Thursday, 9 March 2017

What It's Really Like to Be Catholic and Pro-Life In 2017

Dread. This is what I felt when I realised I was expecting a second baby. The test was very faint, even fainter than it had been with my son, about a year and a half before. But just like with the first pregnancy, I knew. You hear stories of symptomless pregnancies where the mother discovers it at five months, or even women who go into labour without having had a clue until their contractions begin. Not me. Even before the nausea, before the exhaustion, before the overwhelmingly keen sense of smell, I know.

The first time I was pregnant, I really wanted to be. We hadn't been 'trying', per se - it was a honeymoon baby, but I had always dreamed of having a family, and after a wonderful wedding and having found a lovely flat for us to move into, I was overjoyed to know soon we'd have a little person completing everything.

The second time, I had a six-month-old in tow. I was exhausted, never sleeping beyond six am (a 'good' night's sleep nowadays), having to have someone else to hand if I wanted to finish a cup of tea or spend longer than seven minutes getting ready in the morning.

I was the same weight as before I'd had the baby, but my body didn't look the same. My stomach looked like I was really overweight. It didn't make sense to me. Did I have thinner arms and legs now? I wanted to do whatever it would take to get back in shape - I knew I would never look the same as before but I didn't want to go back, I wanted to go forward to a healthier, stronger me. I knew it would take time but I was determined. I also knew that pregnancy meant an abrupt end to these plans.

The first time I was pregnant I thought having a baby would be easy. I didn't believe the rumours. I thought birth wouldn't be painful and I thought my baby would sleep loads. I thought breastfeeding would come naturally.

The second time I had flashbacks of the first six weeks after my first child was born. Never sleeping longer than two hours at a time. Never doing anything while you're awake other than feeding, burping and changing your baby. And this time I'd have another tiny person, just a bigger baby really, to look after too. Maybe I would just get two hours of sleep per twentyfour hours. Six weeks is a long time to survive on two hours' sleep a day.

Dread turned to fear and fear turned to an overwhelming lack of self-confidence. I sincerely believed I could not do it. I would be unable to cope. I didn't know what this meant exactly, would I have post-natal depression? Would I neglect my eldest and cause him irreversible psychological harm? Or perhaps he'd injure himself and become disabled for life because I didn't have the energy to watch him and the smaller baby at the same time. Perhaps my marriage would fall apart, I'd blame everything on my husband, I'd become ugly inside and outside and we'd grow increasingly distanced. I didn't know exactly what 'incapable' would look like but I knew that's what I was.

If I could have snapped my fingers and not have been pregnant, I would have snapped away. I wanted another child, but I needed six more months first. Six more months of wearing my normal clothes. Six more months of eating whatever I want. Six more months of being able to pick up my baby. Six more months of wine every now and then. Six more months of just the three of us, now we'd got into the swing of it, now it didn't feel so impossible.

Being Catholic means being 'pro-life', and this is often reduced to just believing abortion is wrong. This is part of what being 'pro-life' means, but it's really just the tip of the iceberg. I put the term in quotation marks, because I know that pro-choice people have a problem with it, it kind of implies they're 'anti-life', when in fact the starting point for many people's pro-choice position is the protection of the woman's life.

I prefer the term 'anti-choice', because I believe it encompasses the fundamental Catholic position. I can't speak for all pro-life people, many of whom are atheists or of other religious persuasions, but as I understand it, the Catholic stance on pro-creation is that we have no right to choose. People talk about abstinence as the thing Catholics can choose or not choose - in the sense that if you don't want to have children you can choose to abstain, but in fact this is not exactly true for married Catholics. Married Catholics can undergo periods of abstinence by mutual agreement, but it's in fact a sin to continuously deny sex to your spouse or not to ever be open to the possibility of children. In marriage we vow to be open to children and to be giving spouses, this means giving of ourselves sexually, too. We do choose to get married - a coerced marriage, or even a marriage undergone due to external pressures, is not deemed a valid marriage in the eyes of the Church. For you to count as actually married you don't just sign the dotted line or say the right words in front of witnesses, you have to have wanted to get married, fully, profoundly, from the heart of your soul. But this is really as far as our 'choice' goes. And even then, I'd argue we don't really choose to want to marry someone. We don't choose to meet the right person. Falling in love and being called to marital life isn't always convenient, it doesn't always happen when we want it to, it isn't always something we can be 'sure' of by way of rational thinking. The certainty we might feel is only really reached in that silent, intuitive way where we can hear God's voice.

So beyond the stance on abortion, being pro-life means being anti-choice in a more general sense, it means relinquishing control, it means allowing life wherever it arises - not just human life, but all forms of life, being open to opportunity and vitality and change wherever and whenever it comes. And if I'm honest, it's bloody horrible.

It sounds nice to talk about being 'open' and 'receptive' and 'to learn to give up control' but to be honest, being able to plan a bit and know what's happening in the near-future is much nicer. It feels much nicer. It feels safe. It feels warm and cosy. It feels normal. It feels familiar, and everything familiar feels lovely. I'm not talking about being stuck in a rut, doing a relentless routine. I'm talking about seeing the friends you love, wearing the outfits that make you feel best, eating your favourite foods and knowing how much money you have to spend on little pleasures, knowing your house is big enough, knowing you are loved, that you are doing a good job, and that you'll be okay.

Being open to life doesn't feel like that at all. It doesn't feel like knowing you're loved, it doesn't feel like knowing everything's alright, like you can manage tomorrow and the day after. It feels like disarray. It feels like God is sending you to battle. I always think of Christ in these moments - God sent his own son to be crucified, how can I trust him?! I don't want to be crucified! I'm not immortal like Christ, I won't survive it. I don't want to bear any cross, unless it's a reasonable one like giving money to homeless people or being the bigger person in an argument and just generally trying to be kind in my day-to-day. That's where my ambition to be good ends. I have no interest in becoming a saint. I don't want to be a martyr, it's not for me.

Being open to life doesn't feel nice, at first. It's like childbirth. It's unbearably painful. You want it to stop. You want to undo it, rewind, to flea. But childbirth is maybe the one time where your fight or flight instinct can't end in flight. The baby is coming. So even if your initial instinct is flight, you can't run away from the baby, your 'enemy' causing you pain isn't external, he's going to follow you wherever you go, and the only way to win is to fight. Eventually you reach transition, and the urge to push is overwhelming, and you transform. Once the baby is born, with each little battle that comes, the sleep deprivation, the unknowns, the worries, you don't run away, you fight. And each time you fight instead of running away you become stronger.

Being open to life is the same. If you stop trying to choose what you want your life to look like, you become more tired, you lose energy, you look worse, you feel worse. But your strength is greater than all the negatives combined. And from strength comes power, and when you learn your own power, no matter how scared you are, no matter how sad, how tired, how bored, how lonely, how ugly or fed up you feel in the moment, something bigger happens overall. Some part of you dies and is resurrected. Some part of you becomes eternal. I'm talking about whenever you bear any cross, not just when you have children. When you live through a big unprecedented change that you weren't ready for, sometimes a joyous one like a birth, sometimes a dreadful one like a death, but always one that you didn't choose. When you don't choose what your life looks like, no matter how bad the moment feels, the moment is just the moment. It will pass, and through it passing you will come to know what doesn't pass, what always remains. What remains is bigger and better than anything you were holding onto, bigger and better than anything that can be held onto, because it's untouchable, you can't lose it, it's eternal and unspeakable and conveyed using words that become ultimately meaningless like 'love' and 'God' but in spite of all that it's the most real thing that you'll ever come to know.