(Editor’s note: National Natural Family Planning Awareness Week is July 25-31. It celebrates God’s gift of marriage and vision for human sexuality and highlights the anniversary of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, released 53 years ago on July 25.)
By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — “Josephine Elaine Bertram is here, finally in our arms,” Emily and Derrick Bertram wrote on their social media accounts shortly after their daughter’s July 7 birth.
It was an announcement the Bertrams had been waiting for years to make. The couple, in their late 20s, are active in the Davenport Catholic community and credit Natural Family Planning — and the fertility awareness that comes with it — for helping them in their journey toward parenthood.
The Bertrams’ beginnings
Emily, a DeWitt native, served as a REACH Youth Minister in Washington state in her early 20s. Though she hoped to marry and have a family someday, Emily said dating was the last thing on her mind during her time in ministry. “I went on a two-year-dating fast,” she said with a laugh.
Emily was receptive to re-entering the dating pool upon her return to Iowa, but she had reservations. She shared her concerns with her best friend, Colleen Darland. “She said, ‘I might know someone! He goes to church in Clinton and he cantors. He has a beautiful singing voice!’ I was like, ‘Okay, tell me more!’”
Emily found Derrick on Facebook and realized she knew his mother, Brenda Bertram, through various youth ministry events. “I sent (Derrick) a friend request, and low and behold, he accepted it!” The two began talking and, about a week later, Derrick asked Emily on a date. “We went to Village Inn in Clinton,” Derrick recalled. “It was nice!” Emily and Derrick got married at Ss. Philip & James Parish in Grand Mound in 2018, three years after their first date.
In the months leading up to their wedding, Emily and Derrick learned the Billings Method of Natural Family Planning. Emily was interested in using NFP because it is the only method of family planning approved by the church. Symptom-based methods, like Billings, are reliable and offer women a greater understanding of their bodies. Couples are able to identify times of peak fertility and can use this information to attempt to achieve or avoid pregnancy. It can be tailored to individuals, she said, noting she has never had a consistent 28-day cycle. “It’s not the rhythm (calendar) method.”
Derrick was less familiar with NFP, but was attracted to the hormone-free approach. “When she brought it up, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, definitely, let’s go for it!’” He knew that if they followed the rules diligently, the chances of an unexpected pregnancy would be slim. Symptom-based NFP methods demonstrate an accuracy of about 99 percent in identifying times of fertility and infertility, according to the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology.
After marriage, the couple decided to avoid pregnancy for about a year. “Knowing what was going on (with my body) was very helpful; I felt like I had true control,” Emily said. However, through tracking her cycles, Emily realized something was wrong. For years, she had experienced long and erratic cycles, but her longtime OBGYN kept telling her not to worry. Armed with cycle charts, she chose a new OBGYN and was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that affects a woman’s ability to ovulate.
The news was unsettling for the couple. Although they had a few months left before their first anniversary, they decided to start trying to conceive. They took a two-pronged approach to increase their chances: Emily took oral medications intended to help women with PCOS ovulate and used NFP to identify her most fertile days.
A heartbreaking setback
A few months after they began their journey toward parenthood, Emily discovered she was pregnant. The couple’s joy would be short-lived due to an early miscarriage. They were heartbroken. “I was angry, and angry at God,” Emily recalled. Derrick felt helpless, wondering if he could have done anything to prevent the outcome. He broke down the following day at Mass when he saw a young family with a newborn. Though he was happy for the couple, it was a painful reminder of the loss.
The couple relied on their faith and each other to get through the grieving process. “We started praying the rosary more,” Derrick said. Emily reflected on Mary’s story as a source of comfort. “Our Lady literally had to watch her son die on the cross. She knows the pain of losing her own child. It made me dive into that deepness and appreciation for Mary. Even the mother of our Lord went through hell and back.”
Wanting to take time to grieve the loss of their child, Emily and Derrick waited before trying again. Four months after resuming fertility medications, Emily and Derrick discovered they were expecting their “rainbow baby.”
The couple chose to name their baby Josephine to honor St. Joseph and beloved family members who are named Joseph. Pope Francis dedicated a Year of St. Joseph around the time Josephine was conceived. “St. Joseph is so incredible,” Emily said. The couple call their daughter “Josie” for short.
Reflecting on their journey, Derrick feels everything has come full circle. From the grief of infertility and miscarriage to the joy of holding Josie, “you’re at this low point, but on the other side is the high point.” “Our hearts are so full,” Emily said.
St. Joseph, a model of chastity
On Dec. 8, 2020, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis released his apostolic letter on the “150th anniversary of the proclamation of St. Joseph as patron of the universal church.” Concurrently, the pope launched the Year of St. Joseph, from Dec. 8, 2020, to Dec. 8, 2021.
One of the titles for St. Joseph is The Most Chaste Spouse, said Marianne Agnoli, marriage and family life coordinator for the Diocese of Davenport. Although it is not one of his official titles, some have suggested that St. Joseph would be the perfect patron saint of husbands and wives practicing Natural Family Planning (NFP).
“During times of abstinence, St. Joseph can remind couples that a Christ-centered marriage will never lack authentic intimacy and true unity,” Agnoli said.