Square Zero

A Rocky, Rooty Uphill Climb

Posted by Eric (April 29, 2006 at 1:24 pm)

Rocky climb in PANo, this isn’t a post on cycling. But further reflection on the Torode Affair and the real difficulties of practicing NFP put me in mind of a particularly challenging climb I managed this week on my mountainbike despite feeling weak and wobbly that day.

Not only is this particular hill steep and long, but it’s rooty and rocky. The only way to manage it—and I’ve failed to reach the top as often as I’ve made it—is to focus on the trail right under the front wheel. This helps you navigate around the ruts and rocks and keeps you from being discouraged at the sight of how very, very far you have left to go.

I didn’t think I’d make it up this hill the other day, but I gave it all I had, enduring wave after wave of pain washing over my body—that deep, nauseating ache that I’ve only ever suffered on a long climb on a bike. I was sure I would vomit when I did finally reach level ground again. I didn’t, and after five minutes of coasting along, panting heavily, I felt human again and could savor the satisfaction of having beaten that hill again, especially on a day I didn’t feel up to it.

It’s easy to forget, sitting here in the livingroom with my laptop, how truly painful it was to make that climb. It’s always hard to “remember” pain once it’s past; pain isn’t just a mental state, but a bodily experience that can only be truly known when it’s happening.

Realism about Living NFP

I guess I’m trying to squeeze a couple of analogies out of this trail climb. The first, of course, is that chastity is an uphill climb; if there are a few plateaus along the way, the grade is uphill overall and will not end while there is life in our mortal flesh. The second is that it is hard to appreciate the challenge of that climb when you’re not experiencing it, even for yourself, let alone for anyone else.

I do not know how difficult NFP has been for Sam and Bethany Torode, and while I do “remember” how difficult it has been for me and my wife at times, that difficulty is not really present for me at this moment—not now, with the Great Fast (and it’s “Corinthian” component) ended, and with breastfeeding infertility making NFP a non-issue.

But at least I admit that difficulty. I will sometimes declare, provocatively, that “NFP sucks!” Which it does. This is something that we need to be much more honest about.

There are a lot of folks, for example on the Amy Wellboard comments boards (HT: !MP), who are nodding in agreement with what the Torodes are saying about this. They’re right that the NFP boosters are not always honest about this. In fact, this is a complaint that my mother had about the way NFP was taught to her and my father back in the wake of Humanae Vitae. Some of these folks have forgotten how difficult it can be to abstain during the crescendo of sexual desire a woman experiences when she is fertile—or maybe they never knew it.

The Source of Guilt

But what I do not understand is the Torode’s remark that “NFP often lays an unfair burden of guilt on men” for feeling sexual desire for their wives. How is it that “NFP” is laying this burden on men? The reason for not satisfying that desire, while practicing NFP, is not because the desire is “bad,” but because the couple have decided that they ought to postpone pregnancy.

In fact, inherent in the practice of NFP is a belief that sexual desire is good and that sexual intimacy has such value for a couple that it is legitimate to restrict that intimacy to infertile periods. If sexual desire were not good, then the only legitimate purpose for sexual intercourse (we can’t, under those conditions, call it “intimacy”) would be procreation, and the only choice for couples either to abstain completely to avoid pregnancy or to abandon entirely any effort to postpone pregnancy.

Any “guilt” for feeling sexual desire, then, has to be coming from somewhere else than the practice of NFP or the theology behind it.

Shifting Blame

What I also do not understand is why the Torodes seem to so resent their experience with NFP. They call NFP an “unfair burden” for men and a “theological attack” on women—yet, as Protestants, they chose NFP all on their own. It was not “imposed” upon them—by, say, Pope Paul VI (as if Humanae Vitae even could be “imposed” on anyone).

A commentor at Amazon.com has called them dishonest for this:

[A] less passive and more honest way of stating this would be to say that “Sam and Bethany Torode have laid an unfair burden of guilt . . .” and “Sam and Bethany Torode have launched a theological attack on women . . .”

It’s curious that they try to place the blame with Augustine, Gregory the Great, Jerome and Calvin—and boldly announce their disagreement with the Catholic Church about the morality of contraception—when there was nothing in their own faith tradition (at least not for the past two generations) to suggest that contraception is anything but a gift from God for exercising responsible parenthood.

It seems to be important to them to place the moral demand not to use contraceptives outside of themselves. I suppose on that score they are correct, though perhaps they don’t recognize the real reason why.

Meanwhile: Smart guy Karl Schudt has promised to critique the Meyendorff book that the Torodes have cited in the course of justifying their new position as consistent with Orthodox tradition. He may also address what he is calling the “typical Orthodox caricature of Augustinian theology.” I’m looking forward to that.

Also: My wife April has noted that the Torodes came to their decision to abandon NFP at precisely the most desperate time in a young married couple’s life: when they have three small children. Ironically, it was the desperation we experienced at that point in our marriage that drove us to try out NFP.

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9 Responses to “A Rocky, Rooty Uphill Climb”

  1. April says:

    Ah, yes, the desperation of having 3 children under 6, or 5, or even 4years and under. How well I remember it, the feeling that I could not possibly handle any more needy people in my home. It’s ironic that it drove us to consider NFP, as we blamed the ineffectiveness of contraception to our plight of being weighed down with the burdens of small children. “We’ll try anything”, we said to each other, “even if we have to endure the moral teachings of the Catholic Church!”

    Now, 8 or so years later, the dynamics of our family have changed so much that I can look back and smile. Because things can change and do change so quickly in a family as the children (gasp!) grow up. Now we have an almost fourteen year old, a twelve year old and a 10 year old to help us with the “little kids”, and that has made all the difference.

    Sure, life still gets crazy, but we have a built in babysitter, and I can go to the store, or the doctor, or a violin lesson, without 3 or 4 small children, a really desperate circumstance at times.
    And I’m still young enough to enjoy my freedom, too.

    The problem is that there is not enough support for young parents. I remember people telling me I could be “done” after my fourth child. I’d done my duty, and I could be free to pursue other more interesting paths. And then we had the next three children. Now I find a freedom in having people dismiss me as a religious nut who doesn’t believe in birth control. I don’t care what they think, I’m too busy raising, and enjoying my kids.

    I hope the Torodes will reconsider their ill-thought decision, and understand the big picture. I’ll give them a few more years, maybe 8 or so.

    Comment posted April 29th, 2006 at 3:19 pm
  2. James says:

    Thanks, Eric, for your comments…and its particularly great to hear from April! Your comments, April, really struch a chord with me. Eric will know that we now have three children under three and a half. (our last was born 12 weeks ago). It’s quite a stressful time…and so noisy! We don’t know how we’d cope with another one to soon…though would love several more eventually! NFP for us is still a confusing area. We are mainly at sea because we don’t know how to know if my wife’s fertility has returned. She’s fully breastfeeding the baby, and the 1 and half yr old…we co-sleep, everything. Yet, last time, her periods came back after 3 months! Its a very uncertain area, and we just cant make sense of the signs…but feel, right now, another baby would be too much at the moment. a 2 yr gap would be great…but 12 months?? Please add some more comments on how you coped with three little ones…and nay hints you have for detecting early return of fertility while nursing. Its a pretty key topic for us right now. Email me off ‘blog’ if you prefer! Thanks….and blessings on you and all of yours! James

    Comment posted May 3rd, 2006 at 7:53 am
  3. April says:

    Hi, James,

    Congratulations on your baby! I know it seems hard now, but someday, those first three children will be your greatest helpers. They will be mowing the lawn, doing the dishes, and most importantly, holding the babies. I find it so satisfying to see my older children caring for their younger siblings, not only because I appreciate the help, but because they do it out of love. Learning to give of yourself is a more pleasant experience when it’s combined with the natural love you feel toward a young sibling.

    But right now, you’re feeling more desperate, I know. It’s very labor intensive having three under 4. I often felt kind of alone, because I found it so hard to get out of the house with all of them that I would just stay home. But that was not ideal. What I would suggest is to get out and get together with other families. This is a great time to make friends with similar families, for the parents and for the children. The parents bond because of shared experiences, and the children play together and make friendships that will continue on through the years.

    If I had it to do over again, and sometimes I wish I did, I would just try to enjoy it more. Take it for what it is, and then just dig in and live it. Try to take them to the park a lot, read to them a lot, play with them a lot. And hire a babysitter more often, maybe once a week, to get out yourselves and not forget how much you enjoy each other’s company. Try to find an older sibling from a large family. They will be desperate for a little pocket money, as my older ones are.

    One thing we did, and wish we did more of now, was to keep a journal of cute things the kids did or said when they were little. Now every once in a while, we read the book together and laugh our heads off. You’ll never regret that, and it helps to keep things in perspective too.

    One of my friends from way back always said she discovered that the best way to get through those early years was just to invite other families over. And not to worry about the mess. Being in someone else’s messy house is somehow so comforting. Some of our best times were just hanging out at their house or ours, with the kids running wild, babies nursing, toddlers screaming, while we sat around and talked and ate together. You could say, misery loves company, but really, we had a great time. Usually the visits ended with somebody’s child melting down and the unlucky mother having to drag, literally, the rest of them to the car, but it was worth it.

    I feel somewhat unqualified to give advice as to how to detect the onset of fertility after breastfeeding. After my 6x experience, I’ve discovered that I have about a year of infertility after birth. With my first two, my fertility came back sooner, though, because I was working part time and therefore not breastfeeding around the clock like I do now.

    The time when fertility signs first start to come back is the most confusing. Basically, there is a kind of ramping up of fertility signs like mucus, and if you’re using temperatures, they can be pretty erratic. Since your wife’s fertility came back pretty early last time, even with lots of nursing, it probably will again. Honestly, I would suggest just plain abstinence until her cycles are regular, and then just back to the NFP rules.

    It can be pretty stressful trying to figure out which days are safe, and then wondering if you might be pregnant again. We plan on doing the same, around the time when I see signs of fertility, just abstaining until my cycles are back. But by all means, ask around and see if anyone else has better advice. It’s not easy either way, though.

    And remember, this is the way God has given you to grow in holiness. Patience, fortitude, love, and and lots of other virtues are just right there for the taking! The suffering will be great, but the joy will be greater! I’ll pray for you and your wife, and please pray for us too.


    Comment posted May 4th, 2006 at 9:16 am
  4. James says:

    Thanks so much for the reply, April. Really great to hear from you. And thanks, too, for your prayers. We will of course pray for you too. Your husband has been quite an inspiration to us – and you now as well! I’m trying to find a way to get Eric over to England to give some talks, at the moment. If I do – you’ll have to come over for a family holiday. We promise our fair share of messy house and noisy kids(!) Blessings on you and yours. James

    Comment posted May 4th, 2006 at 11:13 am
  5. Bekah says:

    I can fully commiserate. We have five, but our youngest is the same age as yours and I’m still nursing the just turned 2 yo. We’ve struggled with NFP with the last three, and I have had return of fertility anywhere between 5 weeks and 10 months, with very little difference in the way I was nursing. I’ve found that my biggest indicator for return of fertility is how long the baby is sleeping at night between feedings. The more sleep, the sooner fertility returns. Because this young one is a pretty good sleeper, and because there is a clear need for spacing for at least the next 3-4 years, barring a miraculous change in circumstance, we are mostly abstaining.

    We conversed a lot about NFP while we were pregnant this last time. Part of our former difficulty was huge irregularity and variability in my cycles. The other part was a feeling of guilt I placed on myself for not adequately being able to meet my husbands needs. He is not one to vocalize that need, really, but I could ‘feel’ it from him. So, while we were pregnant, I explained my feelings to him, and he’s been great about being content with hugs and kisses. I know that this is necessary and refuse to feel guilty, and abstinence so far hasn’t been too big a deal. If I’m unsure, and I have been a lot, we just don’t.

    I think that if we give it long enough, my cycles will eventually become regular again, and it will become easier again. Between #2 and #3 my signs were much clearer than they have been since. So, the struggle is just to abstain until then.

    Comment posted May 4th, 2006 at 2:56 pm
  6. John Robin says:

    The reference to a “crescendo” of desire made me think about the scriptural principle of offering one’s firstfruits to God. With NFP perhaps it can be said that at times we are asked to manifest our love for God (and spouse) by offering unconsummated our desires when they most loudly demand to be satisfied. What a sign of contradiction as well as an affirmation of what is truly good!

    Comment posted May 6th, 2006 at 12:45 am
  7. Eric says:

    John, that’s an excellent way of looking at it. Thanks for the insight. The whole “first fruits” concept helps show that abstinence isn’t just a drag, but a meritorious sacrifice.

    Comment posted May 6th, 2006 at 4:47 pm
  8. Square Zero » Blog Archive » The Orthodox & Contraception says:

    […] Fortunately, there are smart guys like Karl Schudt out there to help me along. Karl has just followed through on his promise to post a critique of the Meyendorff book cited by Sam and Bethany Torode in their letter explaining why they no longer oppose contraception (which I have addressed in several recent posts). […]

    Comment posted May 11th, 2006 at 1:42 pm
  9. Lazar says:

    I will completely admit to aingrug semantics with this entire post! My hope is to figure out the best words in this case, as it’s not actual substance which confuses me at this point. And thank you for helping me straighten out my words! You’re entirely correct that I seem to be (am) contradicting myself. Let me see if I can straighten it out 1. Most people that I know of in the US understand NFP to be the Church’s method of family planning.2. Most people is actually a very low number compared to the entire population, so it may still be quite fitting to adopt new language, especially since most people who do know the term NFP also equate it with the rhythm method.3. A significant (minority?) of people understand NFP to mean a method of family planning that does not involve artificial contraception, but may involve abortion for unplanned pregnancies.4. It would be good if the US, Canada, UK etc. could all use the same terms in promoting FA/NFP/Whatever-we-call-it. And share promotional materials etc. My ultimate goal is to come up with the terms that would work best for radically increasing the understanding and practice of whatever it is we choose to call this. I honestly believe that if Catholics got serious we could take FA/NFP from 1-2% (not sure of the current number) to 30% in 10 years. And so I am trying to figure out the best, most accurate, concise, and catchy language to use. I am under the impression that we agree entirely on the actual substance of what people should do, and I really appreciate you helping me to hash out my choice of words. You’ve made me think that perhaps it would be harder than I thought to change the usage in place, even if it is not established for that many people. Also, I distinguish between birth control and contraception, but I guess that is a post for another day! Thank you for your thoughts, and please keep letting me know what you think I should re-think!

    Comment posted December 26th, 2012 at 10:00 pm