I Don’t Love Natural Family Planning
by Danielle Bean (8 July 2011)
Danielle Bean, a mother of eight, is Editorial Director of Faith & Family. She is also author of My Cup of Tea: Musings of a Catholic Mom (Pauline 2005) and Mom to Mom, Day to Day: Advice and Support for Catholic Living (Pauline 2007). Her blog is a source of inspiration, encouragement, and support for Catholic women of all ages and life stages.
I don’t want to write about NFP. I hate to write about NFP. And yet, here I am…writing about NFP.
I brought this on myself. I completely forgot about an editorial deadline and found myself scrambling for a column topic at about 10:00 p.m. Naturally, I turned to my dear friends, Mrs. Twitter and Mr. Facebook, to see what they thought I should write about.
“NFP!” came the answer, immediately and repeatedly. It is almost NFP Awareness Week, it turns out, and this is a topic in the forefront of Catholics’ minds.
So I will write about NFP — but I do so under protest. Are we clear? Good.
So what do you want to know?
Do I use NFP? Yes.
Do I recommend NFP? Yes.
Do I see problems with the current practice and promotion of NFP in Catholic circles and wish that someone who knew better had been there to advise me at the beginning of my marriage? That would be a big fat yes.
Some thoughts, in no particular order, clarifying what I mean by that last “yes.”
1. NFP does not work well for everyone.
I know the NFP teachers and promoters say that’s a copout and that it can work well for everyone — but what they don’t tell you about, and what they cannot accurately predict in a general way, are the complications of breastfeeding.
When I nurse a baby, I have nonstop fertile symptoms. I am not exaggerating that description for dramatic effect; when I say nonstop, I mean nonstop. I know that not everyone shares this experience, but I also know that many do. This means that each time I have given birth to a baby, I have needed to choose between total abstinence for at least the first year postpartum, weaning my baby early, or deciding to “risk” it and (as has happened several times in 17 years of marriage) become pregnant again while caring for an infant.
These are not always happy options, and I could have been spared a lot of anxiety and self-doubt if someone had at least told me this could happen. Instead, I went into marriage all starry-eyed about how NFP was going to be an aid to our communication…and then wound up sad, lonely, and wondering what was wrong with me and my marriage when NFP seemed not only to be interfering with the way I wanted to mother my children, but actually hurting my relationship with my husband on occasion.
2. NFP is not mandatory.
I think that some NFP promoters (most of them with the very best of intentions) give a false idea of the kind of control human beings should expect to have over their fertility. Whereas Catholics once accepted fertility and procreation as a natural part of every marriage, we now feel we have a measure of “control” over these things, in a way that tempts us into thinking that controlling fertility is a virtue in itself. There is a brand new, modern way of looking at children through the lens of “responsibility” as opposed to “generosity” and “blessing.”
While some cultures might need a nudge in the direction of parental responsibility, generally speaking, our modern society needs a nudge more in the direction of parental generosity. The problem, very simply, is not that we are having too many babies.
Catholic couples do not need to use NFP at all, ever, in order to have happy, holy marriages, but that is not something you are likely to hear from an NFP instructor of any kind. The mentality sometimes calls to mind the Protestant idea of being a “good steward” of your fertility, which is anything but a Catholic notion. It makes me wonder how any Catholics managed to have holy marriages before Creighton and Billings came along to save us from our sorry selves.
3. Have we no shame?
Because of the pervasiveness of NFP talk and information in Catholic circles, I think many of us have lost a sense of awe and holy shame about sex. I know this is also a symptom of the sex-saturated culture in which we live, but I see this as a Catholic version of the problem. Grown women talk about charts and mucus in group settings. Couples share intimate details about their love lives in casual conversations.
Call me a standoffish New Englander, but I say: TMI! Enough already!
I have heard it argued that we need to talk about these things, that it’s beautiful and holy to talk about Catholic sex, and that we should “have no shame” in discussing such matters. But I say it is beautiful and holy, and that’s exactly why we should have some shame, particularly in public settings. By “shame” I mean proper reverence, respect, and discretion for what is a sensitive, sacred, and yes ,very private topic.
4. It’s only information.
Fertility monitors are a popular modern way for couples to observe and track symptoms of fertility in order to avoid or achieve a pregnancy. There are different models that work in different ways, but the idea is that the machine helps you interpret your symptoms and gives you a measure of confidence in determining whether you are fertile or infertile on any given day of the month.
Believe it or not, though, I have read books in which NFP teachers caution against the use of fertility monitors. They warn that couples will come to rely only on the machines to interpret their symptoms, and that marital communication will suffer as a result of that.
It should be noted that these are the same people who think my husband is going to wake me with a smile and hand me a thermometer at precisely 6:00 a.m. every day of the week.
To me, this is an example of where some of us have lost our way and gotten off track in our pursuit of all things NFP. The charts and mucus and temperatures are not good things in and of themselves. In the best of worlds, the practice of NFP should be about couples acquiring information about their fertility and then using that information to make decisions about their family size. Communicating about that information is a separate issue and does not need to be part of the method itself. Monitors simplify the gathering and interpretation of information — so, hooray! Marriages only stand to benefit from clear, easy-to-obtain information about fertility.
5. Temperament matters.
Some women I know don’t seem to mind the process of monitoring their fertility symptoms. I think of these women as amateur scientists, and I envy them. They make detailed observations, record symptoms, and look for patterns. They are naturally good at these things and even enjoy doing some of them.
I do not enjoy it. For me, an awful lot of what is required for the successful practice of NFP feels like too much information. I would sometimes prefer a healthy dose of mystery when it comes to my physical self. The bottom line is that those of us who are loath to make personal observations are an awful lot less likely to succeed in collecting and interpreting data than our scientist sisters.
It should also be noted (but too seldom is!) that some of us are better at abstaining than others. Those who find abstinence especially challenging are not bad people; it’s just part of their temperament. They struggle with purity, where others’ weaknesses might be pride, greed, or gluttony.
We need to remember that abstinence inside of marriage is not a good in and of itself. I worry sometimes that the NFP promoters would have us believe that the challenge of abstinence is the same for everyone, and we can all perfectly plan the sizes of our families (just use some of that self-control, folks!), when nothing could be more potentially harmful than expecting that.
Our personal differences as individuals and couples are a good thing. Our temperaments are part of God’s providence working its way into our lives, even in places where we might be tempted to believe we have control. A married couple that finds abstinence especially difficult, for example, is more likely to have a large family, whether they were planning to or not.
I hate to be a NFP downer.
I fully recognize the kinds of people who research, study, teach, and promote methods of natural family planning usually have the very best of intentions. They want to spread the good news, save couples from the destructive effects of contraception, and teach others about God’s plan for marriages and families. These are very good things.
I think we are all better served, however, when the happy talk is balanced by an occasional reality check. I have attempted to give one here, but perhaps have failed in some glaring ways. Experience tells me, though, that readers will not hesitate to make any necessary corrections and offer their own experiences — the good, the bad, and the ugly — with NFP in the comments here.
So what do you think? Have at it.