I recently read this article about one couple's experience with being open to life, and I had a lot of thoughts about it. While I don't disagree with Jackie's article outright, I'd like to offer another perspective. While every couple is different, mine and Aaron's relationship suffered a lot for our lack of knowledge. We didn't know ourselves very well, much less each other. It has been both painful and fruitful to grow through this process together, but I found it extraordinarily challenging to try to figure out my own stuff while becoming responsible for a needy baby.
Some background: I was six months pregnant when Aaron and I got married. We didn't know each other very well, certainly not well enough to have a baby together, but there we were, and we decided to move forward together. Our firstborn arrived early, which meant that we'd been married for a little over three weeks when we became parents. Now that we've been married and parenting for ten years, I'm glad for the timeline. It's great to still be young and able-bodied while having two active boys to chase around, and I'm pretty sure that sleep-deprivation at 31 would be a lot harder on my body than it was at 21.
It’s been a whirlwind ever since. Aaron started his own business and works very long hours, Jack has had a host of medical difficulties that have required a lot of appointments and a lot of attention, Matteas has had a lot of very normal feelings about his older brother getting lots of attention, and in the midst of all that we still have to find time to cook dinner, keep in touch with friends, exercise, try to get enough sleep, homeschool. There’s a lot to get done. In recent years, we’ve had the time to get to know one another more deeply, and it’s amazing how you can be married to someone for ten years and still discover things about them that surprise you. Becoming parents together has been an amazing experience for our marriage, but I for one crave to know my husband as more than just the father of my children, and I want him to know me in ways that are beyond my capacities as a mother.
We all want to believe we're making the best choices we can, but I think it's important to resist the temptation to standardize our choices; we are all much too unique and complex for a one-size-fits-all prescription. The educational, nutritional, and emotional needs of each individual are just that: individual. Even my two boys couldn't be more different; sure they both love Lego and Star Wars in common, but Jack needs a lot of quiet and reading time while Matteas needs lots of social opportunities. I often can't meet both needs simultaneously, and having two children with vastly difference social temperaments has given me a keen awareness of just how much time there is in a day, and the finite nature of my own personal resources. My boys are learning a lot about compromise; library today(Jack's choice), beach trip tomorrow(Matteas'). I try to keep things fair, but I believe fiercely that "fair" doesn't always translate to "same." My boys have different sets of needs, and they are both valid.
Likewise, every family has its own set of needs, and they vary wildly from family to family. Our needs as a family have varied from season to season, and we’ve had to practice a lot of flexibility and a lot of vigilance to keep up.
Over and over again, I encounter a reluctance in mothers to admit how hard parenting is. I think there is a very understandable conflation in most people’s minds that hard=distasteful; that’s hard, therefore I don’t want to do it. As mothers, we feel guilty about accusing our sweet, tiny babies of being a lot of work. I don’t think it’s a question of either/or, it’s both/and. Much like childbirth, parenting is both the hardest and most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. People are work, and they should be. What is so bad about being a lot of work? If climbing Everest was easy, everyone would do it and no one would be impressed. I make sure my kids know this, because I want them to have realistic expectations about what it’s like to be in relationship. I realize that statement is going to horrify a lot of parents, but I want my kids to know how to invest their blood, sweat and tears in the things they love. I want them to know that the things they love will require their blood, sweat and tears. That’s what will make them worthwhile. “Work” doesn’t mean the same thing as “unwelcome burden.” Work can be awesome and exhilarating and fulfilling.
If a couple consciously chooses to be open to pregnancy as soon as they’re married, I think that’s great. If a couple chooses to take some time to get to know one another deeply in marriage before having children, I think that’s great too. I think it's essential to recognize that there is very real goodness in more than one path. It's not the case that the only two options are Perfect Ideal vs. Failure and Inadequacy. God is way more dynamic than that, and life is way bigger than that. If there is only One Way to Live God’s Will, we will spin ourselves into a frenzied panic trying to find that One Way, and we will always be afraid that we are wrong. If there is only One Way, statistically, we aren’t likely to find it.
I think it’s important to clarify what it is we really mean by the term “open to life.” I find it interesting that the words the church uses are “open to life” and not something more specific, like “open to conceiving.” I feel very open to life, but right now that openness manifests itself in ways that are more about safeguarding how I deploy my resources and less about creating a new life. Am I being open to the life that is in front of me right now, with all of the gifts and needs that are present in it?
For me, the practice of NFP is about far more than whether nor not to get pregnant, or using what I think is simply a better option than chemicals or latex. It's about the daily practice of conscious awareness and ongoing discernment: what does being “open to life” mean today? We can't uphold a single outcome as the ideal, only ways of being. It's good to practice generosity in marriage, but how that manifests and what it looks like is different from one marriage to the next. Maybe it means another baby; maybe it means taking some time to nurture my marriage after a particularly intense stretch of parenting; maybe it means not putting anything else on my plate because my kids need everything I’ve got right now, and if I wasn’t getting eight hours of sleep a night I would be stark-raving bonkers. Maybe it will mean something really different a year from now than it does today, but one thing I know for sure: it’s not a static answer, because life isn’t static.
For me, a more clarifying question is one my favorite yoga teacher, Heather, likes to ask in class, especially before giving us a more difficult option for a pose: