My Love-Hate Relationship with Natural Family Planning (Part 1)
I’m going to say something right off the bat to clear the air: I feel kind of awkward talking about Natural Family Planning. I had three children three years in a row. So I can just imagine eyes rolling and doubts surfacing the instant I talk about and defend NFP. “Does it really ‘work?’ and if so, why the heck aren’t your kids a little bit ‘better’ spaced?” I’ve asked myself (and continue to ask myself) those very same questions. And yet, I feel called to spread the news about NFP. Because as much as it often drives me crazy, I am convinced it is one of the tools that will lead to happiness in marriage.
NFP is often referred to as the “best kept secret of the Catholic Church.” It has never been a secret in my life. My parents practiced NFP and teach it to engaged couples. I’ve read countless articles and pamphlets about the joy that NFP has brought to many marriages. There are plenty of places where you can get information about the how to and benefits of NFP. But those things are not my intention with this post. Instead, I want to take a good, hard look at what practicing NFP for six years has done for me as a wife, mother, and sinner striving for holiness. I’ll talk about two specific lessons that I have learned by using NFP. These lessons flow from the fact that NFP is not always easy. It’s not always convenient. In fact, Natural Family Planning is often a cross, but as a Christian I believe that carrying my cross is crucial to discipleship. Discipleship is all about learning (the Latin root word for disciple is discipulus meaning student) how to love in a more perfect and selfless way. And little by little, Natural Family Planning is helping me to do that.
Lesson One: NFP Is a Means, Not an End
When Mike and I first got married, I would often tell people, “I love NFP!” Because we were planning our family the Church-approved way…and it was so easy! We hoped to have about a year to establish ourselves as a couple before having children. My cycles were regular and so NFP truly felt natural. Sure, every month we were bummed to have to abstain for my fertile days, but each month we were so excited to get to have sex again. We were experiencing those “little honeymoons” that NFP instructors love to talk about at Engaged Encounter retreats.
Then, after one year and three months of marriage, we prayerfully discerned that God was calling us to have children. And so, the first cycle that we had sex during a fertile time, Bridget was conceived. About fifteen months later (when Bridget was still a newborn) Max was conceived. About fifteen months after that, you guessed it – Teddy. At this point, I began to feel really disenchanted by NFP. I had always proclaimed its benefits, and was quickly becoming disheartened. What I didn’t know as a newlywed, but quickly learned as a new mother, is that NFP is not always easy. When hormones are adjusting during the post-partum phase and breastfeeding is involved, cycles are sporadic and hard to track. Add sleepless nights on top of that, and suddenly NFP becomes very difficult and much less loveable.
Since having children, you will never hear me say, “I love NFP.” Still, I will continue to practice and promote it. Am I living a contradiction? After careful reflection on that question, I’ve realized that I’m not contradicting myself, but instead that I now see NFP in a different light. I have come to realize that NFP is not something we are supposed to love in and of itself; Natural Family Planning is simply a tool. So I can love the reasons for using NFP and the outcomes of using NFP without loving the actual practice of it. The best analogy I can come up with is breastfeeding. I really do not love breastfeeding. It’s messy, it’s often inconvenient, it hurts, and it demands sacrifice on an hourly basis. But I love my children and I am able to breastfeed, and so I choose to breastfeed because I know it is what’s best for my children. Breastfeeding is a means to an end, not something I love for its own sake, but something that I do out of love. It also shapes me into a more loving mother because it teaches me to love more selflessly. There are so many ways that people practice means that are not loveable for the goal of some greater good; whether it’s dieting and exercise in a quest for a more healthy body, hours of study to pass an important exam, or the long spouts of seemingly fruitless prayer as a means to becoming closer to God.
If used with the right mindset, NFP can help its users grow in more perfect love. Or it can be misused and bear no fruit. A couple can just “put up” with NFP and white knuckle their way through periods of abstinence (which I admit, is me and my husband more often than it should be.) Or a couple can use periods of abstinence to grow in virtue. It’s like fasting during Lent. We can “grin and bear it” all the way through Lent, complaining about our grumbling bellies or desire for hamburgers on Fridays. But this approach misses the point. We aren’t meant to fast just for the sake of fasting. During Lent, we are called to lean in to the sacrifice – allowing it to teach us and stretch us. Approached this way, fasting means denying ourselves the good of food so as to long more fully for the Bread of Life which truly satisfies. In the same way, a couple using NFP can lean in to the sacrifice. When they long to be united sexually during a fertile time and are trying to avoid pregnancy, they can put sexuality in its proper perspective; remembering that their hearts long most deeply for a Heavenly union in the Communion of Saints and that sexual union is not the highest form of love. Approached this way, a husband and wife can put sexual union in its proper place. By refraining from sexual love for a few days, couples can focus on the companionship, communication, and selflessness that are foundational to a healthy marriage.
And so, the sometimes uncertain and frustrating nature of NFP can bring about a good end: a closer relationship with more open communication and an understanding of sexuality as unitive and procreative. This makes the tool of NFP more fruitful and worthwhile. Through the tool of NFP, I actively love my husband, my body, and my children. It helps me to love my husband by totally uniting every part of myself to him (including potential fertility) and by the monthly reminder when we abstain during fertile times that he exists for more than just my sexual pleasure. It is a tool to love my body by respecting the way that it works and refusing to pump it full of harmful hormonal contraceptives. And it is a tool to demonstrate my love for my children: they will grow up knowing that they and all of their siblings were created in love and never as an accident.
So, no, I don’t love NFP, but I don’t think we are necessarily supposed to. I “loved” NFP when it was convenient and easy. But now I see it for what it is – a means to an end – not loved for its own sake, but as a tool that stretches me to a more authentic love.
Check back in a few weeks to see what else Natural Family Planning has taught me in My Love-Hate Relationship with Natural Family Planning Part 2!