Catholic Herald staff
Actively living out their Catholic faith as individuals and a couple – following the church’s teachings on Natural Family Planning in particular – has sometimes been challenging for Nick and Emily Frase.
But for Nick, who grew up in the Diocese of Superior, the lesson that being a faithful Catholic wouldn’t always come easy was built into his formation. Strength in their faith and the support of a solid Christian community has guided the Virginia couple through trying times.
“Having that community of a bunch of people just trying to do marriage and parenthood to the best of their ability has made all the difference with us remaining faithful to the church and each other,” Emily said.
“We’ve met a lot of faithful couples who are in agreement that the era of comfortable Christianity is over,” Nick agreed. “We cannot rely on the broader culture to inculcate our children with a baseline Judeo-Christian ethic, the sort of thing taken for granted by previous generations.”
Born in Milwaukee, Nick spent most of his childhood in Hudson. He and his parents, Mike and Cyndee Frase, were parishioners at St. Patrick Parish, where his parents remain active members.
In those years, the parish had more than its share of tragedies, most of them stemming from the placement of a priest who sexually assaulted teens, likely committed two murders in 2002 to cover up his crimes, and then killed himself in 2004.
“Anyone with knowledge of the diocese knows we had some tough times at St. Patrick’s,” Nick said. “That’s probably not the most revolutionary thing spoken, but it has impressed on me the importance of witnessing to our faith even when inconvenient.”
He credits one of his good friends, now Fr. David Neuschwander, a diocesan priest who serves in Hayward and Cable, with inspiring him to “own” his faith in high school.
“You can read Butler’s (Lives of the Saints), but there’s no replacement for actually having friends that model holiness on a day-to-day basis, through good times and bad,” Nick added.
After graduating Hudson High School, Nick left for the Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2006, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in theology. He graduated in 2010 and headed off to Washington, D.C.
“I was not career-minded at the time,” he observed.
In the nation’s capital, Nick landed in the nonprofit world, where he encountered “men and women of all Christian stripe working together to advance justice, religious liberty and the pro-life cause,” he said. “It’s a true sacrifice for many and an experience I wish every young professional could have, seeing true salt-of-the-earth people at work.”
While working for the Family Research Council, a pro-marriage, pro-life organization in D.C., Nick met Emily, who started out as a paid intern and stayed on for five years. The couple married in 2016, and Nick later moved on to a profession more financially supportive of family life. They settled in northern Virginia.
“As St. Paul warns the Corinthians, a married man has to think about his earthly responsibilities,” he explained. “I have since left that world for a job in E-discovery/litigation support.”
A native of Louisiana, Emily also had a solid Catholic upbringing. She and her brother were homeschooled, mostly through a co-op with other families, until eighth grade. Her parents moved to Texas when she was a teen.
“One of my fondest memories was being taught my catechism by the Missionaries of Charity,” she recalled. “They had a mission at the parish we attended in Baton Rouge. I still remember being prepared for my first Communion by Sr. Tessalina, a sweet nun from India, who taught us many of Mother Teresa’s simple prayers, some of which I still say to this day.”
Emily graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architectural studies from Louisiana Tech University in 2012. After taking a break from Catholicism in her second year of college – school was too demanding for her to go to church, she told God – she lost her friends, her faith and her “sense of balance.”
“No surprise, it ended up being the worst year of school for me,” she added.
She began reading Ven. Fulton Sheen, at her father’s urging, and found inspiration.
“It was Sheen’s concept of the ‘noble woman’ that particularly captivated me, sealed my return to the faith, and completely changed the course of my life,” Emily said. “Our son’s middle name is Fulton in his honor.”
Emily quit her job with the Family Research Council to stay at home soon after the couple’s first child, Evelyn Grace, was born in March 2017. A second child, Thomas Fulton, arrived in June 2018.
Natural Family Planning
When they married, NFP was the obvious family-planning choice for two devout Catholics. They started out with the sympto-thermal method, which they learned from the Couple to Couple League. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for them. Emily was pregnant three months in.
“We actually had two unexpected pregnancies,” said Emily. “That experience definitely made us question the sanity of church teaching on NFP and birth control, because clearly, the church’s way wasn’t an effective way to ‘plan’ our family.”
Their daughter, full breech, was born via planned cesarean section. To avoid a second C-section, Emily needed to wait nine months before conceiving again. They switched to the Creighton model, in hopes of a better result, “a choice that ended up being the worst possible option for us – the method was not a good fit,” she said.
Their daughter was 8 months old when Emily found out she was one month pregnant. A second C-section ensued.
As Emily explained in her blog, Total W(h)ine, more was at stake than the pain of a second surgery and the discomfort of a long recovery. Her doctor had told her two things: first, after having two C-sections, she would not qualify for natural childbirth; and second, she should not have more than four C-sections.
Thus, with the early pregnancy, they had lost the freedom to discern the size of their family.
“That pregnancy has been my greatest test of faith to date,” she added. “I experienced feeling totally abandoned by God for the whole pregnancy. It was a pain that made me question everything, including the goodness of God. We had been faithful to church teaching, we had valid reasons to avoid a pregnancy, and yet it felt like God didn’t care. I was very angry, and eventually just stopped praying, though I kept attending Mass and going to confession.”
This led to a realization.
“So much of what we experienced could have been so easily avoided if we had realistic expectations about NFP set from the beginning of our marriage,” she commented. “It was as though the people who taught us were afraid that the truth about how hard NFP could be would send us running to birth control. The irony was our experience made us seriously consider barrier methods because we didn’t get what we were sold.”
After their son’s birth, the couple switched to the Marquette method and finally found a fertility awareness system that worked for them. But Emily didn’t just gloss over their tumultuous relationship with NFP. She used her story, along with professional experience writing and editing, to develop the blog she’d started in 2018, Total W(h)ine, into a space of dialogue for Catholics.
NFP is a major topic on her website, totalwhine.com, but self-care, wellness, faith and the role of the stay-at-home mom are also part of the discussion.
One example: In a series called “The SAHM Talk Back!” in which she collaborated with another blogger, they concluded, on the always tense topic of a woman’s “place”: “A woman’s place is wherever God has called her to be. Canonically, this has included such places as at the head of an army, the primary advisor to the pope, balancing a career with the needs of her family, and devoting herself full time in the home.”
Her effort to honestly help other couples navigate NFP is driving much traffic to the site, and although Emily wouldn’t have called her work a “ministry” a year ago, she said that has changed as more and more women and couples seek answers to sometimes uncomfortable questions.
“The response has been overwhelming,” she said. “I am now in the process of forming an organization to address these issues I’ve encountered from countless women and couples on a larger scale.”
Nick admires his wife’s work. He sees NFP as both countercultural and a powerful form of Christian witness.
“NFP has been such a lodestar and, I hesitate to say ‘litmus test,’ because it is one of these outwardly visible witnesses that is massively inconvenient in the world’s eyes,” he commented. “My wife and I have two children, we’re not the transit van family yet, but you’d be surprised how many people I have met that intuit we’re Catholic just on the spacing of our children. It doesn’t bother me; we have met so many people of honest faith (often Protestant) who are attracted to this idea of authentic surrender to God’s will and open up their souls to us in deep ways.”
Authenticity – sharing experiences honestly to build community and solidarity – is at the heart of the couple’s faith journey.
“My purpose for the blog was to share my life of faith in an authentic way, not hiding the parts that are hard, but using my own vulnerability to cultivate solidarity with others who find faithfulness difficult at times for any number of reasons,” Emily said.
Added Nick, “We need to witness the truth of our faith, and live it honestly.”