I am in my late thirties, and my husband, Greg, is in his mid-forties. We have three children—a boy nine, and girls seven and four—and all of us are in good health. We are comfortably well off, since my husband has a good job, and I am happy to be a full-time wife, mother, and homemaker. Greg is good with the children, often taking them along on errands and doing things with them, and we also have good times together as a family.
We always have obeyed the Church’s teaching on birth regulation and have practiced natural family planning (NFP) since we married, using it to space our children. Greg never has had a very strong sex drive, and since our last baby was born he has insisted that we take no chances. This always requires continuous abstinence of at least two weeks and sometimes as much as three. The result is that during the past four years we have seldom had intercourse more than a few times a cycle, and sometimes not at all, since other things interfere. Greg also has left it to me to make all the observations and judgments about which days are possibly fertile, and so it always has been up to me to tell him yes or no. Ironically, when he is interested, I often must say no, but he always accepts it in good grace.
My problem is this. In about a year, our youngest will be in kindergarten, and I would like to have another baby; I have plenty of energy and still feel young. The children also want a new brother or sister. But Greg says that we have enough children and does not want another. He argues that if I have a baby now, it might be seriously defective, since we did not marry young, and I am nearing forty. I do not believe that risk is very significant and, even if we were to have a child afflicted with Down’s syndrome, for example, we have the financial and other resources to handle that.
I also feel sexually deprived by our extensive abstinence, and would like a more intimate marital bond with a more romantic and emotionally satisfying relationship. In some ways, our relationship is excellent; when something must be done, we always work well together. I take good care of myself, and try to please Greg. He appreciates it and always is cordial. But he is never very affectionate, and I sometimes feel we are more like friendly co-workers than a married couple. I think this situation is unfair, but do not press Greg for my “marital rights.” I never have been unfaithful, but I often have to pray and struggle to control my imagination and sexual feelings.
I am a devout Catholic; Greg goes to Church, but his faith does not seem to mean very much to him. I feel we should trust God more and be willing to take a chance with another baby; Greg does not take providence very seriously. Though I feel cheated, my faith helps me to compartmentalize this problem and put up with the situation. If necessary, I suppose, I will continue to do that indefinitely.
Lately, however, I have been toying with the idea of cutting corners a bit on NFP. The point would be to facilitate more frequent marital intercourse and, while not trying to become pregnant, to open the door a bit, so as to let God decide. I would be disobeying Greg’s wishes, but he would never know. So, I will welcome your prayers and insights.
The questioner asks whether she may intentionally risk having a child without her husband’s consent. Vatican II teaches that the decision to have a child or another child belongs to the couple. In my opinion, for the questioner to risk pregnancy in the absence of consensus would be unfair both to her husband and to the child. The questioner should try to persuade her husband to cooperate more closely in the practice of NFP and should communicate with him about her desires. If he remains unwilling to have another baby, she should consider other ways of using her maternal gifts to benefit babies who need care; she also should try to involve her husband in the children’s religious formation.
You say taking no chances on having another baby always requires you and Greg to abstain continuously during at least two weeks each cycle and sometimes as much as three. Perhaps you are not making use of all the available ways of identifying the times when you are not fertile. If that is possible, I suggest you look into current information regarding the practice of NFP.114 However, I shall assume that, even if your technique of NFP might be improved, your problem will remain substantially as stated.
May you cut corners on NFP to facilitate more frequent marital intercourse and make it possible that you will become pregnant? In my judgment, you may not. I have two reasons for this answer.
First, having accepted responsibility for identifying the fertile days and yielded, however reluctantly, to your husband’s unwillingness to have another child, you have agreed to take no chances of becoming pregnant. That undertaking was an implicit promise—it makes no difference whether you ever used the words “I promise”—and, like any promise, it may not be broken unfairly. Set aside the fact that you could break it without your husband’s knowing, imagine that corner cutting results in pregnancy, apply the Golden Rule, and put yourself in his place. Surely you would feel betrayed in a very serious way. You would think: ”She never should have done this unilaterally. At least, she should have talked it over with me first!"
Second, as Vatican II teaches, only the couple may decide about regulating births. This implies that the decision should be by the agreement of both spouses (see GS 50; LCL, 681–84). Their consensus is necessary because the new person emerges from his or her parents insofar as they are one, so that the child’s procreation presupposes the parents’ unity. The complete genesis of the child does not end with conception, however, but ends only when the child has been raised to maturity. Ongoing parental unity is necessary for the child’s proper development in every aspect of his or her being as a human person, and this unity should extend to the parents’ minds and hearts. Every child therefore needs to be welcomed by both parents and has a right to their wholehearted commitment to love and care for him or her. The possibility of adoptive parenthood shows that this commitment not only is essential to parenthood but is more central to it, in some ways, than biological paternity or maternity. If you cut corners and become pregnant, you will have caused your child to come into being not only without this vital commitment by his or her father but despite his having made it clear that he did not wish to make this commitment. Of course, it would be Greg’s duty to accept what had happened and commit himself to being a good father to the child, and perhaps he would. But perhaps he would not, and for you to cut corners and run that risk would be terribly unfair to the child.
Perhaps your husband’s reasons for not wishing to have another child are inadequate. Since children are the “supreme gift of marriage” (GS 50), married couples well able to have another child need a serious reason to avoid pregnancy. Greg plainly is a good father who provides well, and you plainly have not only the desire but the capacity to mother at least one more child. Nevertheless, Greg’s reasons may be better than they seem from what you have said. I do not mean you are misrepresenting the situation, but he may have failed to articulate everything he has in mind or you may have failed to comprehend some of his concerns. For example, if he became a father to another baby, he would be accepting a responsibility extending into his sixties, and he may be concerned about being able to fulfill it as he grows older. He may be thinking about the costs of the children’s education and the need to save for retirement. The chances of your having a seriously defective child may not be great, but your husband may have recognized in himself some weakness that makes it unacceptable for him to take the risk. In any case, the fact that he is a good father to the three children you have suggests that his motives for resisting your wish for another are not merely selfish.
Nevertheless, even if there are sound reasons for avoiding another pregnancy, they may not be so weighty that your desire for more frequent marital intercourse should be excluded from consideration. Since marriage is one-flesh unity, it appropriately regularly includes emotionally satisfying experiences of intimacy. Thus, you may be right in thinking that Greg and you should not be practicing NFP so strictly. If so, it would be appropriate to accept some possibility of having another child. Greg certainly should seriously consider this view of the matter and perhaps should accept it, since in marrying he has conceded to you, as you to him, a real and strict right to marital affection, including intercourse whenever there is no reason to forgo it. However, even if Greg should accept this view, you must bear in mind that your right to marital intercourse is not absolute but limited by various moral responsibilities not to have it. That you might have a child without the necessary consensus always will morally require you not to have intercourse on days that might be fertile. So, unless you can persuade Greg to modify his position, you must continue limiting the exercise of your marital right.
When you speak of possible corner cutting on NFP as opening the door to pregnancy “so as to let God decide,” you manifest a mistaken conception of divine providence. Cutting corners will not set the stage for any divine decision. God always decides, but he also calls on us to use our intelligence and capacity to make free choices to shape our own lives, and he will hold us responsible for our failures to do so. His providential plan includes all created reality, everything that is and all that is to be. Included in that plan is the life of good deeds he has prepared for each of us to live. We must discover his plan for our lives, accept it, and faithfully carry it out. As we do so, we are bound to be frustrated at times by other people and situations. Then, we must trust and pray that God will change hearts and solve the problems we cannot. Waiting and praying for a change of heart or God’s solution is the way to rely on his providence. Acting instead on a mistaken conception of providence might well lead to disaster. If you betray your husband’s trust, cut corners, and become pregnant, he may change for the worse. He might refuse to accept the baby he was unwilling to have, become alienated from you, and/or either withdraw entirely from marital intimacy or demand effective measures to prevent any future pregnancy. God might prevent such disastrous consequences, but you would be irresponsible to count on him to do so.
What I have said thus far has been largely negative with respect to your idea of corner cutting on NFP. I do wish to offer you some positive advice.
First, try very hard to persuade Greg to cooperate in attending to the signs of fertility. This cooperation will make him more aware of your sexuality and will tend of itself to foster intimacy. It also will make Greg aware of when marital intercourse is appropriate within the framework of your mutually agreed objective in practicing NFP, and will lead him to accept the responsibility of regulating his own romantic initiatives. Explain to him that this will help you by lessening the conflict you experience between your own sexual desire and your desire for another child, on the one hand, and, on the other, your desire to respect his wishes. You also might do well to admit to him that you have been tempted to cut corners on NFP, and point out that his sharing responsibility with you for making it work will eliminate that temptation.
My second suggestion is that at least temporarily you set aside your desire to have another baby, but plan and make a serious effort to get Greg to understand and cooperate with your desire for a more satisfying intimate relationship and more frequent marital intercourse, at least within the framework of practicing NFP as you now do, and perhaps within the framework of its somewhat less stringent practice. You might plan a brief vacation or a couples retreat, in order to go somewhere together where you can talk without pressure of time about your concerns. In stating those concerns, be gentle and take care not to make Greg feel threatened, since that could reduce his already weak sex drive. Avoid criticizing him and focus instead on articulating your own feelings, thus inviting him to help you deal with your problems rather than suggesting that he is the cause of shared problems. You say that when you and Greg must do something, you always work well together. I think therefore that in this conversation you should put your points as a proposal of a common project, something for the two of you to do together.
I suggest that you not say everything at once, but try to lead Greg step by step to accept something of your view. The main points I suggest you try to make are as follows. (1) You desire a richer intimate relationship, which will be possible even without more frequent marital intercourse if the two of you cooperate in certain ways. (Be prepared to offer specific suggestions which you think he might accept.) (2) You also would like more frequent marital intercourse. Without altering your present practice of NFP, it will be possible if the two of you cooperate in certain ways so as not to miss out, as you sometimes now do, on the opportunities it affords. (Again, you should be prepared to offer specific suggestions with a chance of being accepted.) (3) By altering your present practice of NFP, still more frequent marital intercourse would be possible with little additional likelihood of pregnancy. (Be prepared to explain precisely what alteration is possible, and to estimate realistically just how great the increased likelihood of pregnancy would be.)
Third, if the preceding effort seems to you successful, I suggest you then try something similar with respect to having another baby. But if the preceding effort seems to you unsuccessful, perhaps you should consider proposing that you and Greg seek joint marital counseling. Given what you say about your relationship, I think it would very likely help provided you find the right counselor. Unfortunately, though, poor counselors abound, and often do more harm than good. You need someone entirely faithful to the Church’s teaching, experienced in marriage counseling, and with some training in psychology; probably a Catholic psychologist who supports Humanae vitae and has done marriage counseling successfully would be your best choice. A faithful priest or physician might be able to recommend the right person; perhaps you should conduct your own preliminary interview with anyone recommended to you, to make certain he or she has the necessary qualities.
My fourth suggestion is that, if Greg remains unwilling to have another baby and you give up that idea, you should consider other ways of employing your maternal gifts for the benefit of one or more babies who need care. He might be agreeable to providing a temporary home for a series of babies who need foster parenting for brief periods. Or, perhaps, once all your children are in school, you could volunteer to help out in a nonprofit day care center, or even organize one, if your neighborhood has none. In any case, if you discern that the needs of some babies match up well with your gifts, you can assume that God is calling you to serve them, and that he will bless you for loving them tenderly even though you cannot cherish them as your own.
My fifth suggestion is a warning. Exercise care in your relationships with other men. You say you have never been unfaithful but often must pray and struggle to control your imagination and sexual feelings. With some basis, you are dissatisfied with the romantic dimension of your marriage, and such dissatisfaction often is a motive for adultery, with the basis for dissatisfaction serving as an excuse. Moreover, you already are toying with the idea of betraying your husband’s confidence in a very important matter, and in this connection you say: “I would be disobeying Greg’s wishes, but he would never know.” That suggests a spirit of duplicity. So, I think, you are vulnerable and might be seduced, sooner or later, unless you either take care to forestall temptation or your intimate relationship with your husband greatly improves. Of course, I hope that you will take care, it will improve, and this suggestion will prove to have been pointless.
Sixth, encourage Greg to participate as fully as possible in the children’s religious formation. Since he is good with them and you work well together when engaged in a project, cooperation in this matter is likely to go well. In trying to nurture the children’s faith, he is likely to become more serious about his own, and in working with him to catechize the children, you are likely to communicate something of your own devotion.
You ask for and certainly have my prayers. Among them is the prayer that you will count your blessings. Even though you do have a problem with your marriage, it also has many good features, not least that you are living it in faith, sustained by sacramental grace and prayer. The frustration of your desire for another child and the unsatisfactoriness of your intimate relationship with your husband surely are a serious cross for you, and by no means do I wish to belittle it. But thinking about others’ problems may lighten your burden by putting it in perspective. Do you know a couple both of whom must work in order barely to scrape by? Do you know a couple who are of one mind and heart in wishing to have even one child, but are infertile? Do you know a woman who, like you, is committed to living in accord with the Church’s teaching, but whose husband insists on having intercourse when they should not and she does not wish to? Do you know a woman whose husband is happy to give her as many children as she wishes but who makes no effort to be a real father to any of them? Do you know a woman whose husband is a great lover, but not only of her—and, perhaps, now only of someone else? Look around and count your blessings!
Finally, I am not sure exactly what you mean when you say that your faith enables you to compartmentalize your problem and that, if necessary, you will continue to do that indefinitely. Perhaps you mean you have been able to resign yourself to the situation, to fulfill your responsibilities as a wife and mother, and to act toward Greg and the children much as you would if your intimate relationship were more satisfying. So far, so good. If you have not gone beyond that, though, I suggest you pray for the light to discover some deeper meaning in this problem and for the strength to use it as a means of perfecting your love and strengthening Greg’s faith, so that you, he, and your children will live together in the perfectly joyful intimacy of heaven.
114. See John F. Kippley and Sheila K. Kippley, The Art of Natural Family Planning, 4th ed. (Cincinnati, Ohio: Couple to Couple League, 1996); Evelyn Billings and Ann Westmore, The Billings Method: Controlling Fertility without Drugs or Devices (New York: Ballantine, 1983).