Natural Family Planning Awareness Week begins next week. A great way to start the celebration is with humor!
All images are copyright by James and Ellen Hrkach. Please do not use without permission.
Natural Family Planning Awareness Week begins next week. A great way to start the celebration is with humor!
All images are copyright by James and Ellen Hrkach. Please do not use without permission.
The end of June every year marks two very difficult anniversaries for me. On June 26th, 1986, 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.
At the end of 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 18 years.
The following is a reprint of an article I had published a few years ago which deals with the difficult decisions James and I faced when deciding 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, 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 the last six 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 and openness to life. 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 and 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 and below) might possibly not be here today, my heart becomes heavy. Both are unique, talented, funny and amazing human beings who have already given so much to our family and to society. I am grateful to God, because I can’t imagine our family without them.
Here they are posing for an updated shot of that same photo! (Now 20 and 17 years old.)
Copyright 2016 Ellen Gable Hrkach
To celebrate the Year of Mercy and to participate in #TOBtalk for the upcoming Theology of the Body Congress, I’m reposting this article from last year on practicing the spiritual works of mercy with a theology of the body focus. First, the question: Why is Theology of the Body important to you? I try to live my entire life according to Theology of the Body principles. As well, I reverted back to my Catholic faith through the teachings of the Theology of the Body even before I knew the term “Theology of the Body.” My then boyfriend (now husband, James) wanted us to wait until marriage to have sex and he also did not want us to use contraception. The contraception issue became our first major disagreement, with me arguing for contraception and James arguing against. He said things like “I don’t want there to be anything separating us when we consummate,” or “If we used contraception, there would be something separating us and I want sex to be between you, me and God. That’s all.” Incredibly, I decided to trust him and went along with his desire to not use contraception. Seeing the impact of following the Church’s teaching in this matter, I eventually became one of the biggest proponents of Natural Family Planning and Theology of the Body.
Living the teachings of the Theology of the Body has not only helped me to be closer to my husband and to God, living these beautiful teachings has also allowed me to be merciful and, in this way, follow the spiritual works of mercy more closely.
According to the Catholic encyclopedia, mercy is “a virtue influencing one’s will to have compassion for, and, if possible, to alleviate another’s misfortune.” The spiritual works of mercy are one way Catholics can show charity and compassion to others. Since my husband and I teach Natural Family Planning, we have always tried to practice the spiritual works of mercy through our NFP ministry. Many Catholics do not understand the Church’s teachings on sexuality. Mother Teresa once said, “If you judge someone, you have no time to love them,” Sharing the truth with charity and without judgment is extremely important.
Admonish the Sinner and Instruct the Ignorant
I often find myself in conversations about these intimate topics with acquaintances and relatives. For example, while I was attending a First Penance meeting with one of my sons, the instructor handed out a “Examination of Conscience” pamphlet. On page three, under “Thou Shall Not Kill,” sterilization was listed correctly as a mortal sin. The woman next to me gasped and whispered, “I thought the Church changed her teaching on this. I had my tubes tied and didn’t know it was wrong.” I then gently said, “The Church has never changed this teaching. Birth control and sterilization have always been considered mortal sins.” The woman glanced away, then turned back to me, tears in her eyes. I patted her shoulder, then said, “You know, if you didn’t realize it was wrong, then it’s not a mortal sin.” I pointed out the section in the “Examination of Conscience” pamphlet which stated that all three of these conditions need to be in place for mortal sin: it must be 1) serious matter, 2) the person must know it is serious and then 3) freely commit it. I strongly encouraged her to seek spiritual direction from a faithful priest. When she left the meeting, she thanked me.
Counsel the Doubtful and Comfort the Sorrowful
A few years ago, when we were speaking at the local marriage prep course on “Sexual Honesty Within Marriage,” we talked about the importance of keeping the marital embrace free, total, faithful and “fruitful.” During the last part of the talk, we explained that contraception removes the fruitful aspect from the marital act. All of a sudden, a young woman rushed out of the meeting room, in tears. James and I continued our talk while one of the other host couples followed her, but we were concerned. After the talk, I immediately went to speak to the woman. I learned that she was the mother of a 13-year-old daughter from a teenage relationship. The young woman shared that she was currently in remission from terminal cancer. Because of the aggressive treatment, her doctors told that she would not have any more children. She told me that it upset her to hear the suggestion that her marriage might not be “fruitful” since she and her fiancé would never have children. (Of course, we didn’t say that in our talk, but this is how she interpreted it). She admitted that she had mistakenly thought she had already dealt with the fact that she and her future husband would not be having children together. But our talk seemed to bring her sadness and regret to the surface. She then sobbed and I embraced her as she released emotions that had obviously been pent up for a while. When she stopped crying, I explained that fruitfulness was much more than giving birth to children. We discussed adoption. We talked about the fruitfulness of being a good example as well as other ways she and her husband could be ‘fruitful” in their marriage. After the course finished that evening, she came up to me, hugged me and thanked me for being so “kind.”
Bear Wrongs Patiently, Forgive all Injuries
Bearing wrongs patiently has never been something I have done well. And the following example shows that not everyone I “admonish” or “instruct” has been open to the information.
Ten years ago, a woman called for NFP counseling. She and her husband had taken an NFP class years earlier. Her husband, she said, had made an appointment for a vasectomy and he had indicated the decision was not up for debate. After using NFP for many years, he no longer had any patience for the abstinence it entailed. The wife sounded like she was crying. “What can I do to stop him?” she asked. I spoke with her, then sent her information on the moral, spiritual and physical implications of sterilization. I encouraged her to seek spiritual direction from a faithful priest I knew in the area. Four different times we spoke on the phone, her tone frantic and desperate. Finally, she stopped calling. I continued to pray for this couple. Some months later, she called to inform me that her husband had indeed gone through with the vasectomy and they were now ‘very happy.’ She wanted me to know that, although she knew I didn’t agree with ‘their’ decision, she had come to accept it and that it had been the ‘right’ thing for them.
Admittedly, I have no idea what happened in between her frantic calls and the vasectomy. I suspect she never called the faithful priest I recommended. However, I calmly responded, “But sterilization is against the fifth commandment as well as the sixth, it separates a couple…it causes an increase in prostate cancer, it – ” She cut me off by angrily telling me that she only called to inform me, not to hear what the Church teaches, that she already knew that. Her husband then got on the phone and yelled at me, his tone sharp, accusing me of trying to “sabotage” his marriage. I listened, heart pounding, as he screamed at me over the phone. It took a lot of self-control not to hang up nor respond to his verbal abuse. I prayed and waited until he stopped yelling, although by that point, I was nearly in tears and my hands were trembling. Then I said, my voice breaking, “I will pray for you and I wish you both well…goodbye.” My hands shaking, I hung up the phone and cried. I forgave them long ago for their verbal abuse, and I have prayed for them from time to time, but I’ve always wondered how they are doing.
Pray for the Living and the Dead
Prayer is so powerful, more powerful than any of us can ever imagine. Even if you’re not comfortable speaking up, you can always pray for anyone at anytime. Praying for others is an important part of the spiritual works of mercy. I pray daily that more couples can discover the joy of following the Church’s teachings on sexuality by learning NFP: to be chaste before marriage, to be generous and open to life within marriage. I pray for all the student couples to whom we have taught NFP over the years. I pray for the engaged couples who have listened to our testimony and talks at marriage prep courses. I offer up many prayers for relatives and friends who have chosen to lead alternate lifestyles, and those deceased ancestors and relatives who were not faithful to the Catholic Church’s beautiful teachings of sexuality.
Practicing the spiritual works of mercy through the Theology of the Body is an ideal way to show charity and compassion to others. And it’s an ideal way to celebrate more fully this beautiful Year of Mercy. It’s not always easy to do. However, I know that, for me, it is the right thing to do, even if the person or persons are not open to the message. The truth is, we never know when a seed of truth will be planted and someone will experience a change of heart.
The beginning of a new year often prompts many to make resolutions regarding lifestyle. Some will decide to exercise more or to eat better or to get more sleep.
Nowadays healthier lifestyle choices are encouraged: a diet rich in whole foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, low in saturated fat. Unhealthy habits are discouraged: poor diet, inactivity, smoking, excessive drinking.
Part of a healthy lifestyle also includes making good choices regarding birth regulation.
Moral considerations aside, NFP, or Natural Family Planning, is very healthy. It is not only an effective method of birth regulation, it also has no physical side effects and, in my experience, helps a woman to understand and know her body better. There are no pills or chemicals which go into the woman’s delicate system. There are no devices or operations for either man or woman.
Other methods, however, are not so health-inducing.
Each oral contraceptive pill or patch prescription includes a lengthy insert outlining the many physical side effects: an increased risk of blood clots, strokes, heart attacks, headaches, breast cancer, mood swings, weight gain. Vasectomy comes with an increased risk of prostate cancer and dementia. Women who undergo a tubal ligation have increased risk of pain and hysterectomy.
For those who are especially concerned with the environment, the Pill is a likely culprit in contributing to the feminization of male fish.
For more information on NFP, this is a great, informative video:
My husband, James, and I are certified NFP teachers and we also teach NFP online. If you have any questions regarding NFP or the classes we teach, email me at fullquiverpublishing (at) gmail (dot) (com)
Copyright 2016 Ellen Gable Hrkach
Photo copyright Josh Hrkach Used with permission
So why NFP (or Natural Family Planning)? NFP is safe, healthy and effective. Most importantly, it is a morally acceptable way to avoid and achieve pregnancy.
If we look at the four components of God’s love for us (free, total, faithful, fruitful) and compare God’s love to marital love, we can discover how to live the Sacrament of marriage as the ultimate expression of spousal love.
Free: We need to be able love our spouse freely. If we ask for conditions, that’s not love. If we force our spouse to do something, that’s not love. If we cannot say no to our sexual urges, then we are not free.
Total: The love for our spouse must be total. We can’t say, “Well, I’ll give you everything, honey, except for my fertility.” Total means total. (Re: CCC 1643).
Faithful: Obviously, faithfulness means we must only have intercourse with our spouse and no other. But if we want to be truly faithful to our spouse, we must be faithful in word, action and thought.
Fruitful: Marital relations must be fruitful, open to children, each and every time. That doesn’t mean we will conceive (or want to conceive) a child with every marital embrace. It just means we need to be open.
Birth control, in fact, destroys all four of the essential components (free, total, faithful, fruitful). Birth control violates not only God’s plan in fruitfulness, but it also encourages an “I can’t say no” mentality to sex. When an action, device, medication or operation is purposefully used to remove fertility, a couple cannot give themselves totally, no matter how much they love each other. Contraception says, “I give all of myself to my spouse – except my fertility.”
Natural Family Planning allows a couple to love each other as God loves: freely, totally, faithfully and fruitfully. Couples using NFP chart the wife’s cycle and, if avoiding pregnancy, they abstain in the fertile time. If they are planning a pregnancy, they engage in relations during the fertile time. They are not using devices; they are fully giving of themselves and they are open to children with each and every act of marital relations.
NFP allows us to love our spouse as God loves us: freely, with no reservation, faithfully and open to children. Marriage can be a holy vocation when a couple loves as God loves: freely, totally, faithfully and fruitfully.
Want to live the highest expression of your marital love? Use NFP and be open to life.
For more information about the Theology of the Body:
Couples using Natural Family Planning are accustomed to communicating deeply and frequently. According to researchers at Marquette University College of Nursing, use of NFP improves a couple’s overall relationship, but specifically focuses on communication. One couple said, “Since we speak about our fertility on a daily basis (my husband charts and asks my observations daily), NFP has helped our level of communication remain very deep and intimate and always above-board, open and honest.”
Lack of communication is one of the leading causes of marital breakdown. For the NFP-using couple, honest communication is essential. Procrastination isn’t an option. Each month, the NFP couple discusses whether or not they will be avoiding or planning pregnancy. In order to be successful at this, it’s necessary to discuss the woman’s signs of fertility and infertility. My husband has often said, “If you can talk about your wife’s cervical mucus, you can discuss anything.”
To briefly review how NFP works: husband and wife chart the wife’s signs of fertility and infertility. (Note: the man is fertile every day of his post-pubescent life, assuming there are no health difficulties). The couple then determines the start and end of the fertile time (we call it Phase II). If they are avoiding pregnancy, they abstain during the fertile time. If they are planning a pregnancy, they engage in relations during this time. Although it sounds simplistic, there are various scenarios, conditions and more complicated issues that arise, so formal NFP classes (either live or online) are recommended.
One of the keys to each couple’s success in using NFP is effective communication. NFP works best when the couple together study and observe the woman’s signs of fertility and infertility. Ideally, each month, the NFP couple discusses whether they will be avoiding a pregnancy or achieving a pregnancy. Because NFP can be used both to plan and to avoid pregnancy, it’s a good idea to have this conversation every month, even if the couple has decided that they will be avoiding pregnancy for a year or more. When internal shifts in emotional attitude are brought to the surface, the couple can unite in their efforts to carry out their plans regarding abstinence.
In over 30 years of using NFP, often one of us was more open to pregnancy than the other. Sometimes our monthly conversations were long and complicated; other times, short. The important point is that these types of dialogues are meant to take place well before — and not in the middle of — the marital embrace.
When the NFP couple is discussing intimate topics such as mucus and other fertility signs, it enhances their marital and sexual life, thereby increasing intimacy. This sort of communication should also continue when the couple is postpartum (after having a baby) and in post-menopause (after menopause).
When they are avoiding pregnancy, abstinence can be difficult and challenging. Being able to freely talk to your spouse helps you to understand that you are not alone in the struggles and challenges of NFP. This can help to bring a couple closer together and can promote marital stability. NFP demands the kind of intimate and deep conversations that allow the couple to grow closer.
Natural Family Planning has many benefits. One of its most significant benefits is that it promotes deep, honest and frequent marital communication.
For more information on NFP, check out these websites:
Copyright 2015 Ellen Gable Hrkach
Photo by Tim Baklinski of Two Trees Photography. All rights reserved.
Natural Family Planning is a safe, healthy, effective and moral alternative to artificial contraception. Earlier this week, we held an online NFP class, in the comfort of our living room here in Canada. There were seven couples from all over the USA attending “virtually.”
I love teaching NFP and doing so online gives us an opportunity to reach many couples.
If you would like to learn NFP and you don’t live near accredited teachers, the Couple to Couple League offers virtual NFP classes. You can learn NFP in the privacy of your own home: no need for babysitters and couples can save on the cost of gas.
There are three classes (about two and a half hours each) spaced a month apart.
If you’re interested in taking a virtual NFP class, you can register at the following link: http://register.ccli.org/virtual
For more information, please email me at info (at) fullquiverpublishing.com or leave a comment below.
Today, in anticipation of its June release, I’m posting another excerpt from “Come My Beloved: Inspiring Stories of Catholic Courtship.” Today’s excerpt is from the courtship story of Damon and Melanie Owens and it’s entitled “The Longing to be Loved and Cherished.”
Damon: Our journey back to Christ began with what we now simply call “The Question,” “Melanie, what if we stopped having sex?”
It’s funny how different a question can be asked (or heard) with just a slight change of inflection. I intended to start an interesting conversation. Chastity had not been an issue of debate or even conversation between us, so I offered the question not as a proposal to stop but as a hypothetical-California graduate student-latte sipping-cosmic-what if. Neither of us had any idea what Our Lord had in store for us.
Though being from opposite coasts, we both grew up in similar Catholic families. We attended Mass regularly, went on retreats and participated in youth groups. At thirteen, I had a profound experience of God on an Antioch retreat that played a significant part in helping me remain chaste and drug-free through high school. Melanie’s childhood memories are filled with songs from Catholic family summer camp and piling in the station wagon with seven brothers and sisters.
When we met as new graduate students at the University of California, though, we were both recovering from spiritually dark college years distant from God. During my undergraduate years at Brown, I partied, rarely attended Mass and, drawn by gospel choirs and organs, dabbled in other faiths.
Melanie: I had suffered in relationships during my college days at U.C. Santa Barbara, but continued to attend Mass regularly, though more out of habit than desire.
Damon: So, when we began dating, there was not much virtue, or even desire, left for us to draw on to be chaste.
Melanie “wowed” me the first moment I met her. What a smile! What a sweet soul! We could talk effortlessly for hours—and we did. I wanted to share everything with her. I wanted to know everything about her. I wanted to protect her. I wanted to love her, and I thought I did. Then, I asked . . . The Question.
Melanie, my new beloved, cried. I didn’t know what was going on. Is she hurt? Is she pregnant? Or, is she just emotionally unstable? (I had not known her for that long!)
After ten inconsolable minutes, she simply said, “Yes.”
Yes? Yes, what? Did she think that I was proposing we stop? Well, while my dulled conscience had been thinking our sexual “intimacy” was deepening our love, Melanie had been tortured with the reality that something was very wrong. When she tried to explain, it was as hard for me to hear as it was for her to speak.
Damon Owens and his wife, Melanie, are the co-founders of the New Jersey Natural Family Planning Association (njnfp.org). Their story in its entirety can be found in Come My Beloved: Inspiring Stories of Catholic Courtship which will be released on June 15, 2011.
Photo and text copyright 2011 Damon and Melanie Owens and Full Quiver Publishing
My latest article on Catholic Exchange is entitled “NFP Q & A,” some common questions and answers about Natural Family Planning:
What is Natural Family Planning?
Natural Family Planning is a safe, moral and effective way to avoid and plan pregnancy. With NFP, a couple learns to interpret certain signs in the woman’s body that indicate her fertile and infertile times. If a couple is avoiding pregnancy, they abstain in the fertile time. If they are planning a pregnancy, they engage in relations during the fertile time.
To read the rest, click here:
Copyright 2011 Ellen Gable Hrkach
My new column at Amazing Catechists is entitled “God’s Natural and Beautiful Design.”
“The fact is, as experience shows, that new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse.” Paul VI, Humanae Vitae
God’s natural and beautiful design is that women are only fertile for a short time each month. Taking into account ovum life (48 hours at most) and sperm life (up to five days depending on the type of mucus in the woman’s body), there are approximately seven days in each cycle that a woman is fertile. Other factors include each woman’s particular level of fertility: the type of mucus, their age (the younger they are, the more fertile) and the man’s level of fertility (sperm count and quality of sperm).
As Pope Paul VI writes in his encyclical, Humanae Vitae (On Human Life),”…new life is not the result of each and every act of sexual intercourse.” And contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church does not teach that a couple must actively seek pregnancy each time they engage in marital relations. But she does teach that intercourse must at least implicitly retain its procreative meaning. Contraceptives destroy the conjugal act’s procreative aspect. Therefore, if the couple has serious need, and spacing or avoidance of pregnancy is desired, they may use Natural Family Planning, that is, relations during the infertile time.
Natural Family Planning is safe, healthy and effective and works as good, if not better, than most of the popular birth control devices and without the unhealthy side effects of contraceptives.
Let us pray each time we approach the marital bed: “I promise to be faithful to you. I come here freely, I love you totally and I am open to creating children with you.”
Copyright 2011 Ellen Gable Hrkach