Rethinking a Classic from the Conservative Contraception Canon

First, an autobiographical excursus; and then, some commentary on Mark Oppenheimer’s much-commented-upon story on the authors of Open Embrace: A Protestant Couple Rethinks Contraception.

My oldest son was born ten months and a few days after my husband’s and my wedding. This had not been our plan. Among the things we’d intended to do in July and August of 2003—an ambitious list that included things like getting married, moving to a new state, buying our first house, starting a doctoral program (me), and trying to find a job (my husband)—we had not planned also to conceive a child. It seemed like a bad time to do that, under the circumstances. But there our son was, announcing his presence with a second pink line on a pee-stick, in stubborn defiance of our careful temperature-taking and meticulous charting.

For those who have not yet caught on to the telltale set of cultural markers, let me make it explicit: We were earnest, self-styled, countercultural, pacifist Christians. We envisioned a world in which all life, even the most invisible and most marginal, was welcomed. By us! And—if you were living as we thought God wanted you to live—by you, too! (Whoever you are.)

And so we didn’t use artificial contraception. We used natural family planning (i.e. charts and thermometers), because we did not want to form ourselves to be the sort of people who were closed off to intrusive, vulnerable life. That was the logic. You use artificial contraception, and it might just form you into the kind of person who is not willing to be intruded upon by the very vulnerable. You use artificial contraception, and you’re one tiny step closer to being the sort of person who demands that the world present you with only the people you happen to like: docile, clean, well-spoken, able-bodied, invulnerable, sanitized, patriotic people who make no demands on you and do not challenge your notions about who belongs in the human community.

Fetuses and children thus functioned as a symbol for all potential Others. And if you had pointed out to me that it’s awfully interesting that this particular Other is the kind of Other that women usually must give up a lot more in order to welcome, I had two answers ready: First, childbearing isn’t THAT bad, and don’t you dare pathologize women’s bodies! (SPOILER ALERT: Turns out that childbirth sometimes isn’t that bad, but sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s REALLY DEADLY BAD. But that’s probably a different essay.) And second: Women, precisely because they’ve been an oppressed group, benefit when society as a whole welcomes marginalized life… and you wouldn’t want to ruin that for the rest of us, would you?

In this respect we were acting true to a very particular type. I’d lived in a Catholic Worker community only four years prior, where I had scandalized a couple of the peaceniks I lived with by also joining a regular prayer vigil at a Planned Parenthood clinic. (Our community routinely held demonstrations at the Pentagon, the Israeli embassy, and the White House. Indeed, we billed ourselves as a “seamless garment” community—i.e. opposed to what we saw as the taking of human life under all circumstances—but actually praying outside an abortion clinic was not in our usual repertoire.) My husband, meanwhile, was an anti-racist, Mennonite, pacifist, grows-his-own-vegetables type. We’d met (some will not be surprised to learn) at Duke Divinity School.

Anyway, there we were. 2003. Pregnant. Startled to be so. In a new city. Newly married. This posed some… difficulties.

I’m about to say two things that it’s very hard for some people to understand; but indeed, they manage to both be true at the very same time. Thing one: I love my oldest son, and his younger brother, so much that of course I’d take any bullet, any day, to save them. I would certainly never wish that they hadn’t been born.

Thing two: The circumstances of my older son’s birth were so incredibly hard that if someone told me I had to go back in time and do it over again… well, I can’t even finish that sentence without succumbing to a churning stomach and a desire to just get away, run out of the room, go absolutely ANYWHERE else, do anything to keep 2003-2004 from ever, ever coming back. I love my son, but I would claw at the eyes of 2003 and 2004, if years had eyes and they were chasing me. I’d whack them across the kneecaps with a fireplace poker, if years had knees and they were trying to drag me back. And I’d consider it self-defense.

I won’t go into the details, but will stay daintily general. For my part, I withered under the standards of self-sacrifice imposed by a certain ideal of earnest, hippy-dippy, Nice-White-Lady, vulnerable-life-welcoming, countercultural-for-Jesus motherhood. This invited postpartum depression so all-encompassing it’s hard to remember anything from that time beyond a vague grey haze. I discovered inhabiting the space labeled “mother” often meant that people—including, sometimes, members of that same theologically-earnest hippy-dippy crunchy-Christian social set—stopped seeing me as a particularly smart person with much to offer grown-up conversation. (Don’t worry: they were always very nice about it, taking care to dismiss me with a smile.)

My husband, for his part, was underemployed and having to adjust to fatherhood without ever getting a chance to get used to being married. And I resented him for (I thought) not taking as big a hit as I’d taken.

But it turned out okay. We got through it somehow and came out the other side with rehabilitated mental health, a job, a pair of kids we love… and a sneaking suspicion that maybe earnest, crunchy-for-Jesus, self-styled countercultural Christianity had failed to pick up on a few important things in its breathless rush to expound on the best way for absolutely everyone to live.

I mention this as a way of explaining why I was both saddened and gratified by Mark Oppenheimer’s follow-up piece on the authors of Open Embrace. Of course, I knew about Open Embrace from my Duke days: it was a Protestant couple’s jointly-written book on why they chose not to use artificial contraception, and how it helped their marriage. Oh yeah. That book. I’d not lately given the Torodes much thought, but if you’d asked me about the book, I might have said something pointed like “I’m very glad that they found something that worked so well for them.”

Turns out, though, it didn’t work out so well for them. And I was sad to hear it. Truly.

The book she and Mr. Torode wrote two years into their marriage is quite short and quite sweet, an earnest work whose hopefulness one badly wants to share. Procreation is “the umbrella under which the other aspects of marriage are nurtured,” they wrote. Sex is “a joyous song of praise to the Creator,” and “having children (or adopting them) brings husbands and wives closer together and expands the community of love.”

They concluded succinctly: “When we should be saying ‘I do,’ contraception says, ‘I do not.’ ”

“Open Embrace” also embraced the view that children stabilize marriage, for “with each child a couple has, their chances of divorce are significantly reduced.” So what went wrong for the [now-divorced] Torodes, whose children now range in age from 4 to 9?

Among other challenges, Ms. Patchin [formerly Mrs. Torode], now 30, had unplanned pregnancies. “I got pregnant nursing twice,” she told me. “So my first two kids are 15 months apart, then there is a three-year break, then the younger two are a year and a half apart. That was intense. Beyond hormonally intense, it was relationally intense. It was nothing I would ever want anyone else to have to experience.”

In their 2006 statement on the Web, the couple wrote that natural family planning could harm a marriage, even when it worked.

Schadenfreude is not the appropriate response here. Moreover, if natural family planning did indeed harm this couple’s marriage (and why shouldn’t we take them at their word that it did?), that still does not mean it wouldn’t enrich someone else’s, or, for that matter, be a non-factor in someone else’s. (Not all married couples are heterosexual, and not all straight couples are physically able to conceive easily, let’s remember.)

But that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? Different marriages are very, well, different. This is why I respectfully disagree with Terry Mattingly’s take on the matter. Of Oppenheimer’s column, Mattingly writes:

As a column, it is not balanced. It does not quote people, especially women, who testify about the positive role that NFP has played in their relationships with their husbands. It does not even need to probe the deeper and unexplored questions raised in the piece, such as whether the marriage was in fact shattered by the practice of NFP or disagreements that grew out of it.

I know couples who say that they’ve had a very positive experience with NFP. I don’t second-guess their reasons for saying so. There’s no reason not to take them at their word, as far as I’m concerned. But would their testimonies have made for a telling rejoinder to Oppenheimer’s column? I don’t think so.

Remember, Open Embrace does not advance the view that natural family planning might be a fun thing for married couples to try just for kicks—like a book club or dance lessons—on the off chance that you might be one of the married couples that turns out to bond over it. Open Embrace presents natural family planning as a really good thing for married couples, as such, to do. It is predicted to bring them closer. Married couples. In general. As a group.

In their early 20s, the Torodes believed they could predict this—about themselves, and about all the potential married couples who might read their book; including, presumably, couples facing mental or physical health problems, lack of support, or simple inability to reliably take body temperature at the same time every day. 

So, really, the question is not: “Are there NO couples out there who ever have a positive experience avoiding artificial contraception?” Surely there are. Rather, the question is this: “Can every married couple everywhere really benefit from avoiding artificial contraception—and more to the point, who in the heck could possibly be in the position to know this?”

And as I read them, the authors of Open Embrace have thus presented their own “balance.” In 2002, they proffered the view that natural family planning is an inherent benefit to marriage as such, with the implication that it’s possible to honestly make such pronouncements about people’s lives whom one does not know. Now, in 2011, they’re saying that it’s more complicated than that… and raising questions about the kind of presumption involved when one breezily pronounces upon marriage as such:

“I am out of the business of trying to tell people what they should do,” Mr. Torode said. “I am out of that business for good.”

Ah, but I know from my own conservative days the kind of itchy discomfort that sort of a demurral brings. Not telling people what they should do! Why, one may as well say that there’s no right and no wrong and no truth, and that it’s all just about me me me and my basest instincts. Moral anarchy!

Eh, I don’t think that follows. Let’s say you have a Big Story of Everything With Implications For How Others Ought To Live. Let’s say, just to make it interesting, that you’re even correct! Maybe not in every last little detail, but in terms of ultimate reality, let’s say that you’ve got it nailed down. Your master worldview actually corresponds to reality better than its rivals. And let’s say, further, that you have basically good motives. You’re not just basically correct, but you’re well-meaning.

Now, let me ask: Do you, even still, form conclusions about how everyone should live based on:

(1) The fact that you believe you’re making yourself into a better, more holy person by living that way? and

(2) The assumption that other people can’t possibly be different enough from you that those differences should ever matter, or really even be worth your attention, as you form your conclusions about how everyone should live?

If so: Don’t. Please, please stop it—yes, even if your Big Story is the right Big Story. For it is, so often, a jerky and entitled thing to do. It is so often naïve and self-serving. It is so very often a function of someone’s being privileged enough to think of themselves and their friends as somehow the standard of humanity, such that others’ “deviations” (their very lives and identities, in other words) are just obstacles to be overcome or insignificant details to be overlooked.

Most troublingly, it makes other people into nothing more than object lessons. It thus becomes easy to stop listening, as soon as you know whether they are one of the convinced or one still in need of convincing.

But other people are more than object lessons, and they have a lot to say to you. However much you might be dazzled by your stance on marriage/pacifism/contraceptions/whatever-else, please be at least as captivated by what other people actually say about their own lives. Let them intrude. Let them intrude far enough that it feels like your stance might be threatened. Then we can talk about welcoming the Other.