Last week was NFP Awareness Week and if you are Catholic and even somewhat plugged into the internet you have probably already realized this. You will be treated to lots of interesting facts, lots of different methods, and information all about Natural Family Planning. It’s as if the secular world gets seventy one weeks a year to throw pills, devices, jellies and latex at us and for this one week the Catholics go on the fertility offensive with gusto. (Spoiler Alert: NFP is NOT the rhythm method!)
This year there seems to be a greater emphasis on how Natural Family Planning (referred to as FABMs or FAMs by the secular world, which stands for “Fertility Awareness Based Methods and Fertility Awareness Methods respectively) is not just for Catholics but is really good for everyone.
And this is true. It is.
It is good for women to not pump their bodies full of hormones. It is good for husbands to understand their wife’s fertility. It is good for couples to respect their ability to co-create and reproduce. But just because it is good, doesn’t mean it is easy.
What No One Wants to Tell You
Sometimes in our zeal to promote what is truly good, we downplay the harder and more difficult aspects of it. This is sometimes the case when it comes to NFP. We don’t want to turn people off to the idea of….wait for it….respecting a woman’s fertility cycle, so we gloss over the tough parts….like abstinence.
Like charting an unpredictable cycle. Like trying to determine when fertility is returning after having a baby. Like when one spouse is not really into NFP. And like when, even if you’ve charted perfectly, the stars aligned, the moon is full and you’ve counted and recounted your days, double checked more mucus than you ever thought you’d be comfortable with and you still get pregnant. Like being really and truly open to life perhaps even in the face of a life threatening condition. What no one wants to tell you is that sometimes Natural Family Planning is hard. It isn’t always all “honeymoons” and happy anticipation.
What then? What do you do when NFP is hard?
Right Method, Wrong Reasons
For Catholics NFP is the morally licit method by which they may either seek to avoid or achieve a pregnancy.
If, then, there are serious motives to space out births, which derive from the physical or psychological conditions of husband and wife, or from external conditions, the Church teaches that it is then licit to take into account the natural rhythms immanent in the generative functions (Humanae Vitae, 16).
For just reasons, spouses may wish to space the births of their children. It is their duty to make certain that their desire is not motivated by selfishness but is in conformity with the generosity appropriate to responsible parenthood. Moreover, they should conform their behavior to the objective criteria of morality (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2368).
However, profoundly different from any contraceptive practice is the behavior of married couples, who, always remaining fundamentally open to the gift of life, live their intimacy only in the unfruitful periods, when they are led to this course by serious motives of responsible parenthood. This is true both from the anthropological and moral points of view, because it is rooted in a different conception of the person and of sexuality. The witness of couples who for years have lived in harmony with the plan of the Creator, and who, for proportionately serious reasons, licitly use the methods rightly called “natural,” confirms that it is possible for spouses to live the demands of chastity and of married life with common accord and full self-giving (Vademecum for Confessors Concerning Some Aspects of the Morality of Conjugal Life, 2.6).
All too often Natural Family Planning becomes about the method and the necessity to space children or avoid pregnancy when the reality is that Natural Family Planning is primarily about Faith.
The whole premise of NFP is that God created a way for us to cooperate with Him and his design for us – even in this fallen world. In order for us to cooperate with Him we must first and foremost seek his will—for our fertility and our families. This isn’t a one-time nine-day novena type thing. This is an ongoing process of seeking and praying and cooperating. Every month (well, give or take because every woman and every cycle is different!) husbands and wives are asked to pray and seek God’s will for their family and their marriage.
Then it is their responsibility to act accordingly. Sometimes this means abstaining during fertile times, sometimes this means enjoying the marital embrace during fertile times and for some this means not really charting fertile times at all. The rest then, is up to God. That is why NFP, at its heart, is about faith. It has to be using the right method for the right reasons!
Without Faith, You’re Doing It Wrong
When Natural Family Planning is reduced to a list of “dos” and “don’s,” when it becomes about what I want and not what God wants, when it becomes about my desires and not those of my spouse or my God, when it is simply about mechanics and not about faith, then Catholics, we’re doing it wrong. At the heart of Natural Family Planning is faith. Faith that God is ultimately in control of your fertility. Faith that He will reveal to you His will for your marriage and your family. Faith that you can trust him. Faith that he created you and your fertility and it is GOOD.
When NFP is hard, faith is what you need to sustain you. During those times that abstaining seems impossible (because hormones and pheromones are no joke!), it is faith that bolsters you. When the doctor says, “Another pregnancy could be life threatening,” and you have to be very careful with your method, it is ultimately faith that gets you through. When you have several little children and yet know God is asking you to be open to another, it is faith that sustains you. When you have been using every method there is to conceive and yet have no children, it is faith that you fall back on.
NFP Can be Controlling Too
A popular mantra for the NFP crowd is to speak against Birth Control as being “not about birth and not about control,” because, the thought continues, NFP requires self-control.
But there is another form of control that can come into play while practicing NFP, and that is the desire to have control over one’s fertility and over the God who created it. This is a dangerous place to find oneself. Dangerous because Natural Family Planning is not about control. Ever.
Fertility is powerful. So powerful that we cannot control it. (Look at the failure rates for Birth Control and Hormonal Contraception. Look at the failure rates for NFP. They both have them.) Even with perfect use no method – natural or otherwise – is 100% effective at preventing pregnancy, or achieving it. That is because, to quote fictional doctor Ian Malcom from Jurassic Park, “Life Finds a Way.” Fertility is powerful, so powerful the best we can hope to do is work with it. Cooperate with it. Understand it. And then trust that it is God, and only God who ultimately controls anything. Even our fertility. And this is good.
Control is hard for us to give up. It’s hard when you find yourself terrified of another pregnancy. Its hard when you desperately want a baby and are struggling to conceive. Its hard when your body says one thing and God says another. Its hard when you know you will face ridicule for “having another one already.” Its hard when you know you have to wait. The temptation is to cling to a false sense of control. To use NFP as a form of birth control, and not as the cooperative relationship between spouse and God that it is meant to be. This only hurts us. It hurts us because to use anything except for that which God intended always hurts us. Its part of the Natural Law. It’s part of why hormonal birth control and contraceptives are immoral and sinful. Its not just about the carcinogens and the synthetic hormones. It is much more about the Natural Law that God has written into His creation. It is possible to abuse that natural law, even with NFP. When Natural Family Planning becomes about controlling and not cooperating with God, we are not longer practicing it according to His deign.
It doesn’t always mean great sex, or any sex
Sometimes when we are trying to “sell” NFP to newlyweds or the engaged we tend to spin it in a way that makes it sound like it leads to mind-blowing amazing encounters every infertile period. While this can certainly happen and there is something to be said for delayed gratification and building anticipation, this isn’t always the norm, and its unfair not to say so.
Sometimes NFP requires work. Sometimes it requires a lot of abstaining (for various reasons). Sometimes it feels like the marital act becomes another thing to schedule and plan for. This isn’t exactly romantic, but it is real life. And Catholics are called to be real. Sometimes when the family’s demands are great, it does require some scheduling creativity and some frank discussions about what might happen when. This isn’t always bad! It isn’t always a drag! Sometimes it is nice to plan and know what you are planning for; and sometimes it requires what might feel like herculean sacrifice.
NFP is a cross
Like anything worthwhile in the spiritual life, if it is divorced from the cross, it is not to our eternal benefit. Marriage, as a sacrament, mirrors the paschal mystery. It stands to reason then, that the cross is present within marriage. Sometimes that cross is Natural Family Planning. Sometimes our sanctification comes in the form of painstaking charting. Sometimes it takes the form of radical trust and throwing the chart out the window. (Or leaving it blank, don’t actually litter. The neighbors don’t want to see your check marks, baby stickers, or red dots.) Sometimes the cross of NFP is doing “everything right” and not having a baby to show for it. Yes, sometimes NFP is the cross. And this ok, because….
It is Worth It
Natural Family Planning might be hard sometimes. It might require more faith than you think you have. It might be a cross you carry, but it is worth it. Why? Because NFP is a gift to us from our creator, identified by our Church for our own sanctification and benefit. And the benefit to us is both temporal and eternal. Jesus himself told us that following him wasn’t going to be a cakewalk and that we each had to pick up crosses and follow him. Anything in the life of spirit that is worth pursuing is going to purge us of our own selfishness, our fears, our attachments and our own will in exchange for a surrender to God’s will and design. When God uses Natural Family Planning for this purpose, as He will if we allow him, it is always beautiful, always fruitful, always good, and always worth it.