Difficult Decisions and Responsible Parenthood

The end of June every year marks two very difficult anniversaries for me. On June 26th, 1986, during my first pregnancy, I was rushed into surgery to remove a tiny baby from my right fallopian tube. This, after already miscarrying a baby from my womb. I woke up in the hospital with the knowledge that I had conceived twins…and I would be leaving the hospital with neither in my arms.

Seven years later, in June in 1993, I found myself in an ambulance fighting for my life, bleeding internally as the result of ectopic pregnancy complications. It’s hard to believe it’s been 22 years.

Below is a reprint of an article that was published a few years ago. It describes the difficult decisions James and I faced when discerning whether we should limit our family to three boys after a life-threatening pregnancy in 1993.

Pope Paul VI in his papal encyclical Humanae Vitae states: “ Responsible parenthood… has one further essential aspect of paramount importance. It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God, and of which a right conscience is the true interpreter. In a word, the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities, recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.”

In the ambulance, as I drifted in and out of consciousness, I didn’t have much time for retrospective thoughts, except “Please God, I can’t die. I don’t want my little boys growing up without a mom.” I was bleeding internally, the complications of ectopic pregnancy surgery two weeks previous, and quickly becoming weaker and weaker. Waking up later in the recovery room, I was thankful to be alive.

“You should not be having any more children.” The words were harsh and at first, we took them as truth. I was capable of having more, but after two ectopic pregnancies and complications from one of the surgeries, we were told that we must limit our family to three boys. The doctors suggested that I be put on hormonal contraception. They later urged me to have my remaining fallopian tube tied. The physicians weren’t the only ones to give the ‘order’ to stop having children. Well-meaning relatives and friends felt it was their duty to tell us that we should not get pregnant again. “You don’t want to be irresponsible, do you?”

“It concerns the objective moral order which was established by God…”

It became evident, as we dialogued with both the physicians and the well-meaning relatives and friends, that they were concerned only about my physical health. Most of them cared little, if at all, for my/our spiritual well being. And, initially, in those first few weeks after my surgery, we felt that we ought to listen to the “doctor’s orders.”

However, as the months went by, I began to regain my strength. We continued using NFP in the most conservative way, often adding one or two days to the rules for extra security. A year later, with heaviness in my heart, I thought of the future and the fact that we would not have anymore children. I wondered whether God was calling us to actively seek another pregnancy. My husband and I discussed it, then brought our concern to our spiritual director, explaining to him that the doctor told us that we should not have any more children. “James and Ellie,” he said, “that is a decision to be made between the two of you and God.” He encouraged us to pray about it and he further recommended that we talk to a faithful Catholic doctor. We knew of a Catholic physician through a neighboring homeschooling community. Her response after reviewing my file was that we could try for more children, but that I would need to be monitored carefully in the first several weeks to confirm that it wasn’t another ectopic pregnancy.

… a right conscience is the true interpreter…”

For the next several months, we prayed together. We deeply desired another child, but we did not want to be careless or irresponsible. After much prayer and discernment, and weighing all the risks, we decided to actively seek another pregnancy.

“…the exercise of responsible parenthood requires that husband and wife, keeping a right order of priorities…”

Ten cycles later, we were still not pregnant. We felt at peace with our decision to seek another pregnancy and, although disappointed, we trusted that God knew what He was doing. Eventually, we stopped charting. Another eight cycles went by with no pregnancy and I began to sell off most of my baby furniture. A few weeks later, it dawned on me that I hadn’t had a period in six weeks. The next morning, I took my temperature and it was 98.9. After 18 months of saying no to us, God was saying yes and blessing us with another eternal soul. I was thrilled that another new life, the fruit of our love, had begun, and would be sheltered lovingly in my womb.

With the blessing, however, soon came suffering. I began having debilitating migraine headaches and some days I could not get out of bed. Worse than the physical pain, however, was the emotional suffering. Doctors, well-meaning friends and relatives told us that we were being “irresponsible” and “selfish,” and that if I was suffering, “I had asked for it.”

At 30 weeks gestation, our unborn baby was six pounds and I had already gained 50 pounds. That might not seem like much, but with my four feet nine inch frame, it meant that I could not drive (the seat had to be pushed back so far to allow for my large stomach that my feet couldn’t reach the pedals) and I could not walk without assistance the last four weeks of the pregnancy.

Our son, Adam, was born eight weeks later at nearly ten pounds. The pro-life Catholic doctor who delivered Adam by C-section told me that we could try for another baby someday, but that the pregnancy would again have to be monitored. Three years later, our youngest son, Paul was born.

“…recognize their own duties toward God, themselves, their families and human society.”

The words of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae courageously proclaim the truth of responsible parenthood. The decision to have or avoid another child remains a decision between the couple and God. No one else ought to make such a life-changing and important choice because no one else will have to endure the consequences (and joys), nor will anyone else have to stand before God someday and explain their actions.

Although we could have used NFP to avoid pregnancy permanently to limit our family size to three sons, we chose to listen to our hearts, to answer God’s calling, and to seek more children. When I consider that our two youngest sons (pictured above) might possibly not be here today, my heart becomes heavy. Both are amazing human beings who have already given so much to our family and to society.

For a more comprehensive discussion of our discernment process, check out my recent video presentation for the CC4 Moms Conference on the topic of Responsible Parenthood (or How I Came to Have Five Kids When the Doctors Told Us to Stop At Three).

James and I are so grateful to God for each of our five sons because they are all unique, talented and irreplaceable human beings. We can’t imagine our family and our world without them.
Easter fam cropped

Updated 2015, text and photos copyright Ellen Gable Hrkach

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4 thoughts on “Difficult Decisions and Responsible Parenthood

  1. Pingback: Seven Quick Takes Friday – Emily’s Hope Ten Years Old | Plot Line and Sinker

  2. I didn’t really know what to comment when I first read this post, but it’s such an honest and open post that I feel that needs to be acknowledged. I know one of my bigger fears for the future is losing a child, and I can’t imagine I’d react as full of reason and logic (and grace) as you and your husband did. It’s inspirational how you put God’s will first throughout these times of painful indecision.

  3. I’ve said it before, Ellen. You are an amazing woman. And you have a beautiful family. Thank you for trusting in the Lord.

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