Mountains, Molehills, Contraception, and The Zika Virus

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Image by KOREA.NET – Official page of the Republic of Korea, via Flickr

When I heard the radio headline yesterday afternoon, I groaned. Because I knew I was going to have to blog about the pope’s comments, and as a proponent of natural family planning, it would be hard to convince anyone that I’m approaching the topic objectively.

But there under the awning of the Gerbes fuel station, I took a deep breath, and I said to myself, “Okay. If Pope Francis does move us away from the teachings on contraception, I will be open to the Spirit, and I will be a better person for it.”

Of course, the headline was sensationalized; when I listened to the report, it became clear that a Mount Everest is being made out of, well, a hillock at most. So here are my thoughts, as someone who’s been studying and reflecting upon this extremely complex and far-reaching topic for sixteen years.

1. There’s always been a medical exception to the birth control teaching. So why don’t we hear about it? Well, this is just my opinion, but I think it’s because it can’t be sufficiently addressed in 140 characters, and since that’s about all most of us are willing to listen to these days, it’s better to stick to the “in general” rule of thumb and deal with the exceptions case by case. There are other reasons, of course. The medical exception is really easy to abuse, for one thing. For another, hormonal birth control is used far too often as a bandaid to cover up problems that need to be addressed at the level of cause, not symptom (i.e. irregularity, PMS, abdominal pain, etc). I wrote a lot about that for this post and then realized it was irrelevant, so I may post those thoughts on Monday.

2. If you think logically, you have to realize that the only form of contraception the pope is even addressing in the case of Zika is barrier methods*; hormones are going to do absolutely nothing to prevent disease transmission. And if you think logically, it should also be clear that barriers aren’t a slam dunk fix. They’ll surely make a difference, but there are plenty of people still getting STDs in America, and we have plenty of condoms.

3. A caution about oversimplification. The story I read on CNN yesterday ended with a quote from a Catholic theologian that I am guessing was taken out of context, because as it stands it makes no sense at all (here’s the original article; oddly enough, the link I copied yesterday goes to a very different article this morning, in which Bretzke isn’t quoted at all. Hmm.):

“In Catholic Church teaching, some would say it would be acceptable to try to prevent conception in cases like this,” Bretzke said.

Why does this make no sense? Because the Catholic Church has never said you can’t try to avoid pregnancy. Never. Ever. The assumption in the secular culture, even when lip service is paid to natural family planning (as it is in the CNN article), is that there are only two paths: contraception or perpetual pregnancy. The Church never said you can’t plan your family. It just says it matters to our human dignity how you do it.

4. Finally: NFP proponents also need to take a deep breath and recognize that NFP can’t prevent Zika, either. Just as it couldn’t help the nuns in the case Pope Francis invoked–the exception given to nuns who were being repeatedly raped. So it makes perfect sense to see the Pope offering this very specific exception to the Church’s teaching on birth control. He would be less Christlike if he did not.

*This argument, it was pointed out to me, is just plain wrong; I addressed that in another post here.

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The Babies I’ll Never Have

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K and N

Nicholas, March 2009

It is Saturday afternoon and I am folding baby clothes—new, soft, tiny baby clothes—and layering them lovingly into a gift box for one of our choir members. I had forgotten how much I love baby clothes. I love everything about babies. You know, I don’t even hate the diaper changes. Did I get tired of them? Yes. But that was also play time. Tickle time, raspberry time, rubbing-noses time, sing silly songs time.

Besides, I was a breastfeeding mom. Those diapers are different.

Sitting on my bed, assembling this gift, it’s almost crushing, how much I want a baby.

I have to remind myself that I sometimes can barely breathe. How little people are constantly yelling “Mom I want” and “Mommy help me,” how I fluctuate between a wild frustration that they don’t help more than they do and a desire to do it all myself because it’s easier than teaching (and battling) them to do it. How there aren’t enough hours in the day and how long Julianna’s homework takes, and how this year I hardly even weeded my flower beds because I was so busy.

K & M Black & White

My favorite picture ever taken of me.

I have to remind myself that the price of four C sections is “irritable uterus” and the risk of rupture. I need to remember that my primary responsibility is to the family I already have. My job isn’t to keep having babies, just because I love them. It is to raise holy and happy adults. And sooner or later, you have to leave off the former because the latter takes so much time and energy.

My life has entered a new stage. But it’s a sweet pain, folding these baby clothes. I think this is what people in the natural family planning community mean when they say every month you grieve the child you could have had, even though you know it’s not the right time.

I feel it every month now, although some are worse than others. And I wonder if it will eventually fade, or if this is part of who I am now.

Sex Always Has Consequences

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Photo by Selbe <3, via Flickr

When I heard the story on the news this morning, I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or do a face palm. There’s a new study out saying that women taking the newer-generation mini birth control pills have 3x higher risk of blood clots compared to women who don’t take oral contraceptives. But, they hasten to add, that doesn’t mean you should stop taking them.

I’ve come to a realization lately that I think all women, and frankly all men too, need to come to terms with. For me, it was a long time in coming, considering how obvious it is.

There is no such thing as sex without consequences.

Proponents of natural family planning and proponents of artificial means of birth control both seem unable to grasp this simple truth. The NFP community likes to harp on the side effects of birth control and its potential to damage human relationships. Those who use birth control deride NFP as ineffective and contrary to human nature because it requires people to fight their instincts to come together at women’s most fertile time.

We would all like to think there’s some magic bullet that takes away the sacrifice and, dare I say it, suffering that is part and parcel of reproductive life. We want to be able to enjoy the coming together without the side effects/consequences. There are basically three courses you can take: you can impose artificial controls on nature (contraception); you can work with nature (NFP); or you can do whatever you want and let the chips fall where they may.

Photo by einalem, via Flickr

But every one of those paths has consequences.

If you use natural family planning, you have to deal with occasional (and for some people, frequent) ambiguity in the signs and the need to abstain when the woman is most interested in sex. There’s no question that requires sacrifice and, sometimes, suffering.

If you use chemical contraception, though–assuming it does what it’s supposed to do, and fools your body into thinking it’s pregnant already–you’re giving up that increased sex drive altogether. Which is why I find it puzzling when proponents of birth control criticize NFP for the abstaining when the sex drive is highest. I mean, it’s not like contraception solves that issue. And besides, there’s that whole thing about side effects, and environmental impact, and blood clots. Again: sacrifice, and sometimes, suffering.

Your third option is to let the chips fall where they may. You get the best of both worlds: sex whenever you feel like it, without side effects, without increased risk of blood clots. But there’s a natural consequence to that, too, and it involves bigger cars and bigger houses and a humongous grocery bill, to say nothing of college costs. And a lot of time pregnant and breastfeeding and exhausted. So again: sacrifice, and sometimes, suffering.

The reality is that sex does have consequences, no matter what you do. You can gnash your teeth all you like, but that’s the reality. Our job is to make the most responsible choice we can, based on as much information as we can. And the longer I’m involved with natural family planning, the more thoroughly convinced I become that NFP, while not without consequences, is the best option. It’s not the easiest, but it is the best–for women, for couples, for the world.

What It’s Like To Practice Natural Family Planning

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K and CAfter yesterday’s post about why I don’t like birth control, I think it only makes sense to talk about the alternative. Natural family planning is widely reviled as a game of reproductive roulette, an unreasonable burden on couples, or an unnecessary restriction on sexual expression. Those of us who use NFP try to dispel those myths, but we don’t really talk about what it’s like to live this life.

In no particular order, here are some of my thoughts about the fifteen years I’ve spent charting my fertility and using that information to plan our family.

1. I know myself. I know my body, what it does, what it’s doing at any given time in the cycle. I’m aware of sensations I once was not, and the cyclic changes are a continual source of awe and wonder. I’m coming up on forty this year, and I’m starting to see changes in the way my reproductive system responds as it approaches the waning years. I’m a whole lot more comfortable in my skin these days. NFP isn’t the whole reason for that, but it’s a big factor.

2. I’m a far healthier person because of my practice of NFP. I had erratic charts early-on, and that encouraged me to address dietary and lifestyle changes. Because I have to take my temperature every morning, I’m conscious of getting to bed and planning my life around good habits. I also learned that I drop two pounds when I go into Phase III (post-ovulation infertility). Huge implications for helping me manage my weight.

3. I’m aware of the hormonal shifts and how they impact me as a woman. There are two parts of the cycle when I am susceptible to being cranky, and knowing that makes me aware, as well, of the need to guard my reactions. This is particularly meaningful to me because I remember how out of control of my bitchiness I was when I was on progestin during the early part of the infertility battle.

4. I have a lot more self-discipline because we use NFP. I’m talking about the mental discipline to make sure I do the observations consistently and don’t get lazy. Because “lazy” leads to unnecessary abstinence.

5. We are intentional about intimacy. Our window of abstinence is usually 12 or 13 days, but on either side of that window we prioritize intimacy. I would really love for someone to undertake a survey to see how often people using different forms of family planning have sex. I would guess–but it’s only a guess–that we make at least as much room for it in our lives as couples using birth control. It’s just spaced out differently. Or maybe, just maybe, because it has to be intentional, we actually make better use of time?

This post is not even remotely scientific, but it is illuminating. Let’s just say if this is the benchmark, we’re doing better than most.

6. Being intentional has another up side. Spontaneity sounds great, but busy-ness and spontaneity don’t really mix–and who’s not busy these days? Especially when you’ve got kids. Intentionality helps me to get myself in the right frame of mind.

7. There are all kinds of implications of being intentional. We have to work together to get the kids in bed on time, we have to talk through the weekly schedules so we don’t park our butts in front of the TV, we have to make sure we are interacting appropriately during the evening (because who wants to be intimate after you’ve been snipped at and criticized all night?). We have microcosmic conversations and macrocosmic conversations. What all this intentionality boils down to is: We really pay attention to each other, because our family planning choice requires it. Of course all married couples pay attention to each other, but NFP strongly encourages the conversation.

These are off-the-cuff thoughts, but enough for now. Others who use NFP: you want to share what your lives look like?

What’s YOUR Problem?

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https://www.flickr.com/photos/duncan/8775923664/in/photolist-enuUmG-4mRE73-brxUed-8MbG79-dsF4yY-fMgE84-fcA4se-cNxbA7-fLAVLS-aZvrvM-4tgEgx-eRZwT2-bFkVcX-7duzmd-5ZJA5v-7jsSv9-bLx3Ap-jDY8pY-9X2afa-bmSQep-51es48-eM8PfC-4NUXrE-DRad6-fMyejL-gYCs4b--cfPqpq-fMyeUb-fMyeH3-fMgHTr-fMgHvP-fMyf1A-7aYhyD-q4NeA-6m3To-dSg79g-gQ9m3Y-eaZ4Fi-g8cQEM-fMyicW-7ThB2e-7PWTVz-fMgJde-fMgJ8R-fMyi3s-fMygQY-fMgGwv-fMyfG9-fMyeXE

Photo by Duncan C, via Flickr

Life is unpredictable, but over the past several years I’ve learned there’s one thing I can count on with absolute certainty: somewhere between one week and two days before university graduation, I will lose my voice. It happens virtually every semester, just before I join the platform party at honors convocation as the official singer of the alma mater.

This year was no exception. For three days I took cough syrup, slathered myself with Vicks, and drank tea in an attempt to get the slow-moving virus to clear my body before graduation. It happened just in time. Praise the Lord, I had a voice on Saturday morning.

But the thing that stands out to me about this weekend is that the commencement speeches were the best I’ve ever heard. Jim McKelvey, who co-founded Square, had everyone laughing at intervals, but the message was serious. He wanted to point out to the graduates that no longer can they count on praise or immediate feedback like grades to keep them motivated. From here on out, they have to motivate themselves.

It could have been a real downer of a message, except for the humor and the takeaway: Find a problem. Find a problem that bugs you down so deep, you’re on fire about it. A problem so troublesome, it gets you out of bed in the morning. Find that problem, he said, and then go fix it. And if you succeed, find another one to solve.

After McKelvey came Jim Held, the owner of Stone Hill Winery in Herman, Missouri, who was being awarded an honorary doctorate. He came to the microphone and said, “I could talk about the wine industry in Missouri, but I won’t. Instead, I’m going to tell you about the last 2 1/2 years of my life.” It was a simple but powerful story of a stroke he was told he wouldn’t recover from–and did. He changed his bad habits, and he changed his future. The takeaway: the choices you make have consequences. So make good ones.

I come out of this weekend feeling pretty blessed, for many reasons I can’t go into in public. But this blessing I can share: I feel tremendously blessed to be staring down age 40 with a clear sense of what my life-motivating problems are–the ones that motivate me to get out of bed in the morning. There are two. One of them I outlined on Friday. The other is the need for a healthier view of sexuality, one that recognizes and embraces the message Jim Held underscored: personal responsibility and self control, the fact that choices and consequences go together and you must take the responsibility to exercise self-control to achieve the outcome you value.

I feel even more blessed that these two passions of mine dovetail so seamlessly: that living out a sexuality that respects the way we are put together (as opposed to slapping a pharmaceutical on something that isn’t broken in a misguided attempt to “free” sexual expression from its natural consequences) also respects the earth.

My question for you today is this: what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning? What global problem do you want to solve? You don’t have to answer that publicly, but think about it. And if you’re willing to share, so much the better.

Big Boys, crazy hair, and sex ed (a 7QT post)

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We had a friend over for dinner last weekend, and as we were asking her about her studies and her plans for the future, Alex sat across from her shaking his head. “This is why I don’t want to grow up,” he said. “There’s too much work.”

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This reminds me of what I always say about my two younger boys. Nicholas is desperate to be a big boy. Michael thinks he IS one.

Michael 2

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Michael’s been in speech therapy since the beginning of March, and I don’t know that I’ve talked about it much. We’ve taken the last two weeks off because his therapist was out of town, and Michael took so long to warm up to her–he’s been going through a raging case of secondary separation anxiety–that I didn’t want to set him back by having a sub. She says he works very hard, but it’s really difficult for him to make the various vowel sounds. He does have one very consistent word now–“Ma-ma!”–and a few inconsistent ones–baw (ball), tsoo (juice), meh (milk) and “wa-wa” (water). He also calls every color purple: “poh-poh.” He can point to the right ones, he just calls them all purple. And although he can’t talk, he makes an engine noise, something between “zoom” and “shooo” and “brrrrrr,” to illustrate all his various engine-powered toys.

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See, this is why I don’t talk about Michael’s speech therapy. Because lists of words are BOR.ING.

So let’s try something different.

Hair closeup

What in the world is THIS?

Hair closeup 2Oh, it’s just my 9-year-old’s head after he visited the hairspray booth at Julianna’s school festival.

Why yes, in fact his head does still look like he’s on the set of a bad horror flick every time he takes a shower. Thanks for asking.

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We have a nest full of baby birds in the bathroom vent for the basement bathroom. They are really noisy. About every three minutes they send up a chorus of chattering that lasts ten seconds, and then stops again. All I can think is that every time something moves outside their vent, they think it’s Mama Bird bringing them juicy worms or whatever they eat. Man, and I thought my bunch never shut up.

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Yesterday Michael decided he needed a snack an hour before dinner. He got in the refrigerator, perused the offerings, and brought me….wait for it…

A chocolate syrup bottle and a caramel syrup bottle.

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One of the unanticipated benefits of teaching natural family planning classes in our home is the way the information permeates the kids’ environment. I did a series of interviews a couple of years ago with families who were second-generation NFP users. I wanted to know what made the message “take.” I asked them how they went about The Talk, and do you know what they said? “We never did The Talk. It was just in the air.”

The more I think about it the more convinced I am of the wisdom of this. The Talk is a big, threatening thing, and it compartmentalizes a topic that should not be compartmentalized. If we are going to live our lives through the lens of our sexuality, then we can’t treat it like it’s a one-and-done lesson. It has to be part of everything we do.

I spy NFP charts on the TV screen on a Sunday afternoon...

I spy NFP charts on the TV screen on a Sunday afternoon…

Clearly we’re on that path. Crossing my fingers that it works as well for us as it did for the people I interviewed.

Fastest-written 7 quick takes ever! Go me!

7 quick takes sm1 7 Quick Takes about hanging out with The Glitch Mob, a new meaning for #SOTG, and that terrible moment when you get cilantro bath soap and nobody cares

Motherhood, Mostly (a 7QT post)

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ThisLittleLight_Beatitudes_CoverI’ve been so busy lately, I just now realized I never shared this! We are running a giveaway of This Little Light of Mine on Goodreads. Six copies available, to be “drawn” by Goodreads on May 1st. Click on over and sign up!

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I think every woman–probably everyone–is well aware that the reproductive cycle affects a woman’s Crank-O-Meter. But I always thought it was Phase III, post-ovulation infertility, i.e. PMS, that was the cranky time. But in a recent  column in CCL’s Family Foundations, Dr. Gregory Popcak mentioned that it’s often the transition from Phase I to Phase II–i.e., the time when you’re entering fertility–that you get the most moody. It was like a light went on in my head, because my fuse is wwwwaaaayyy shorter with my kids during that time. (Three guesses why I’m reflecting on THAT this week.)

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Yes, TMI, I know. But you know how the Europeans are always telling us we’re Puritans at heart? It’s like we want sex and sexuality splashed front and center all over everything–as long as we keep it fun and un-threatening (read that shallow, pointless, and without significance beyond the bedroom). Ladies, if our bodies are causing us to have difficulty with patience at a certain point in the cycle, I think it’s important to acknowledge that and offer each other encouragement in overcoming it.

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Michael is why her glasses are falling off her face in this picture. He had them stretched out.

Michael is why her glasses are falling off her face in this picture. He had them stretched out.

To return to the topic of #2. Julianna’s glasses, in combination with Julianna’s cognitive weakness, are making me IN.SANE this week. The worst part is I can’t yell at anyone about it, because the at-fault person isn’t old enough to “get it.” Yes, you guessed it: Michael. Michael likes to go up to Julianna and rip her glasses off her face, then twist, squeeze, throw and/or hide them. It happens every single day, usually several times a day. But he’s like a dog; if you expect him to connect words and/or consequence with his action, it has to happen right then, and I don’t discover it until some time later, when I look up from dinner prep or dishes-doing or whatever and see her sans glasses again. And of course, she has no earthly idea where they are.

Thursday morning I’d had enough. I called her over. “Julianna, when Michael takes your glasses, what do you say?”

“Thank you.”

“No. You say Mommy help. Say ‘Mommy help.'”

“Bah-ee heh.”

You can see all his Mayhem in this picture...

All his potential for Mayhem shines through in this picture…

“When Michael takes your glasses, what do you say?”

“Thank you.”

“No. You say Mommy help. Say….Mommy help.” She said it with me.

“When Michael takes your glasses, what do you say?”

“Thank you.”

We tried this ten times in a row. I kid you not. TEN. Can I say that loud enough? TEN!!!! And STILL she didn’t get it!

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This encounter, which I tried with variations (what do you DO when Michael takes your glasses?) all the way to school, with very little success, got me to thinking about that “okay?” thing. Modern parents are always getting lambasted for finishing instructions with “okay,” because they’re asking permission of their children instead of taking charge. I try to avoid that word, but not because it’s a sign of asking my kids’ permission. No parent says “Okay?” because they’re asking their kid’s permission. What “okay?” is doing is requesting acknowledgment. It’s akin to “Do you understand?” or “Do you hear me?” All morning I wanted to tack on the word “okay?” to those exchanges with Julianna, because I wanted her to acknowledge that she understood. And I didn’t do it, because you know what? SHE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND.

(Update: At dinner that night, when I asked her what to do when Michael took her glasses, she got it right! Of course, she still didn’t apply the knowledge the next three times Michael yanked her glasses off her face, but…that’s progress, right?)

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Alex 1st Communion 041Oh yes, in case you don’t follow all the time, our household had its first First Communion last Sunday. And this reminds me of a cute thing I never shared. They have an evening of “centers” to review all the theological and Scriptural concepts several weeks before Easter, but the highlight for the kids is getting to try an unconsecrated host and wine. Alex’s reaction to the host was a tip of the head one direction and the other, raised eyebrows, and this comment: “It kind of tastes like popcorn, only flat and with no flavor.” HA!

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Alex 1st Communion 056And you know you need a Nicholas moment, right? The other day he was trying to tell a little friend (not this one) when Julianna’s birthday was. “It’s Februay–Faybeeway–Febyewrehr–Febeeyayee–what is it again, Mommy?”

7 quick takes sm1 7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 214)