Monday, June 9, 2014

New Perspectives on NFP

I finally got around to reading Simcha's book The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning.

I avoid ever paying full price for a book (I know, I know - it's good to support the author.  But it's also hard to fit in our budget.), and I didn't expect this one to show up in our library anytime soon.  I hoped to borrow it from a friend, but they were all reading Kindle versions (darn that new technology!).  I finally buckled down and bought it on Amazon (it's selling for a really reasonable price, so if you're still curious about it, buy it!) because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

I have to admit, I expected to hate it. Maybe I even wanted to hate it.  Despite all the reviews claiming that Simcha finally spoke the truth about the challenges of NFP instead of rhapsodizing about what a magical beautiful thing it is, I suspected that she must still be secretly "propagandizing" NFP - something I believe to be a legitimate, but often over-rated practice.

I was pleased to discover that this wasn't true.  She spoke a lot of sense in this book, and shared a great deal of wisdom - gained over the years of her marriage.  More than a guide about dealing with the challenges of NFP, I would say that this is a guide to how we fallen humans can live out a Christ-centered marriage.  Even though my husband and I are not using - and never have *really* used - NFP, there was still a lot for me to learn here.

It's an age-old truth, but something which has continually impressed me is the fact that with age and experience often comes wisdom.  Recently, I've gained a bit of understanding on something about NFP that used to baffle me.

I've shared some of my thoughts on NFP before (see here and here), so you might know that I'm pretty down on the way it is is commonly "sold" by Catholics.  I think people want so badly to provide an appealing alternative to contraception (which is always immoral) that they talk up NFP as being a positive thing, rather than the morally neutral tool that it is.  It's kind of like saying, "isn't it awesome that I got sick on Sunday and was dispensed from the obligation to attend Mass?!"  No, actually.  You may have been perfectly sinless in missing Mass, but it kinda sucks that you had to be sick, and I don't think it's anything to be thrilled about - even if it means you finally had a chance to pray five Rosaries.

At least some portion of my distaste for NFP came about because I just could not understand the motivations a lot of people had when deciding they needed to postpone another pregnancy.  Yeah - pregnancy and children are exhausting, but...who said life was supposed to be easy?  The primary purpose of marriage is procreation.  I suspected that NFP was often over-used by Catholics.  I tried very hard never to presume anything about particular people, but something always seemed "off" about the fact that pretty much every couple we heard about seemed to be using NFP to intentionally plan out each of their conceptions.  What ever happened to just accepting babies as they came - even when they came close?  Do you really need to jump right back into charting and postponing the second after you give birth?  Why do the midwives have to write down what sort of family planning I'm going to use at my 6-week post-partum checkup, and why won't they accept my answer when I tell them "none"?  I never understood the fear I sensed in other women over the thought of another pregnancy.

But then I gave birth to my third child.

When my first two kids were born - I mean the moment they were born - my very first emotions were this intense mixture of relief and "joy that a man has been born into this world" (Jn 16:21).  But when my sweet little Linus came out, I just felt numb.  Joyless.  Tom was weeping in happiness, our doula was praising my hard work and smiling at the beautiful baby we helped create, the nurses were all fussing over him.  And there was me just lying there, staring straight ahead.  Stiff with dread.  All I could think was "how many more times?  How many more times do I have to go through pregnancy?  Through labor and childbirth?  I don't want to do this for the next fifteen years straight.  I would like to never have to go through this again."

I'm not saying any of these thoughts were entirely rational.  And they weren't very holy.  But they were very human.

Even after we brought him home, my transition to caring for three kids - as I've mentioned before - was not easy.  It was NOT EASY.  For me to even admit this means it was a significant hardship for me. I am a person who is usually able to deal with stresses and challenges fairly well - I may get frazzled, but I never feel defeated.  But there were days this time around when I was not sure I could handle it.  When I felt like I was drowning.  I felt like I kept putting out feeble "calls for help", yet no one understood or listened.  Everyone expected me to be strong like always, and adjust to the new baby as easily as I had with the first two.  No one realized that I needed to be taken care of.

This expression of despair captures about how I felt
Tom and I have said from the beginning that we wanted a "big family" (whatever that means.  We don't have an ideal number - we're just thankful for what we get).  And we still do.  So it was hard for me for the longest time to understand why people could feel the need to postpone another baby unless there was some major major crisis in their life.  Why waste those fertile years?  Why go through the struggle and the hardship of trying to abstain and figure out God's plan each month, when you could just live out your married life naturally and let the babies come as they would?  Our grandmothers didn't have NFP to fall back on, and they had huge families, and seemed to be happy enough....

But I had begun to notice a trend on comment boards and internet forums.  In many cases, the people who were either the most critical about the use of NFP or the most fanatically impressed with it were rather young - with maybe one or two kids.  The ones who had the more measured and reasoned perspective on it were those who were older and often had many children: People who had endured the exhaustion and wear-and-tear of many pregnancies, but also felt pleasure and relief as their kids grew old enough to help and began to blossom into unique and wonderful people.  People who knew the anxiety and despair of an unintended pregnancy, yet had also found that those unplanned children were one of their life's greatest blessings.

I was talking to Tom only a few weeks before Linus was born about how I wouldn't be surprised if my perspective on welcoming new children continually changed as our family grew.  I realized that we could conceivably hit a point where we just felt too overwhelmed and as if we could use a break between pregnancies.  And now for the first time, I've had a taste of what that emotion is even like.

So I think I've gained some perspective now.  Every family and every person is different, and sometimes people really feel that they could use a "breather" between the babies in order to be a better parent.  (and I'm sure there are any number of other legitimate reasons for postponing a pregnancy, which I'm not mentioning now).  Most people wouldn't go through the struggle of practicing NFP unless they believed they had a legitimate reason.  Perhaps if they're honest with themselves, not all of those people do have legitimate reasons.  But maybe those reasons don't have to be as dire as I once thought.  If things hadn't settled down significantly for me this time around, maybe I'd be considering joining the ranks of those many confused women attempting to make sense of their wacky post-partum fertility signs right now...

But I am dealing better with everything.  Though life is still very busy with all the projects we're doing around the house, I think the toughest portion of the transition to having three kids has passed, and we've found a new rhythm.  (And um, can I just brag right here for a minute about my amazingly easy third baby?  He goes to bed at 9pm, wakes up once at 6 am to nurse, then goes right back to sleep until 10am or so.  It must be God's special gift to me!)  

So here's about how I'm feeling now: At this point, if someone told me "you are going to be handed a new baby in nine months", I'd say, "ok - things might be a little crazy, but I'm game."  But if someone told me, "starting today, you will have to suffer through another nine months of pregnancy, and then endure the travails of childbirth, and then have another child to take care of, making you the mother of four under five", I'd maybe flip out a little.  I really....don't like being pregnant (Tom is encouraging me to remove the word "hate" from my vocabulary).  But I do love new babies :-)

I still don't want to use NFP, and I still think it's important to think of it as something that is definitely less than the ideal.  But it's presumptuous to assume we will never have a reason to consider postponing a pregnancy.  Who knows what the future holds.  Who knows how my perspective will change as I gain experience and insights.  Seriously, I only have three kids now.  In my circles, that's a small family.  What do I really know yet about life and marriage and child-rearing?  Not much!  But I'm continually learning and growing.


  1. My husband and I basically have the same perspective as you on NFP. We wrote about it here: It can be hard giving an opinion on a subject that is so personal to so many and often women get defensive and think we're being judgmental. But we're never talking about anyone's personal situation, just the concept of NFP in general. I loved your analogy of missing Mass because one is sick. NFP is totally the same, valid to use it when called for. I have heard the third child point is usually the most stressful. So I expect to be overwhelmed myself when (God willing) we reach that point. And it's totally ok for us to feel scared, overwhelmed, and anxious! But we show a trust in God when we tell Him, "Ok, God. We trust You, we'll do our best, and we'll carry on." And then the storm passes, I look back and I am amazed I survived that particular season of life. :) Anyways, it was totally refreshing to see someone else who doesn't see NFP as the practice norm in married life. God bless!

  2. My thoughts on NFP continue to change as well. I...strongly dislike it...for myself. But we've kind of used it. By kind of I mean we used complete abstinence, wishing we could use NFP instead. We would have preferred that, but we've never taken a class and charts are tricky to navigate when you're breastfeeding. Thankfully we've only needed it minimally, maybe 3 months combined in our almost 7 years married? I'm hopeful that we won't need to 'use' it again. (What does it means to 'use' NFP? I still like charting; it's so much better then throwing money away on dozens of pregnancy tests when you're not even fertile yet. Does that count as using NFP?)

    But even though I dislike it in practice, and would love to never use it again, I always find myself fighting for it when NFP itself is attacked online. I just don't 'get' that. It makes me prickle. The arguments against it (at least as they apply to 'other people' as opposed to people talking about their own experiences) just don't seem true to me. I have always just felt that the Holy Spirit will work these things out in people, or at least much better than an online forum could. It's not the case when a couple is using contraception, since mortal sin removes God's grace, but if a couple is using NFP God's grace is still present.

    You're much better at expressing yourself then I am. I guess I could just say that I agree with everything you've said here. I would love to read Simcha's book...but I'm still holding out for hope I'll be able to borrow one. Good post.

    1. Thanks for your comments. That's actually a big pet peeve of mine - the term "using NFP". I wish people were more clear, because it always creates confusion in discussions about it. In my opinion, there's a different between keeping a fertility chart (which is just knowledge), and what you DO with that knowledge (deciding to time the marital act based on the woman's cycle). The former I would call simply charting. The latter is "using NFP."

  3. We haven't really charted or "used NFP" since before John Paul was born, but the things I learned about my body during the charting phase before getting married and those first few months were so valuable! It seems like common sense to me for women to take an NFP course (or simply learn about charting) before marriage, or even as soon as fertility hits - regardless of whether the knowledge will be used to prevent or achieve pregnancy, I just think it's really important to know what's going on in your body! AND I think having that fundamental knowledge before post-partum craziness makes charting impossible is so important, because what happens to that couple that has 5 kids in 5 years who discern that they need to avoid pregnancy for a time, but don't have the means to do so other than complete abstinence? I know people do it, but... Yikes!

    I'm very thankful that breastfeeding and co-sleeping seem to delay the return of my fertility for a while - we don't seem to make "easy" babies in this house, and without the 18+ months between each child, I don't know what I would do... I mean, I'd deal, obviously... And it's not like NFP helped us with spacing, so I feel like a little bit of a cheater being grateful for not having to worry about getting pregnant again very quickly!

  4. Yes, I know what you mean. My body so far wants to space babies about 19 months apart. If I was one of those women (like my grandmother) who was getting pregnant again a month or two after giving birth, I might feel differently!

    I often think an ideal situation might be that all women would learn the basics of NFP as just par for the course, during their teen years. The same way we had to learn about dealing with our period. And then the Church's role would just be saying, "hey - you have this knowledge. Here's how to use it morally. Here's the theology behind the meaning of sex and marriage, etc."

    1. Sorry, I'm abusing my own terms!! When I say "NFP" here, I really meant "reading fertility signs".

  5. You are wise. You will likely change thoughts at least a few more times before you are done. And, in case you forgot, the tunnel is the most difficult time. When Sly and Stella are above 6, you will be amazed how welcoming you will be to new life (perhaps). Everyone is different. I do think, however, there are many that "use NFP" to avoid (that's even a term, isn't it?) without really knowing the depth of their decision.

    Being old and tired, I've given up worrying about "them" - I pray and hope they will realize things aren't going to go according to their plan most of the time. God is ultimately in charge. I'm always amazed at His perfect plan.

    For now, please shoot me an email whenever you need anything. We're crazy here so an extra kid or making more of a meal some day would be no trouble at all. God bless.

  6. Good thoughts. My opinions have changed in much the same way over the years, starting out as critical of almost anyone using NFP to postpone a pregnancy... I'll have to read the book.

    Those third babies are so nice, aren't they? :^)

  7. I'm late to the discussion. As an NFP promoter, the way I present NFP to engaged couples is different than the way I would present it to RCIA candidates or a group of active Catholic women. Unfortunately, reality dictates that we need to meet people 'where they are.' For many engaged couples, society impacts them so much that they can't imagine sex without contraception. That's a hard concept to break. From the registration forms that I recieve, I bet that 2/3 of the couples going through my pre-cana classes are living together. By providing an alternative to artificial contraception and offering knowledge to the tool that NFP is, I like to think that the Holy Spirit opens their heart to the possibilities of one day yielding fully to God at the most and at the very least that they see the beauty of a truly unitive marriage.

    Great post. I know that I used to be pretty rigid in my thoughts about what people should do, not necessary about NFP, but so many other aspects of practicing the faith. But I've also mellowed in my age. Again, I see so many people who are on a journey and may not be 'where I am.' Likewise, I know that I'm not where other people are. I tend to think that NFP should only be used as a tool when needed, but who am I to question when 'needed' is? I've had nine pregnancies, SIX after the age of 38. My last live birth was at the age of 45 and it was the most exhausting experience of my life. Eight months later, I found myself pregnant and nursing an infant at the age of 46. No surprise that I miscarriage the child (my third miscarriage in seven years). Even though I'm not diligently practicing NFP, I have found myself questioning whether I should take more time to chart or possibly abstain completely so as not to put my already tired body through another pregnancy or miscarriage. At some point, I think that my thoughts on the subject can verge of scrupulosity. I believe this is where the NFP can be used as a useful took.