Catholics Do What?,  Contraception,  guest post,  large family,  Living Humanae Vitae,  Marriage,  motherhood,  NFP,  pregnancy,  Sex,  Suffering

Alleged miracles, hyper fertility, and the Cross {Living Humanae Vitae Part 5}

You may already be familiar with Bonnie Engstrom’s story from her blog, “A Knotted Life.” If you are, then you know that her son, James Fulton, was stillborn. His allegedly miraculous return to life – through the intercession of Venerable Fulton Sheen, is the official alleged miracle for the beatification of that good bishop. Bonnie is a wonderful storyteller, a talented writer, and a mother of extraordinary courage. I’m privileged to have her here today to share her story as part of the ongoing Living Humanae Vitae series.

My husband and I entered our marriage knowing the Church’s teachings on sex, marriage, and family life. We were totally on board and completely gung-ho to use NFP to have all sorts of great sex while we spaced our four to five children every two to three years. This is what we were promised, people, and this is what we were going to get!

Our first baby was eagerly anticipated, but was sadly lost early in pregnancy. Our firstborn was an NFP success story; she was born a year after my miscarriage. Ecological breastfeeding isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and so our second baby came along twenty-one months later.

Twelve months and two weeks later our third baby was born, because it turns out you can get pregnant before your period returns. There were a variety of complications at his birth so he stayed in the NICU for seven weeks and spent the next year of his life with multiple therapy and doctor appointments each week. If you were to guess that having a two year old, a one year old, and a baby with medical needs is incredibly difficult, you would be correct. We abstained for nine months that first year of his life, knowing that we needed a break and having lost all faith in my ability to chart when my body was under so much stress.

But at the end of that first year my husband came home from work and said to me, “I want more children. Today I was looking at the pictures on our desk. Our wedding picture, you and Ell, Ell and Ben, and then the one of the three kids where Ell and Ben are holding JF.” He moved his hand horizontally, pausing it with each picture he described. “And I just knew I wanted another baby.”

Less than a year later we had another girl. Her labor and delivery were hard on me – emotionally I was reliving my son’s traumatic birth and physically I was birthing an eleven and a half pound baby with no medication. It took her a minute to breathe after her birth and my husband and I were at our wits’ end. With two traumatic births, four wonderful kids in our home, and one baby entrusted to Jesus we felt like we had done our bit. No more kids, we were done.

Yet it turns out that, all rookie mistakes aside, my husband and I are on the hyper end of the fertility spectrum and another surprise pregnancy came. Our son was born when his older siblings were 1, 2, 3, and 5.  

But now we were really, truly done, done, done!

But we weren’t done with Natural Family Planning. Heavens no! NFP isn’t something to be used during the times when it would be okay to get pregnant even if I don’t really want to. NFP is what we’re supposed to use when we cannot get pregnant or do not want to, and sometimes, that means lots and lots of abstinence. This time we went a year without having sex. I won’t sugar coat it: it was hard and at times very hard. Were we tempted to use contraception? Probably. (I don’t remember!) But what does it profit a couple to gain all the sex they could want in their happy marriage but lose their souls?

I might have been afraid to have another kid but I was more afraid of eternal damnation. I know that will sound harsh and maybe even dumb to many of you, and so be it. I know what the Catholic Church teaches, why the Church teaches it, and I agree with Holy Mother Church – which is why I am still a Catholic. I appreciate and respect the consistency of the Church’s teachings on sex and marriage and I believe that if I am going to expect single people, unmarried couples, gay couples, the divorced, priests, and religious to follow Church teaching in their state of life then I should hold myself to the same standard. With those convictions firm, we found the postpartum time to be about faithfulness, trust, and obedience as an act of love.

After twelve months of abstinence we successfully used NFP for another eight months before I had another unplanned pregnancy.

By now I was scared and I was angry. I loved and enjoyed my kids but I was mad at every woman who could space her children with just breastfeeding or could afford things like new minivans, babysitters, and pizza delivery.

I resented women who talked about their contraception and sterilizations and I was embarrassed by how relieved they were when it was me pregnant and not them. And I lived in the daily fear that even if I did not miscarry our seventh child as I did our first, there was a good chance, based on two previous traumatic deliveries, that this baby would not survive birth.

Additionally, I was worried. My husband did not want any more kids, as the stress of providing for five small children and a wife on a public school teacher’s salary had been building. We had finally come to a good spot – a place where we had some wiggle room in our budget and I was on a medication that made a world of difference in my PPD – and we didn’t want to leave it.

I felt like NFP was a joke, and that I had let my husband down.

To make things even worse, I learned of an online forum that discussed how horrible it was that I, personally, was pregnant again. While it may be possible that some of the women were well-intentioned, it was a horrible sucker punch to read through a series of strangers talk about what a wreck my life was, and how it was too bad that there was a new little life growing in my womb.

Regardless of how anyone felt, my seventh baby was born and we love him to the moon and back. I’m so grateful to God for adding him to our family. Babies are gifts – only and always – even the ones we hadn’t planned for.

And of course now, after those rough nine months and a c-section, we were finally  D O N E.

Except ten months later I had another unplanned pregnancy. It was another instance of my nursing and hyper fertility combining with my “best” efforts at charting, but this time as soon as I saw the positive pregnancy test I didn’t cry or worry. I beamed. I thanked God, I touched my tiny womb, and told my tiny baby how much I loved her. I was nervous to tell my husband – so nervous I laughed while telling him – but he smiled too. And we laughed for joy together. We laughed through progesterone shots in the first trimester and we laughed in the operating room when the doctor held up a beautiful, healthy baby girl. She is one this June and every day with her has been a gift and a joy, and we are so grateful.

Our family is bigger than most and smaller than some.

Using natural family planning has not always been easy, but I am grateful for this tool which first and foremost requires a trust in God and His goodness. We had seven kids in nine years and it has been hard at times, but Jesus has asked me to take up my cross and follow Him, promising me that the burden would be light.

I have good kids, a husband who loves his family, and a home filled with laughter and love. God is faithful and generous. Thanks be to God.


  • Carolyn

    Thank you, Bonnie, for your sacrifice and your witness to the power of faith in difficult times. Your trust in God is a true inspiration!
    I feel like there’s a part of the story that’s missing, however. What changed for your most recent pregnancy that allowed you and your husband to approach it with joy? I’d love to read about that as well!

  • Colleen Pressprich

    Thank you so much for this! My husband and I are also on the hyper-fertile end of the spectrum. We have 3 kids 3 and under (and a 95 year old Grandma living with us) while he’s in medical school, and sometimes it feels crazy, but they are all such gifts. I’m so grateful for your witness and knowing there are others in the same boat (especially as we are currently in the postpartum-hoping-desperately-to-not-conceive phase)

  • Kaitlin @ More Like Mary

    But have you heard about Creighton?? (I kid! I kid! Don’t shoot me!) Seriously, you are awesome Bonnie. Thank you for your witness.

  • Jenna Hines

    Bonnie, this is beautiful <3 I've watched your family grow over the years, and I just love you all the more for it.

  • BridgetAnn

    “…I believe that if I am going to expect single people, unmarried couples, gay couples, the divorced, priests, and religious to follow Church teaching in their state of life then I should hold myself to the same standard.” How beautifully put!

  • Colleen

    Thank you Bonnie! I totally agree it’s so much better after we throw our hands in the air and surrender it all to God (it is one heck of a process though) God Bless you guys!

  • Susan

    What an amazing inspiration and testament to our faith you are. If only other young women especially Catholic ones, had your dedication and commitment to the Lord and taking up that cross. May you and your family be blessed always. Never stop what you’re doing, you are changing lives … ❤️❤️❤️❤️

  • Holly

    You are awesome, Bonnie! I have followed your blog for years, since the time everybody was asking for prayers for JF right after he was born. I come back and read many of your posts on NFP specifically because they are comforting to me. We are on number 5, and most of ours are spaced out close to 3 years due to nursing (lucky I know) but i am SO drowning currently that when people listen to me express how much I am struggling and how I really want to be done with children, and then basically pat me on my head and say “well maybe God will change your heart,” I legit want to throw something at them. Also my husband is not Catholic (I converted after our marriage) so then I carry a bit of guilt and confusion about whether I should keep forcing NFP on someone who really doesn’t want anymore children. Ugb. It is a hard row to hoe. Anyway thanks to both you and Jenny for being real and sharing your struggles.

    • M

      I’ve been waiting for someone to bring up a non-catholic spouse! We have two under two & it’s so hard. Especially since my husband won’t be back in the country for 15 more days. My husband is/was on board with NFP for health reasons but since he doesn’t share the theological belief behind NFP, his enthusiasm is waning. He really doesn’t understand why anyone would want more than two kids (I know this is partially influenced by the fact that two under two is just hard) & I totally see his point… As Jenny mentioned in a previous post, without the “theology of suffering” it makes no sense. But you also can’t strong arm your spouse into more kids. He’s a great father and husband and I know he’ll welcome more kids if the come but it’s just hard to know how to proceed.

      • Germaine

        You sound like a super Mom! Prayers for your husband to understand! Neither of my sisters’ husbands do; I’m pretty sure there’s lots of other spouses sharing the same difficulty too. If anyone has thoughts (besides the pill and iud being harmful/sterilization expensive to have and to reverse), I’d like to hear them to pass on to my sisters (if/when they next bring that situation up). It’s hard to come up with an easy reason that’s not tied to the Church’s understanding of marriage. You probably already thought of this but maybe showing him some of Jenny’s posts? Anyhow, will pray and thanks to your husband for his service to our country! I bet he can’t wait to see you three : )

  • Germaine

    Thank you for sharing! I love feeling solidarity with other families who are trying to tow the line : ) It’s hard sometimes. Your story is very encouraging for me. I’m a fertile myrtle, but have trouble sustaining healthy pregnancies partly due to progesterone. While my husband and I love each other deeply (and probably I should say because), we’re abstaining completely as we think this is best for us for now. So far it’s been a little over a year, and we’ve had to do it before, too. Every couple is different, but two things have definitely helped us in abstaining and I want to throw them out there in case they help anyone else:

    1) keeping a list of the reasons why we’re abstaining folded in both our pillowcases (we’ve yet to actually pull them out in the middle of the night, but it’s handy to just say “hey hey don’t forget what’s in the pillow” which immediately recalls that we’ve reasons spelled out but not as harsh a reminder as actually saying out loud (or trying to remember if it’s late!) what the stressful/grave reasons are.

    2) co-sleeping. Yeah, I know. But there’s nothing like a baby between you to help roll your partner back ; ) I was totally against it with our first and I started doing it this time around because I was exhausted and breastfeeding. Funny enough, I asked my spouse what would help him with abstinence this time around. Should one of us sleep on the couch? (neither liked that idea) Would it help if I wore sweats and an oversized hoodie to bed? He said really the only thing that’d reliably help is if one of the kids was in bed with us. Well, so far it’s worked plus allowed me more sleep. I understand co-sleeping might not be safe for everybody or might be safe but keep you up with anxiety; you know your situation better than I do.

    Other things which have helped but would probably have happened regardless of our wish to abstain have been him sleeping under the covers and me not, him being the one to jump up & take care of our toddler in the adjoining room, plus us both just being tired at day’s end. We both rise early before the kids and put the littles asleep by praying the Rosary in our toddler’s dark room so we’re pretty apt to be sleepy too by its end.

  • Sophia

    Thanks for this series. Is there such a thing as a small-size (<3) NFP family here? These stories of unanticipated large families and small families that are trying to grow are very eye-opening, but I'd love to hear from moms who experienced a really long abstinence – like over a decade / until their end of fertility – since that's what seems to be the answer if one would like to be 100% sure against more children but also in line with Church teaching.

    • Grandma K

      Sophia!, I’m a 65 yo Mom of 5 and happily a Grandma to many young grandchildren (18 + 3 on the way). Our first child was born when I was 27 and the last when I was 36. I was totally exhausted and information about NFP 30 years ago was available only in books and very limited. Fertility awareness was not popular during my time of fertility and support for families who were trying to follow the teachings of the Church was lacking.
      We tried charting using a symptothermal method for 6 years but it was confusing and with so little support it became very frustrating. So we decided to do like Germaine above, total abstinence. We didn’t always succeed so we remained open to another pregnancy even though we had prayerfully decided we (mostly me) couldn’t handle another pregnancy.
      A few years after that decision I began going through menopause which gave us even more willpower to abstain. I was done with that by the time I was 52. So I guess while my family is not <3, I wanted to tell you that it is possible to either chart, especially with the added benefit of the internet and greater support from peers, medical people and the Church, or to totally abstain. Is that fun? Not really, but if you have a serious reason for not being pregnant again there are other things you can do as a couple to show your love for one another. Abstinence for 16 years seems like a long time now but it didn't at the time. Life is always so busy with kids especially as they get older.
      We still love each other very much (40 years) and love visiting new places. Some of the most amazing places we visit are our children's homes. Being able to watch them with their children, both the happy times and the tough times, brings back good memories. Although I’m pretty sure it was all God's grace and not something we did, they remain faithful to the Church, open to life and alway available to others who are struggling with Church teachings.
      Prayers that God will bless all of you as you strive to follow the teachings of the Church in whatever situation you find yourself. And I'm sure I'm not the only older Mom/Grandma who loves to give younger Moms a break when you find yourself at your wit’s end. Nothing more fun than time spent with a child. 🙂

  • Ingegerd Riis

    I have been using the Billings ovulation method, and breastfeeding ;).. to space my 6 kids.. it worked for us,,

  • Ashley

    Even though I’ve internet known Bonnie for a while and am very familiar with her story, I’m still all sorts of weeping. She’s an inspiration to many and I love that you’re doing this series, Jenny.

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