Sunday, January 27, 2008

Contraception and Intimacy

For the first post and excellent conversation on this topic click here. Thanks to all who contributed their voices. I hope to hear more from you as I continue to wrestle with this issue. Again, this is a pretty frank post, and this one may even be more information that some of you want to know about my married life. Feel free to skip it and wait for the next post on another topic.

I should start this post by clarifying a few things. I am sorry if I implied that the Catholic teaching is to have as many babies as one can. In my understanding, and as my Catholic readers confirmed, the whole idea is to make sure that the link between sex and procreation is preserved, to realize that being open to sex means being open to creating new life. In light of that, one is to use NFP responsibly, to abstain during fertile times when opposed to creating new life.

I am incredibly thankful for the consistency of the Catholic Church on this teaching and the ways in which in counters many of the problems in our society in which sex is treated so casually. And as I said in my first post, I agree with much of it on a philosophical level. Now it's time to get down to the practical level.

Rachel made an excellent observation regarding the difference between the Catholic view of sex and the Protestant view. (And Literacy-Chic was right that it is sort of silly to talk about a "Protestant view" of anything considering the divisions in Protestantism.) I do think there is a fundamental difference here, though I can only speak from my very Protestant perspective. In the Protestant church, many of the books, seminars, and teachings on sex deal with three issues, which Rachel labeled well as procreation, protection, and pleasure. I think that the idea of protection of the marriage relationship takes precedence in my tradition, and as my husband and I have wrestled with the issue of contraception, this is where the battle has been fought.

After Calvin was born, we knew we wanted to have another child pretty quickly, so we were basically "open to life," though we did abstain at first whenever I was pretty sure I was fertile. When Hobbes was born nineteen months later, however, both of us were ready to wait awhile for number three. As I have struggled with depression and the transition to motherhood, waiting seemed like the best choice. With my level of fertility and the wacky signs my body was giving me, that meant abstaining nearly consistently for several months, until Hobbes was nearly a year old.

Almost seven months with very little sexual intimacy took a huge toll on our marriage. We had had a very healthy marriage built on a solid friendship up until this point. But things changed. My husband was grumpy, I felt guilty about not being able to meet his needs, we both had to deal with the reality of a sex-saturated culture, and we felt pretty sure that we were not called to celibacy for a reason. Though we had come into childbearing pretty sure of our commitment not to use contraception, our marriage was suffering. In the midst of taking caring of two small ones while my husband worked full time and went to grad school full time, we made the decision to begin using non-hormonal contraception as an attempt to regain some intimacy.

From friends that I have talked to, and from the comments on my last post, I think our struggles were not unusual. We live in a culture where temptation to sexual infidelity is around every corner. Men find it much more difficult than they used to to remain faithful to their wives, even just in their thought lives. I think this is where the Protestant take on sexual intimacy as a form of protection for marriage comes in. Most Protestants would say they are "open to life" in the sense that they understand that God created sex for procreation and that they see the bearing of children as one of the reasons for marriage. We Protestants also like our Pauline theology, and his teachings on sex and marriage imply that marriage is a means of avoiding sexual temptation. But what if one is not able to fulfill sexual needs in a marriage because of fear of having children too close together? Or of having more children than one can afford in a day when children are not a financial asset but add financial strain? Or of endangering the health of the mother? Then it seems that some form of contraception could be good.

If the Protestant view of sex promotes intimacy as a way of countering the sexual temptations prevalent in our society, the Catholic view rightly promotes the importance of seeing sex as a sacred and mysterious act which does produce life. And I don't mean to imply that these teaching are exclusive to Christian thought or that Protestants do not value life or Catholics do not value intimacy. I do think that these views of sex are very important checks to a culture that has decided that sex is a casual, unimportant act that can be entered into without thought of consequences.

And so it comes down to the practical level. We live in a sex-saturated culture which makes it very difficult for married men and women to remain faithful to their spouses and for unmarried men and women who wish to remain celibate to do so. We also live in an age where having more children brings more financial and emotional stress to a marriage and where women do not have the support in raising their children that they once did. Though the Catholic teaching does not mean that one must have as many children as possible, following it as a very fertile couple does mean that we would likely have one or more children that we hadn't expected and that we may not be ready for. While I think that all children are a gift, I also realize that raising them well requires a strong marriage with a healthy level of intimacy.

I find myself in the middle again, hoping to hear from you. I realize that I am thinking and writing from a specifically Protestant Christian, pro-life culture, and that I haven't even explored a non-Christian view of sex. Nor have I explored this issue of sex for pleasure, though I am assuming that sex is always for that! What do you think about these three reasons for sex: procreation, protection of the marriage, and pleasure? In your culture, which reason do you think has been elevated and is that a good or bad thing? How has that played out on a practical level in your life? Do you have a completely different view of the subject?

I enjoyed our first discussion and look forward to more honest, humble, and insightful comments this time around, understanding that we all come from very different perspectives and experiences when it comes to this topic. Thanks for listening.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Calvinisms (an ongoing series)

I am really enjoying the conversation on contraception, and I am hoping to write another post this weekend asking some new questions about the issue. In the meantime, here is some lightheartedness from our little source of laughter.

On Learning the Art of Sympathy

Before dinner tonight, I was lamenting the fact that I never can cook a pot roast well. The dry roast and the mushy potatoes had pushed me over the edge on an already difficult day, and I was breaking down.

"I can't even cook!" I moaned.

To which Calvin replied, trying in earnest to be sympathetic, "I am so sad that I have a mommy who can't even cook."

On Higher Education

Calvin recently heard us talking about a PhD to someone, and he asked me what the term meant. He has since been going around saying that he wants to get a PhD one day. Tonight, my sister-in-law was babysitting the boys, and he asked her how he would go about getting a PhD. She explained that you have to go to school for a long time.

He responded, "I already go to Chinese school. Could I get a Chinese PhD? Ooooh! I really want to get a Chinese PhD!" (My sister-in-law noted that it is a shame I can't show you the expressiveness of Calvin's speech in writing. He really is quite overdramatic.)

On the Joys of New Discovery

Lest you think his genius is too good to be true, he had this conversation with his aunt during bath time tonight.

"Oh, Auntie __, have you ever seen someone pass gas in the bathtub and it make bubbles? Did you know that it makes bubbles?"

To which the Aunt responded that she did, in fact, know that it made bubbles.

"Auntie __, have you ever passed gas in the bathtub and made bubbles?"

To which she responded the only way she could, in complete laughter.

The things I have to look forward to, Chinese PhD's and farting contests.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Contraception Conversation Continued

Thanks to all for your great insights and comments on this topic. I realize that most of my readers and commenters are pro-life, as am I, though I hate that term because it implies that the pro-choice camp folks don't value life. To my pro-choice readers, I realize that I am only covering this very vast and complicated topic from my perspective, and I welcome your comments and what you have to say on this very important topic for all women. One of the things I love about the blogosphere is how we are learning to listen to one another respectfully and humbly, as this excellent post by Catherine suggests we should.

Julie has asked that I add this to this week's Hump Day Hmm, so if you missed the post and conversation, click here. While I don't necessarily this think is our culture's most important issue, I do think it is one of many important issues that require more discussion of the humble, non hostile type. Oh, and go read Catherine's post. (Did I mention that already?)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

You Can't Control Birth

This post is a pretty frank discussion of contraception and childbearing, so my male readers (other than my husband, anyway) should be forewarned. You are welcome to read and to comment, but I won't be offended if you choose to skip this one.

I have wanted to write a post on contraception for a long time, but I have hesitated for many reasons. This is a controversial topic for so many people, especially for Christian women. I really want to explore the issue, but I do not want to start a battle. If you are reading this, I would love to hear your comments, but I ask that you frame them in a humble manner, realizing that we live in a complicated era where the issues may not be as black and white as they seem. I would also love to hear from folks who don't regularly read my blog, so please pass this one on. That said, here we go.

I was entering the third trimester of my pregnancy with Calvin, and I was totally unprepared for the question my midwife asked me. "So, do you plan to use any form of contraception after the baby is born?" What? I'm supposed to even think about sex when I am sleep-deprived and busy with a newborn? Doesn't breastfeeding take care of that for a while? How am I supposed to know?

I had been on the pill for the first year of our marriage, but I hated the side-effects. I was more than happy to get off and try FAM for a while before getting pregnant. Besides that, the hubby had been working at a Christian publication that was very anti-contraception. We had come to agree with many of their arguments and were pretty sure we would keep with natural contraception. I told my midwife that, and she was, of course, just fine with it, saying I wouldn't even have to worry about it until the baby started sleeping longer at night.

It all seemed so simple, just breastfeed to keep the hormone levels down and don't worry about it. Your body will give you signs when you are starting to ovulate. That would have been great if my body didn't spend most of its time from month three on acting like it was going to ovulate. We got pregnant on the first try, so I knew we were pretty fertile. I was terrified of having babies that close together, I was not willing to use hormonal contraception for health and moral reasons, and we hated all of the other options. Great. We can choose celibacy for a while.

Since we had our first two 19 months apart, it wasn't a huge problem. But the second time around, I was sure I wanted to wait a long time for a third baby. That temporary celibacy turned into months, and it really was hurting our marriage. I was terrified of getting pregnant, my husband was missing his wife, and I felt trapped by the voices around me saying that contraception was wrong. We had to make a choice. I was sure that an hormonal IUD that prevents implantation was out of the question, and I hated the way I felt on the pill. Of all the non-hormonal options, we chose a copper IUD that has the same statistics as the pill for preventing fertilization of the egg. We both felt comfortable with the ethics of this choice, and our marriage is much better than it was a year ago.

So what is the problem, you may wonder? I don't think my decision was that simple or without consequences. I think we live in a complicated time for women. I am glad we have so many opportunities, but I sometimes think maybe it was just easier when there was no option for contraception. Many of you who are Catholic will tell me that there isn't a problem. Many of you who are completely fine with hormonal contraception will tell me there isn't a problem. But I find myself stuck in the middle.

I love my children, and I do want more. My husband and I can also conceive by just looking at each other. Well, almost. If I were to take the babies as they came and foster a good marriage relationship, we would probably already have four children in less than six years of marriage. And I would be in therapy and on drugs for depression, I am pretty sure. I have struggled with depression all of my life. Motherhood has been a difficult transition for me, and there are days when the sickness comes knocking at my door, begging to take over. I have prayed and talked to people I trust about this, and I believe my husband and I are making the right decision for us.

But then there are the outside voices, almost all from the Christian world, who say to be open to the life God wants to give. If I just surrender myself to this motherhood thing, God will give me grace and help me to become a content women in that role. I know that these voices don't mean to be condemning, and that many women are called to motherhood in a profound way and gifted to raise a gaggle of children. Some are not gifted and still find great grace to follow that teaching. Some cannot conceive and wish they had my problem.

I have great respect for Catholic mothers, and I have spent much time beating myself up over not being able to be like them. Sometimes I come to the point of surrendering, of saying that those voices are right and that I just need to accept the life that God has laid out for me. Then I pray some more and seek some more, and I know God is leading me down a different path. I have always had a strong sense of God's leading, and I have always known deep down when I am deceiving myself about what He says. This is not one of those times. I agonized over the ethics of contraception for too long. I finally quit, and I am beginning to find peace.

Then there are the voices on the other side that tell me about overpopulation and the need to adopt and about not making a big environmental impact by adding another person to the world. I hear those voices, too, and I think some of their arguments are good, too, especially when I am in China. We do plan to adopt once we move to China, but I don't think overpopulation is a reason not to have children.

So here I am. Stuck in the middle. Good arguments on either side of this contraception debate. Wondering what I will do when the time comes to make this decision again. Wondering what really is right. If God really wanted everyone to have as many kids as they could, I just don't think those who can't conceive would balance out those who can. I think we might really have an overpopulation problem. Before modern medicine, when women breastfed longer, more children died in childbirth or infancy, and the world was less populated, natural cycles worked. In today's world, contraception seems to be the answer, but I also don't think it is right to prevent a conceived child from thriving in its mother's womb. So what is the answer?

One thing I know for sure, once that healthy baby is conceived, there is no stopping the process. As my midwife also said, "I always call it contraception, because you can't control birth."

I would love to hear from you. Please be gentle, as this issue is so difficult for so many and we all have experiences that shape our views of conception, contraception, and childbearing. I am not looking for a consensus, but I am genuinely interested in hearing from other's experiences. If you are inspired to write your own post, I would love it if you would link to mine and leave me a link to yours in the comments.

I had no idea when I wrote this that we were coming on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and on Blog for Choice day. Seems I will be thinking about this some more.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A National Tragedy

I'm not going to leave you alone about this, so just go ahead and watch the video. Then go here and here and do something about it. How can no one know this is happening?

Friday, January 11, 2008


Sometimes Calvin is even funnier than his namesake.

Last night, his nasty post-cold cough woke him. As we sat in the bathroom helping him clear his chest, he cried. "Oh, I'm having a yucky day today! I do not want my day to be yucky!"

Yesterday at lunch, he asked his aunt why she put lemon in her water. She told him it gives the water a slight taste of lemon, and she let him try it. His comment: "Mmm. That tastes slighty."

A few nights ago, as he was listening to his nighttime lullaby CD and we were watching a movie, we heard this from his room: "But I don't even know what twilight is!"

And the best for last. Last Thursday, my brother-in-law watched the boys while we had a meeting for church. When we came home, he said that Calvin had gotten out of bed to go to the potty. He demanded his privacy, but after about ten minutes had passed, my BIL went in to check on the boy. He was sitting in the sink completely naked. He looked up at his uncle and said, completely innocently, "Why am I sitting in the sink without any clothes on?" Good question, kid. Good question.

The Father's Love

My sister-in-law and I just finished watching Most, a Czech short film based on an oft-used gospel illustration. Most means "the bridge" in Czech, and the story is that of a railroad bridge operator whose son is on the bridge at the moment that he needs to lower it for a runaway train. Many evangelical Christians heard this analogy multiple times growing up. (Well, I never did, but my husband and sis-in-law said they did.) It's the story of the father who must choose to sacrifice his son in order to save the people on a train, all of whom zoom by without even realizing the sacrifice that was made to save them.

This portrayal of the gospel doesn't quite seem to get it right, but I will discuss that later. Despite my issues with the allegory, the film was a powerful one. It was well filmed and acted, and the father's pain in contrast with the ignorance and self-absorption of the train passengers is stirring. The director also added one passenger on the train who is transformed by the sacrifice. She is a female heroin addict who encounters the boy and his father at the train station, sees the father crying beside the speeding train, and encounters him again a few years later. It implies that the knowledge of his sacrifice led her to turn her life around, as she appears at the end of the film looking healthy and happy, with her toddler son in her arms. I would say this is a film worth watching, even if you aren't a Christian, as it raises some interesting questions about parental love and sacrifice and the value of human lives.

That said, I am not sure it is an excellent gospel illustration. Yes, the Father did sacrifice his Son for humanity. Yes, many of us who even claim to believe live most of our lives as if we are ignorant of it, as if we owe Him nothing. But the analogy breaks down there. The Son was not a sweet little boy. He was a man. He was God. He chose to live the life he lived knowing that it was leading to his death. And the Father did not sacrifice the Son for a train full of strangers. He sacrificed the Son for creation, his created ones, people whom he knows intimately and loves, even if they don't return the sentiment. Most importantly, the Son did not stay dead. Without resurrection, the sacrifice would ultimately mean nothing.

I am still glad I watched this film. Thanks to this post, I have been thinking a lot about parental love today. As soon as I realized what was going to happen in this movie, I didn't want to watch it. I don't want to watch an adorable boy, who charms everyone around him, a boy like my boys, have to die in order to save characters I care nothing about. But I did.

Now I can't stop thinking. I don't want to imagine what it would be like to be that father. In fact, as I watched the film, I was certain I would have let the passengers on the train die to save my son. It is making me think about what it means that God watched his Son die for humanity. I know that God sees us as more than strangers on a train, but I still think this story helped me get to a depth of emotion that I rarely allow myself to feel.

I am bad a suffering and pain. I run from it. I know this is a deficiency in my own soul, an area that I need to work on in order to really understand God's redemptive work. If I cannot walk into the pain of the cross, then I cannot fully experience the joy of the resurrection. My own father's death gave me a small taste of this, but I still fear to get more. I am afraid of losing my husband or one of my boys, of facing my own death and leaving them, of all of the unknowns out there. I have so many friends who have faced difficult things with courage and faith, and I am afraid I could not do the same. I am a coward, I suppose, and my ability to love is hindered by my great fear of losing those things I love.

And so I must choose to go there. To put myself on the bridge. To be willing to think about what it would mean to have to sacrifice one of my boys. I probably won't ever have to, at least not in such a dramatic fashion and not to the point of death. I suppose there are no guarantees. But if I cannot go there, I cannot begin to understand the depths of the Father's love for humanity. If I do go there, I must trust that the story doesn't end at the sacrifice. Because there is resurrection. Even if I do lose one of my precious ones, I will not lose him forever.

And so my love can never be as great as the Father's. Even as I allow myself to contemplate the deep pain of sacrifice, He meets me there with a promise. I do not have to make the ultimate sacrifice. He has made it for me. And he stands on the other side, bringing new life to those who will have it.

Monday, January 7, 2008

A Three-Year-Old Teenager

Today was a bad day. Just a bad day. It will only get worse if LSU loses the BCS Championship tonight. I fear I am becoming the mom I never wanted to be. My kids were definitely not the children I wanted them to be. There was so much yelling and grabbing and biting and fussing. But with my boys around there is always a funny story to tell. Calvin especially has a flair for the dramatic.

At one point today, Calvin was in time out for biting his brother. I was sitting in the same room, holding an injured Hobbes, whose sobbing was a bit overkill for the actual pain inflicted. Not to be outdone by his younger brother, my little thespian began screaming from his time out spot, "You are ruining my life! Mommy, you are ruining my life!" I thought I had at least ten more years until I started hearing words like that. I don't even know where he heard them. Cars? Really, there are a lot of things that he hears from us and repeats that I wish he didn't, but I don't recall either of us ever saying that.

Regardless of where he heard it, I am sure that a two-minute time out did not ruin his life. Now, a football game? That might do it.

LSU just took the lead. Maybe neither of our lives are ruined.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

An Ordinary, Simple Life-An Epiphany Reflection

They were two insignificant people from a backwoods, no-count town. If the play were being cast, their roles would not be the ones any big name actor would choose. The king of the nation, the religious leaders who held influence over the people, even the emperor's governor who lived in the capital, any of these would be better than a carpenter or a young woman of unimportant birth.

And theirs were not roles they would have chosen either. He was a man preparing to marry, building a house and accumulating possessions in order to take a young wife and make his place in society. She was a young girl, looking forward to the time she would become a wife, the maker of a home, a woman with a role in her community. They were ordinary, simple people preparing for an ordinary, simple life. Neither one of them asked to see angels, to hear an upsetting message from God, to be caught up in a story larger than their own.

Maybe she was working on some embroidery for her new house or sewing part of the dress for her marriage ceremony. Maybe she was daydreaming about finally getting out of her parents' house or of becoming a wife and a mother. Perhaps she was praying in preparation for that day. Then a stranger appeared and told her that all of these dreams were ruined. She was already a mother, a pregnancy forced upon her, her reputation ruined, her betrothed ashamed to take her as his wife.

Maybe he was dreaming of the home he would build and the bed he would lovingly craft for his new wife. Maybe he was dreaming about his new status at the city gate, his place secured by his role as "man of the house." Maybe he had drifted off in prayer for his future bride or his future firstborn, a son of course. Then he had a dream not of his own making. His betrothed would have a son as her firstborn, but it would not be his. In fact, she was already pregnant. He had a choice. Any smart man would leave her, denounce her for her unfaithfulness, and start again with a new woman, a more virtuous one.

That could have been the story. An unwed woman and illegitimate child made outcast, no man to protect them. A man shamed by his unfaithful betrothed, having to seek a new wife. But it was not. She accepted the message of the angel willingly and with a glad heart, though she must have known the rumors that would surround her and her child for the rest of her life. And even more amazingly, he chose to accept her anyway, to take on her shame. He practically confessed that this child was his and that, even if it was not, he was crazy enough to take this woman as his wife anyway.

No one would want to associate with them. What could they do? No one would believe God had spoken to them; they were too insignificant. God spoke to religious leaders or crazy prophets, not to carpenters and young women. Maybe a few close friends believed them. At least one relative did. But they would spend their lives surrounded by rumors, ostracized because of their questionable past. Their son would endure sneers. "Is that the carpenter's son?"

And yet they chose it. This man and this young woman, two insignificant people from a backwoods, no-count town. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" Theirs were not the roles the big-name actors would choose. They were not kings or queens, religious authorities, or ruling governors. They were a carpenter and a girl, on the verge of an ordinary, simple life, yet there they sat, with kings bowing before them and the King on their knees.

For the full story, read here and here, and for another reflection on this story, read here.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Geometry Lesson

As I was on the phone tonight, Calvin was running in circles around our "coffee table" (old trunk). I asked him to please stop running in circles. His response?

"It's not a circle; it's a rectangle."

I've Been Replaced

Today was Calvin's first day at Chinese preschool. No, we are not Chinese, but we are planning to move to China in a couple of years. Even though I am planning to mostly homeschool while we are there (by necessity), we couldn't pass up the chance for him to spend some time in a Chinese language environment. The school is the only one of its kind in our state, and it is five minutes from our house!

So, we visited back in December and have been talking it up all month. Calvin was really excited about it every time we mentioned it. Then he woke up this morning, crawled in our bed, and said, "I don't feel well. I don't think I can go to school today." (Um, shouldn't I have another few years before I start hearing that excuse?) He threw a fit getting ready to go. I was a typical mom on her child's first day of school, worried that Calvin wouldn't want me to leave or that he would cry all morning. But they had toy race cars! He didn't even notice I left, and when he got home, he immediately asked when he could go back. Who needs mom when you have race cars?

Turns out Hobbes was the one I needed to worry about, not Calvin. I had thought Hobbes would love the one-on-one time with Mommy that he has been missing all of his life. That we would have all sorts of fun play together and snuggle and read books. Instead, he threw a fit when we left Calvin at school. He cried for him all of the way home and burst out in extra loud sobs when we got home, "No! Get Calvin! Get Calvin!" All morning, he would periodically look up from his play and pitifully say his brother's name.

Needless to say, Hobbes was thrilled when we got in the car after lunch to go get his brother. Unfortunately, he fell asleep on the way there. After we got home and I put him in his bed, I got Calvin down for a nap. ( A bonus to this school thing is that Calvin comes home tired enough to nap.) A few minutes later, I heard a pitiful cry from the crib, "Calvin...? Calvin...?" So now they are both asleep in my bed, Hobbes snuggled close to his brother. And I am left out in the cold. Who knew someone could be better than mommy? But I am so glad they are friends. Really, I am.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

On the ninth day of Christmas... true love gave to me some crafting ability.

Oh, how I wish. Instead, the boys and I made this adorable gingerbread house (or as Calvin was calling it, "man house." I guess he was confusing it with our gingerbread men.) Does everyone see those mad decorating skills? Nope, Hobbes wasn't in charge of the icing. I know it looks like an almost 2-year-old did it, but it was all me. Hobbes actually did an excellent job of decorating the roof of the house. Calvin, on the other hand, was more interested in eating the candy. And, lest you envy my "man house" decorating ability too much, I didn't even make the gingerbread or the icing. That's right, readers, this gingerbread house came straight from the box. Thank God for crafting "kits," or this mom would be in big trouble.

More substantial posts soon, I promise.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

On the eighth day of Christmas... true love gave to me, a victory for Tennessee. Way to go Vols! I do have to say that Wisconsin was an opponent I can respect. Their team played with dignity, and their quarterback was amazing. He took three hits that would have knocked many a QB out of the game, AND he injured his knee and hand. He played almost the whole game after that! That's one tough guy.

And in other news, it seems I am taking an unannounced blogging break during the twelve days of Christmas. While the rest of you are packing up your trees, we Anglicans and other liturgical types are still reveling in the feast. My kids even get a little present for each of the twelve days. We are enjoying my husband's extended time off and good time with family here and in Tennessee. Aren't you jealous? I hope your holidays were wonderful, too.

I'll be back after Epiphany. Calvin starts Chinese preschool on Thursday, so I am sure that we will have lots of fun stories, not to mention more time for blogging while he is at school!

Happy New Year to all!