What I learned from the NFP survey
A lot of people are hurting, and a lot of people feel alone. That was easily – overwhelmingly – the takeaway from all the discussion we’ve been having around here about NFP. About the failure to learn NFP adequately. About the failure to talk about NFP realistically. About the lack of community, of resources, of support, of success…
And it doesn’t surprise me. We live in this world, all of us, and we are all to some degree impacted and informed and undone by the ravages of the sexual revolution. Even if you’ve never used contraception, even if you live in the most amazing and supportive and life-affirming Christian community on the planet, since you’re still a citizen of planet earth in 2017, chances are you’re still deeply impacted by what the world believes about sex, and to a certain degree, how that has shaped your own beliefs.
I expect NFP to work a lot like (wink, wink) Church sanctioned contraception sometimes. And so it’s shocking sometimes, more shocking than I care to admit to you here, when a pregnancy test turns positive. “But I did the math. We used the right days. I knew exactly where I was in my cycle.”
And yet. Sometimes God overrides the system. So that’s hard. But it’s hardest when I’m fixated on the (false) notion that I am in complete control of my fertility. When I forget that in our marriage vows I gave that over, too, along with my freedom to walk out the door when things get tough, my options to look elsewhere when the road gets rocky.
NFP is not natural contraception. It’s dangerous for us to equate it as such, touting that “97 percent effective when used perfectly” stat, and I think that’s what can get us so frantic over the “failures.” Because while we’ve been trying to make it attractive enough to convince people to use it, maybe we’ve lost sight a little bit of the reality that it’s hard. That it will always be hard. That it will always be less convenient than popping a pill or putting in a diaphragm. That it will always require a degree of sacrifice. That it, in fact, means something entirely different from contraception. Instead of self indulgence, self denial. Instead of self gratification, self mastery. Instead of wild spontaneity, meticulous discernment. (This while a couple is hoping to avoid a pregnancy. If a baby is what you’re hoping for, then by all means, get spontaneous).
What I’m trying to say is that I think by selling NFP as an easy! natural! beautiful! alternative to the sexual stupidity of the culture at large, we’ve done a disservice to the couples who are actually brave enough to use it. I know I’m not alone in having my “divine vending machine” concept shattered by being blindsided by surprise pregnancies, the utter failure of the notion of “child spacing by breastfeeding,” and the particularly cutting blow of post partum depression.
But, God, I’ve wanted to say. Have said. I’m playing by your rules. I’m trying to follow your will. Why is it so hard? So painful? So lonely?
And He points me to Calvary.
He points to the Cross, that gentle yoke if I shoulder it alongside Him, and whispers I know you better than you know yourself. I know what will make you whole. I know what will make you holy.
And it doesn’t feel good.
It doesn’t look so good to the outside world, either. It looks like a mess. It looks life failure. Like struggle. Like all hope is lost and all was foolishness.
But then. The Resurrection. That impossible reclamation of all that was lost. The undoing of reality. The rejection of what was sensible and practical and possible.
God’s ways are not our ways. And if this is a difficult thing we wrestle with in our marriages, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing it wrong.
I am happy to have sent along all our frustrations, suggestions, pleadings and prayers to the USCCB convocation, and I do hope the working group finds a lot of gold in what I mined from your comments. But l am also praying for all of our hearts to be transformed – clergy and laity alike – by Jesus. By His plans for our marriages, and perhaps in ways that diverge radically from our own.
Wonderful reflection – but Calgary? Or Calvary?
Unless we have some very strong opinions about Canada. 😛
I do have strong opinions about Canada, but not nearly as as strong as my auto correct does…
Beautiful – but I was a bit thrown off when you say “He points me to Calgary.” I wondered if they have amazing NFP communities and doctors – then my brain turned on and was like, she means Calvary!
Well done Jenny.
What we talk about isn’t nearly as important as what we don’t talk about. And what we don’t talk about is not as important as why we don’t talk about it.
We have talked the effectiveness of perfect use but we haven’t talked effects on imperfect people.
You’re right about what you’ve used and what your community has provided not mattering.
Sex is messy. It just is, along with being wonderful.
So we need to surrender the idea that it is clean cut according to charts and technology. That’s not what humans experience in their sexuality.
Keep going, Jenny, and your awesome honest readers.
Hi, Jenny–Everything you have said is so true. We are past child-bearing years. Using NFP brought us closer as a couple, more than we would ever have anticipated. To be dedicated to the use of NFP required us to be dedicated to all of the teachings of the Church, and this made us radically different from many other couples. There is something mysterious and wonderful about knowing that you’ve put your trust in God’s love and mercy…..and this includes being open to new life when our plan isn’t exactly what God has planned. As a pro-life woman, I know for sure that respecting our fertility is in another universe when compared to people who believe they have the right to end the life of a child that they have conceived. I see their pain, hurt, and shame when I pray at the abortion clinic. Choosing NFP is choosing to live in the Light of Christ, living outside of self, and growing closer to the Lord and your family. I believe the single most important thing that young Catholic couples can do is to teach each other and to be there for support. It makes a HUGE difference. Peace and joy to you always, and enjoy your babies!
Great article! (PS You probably want to change Calgary to Calvary 😉 )
Thank you for a poignant and profound take. The Christian life ain’t easy; anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something or hasn’t actually lived it.
So far I have a lot of gratitude for NFP. A few years ago we converted from being Protestants who used birth control with no qualms…and also no “success,” as we had 3 kids in 3 years, all of whom sneakily avoided being contracepted (thanks be to God). It was only learning NFP that allowed us to put a 3.5 year gap between our youngest and the one I’m due to deliver in a month or so.
Now, I’ve been told that I am one of the lucky ones: regular cycles, fairly consistent and interpretable fertility signs, no major health problems, and because of this, it’s easy for me to be grateful. Although my husband and I did see a very major reduction in the number of “available days” because we were playing it very conservatively (nothing from day 6 till we were certain we were in the clear, usually around day 21 or 22 of a 30ish day cycle), it was a price that we learned to pay.
But the real reason I’m glad to be in an NFP relationship now is that it restored sexual sanity to our marriage, although not without plunging us into some of the darkest days we’ve ever lived through. It revealed some really ugly problems which were festering but not being addressed in the days of contracepting. I truly hate to think where we’d be today as a couple without having to practice NFP. We’ve been on the other side; we’ve taken the “easier, softer way” that must look so very tempting to those who have been faithful Catholics all their lives. It is a path of soul-killing death wrapped up in the lie of emancipation and pleasure on demand.
It may be that we will, in future, experience the “ohhhhh what now?” pregnancies again, this time because of NFP and not because a barrier broke. But the death in that case will be dying to self rather than dying from rejecting God’s grace.
My prayers for all who have found NFP lonely, maddening, or despair-inducing. The only consolation I can offer is that it really is worse to go the other way. Been there, done that.
this may be the most beautiful and important comment (out of the roughly 500+) I’ve gotten since first posting the survey last month. thank you.
So many good thoughts here… My husband and I sometimes give the NFP talk for engaged couples precana program… And you have such a range of couples. You have couples who go to daily mass together and couples who are already living together and just trying to check a box so they can get married in a pretty church. We try to be both realistic and positive… I sometimes wonder if some couples who give those NFP talks are afraid to scare these engaged couples with the tough parts because this might be the only time they Ever hear about NFP again. It would almost be more beneficial for the Church to require some sort of theology of the body course for engaged couples.
This is a really thoughtful, honest reflection on NFP, and I really appreciate it and the opportunity to discuss the effect of NFP on the minority of brave couples who practice it.
I think we know the cultural context for NFP and the host of reasons why millennials get to be 20 years old and aren’t capable, emotionally or financially, of marriage. Our marriages, in the beginning, are almost universally a “near occasion of contraception.” It seems that in an effort to prevent the use of contraceptives, bishops are allowing NFP to be applied very broadly, and I think it’s causing a lot of heartache (though, to be clear, not as much as contraception).
Just a few years ago, I believed that “serious” circumstances could be whatever the couple discerned. As the mother of several small children, I don’t speak without experience. It is extremely difficult to have children close together. On account of the need to space children if ecological breastfeeding (as defined by the book “Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing”) doesn’t work for a particular couple, I’ve come to believe we should get back to the centuries-old tradition of complete abstinence where there is a temporary financial or child-spacing concern. NFP should be reserved for much more serious, long-term situations.
I know total abstinence seems like an intolerable burden in our over-sexualized culture, but Catholics lived this way for centuries. I think most of us, especially myself, have been lured by the idea that we somehow have a “right” to frequent marital pleasures. Instead of couples who live for pleasure, our communities need couples who are willing to live in a state that may, to some, resemble poverty. We need couples to pray about and learn what St. Paul meant when he said, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” Personally, I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of authority in marriage, but it’s already leading my husband and I to peace we didn’t know we didn’t have. I don’t think we need more classes in TOB or NFP. I think what our world is thirsting for are more holy couples willing to live out the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. I don’t say this imagining I have attained any of these things, only to suggest that there could be another, truer way.
I have come to the same conclusion Victoria. I also think what is totally missing from NFP today is the husband’s shared responsibility in all of it.
If he expects regular sex then he better find a way to get his wife the extra help she is going to need when a child comes.
My husband rightly sees that women are shouldering all of the burden with this NFP business and it’s totally wrong. He has a boatload of things to say Catholic men. Namely, stop being lazy if you expect regular sex. Get another job if you have to and don’t think for a second you can maintain the status quo because your wife sure doesn’t get that luxury.
Katrina J. Zeno, MTS
I also want to add my thanks and gratitude for tackling this topic not only from your own “personal” experience but also from the experience of the community you surveyed. I would like to chime in a different voice – the voice of a single person living permanent abstinence until if and when I am offered the gift of marriage. I think single people and couples practicing fertility awareness (NFP/periodic abstinence) can be a great inspiration to each other. I want married couples to feel supported and inspired by my permanent abstinence. I want to be supported and inspired in my chaste living by married couples who are also living chastely. On both sides of the equation, we are called to support, inspire, and cheer each other on to the fullness of integration and psycho-sexual maturity through the total gift of self through the body according to our state in life. Single though I am, I am created for a unitive love that is fruitful. My privilege is living this unitive-fruitful reality through a holy union and communion with the Body of Christ in the Eucharist. Your privilege is living this unitive-fruitful reality through a holy union and communion with the Body of Christ in the Eucharist and the one-flesh marital union. So much of my life has not gone the way I anticipated and it has required tremendous sacrifice and surrender. Thank you for sharing this journey in the Body of Christ together.
Thank you Katrina, this is so beautiful and so essential. I am grateful for your willingness to share your experience here.
God bless! Thanks for being an advocate for honest layfolk trying hard to live Christ’s teachings.
If God can override NFP to give you a baby anyway, when he determines it’s for your benefit, why can’t he override the natural order to not give you a baby if it’s not a good idea right now? Seems if God plans the babies anyway, all that charting and abstinence is just needless suffering.
This actually used to be my point of view. But experience has shown me that God really doesn’t micromanage on that level. That means it’s up to us, which implies we need a method that works. I’m not sure what NFP method is best in that respect.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart”
“But every hair of the hairs of your heads is numbered, therefore you shall not be afraid, because you are better than a multitude of sparrows.” Luke 12:7
I once told a group of young married couples that NFP was 100% God’s will! And it is! IF you relinquish control to HIM! Key word, control. Do we allow God to control our life and trust in His will for us or do we take that control and contracept/drink/do drugs/kill/steal–fill in the blank. Being faithful means allowing God to know what is best for me, but we have to remember that we are a fallen race. Things happen that we don’t plan, don’t want, but through faith we can accept with grace because, while God doesn’t want bad things for us, He allows them sometimes for our greater good. This is what we have to trust in. If you don’t want children, total abstinence is the only choice. Getting pregnant from having sex doesn’t mean something went wrong, but that God’s design has worked. 😉
I took the survey and was excited when I saw your headline mentioning the survey so I excitedly clicked on it but disappointed I’m curious about what you (and the church) think of NFP for women who have medical conditions that are life threatening (more so than the “normal” risks) when pregnant? Do you risk your (and your unborn child’s) life to practice NFP?
I’m not sure I understand your question, Samantha. NFP has no inherent risks to it, either to mom’s or baby’s life. It seems you’re throwing up a false flag there. I can’t think of a single instance where using NFP could possibly “risk your unborn child’s life.”
If you’re talking about a medical condition so serious that pregnancy must be avoided at all costs, then abstinence would seem the only option, as having sex at all would seem to be too great a risk to incur if pregnancy really would result in death. NFP has around the same “success rate” at avoiding pregnancy as most conventional forms of birth control when used to the method’s specifications, (though, of course, without the contraceptive effects). But I know plenty of women who have conceived regularly while using HCs, IUDs, condoms, etc. What happens when those methods fail and a pregnancy results? Does the baby get aborted to save mom’s life?
I wasn’t trying to say NFP would risk a life, just pregnancy. I have a medical condition that makes surviving pregnancy very difficult. I alone have a 1 in 4 chance of dying before delivery and any children have a 33% chance of miscarrying. I suppose never having sex again is one way to go, but that the direct opposite of what our marriage prep class said going over NFP and telling us the catholic church doesn’t see sex as dirty and the church definitely wants married couples to have sex and its a type of intimacy we can now enjoy.
Open-hearted and Realistic
Samantha, I’m in a similar situation… though my odds of death and severe outcomes continue to increase over time (I have a progressive heart condition). I’ve studied the limited research on women with my condition and the outcomes are detrimental. The challenge is that I am still quite young and very fertile. I don’t believe that Christ is calling me to a sexless marriage… the union of sex is an important and incredible gift to the sacrament of marriage. I am quite capable of having sex, but unfortunately my body will not fully withstand another pregnancy which is likely given my age and fertility. My heart is declining and will continue to do so. I have four beautiful, young children who need their mother (a fifth on the way)… isn’t the virtue of being alive and caring for my children a great calling? Isn’t sharing in the marital act of sex a significant and unifying act of love? Indeed they are, but I am also not ready for abstinence and neither is my husband… this would be a very heart-breaking stress in our marriage and our lives. When our worlds, lives, work, and our children receive so much of us, this is something very exclusive that is ours to share and brings us close together. At the end of the day after we’ve shuttled kids to school and practices, chased meetings and appointments, talked to our students and clients, cooked and eaten our dinner, washed dishes, bathed kids, sang lullabies, tucked and re-tucked in the kids (for the third time or more), picked-up toys,… we get to share and just be with one another. Often we talk, but sometimes we just pass the time in a few moments peace before we conk out for the night. These moments are nice and the connection is special, because it him and it is me together. However, generally speaking the activities are pretty generic and not all that exclusive. What is special and exclusive though is the shared experience of sex. Nobody else in my life, in my world shares this with me – it is uniquely reserved for one another. Just him and me… and if you want to count God, then God too (because let’s face it, this a beautiful and blessed encounter). And it’s special. In the true and fullest definition of the word it is special… there is nobody else in our lives that shares this with us in any way. It’s a full giving of self and a physical act that God gifts us in the sacrament of marriage and in the exchange of love. So no, sex isn’t just this physical over socialized and superficial encounter as some of the comments here might diminish it to be. It is spiritual, it is sacrificial, and it is and should be a meaningful and significant shared experience for married couple. Sex is special. We’re so quick to try to emphasize this to our young… to wait and abstain, to save yourself for marriage… So please don’t trivialize the specialness of sex (and upend some of our arguments to abstain before marriage) by being so quick to dismiss this special act and tell women who are struggling with huge challenges in their lives to simply forego sex as if you were suggesting they simply give-up broccoli. I feel like this is a really oversimplified and almost cold response. I’m not dead or dying… I’m a living, breathing, vivacious, and young woman. And so are Samantha and many other women. Struggles and challenges that would morally align with the avoidance of pregnancy are not all that uncommon. We shouldn’t treat them like anomalies. Myself and many others just can’t continue to have children… doing so would actually be morally and ethically questionable and NFP alone in this basic form is not the solve-all answer for avoiding pregnancy in these situations. But it doesn’t have to abstinence either… let’s quit pretending it’s all or nothing. I don’t feel like I can responsibly choose NFP as I’ve been doing it (Billings Ovulation Method) and I don’t feel like abstinence is the right call either. If I had to receive marks for the success rate of reading my signs, I would surely be earning my F. I’m not accurate enough, my signs are too ambiguous, and my fertility is exquisitely high (a blessing, I know, but also a challenge in this case). I’m going to figure out a way to eliminate all this guesswork where I often err… I’m not ready to give up yet, but I’m not just going to keep acting like God didn’t give me a brain and to keep blindly just doing the basic NFP that we’re trying to push on faithful Catholic families as a solve-all family planning method. More accurately, in my case and for many other women it’s more like a “Maybe try to plan your family” ish method. I feel like their are apps and technology out there that can better aid us in this endeavor and eliminate or extremely reduce the inaccuracy of guesswork and individual analysis required by the standard NFP methods. Turns out most of don’t have PhDs in mucus or thermal analyses associated with fertility… and we need a little help. Best wishes to you Samantha, I hope you find a way to keep your sex life alive in your marriage, your faith intact, and be at peace basking in Christ’s love. I don’t think we just have to settle for abstinence as an answer, resorting to drastic contraceptive means, or settling for just plain I’m NFP (and the likelihood of death). We need to get sharper and smarter with the tools we’re giving women, couples, and families who are embracing NFP. As a church and practitioners it’s time we do the research to provide more effective and realistic solutions to couples who want to do NFP and allow it to empower them in their faithful married lives.
I needed this post today! I am halfway through my pregnancy with baby number 4 in 5 years. This one and the previous one were both concieved while using NFP correctly. I was just talking with someone the other day about this very thing! NFP is not all they promote it to be and it can be very frustrating for those of us trying to space children and failing while doing everything right. But God is ultimately in charge and that is sometimes hard to remember when you are so overwhelmed. Thank you for such a great post.
Yes we’re in the same place and have been told by clergy that total abstinence would actually be going against our marriage vows. We have welcomed children (5!), and would welcome more if God plans for that, but I can’t imagine God would prefer to go against our marriage vows and at the risk of not being able to provide for the children we have welcomed. For ten years have been pregnant or breastfeeding, practicing NFP without any clear fertility signs. Having to go over one year of abstinence for responsible parenthood choices, is in direct contrast to our marriage vows. I don’t ever see theis addressed. This is real-life, not NFP superiority life. Additionally, we are in modern times (hello medical insurance with exceptionally high deductibles), and we can not afford even the annual deductible of another birth.
Beautiful. Thank you!
Also, glad I’m not the only one with cans of La Croix in my van! 😉
I am so on the other side of this divide. We use Creighton, but we utilize it to try and get pregnant and to get NAPRO assistance. I don’t need to use NFP to try to avoid because I can’t get pregnant and/or keep the pregnancy when I do. We have five years between our son and daughter and five early miscarriages (that we know about). It is so exhausting sometimes to look for support and information in NFP groups which just seem to be bursting with pregnancy announcements. Or to try and socialize with people who have a similar minded stance on being open to life…but their bodies actually work the way their supposed to. I don’t know how many people assume that we use contraception and judge us for our nicely spaced boy/girl combo when (If I had my way) we would have at least 4 by now. NFP is actually a real cross in the sense that so many people are so positive and supportive about being open to life and getting pregnant…it’s hard not be envious. If I subscribed to the secular society view, this wouldn’t be an issue and my family would be “ideal.”
My point is, because of NFP we appreciate what blessings children are. And it makes it hurt that much more because we covet that blessing.
Five losses here and 2 living children , one on the way. We also use NFP (Creighton/Napro) to achieve and I echo your sentiments. We have also had lots of difficult avoiding when we could get pregnant and not stay pregnant.
This is such a great reflection on the reality of NFP. My only bummer is that I missed the Calgary autocorrect! Yet another reason to get up earlier.
Thank you for writing this.