Written by Grace Emily Stark
From using everything possible to postpone pregnancy, to desperately trying anything to overcome infertility, our culture deeply misunderstands human fertility—and is addicted to the fight against it.
As anyone who knows me will tell you, I am a planner, and I like to feel like I’m in control. Within days of getting engaged to my husband, Michael, we’d already set a date, started bookmarking potential wedding venues and honeymoon destinations, and I’d already decided what kind of dress I wanted (and what I wanted my future groom to wear). By the end of the first week, we’d already booked the church, confirmed the priest, signed up for our Pre-Cana marriage preparation, and started looking for natural family planning (NFP) classes.
The NFP classes were something I was particularly eager to get underway as soon as possible. Having decided during our dating relationship that we strongly believed in our religious beliefs and the Catholic Church’s teachings on sex and marriage, we knew that birth control would be out of the question should we get married. So, we were eager to find an NFP teacher as soon as possible after getting engaged. Together, we’d agreed that we’d like to spend the first year of our marriage avoiding pregnancy, given that I’d be starting a brand-new job with the FDA, and Michael would be completing his internship year as a newly-minted doctor. We were both young and healthy, and I was convinced I’d get pregnant as soon as Michael looked at me. So, I wanted to be completely confident going into our wedding, honeymoon, and first year of marriage that we could postpone pregnancy with almost complete certainty.
And you know what? We did. But although we followed the rules to a “T,” I still anxiously awaited the arrival of my period for each of the first few months of our marriage. A honeymoon baby was never part of the plan, and I had very set ideas about the sequence of these things. Although we weren’t using contraception and actively fighting against our fertility, I still feared it, and therefore sought to control it, in a sense. But it wasn’t long until my anxiety about getting pregnant turned into a new anxiety about not getting pregnant.
Nine months after trying for a baby with no luck, and days before our military-ordered move to the island of Guam (which would be our home for the next two years), we had resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d be spending that time trying for a baby without anyone to help us figure out what was wrong. We knew that our faith meant that artificial reproductive technologies (ART) like in vitro fertilization (IVF) and intrauterine insemination (IUI) would be out of the question for us, and that NaPro-Technology doctors (restorative reproductive medicine providers who work with a woman’s body to root out underlying causes of fertility so that conception can occur naturally) didn’t exist on the island. It seemed that we would have to wait two years until we (hopefully) got orders back stateside until we could seek the answers and help that we so desperately desired.
Then, in a twist of circumstances, within a few months of our arrival to Guam, I met a Navy doctor named Brian Burke who, along with his wife Johanna, were a Teaching Couple with the Couple to Couple League, parent organization of Fertility Science Institute. What’s more, Dr. Burke was familiar with NaPro techniques, and was willing to use that knowledge (coupled with the information from my fertility charts) to help us heal our fertility so we could conceive naturally.
At that first meeting with Dr. Burke, I burst into tears. All my anxieties about moving to Guam, about our infertility and the feelings of hopelessness that we’d never find someone to help us there, they were all for nothing. Overcoming our fertility wasn’t a quick and easy journey by any means. But finally, after 15 months of trying to conceive, several months of workups and fertility-boosting treatments, and a miscarriage, we finally conceived our son (to whom Dr. Burke and his wife, Johanna, are godparents).
“Through NFP, we were blessed with an understanding of our fertility. We worked to heal our bodies and our fertility.”
How misunderstanding fertility leads to a fear of fertility—and a fight against it
Along our journey, we never chafed against our faith’s prohibition against medicine’s most popular forms of ART, like IUI and IVF (even though at least one physician offered those options to us). In fact, as anxiety inducing as our experience of infertility was, we were grateful that our faith meant those options were off the table. Through NFP, we were blessed with an understanding of our fertility. We were working to heal our bodies, and our fertility, rather than feeling the need to fight against it. And, in all honesty, it was a relief to not even feel tempted to do otherwise, especially given the ethical complications, extreme costs, and side effects that accompany things like IVF. We were also extremely grateful that I had never been on any form of birth control; that we had never been actively fighting against (and potentially damaging) our fertility, even when we weren’t ready for a baby quite yet.
But for so many couples, this is sadly not the case. They spend their younger years fighting their bodies, misunderstanding and fearing their fertility, and combating it with every form of birth control imaginable. Absolutely terrified of pregnancy, they take for granted (like we once did) that our fertility is ready and waiting to pour out of the floodgates the second they’re opened, and that pregnancy is imminent the moment you stop actively trying to prevent it.
Even though we’d been using NFP since day one of our marriage, I still couldn’t escape this culture-wide belief that fertility was to be feared if you weren’t ready for a baby. And it was precisely these fears that I once felt about our fertility that made me feel cheated when we were finally ready for pregnancy and couldn’t seem to achieve it. So, it’s no surprise that once a couple who has been contracepting begins experiencing difficulty conceiving, that they feel confused, swindled, and desperate to jump at any answers and solutions they can find.
Misunderstanding breeds fear, and fear incites our knee-jerk reaction to fight. This is clearly as true of fertility as it is of anything else in life. But my own story shows that even understanding our fertility isn’t always enough to completely quell the deep, culturally-ingrained fears that we have about our fertility. But as each individual girl, boy, woman, man, or couple comes to understand their fertility through fertility
awareness or NFP, we get one step closer to the fertility- and life-affirming culture that we all long for, deep down in our heart of hearts.
It is my hope that together, fertility awareness educators of all stripes can provide the education that will cultivate the understanding—and ultimately, the faith—necessary to convince our culture that we can order a cease fire. It is high time we lay down our arms in this generations-long fight against our fertility, and recognize it for the God-given gift that it is.
Originally published in Family Foundations Magazine in June 2021.