"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Monday, March 9, 2015

NFP Hacks

Recently I read an article entitled "Why everybody loses when we sugarcoat NFP" by Jenny Uebbing. Uebbing notes that one common remark about NFP that she has encountered recently is that it is hard. I really appreciated Uebbing's take on this, and I think she is right to point out that many Catholics encounter NFP as difficult.

"Is it staggeringly difficult? An incomprehensible level of suffering?"

"Yes, it is also that," writes Uebbing.

This is a valuable observation, and I understand where Uebbing is coming from in her concerns. Those couples looking into NFP need to get an accurate picture of the sacrifices it sometimes demands. But as I continued to reflect on my almost-ten years of marriage, I realized that "staggeringly difficult" and "an incomprehensible level of suffering" simply do not apply to my own experience of NFP. Marriage - and even more so, parenting - have certainly presented enormous challenges for me. I can honestly say, however, that adhering to the Church's sexual teachings have never been a tremendous burden for me. And that's what inspired me to write this list of NFP hacks. In short, this list summarizes why my experience of NFP has been minimal and therefore not difficult. Not all the items on this list may be tenable in a particular situation. Like other lists of hacks, these happen to be the hacks that have worked for us.

NFP Hacks

1. Breastfeeding and cosleeping with an infant. The introduction of the formula industry, and with it, the crib industry brought about significant changes to female fertility. My maternal grandmother provides a great example. Though poor and in a difficult marital situation, she saw the ads proclaiming formula as scientific and the best way to feed a baby. She managed to buy formula for her infants, and when my mother was born, she joined a three year old, a two year old, and a one year old. Without the lactation amenorrhea provided by breastfeeding, her fertility returned quickly.

In recent times, breastfeeding has once again become more popular. The research on cosleeping is indicating more that it is best for babies, and even for most parents. Of course, cosleeping can be dangerous if it is done accidentally (from parental exhaustion) on unsafe surfaces (a couch or a chair) or if it is done with parents under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Intentional, safe cosleeping, paired with on-demand breastfeeding provides a lactation amenorrhea for most women that ranges from five to fourteen months (or possibly even longer). When added to nine months of pregnancy, this means fourteen to twenty-three months of not "using" NFP, but rather natural spacing that does not require periodic abstinence.

2. Openness to a large family. My sense is that those with a "one and done" or "two and through" attitude will find NFP very difficult, as they will spend most of their marriage with regular periods of abstinence. NFP certainly can be used well in situations where additional children pose a real danger to the life of the mother, for example, but I would not consider fifteen or more years of regular abstinence during fertile times to be an ideal situation for a marriage. The Catholic commitment to the willingness to receive children from God (one of the vows made during the sacrament of marriage) should be one of generosity, as much as responsibility. From the very beginning of our marriage, my husband and I have received many questions as to "how many children we want." Our answer has always been (and still is) that we take them one at a time. The willingness to have children - and even a large family by American standards - has made our use of periods of abstinence associated with NFP minimal.

3. Use available days when postponing a pregnancy. (Or: Keep husband happy.) As most couples, especially the men of those couples, will point out, what makes NFP challenging is periods of abstinence, both determining them and adhering to them when the couple has discerned the need to postpone a pregnancy. To the wife, I will say this: narrow down the Phase II fertility window as much as you can (a Clearblue monitor can help with this or possibly determining your cervix opening). Attend as carefully to using non-fertile days as you do to not using fertile days. In other words, plan to initiate intimacy with your husband multiple times during Phase I and Phase III. This is also important during times of pregnancy and lactation amenorrhea. If you want a happy husband who feels loved, keep track and make a plan (at least once a week, for example, or preferably more than that). It's great to be "in the mood," but it's not a great idea to limit intimacy to those times, especially given the significant variation in female libido according to hormones of pregnancy, amenorrhea, and regular cycles.

4. Show love in multiple ways. (Or: Keep wife happy.) The use of NFP is only one aspect of love and commitment in marriage. Husband or wife can grow to feel resentment toward NFP's periods of abstinence when they are not placed in the context of a loving and committed marriage. To the husband, therefore, I will say this: do not let your lovemaking be the only communication of your love for your wife; it may result in her feeling used. As important as physical intimacy can be to a man, so also the other love languages (words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time) can be crucial for the wife (and the husband too), especially given the fluctuation in female libido due to pregnancy, amenorrhea, and regular cycles. The generosity, kindness, and consideration, as well as the gratitude, of a spouse should be expressed in multiple ways. When raising a family, it is important for both parents to be involved and dedicated to the children, but it is also important to maintain the marital relationship outside the bedroom as well as within. A weekly breakfast date and early bedtimes for young children can provide the quality time that greatly benefit the marriage relationship. The helpful husband who is attuned to when his wife is overwhelmed demonstrates his commitment to her as a person and not just a body.

So, there you have it. My NFP hacks. The first two hacks have combined for over eight years of not even needing to think about abstaining. The second two hacks have allowed our marriage to grow even when postponing a pregnancy.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Definitive Answer on Observing Lenten Resolutions on Sunday

I consider myself to have above average knowledge on the topic of penance, since I have spent a lot of time researching and writing about the topic. But, after just typing that attention-grabbing title above, I will now humbly admit that I do not profess to be giving "the definitive answer on observing Lenten resolutions on Sunday." That is because the changes to penance made by the National Catholic Conference of Bishops in November of 1966 have dramatically altered the way Lenten penance is practiced in the United States, by fracturing or diversifying penance and basically assigning responsibility for the Lenten resolution to the individual. This fact makes it difficult to provide an absolute answer as to observing Lenten resolutions on a Sunday.

The last Lent prior to the changes in the U.S. found Catholics fasting every day of Lent. This Catholic fast is characterized by one full meal and two smaller meals (or "collations") that do not total one full meal. Generally in the Catholic Church, Catholics abstain from meat during the season of Lent. In the United States, the so called "workingman's indult" had been extended to all the faithful, allowing for them to have meat at their principal meal (the one full meal). The change that allowed the faithful to choose their own Lenten penance reduced these fast days to two: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and it replaced the Lenten fast with the direction to choose one's own Lenten resolution.

The great variety of Lenten resolutions make it difficult to provide one definitive answer as to observing a Lenten resolution on Sundays. One could argue that it is better to observe the resolution on Sundays so as not to kill the momentum of the sacrifice. We form habits with our resolutions, habits that might be imperiled when we take a day off. People also argue that these are Sundays "of Lent," and that it is somehow lazy to take a day off from our Lenten penance. Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert; he didn't have a feast every seven days. Then there is always the possibility that someone might have a resolution focused on Sundays, such as visiting the elderly on Sunday afternoons. Obviously they wouldn't want to exempt themselves from this Lenten resolution on Sundays, since this is the day they have chosen to do it. So also if they have added an extra prayer they intend to do on Sundays, since as saying a Rosary.

On the other hand, Sundays are NOT counted within the forty days of Lent. This means that, technically speaking, Sunday can be a day of rest from the Lenten resolution. Of course, if you give up beer for Lent, you shouldn't use Sunday as an excuse to drink a six-pack. If you give up chocolate for Lent, you shouldn't indulge by eating a whole bag of Lindt truffles. But Sunday is a day to rejoice in the Lord, and though they are Sundays "of Lent," they are particular days to anticipate the upcoming Easter celebration. So there is nothing wrong with taking a break from a Lenten resolution on a Sunday. In fact, doing so can be a powerful reminder that Lent is not simply about our individual will-power and heroic virtue, but about the gift of God in the paschal mystery - the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The victory is already won for us, but it is not won through us, but rather through Jesus.

So there you have the definitive answer on observing Lenten resolutions. It's your choice. You shouldn't feel obligated to maintain your Lenten penance on a Sunday, and this means you should make the decision based on what you think will help you to grow closer to God and prepare best for Easter. That is the purpose of Lent, after all. Rather than spend too much time debating, deliberating, or discerning, you might instead think about how you can better observe Sunday as the Lord's Day.