the first person I met at college, after my roommate). We were married at 22, after finishing college in 3 years each. We were not at all chaste during this period. (We gave in to the culture). In some ways, I guess we were "better" than we could have been, in that we were in a committed relationship and not sleeping around, but this period of time involves some of my greatest regrets. I degraded myself, and I degraded him. We both used each other, not empowered each other. I had been put on BC as a "solution" to my PCOS, and honestly, the fact that I was already taking it for "medical reasons" led me to give into the rest of the culture. I wish I hadn't.
We were married young, on purpose. He was entering medical school, and we didn't want to delay our marriage for at least 8 more years (med school + residency, which could have extended if he'd decided to do a fellowship as well). One of my clearest memories was after he proposed, when we *finally* discussed plans for children during our marriage. Thank God I'd had that foundation in high school - I flat out told him that I was not going to be on birth control during our marriage. It wasn't really "fixing" my symptoms, even after shopping around for doctors and prescriptions, and the side effects were horrible (little did I know how much they were effecting the other things I was dealing with at the time - relationship issues due to a low libido, weight gain, hormonal swings that were CRAZY, high blood pressure, etc), and I firmly believed that marriages needed to be built on an openness to children. (It's funny to me now, how I was able to "divorce" the sexual act from marriage - I had no moral problems with birth control and sleeping with my husband BEFORE marriage....but once that wedding happened, it was "wrong" in my thoughts...).
We were married at 22, like I said, and got pregnant right away. Unfortunately, that pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. I was devastated. I started researching the birth control options that I'd been on and learned things about birth control and miscarriage rates, breast cancer, infertility. I was livid that I hadn't been told these things by ANY of the doctors I'd seen, even though they're well-documented in medical literature. Part of this blame I accept as my fault - I should have done the research BEFORE taking it. We did successfully get pregnant and maintain that pregnancy full-term, having our first little boy a year later, at 23.
Having children young was the BEST decision we EVER made. I cannot say that enough. Was it hard? You betcha. My family lived 9 hours away, his lived 4 hours away, and all of our friends from college had graduated and moved on by the time we had kids (we stayed at the same college for med school as we were at for undergrad - most of our friends graduated and left the state for jobs). Our parish "community outreach" was a joke - we had no support there. Parts of the country are like that, I've lived both in parishes like that and in Leila's diocese. Night and day difference. We had NO money. I was working, but it was an entry-level job that I'd gotten in college to pay for school and only kept because the health benefits were fantastic (it was a union job) and we needed that as a young family. He waited tables when he wasn't in class or studying. The only financial support we had from family was $100/month on my parent's credit card for groceries. We had no physical support - we had to make our own.
Having that experience (we had our second child 17 months later, on purpose - I knew enough NFP from high school that we were able to use what I knew about my body to "better" our chances of conceiving, haha) is what strengthened our marriage. It's what pulled me out of my depression. Was it easy? Not at all. I cried myself to sleep quite often, out of sheer exhaustion. But the joy that those two little boys brought to my husband and I - the PURPOSE they gave our lives - made every dinner of ramen noodles or the driving to the post office on a particular day instead of another, in hopes that we could have a bill payment cashed on one day instead of another, worth it. We were no longer two people living side-by-side, as we had been pre-kids, but a team that *had* to rely on each other. I won't idealize it - there were days when I just got in the car and had to drive away because i was so stressed and angry at my husband that I couldn't look at his face. We were very, very strapped, not at all "flourishing" by the world's standards (or even my own at that point), but our *souls* were flourishing. We were growing in virtue - especially growing in charity. We have to remember that the Church deals in matters of souls.....
After baby boy #2, I had a severe recurrence of symptoms from my PCOS. I went to my OB/GYN and she prescribed yet another form of birth control, citing it as my only option. Not knowing any better, and again, not doing my research yet, I started using it. (apparently, I'm a slow learner). At this point, my husband had started his training in OB/GYN. Let me tell you, there is pretty much NO discussion of anything other than birth control during this kind of residency. He only received ONE lecture on NFP....and it was one that he gave after receiving training at the Pope Paul VI Institute. Birth control is presented as the only option/treatment for quite a few reproductive issues, and definitely as the only "reliable" option when it comes to avoiding pregnancy (which makes me giggle, honestly, considering the high user-failure rate of birth control).
The year that followed was the worst of our marriage. My libido was gone. We were not attracted to each other AT ALL and my emotions were all over the place. I know now that there is science behind a lot of what we experienced, but at the time, I didn't. We went back to living like roommates, and our parenting suffered. There was one instance that chills me to the bone now....that almost resulted in me packing my bags and taking the two boys and leaving him. I was determined to do so. To this day, I thank God that my husband is as strong as he is. He was the first one to - on his own - start researching alternatives to birth control and mainstream OB/GYN care. He was the first one to find NaProTechnology and research it - he knew, after those years without birth control (even though we were both working full time and he was attending med school full time AND we had two kids under age 3...so stress level was pretty much the same, if not less in residency since I was no longer working as many hours), that the Heidi he was seeing at home was not the real Heidi. (Mind you, this was birth control option #4....it was not a simple "wrong dose" experience - I'd had this same experience on ALL of the forms). He found NaPro, explained it to me, and we found a way to get the help that I actually needed to get control of my PCOS symptoms...without the birth control.
When I stopped taking it, my life turned around completely. I finally felt "normal" again. My libido was back. I still had symptoms that I was dealing with, but I *finally* had someone who told me that they weren't actually normal and that they were tied to something else going on in my body that we COULD fix. Before this point, I was told by multiple doctors that these were just "common complaints" and that birth control would fix things. Looking back, I see now the beauty and truth found in Humanae Vitae. NFP literally saved my life and my marriage.
We did go on to have a third little boy, during residency. A lot of people told us that we were being irresponsible. After all, my husband was working 80-100 hours a week, we were going into our third year of residency (the worst one, schedule wise), and he was only making $3/hour. However, I firmly believe with every ounce of my body that the irresponsible move on our part would have been to avoid conceiving our third son. Everyone around us (remember, we were submerged in a dead parish and the mainstream OB/GYN world) told us we needed to be "done" at two. Most of their reasons had to do with finances and lifestyle choices - we'd need a bigger car, we needed to pay off med school debt, we wouldn't be able to take vacations, we didn't have family nearby, my husband wasn't home very much, etc. Responsible parenting, in their eyes, would be securing these things FIRST.
They were wrong. Responsible parenting meant being the best parents we could be to our children. Being open to life was responsible parenting for us. Our third child is integral to our family. I cannot imagine the void that would be there if we had done what was "responsible" in the culture's eyes and stopped after our second son. In fact, before Leila even posted this thread, I posted a status on FB that said just that - I am grateful to God every.single.day that He changed our hearts, that He allowed for my high school foundation and knowledge, and that we have our children that came after #2 (#3 who is here already, #4 who we are in-process of adopting, and #5 that I'm currently pregnant with).
I recognize that not every story will sound like mine. But the statistics support the fact that the vast majority of those who do use NFP find joy through the suffering that they may experience. I think NFP changes your HEART more than it changes anything else. Contraception doesn't force you to examine your priorities every month, or examine your world views, or grow your communication skills and get creative in how you show your love quite like NFP does. The biggest thing that I noticed between my NFP life and my contraceptive life (other than the side effects) was a very noticeable change in my worldview and my heart. I was *forced* to grow in virtue. I was forced to acknowledge the truth about sex and marriage (biological truths), and order my life accordingly. Living in denial of truth does not lead to empowerment....it leads to bitterness and pain. Living in accordance with the truth is what leads to joy. And no matter how much we want to deny it, the biological truth written on our bodies is that sex leads to babies.
I've already written a huge novel, but I wanted to speak to a few other comments. I know that we would have had a different set of struggles and different aspects to discern through if *I* had been the med student/resident, as opposed to my husband. [This is] why I think the Church is so wise in not giving us a "list" of what is and is not a grave reason to avoid pregnancy, or even a bulleted list as to what defines responsible parenting. I think our culture, specifically, has forgotten what discernment is, and how to do it. (I'd never even HEARD the word discern until after college!). We're so used to our little boxes of bulleted information, that it throws us for a huge loop when there ISN'T a direct answer. The best advice I can give anyone is that when you are following God's will for you....there will be peace. There will be joy. The existence of peace and joy does NOT mean that there will not be suffering. That's not what being at peace and being joyful means. But...when you discover God's plan for you, peace and joy will be there. The reality is that even with contraception, sex still leads toward babies. Every act of sex - even when we fight it with contraception - is ordered toward procreation. If God's plan for you involves only 2 children and working full-time....who am I to say you are wrong? You will know by His gift of peace.