NFP and the Elephant (or the babies) in the Room

Disclaimer: Since people are bound to make assumptions about my sex life based on anything I write below, I find it necessary to state upfront that I am in no way opposed to Natural Family Planning — my husband and I incorporate it into our own marriage. What I AM opposed to is other people thinking they have the right to make sexual choices for all people, and for all couples, especially when the reality of this particular choice is very often glossed over or misrepresented.

When I was in college, I told my mom that when I got married, I wanted to practice Natural Family Planning. My mom said, “Good luck with that — that’s how we got Jessica.” Although my parents deeply love and would never express regret over any of their children (some of whom were more “planned” than others), my mom’s message to me was clear: If you plan to practice NFP, plan to have a baby.

“NFP doesn’t really work.”

I think this is how most of the culture perceives NFP, and it’s no wonder. Brochures for NFP invariably feature pictures of babies. When it’s touted as an effective alternative to “artificial” contraception, people can’t help but wonder: why do families who practice NFP often have SO many kids? It may be natural, but it sure doesn’t look very “planned.” My mom scoffed at Natural Family Planning taught by the Church, since the instructors at our parish had ten kids. We’re often too polite to ask what’s going on here, not wanting to imply that anyone’s children were “accidents.” So instead, many of us come to the conclusion that NFP doesn’t really “work.”

Although I’ve always had a pretty good handle on my own cycles, I didn’t get hardcore about it until after I got married. And as I started to learn more, I realized that the science behind NFP IS sound. It DOES have the same success rate as most other forms of birth control — but it has a very, very high user failure rate, which is, I think, what we see manifested in the stereotypically large Catholic families.

“NFP allows equally shared responsibility for contraception.”

To his credit, the man who did the spiel on NFP at the pre-marital retreat my husband and I attended had a moderately sized family — three planned children reasonably spaced, with a fourth that came along by surprise many years later (a reasonable method failure, since NFP does become harder to use as women age and have less regular cycles.) But when he lauded NFP as a method of birth control in which the couple “equally shared” responsibility, I had to fight back the urge to laugh.

While the couple may equally share the responsibility of abstaining from sex during the woman’s fertile phase, it’s the woman who is solely responsible for every other aspect of NFP. It’s the woman who must spend hours learning how to interpret the signs of a normal cycle, and then memorize all the possible anomalies and how they affect chances of conception.  It’s the woman who must wake up at the same time every day to take her temperature. It’s the woman who must examine and interpret all the other signs her body gives — which are NOT always straightforward, and which, if you’re trying to avoid pregnancy, can lead to longer periods of abstinence than the manuals predict. It’s the woman who must inform the husband of all of this, even though, unfortunately, many men in our culture are squeamish about the explicit details of a woman’s reproductive health. Because of this, I imagine a conversation unfolds in many NFP families that goes something like this:

Husband: “When can we have sex again?”

Wife: “Probably in three days.” (Or whatever the case may be.)

After that, it is the woman who feels the burden of fulfilling this expectation, even though predicting with 100% accuracy within the midst of a cycle when the “safe” period will begin is not really possible. I imagine a lot of unplanned NFP babies come out of the fact that a couple “expected” they’d be safe on X day, and so they ignore or wishfully hope away symptoms to the contrary. Repeatedly telling the husband, “I guess I was wrong, maybe one more day,” can start to feel like the married version of being a tease. On the other hand, I’m sure it’s the woman who feels the burden of responsibility most strongly if an unplanned pregnancy does occur — she should have interpreted the signs better, she should have put off sex for a few more days. It’s easy to see how easily NFP can lead to user failure.

“NFP is really about self control.”

And this is where the chastising voices about self control come in. This argument makes me squeamish because, contrary to seeing children as a “gift” the way NFP purports, they get drafted into the category of “consequence.” (“Well, it’s your own fault you have more kids than you wanted — learn some self control!!”) The article linked above compares the sex drive to our need to eat, or to express our anger. These needs are natural, but we do well to learn to control them and only satisfy them when appropriate. But here’s the thing: mistakes and failure are part of the learning process. She who vows to cut down on sweets will occasionally give into a bowl of ice cream, or might even succumb to binging on the goodies that abound around Christmas. And while there are certainly consequences to losing self control when it comes to food (stomach upset, weight gain), for the most part, these consequences are confined to the person who “committed the transgression.” Even when someone loses control of her temper and takes it out on someone else, the result is confined — to the angry individual, and to the person who, justifiably or not, receives the brunt of that anger. But if you “stumble” on the road to sexual self-control, there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a baby, or two, or three, while you’re “learning.” This is especially true if a couple has followed the Catholic directive to abstain from sex before marriage, and is trying to learn about having a sexual relationship with someone AND paradoxically learning to abstain from this newfound gift. And if you don’t get it right, your learning process has altered the course of your whole life, as well as the lives that you’ve brought into the world. It’s a bigger deal than giving into that bowl of ice cream, and it’s not just about you.

“With NFP, each child is a gift.”

I wish I could say that NFP truly leads to an attitude of embracing fully each child born, planned or not, but too often I’ve seen women and couples who find their children to be a burden rather than a joy. One young friend of mine who practices NFP and has a baby every two years copes by accepting that pregnancy and children are the “burden” that God asks her to bear — even though her doctors advised her not to have any more children after her high-risk second pregnancy. I know another woman who was wracked with guilt when her baby died shortly after birth because she felt overwhelmed by the size of her family, and she was sure that the tragedy was her “punishment” for resenting the children that were born every year. (Although she very much wanted to use other forms of contraception to limit her family’s size, she honestly believed the penalty would be going to hell.)

“NFP increases communication between couples.”

NFP is supposed to increase communication and intimacy within marriage, but I have a feeling the communication broke down in her household and in a lot of others. And the implication that couples who use other forms of contraception don’t communicate about their sexual needs doesn’t sit well with me, either. As if whether a particular act of sex is likely to result in pregnancy or not is the only thing that will urge a couple who loves each other to talk about sex. Nor do I accept the implication that couples who use other forms of contraception do not “welcome” life. Nearly every form of contraception has the potential for failure; any couple having intercourse should talk about what they’ll do if a pregnancy occurs. A couple who gets pregnant unexpectedly while using condoms can just as readily prepare their hearts and their lives to welcome a new member to the family as those who get pregnant unexpectedly while using NFP.

“Okay, we just wanna know what you’re doing in the bedroom!”

In the end, I can’t help but wonder if it boils down to the obsession that the Catholic (and many other religious) hierarchy has with other people’s sex lives. One blog post I read even asserted that married couples were forbidden to engage in non-procreative sexual activities during a woman’s fertile period, which I don’t think I’ve ever come across in official Catholic teaching, and which doesn’t seem like anyone’s business, as far as I’m concerned. But then, perhaps that’s why the hierarchy really refuses to give up on NFP  — because if everyone used it, their sex lives would become public, and we wouldn’t even have to ask those uncomfortable questions. Seven kids? Hm, there’s a couple that can’t keep their hands off each other. Two kids, spaced four years apart? There’s a couple that practices self control, or conversely, that poor couple must not be having much sex.

But the introduction of artificial contraception muddles everything up. It makes it so hard to keep tabs on what people are doing in their bedrooms!!

“Learn NFP — and learn other stuff, too.”

As for me, I’ve already said enough. I think everyone should become deeply familiar with the symptoms that reveal a woman’s fertility, and I think everyone should learn about NFP as a choice that avoids many of the pitfalls of artificial contraception. But in learning that, it’s only fair that they also learn that it comes with its own share of pitfalls. And then, after carefully and prayerfully considering the options, I hope every couple will remember it’s a choice, not a direct instruction from Jesus, not one of the ten commandments — and that it’s for them, and not the Pope, to make.

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21 thoughts on “NFP and the Elephant (or the babies) in the Room

  1. Lacey, I agree with a lot of what you said here. In case you care to know, my husband and I use NFP as well, and one thing I will add is this: Regarding the “equally shared responsibility” I have I some problems with the fact that couples who are avoiding pregnancy must abstain during the times when the woman’s body and hormones are most primed for sex. It certainly doesn’t happen every cycle, but sometimes I just don’t feel like it anymore once we’re back in the infertile phase… Literature on NFP is not really honest about that aspect/challenge.

    Thanks for this balanced post!

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Kate. You’re right — not being able to have sex when it’s most enjoyable for the woman IS a drawback of using NFP as contraception. Although, hormonal birth control pills often have the side effect of decreasing a woman’s libido throughout the duration of treatment, and some studies have suggested that the effects don’t always go away once a woman is off the pill. That leaves barriers if one wants to have sex during the most “prime” time without getting pregnant, which of course have their own drawbacks. That’s why I feel that it’s so important for every couple to make their own choice, and why it’s crucial that they have all the facts on the table before doing so. Unfortunately, most of what is taught about NFP is an attempt to “sell” it, which doesn’t lend itself to the most complete information.

  2. I, too, don’t like how NFP is promoted in American Catholicism. I think a lot of it is that people do not believe it is effective. Its sort of like how Holy Days of Obligation get moved to Sundays in an attempt to steer people away from mortal sin. Its a “We just have to make them do it.” rather than focusing on the deeper inner journey that comes with truly embracing the virtue of chastity in whatever state of life you are in.

    Embracing chastity in whatever your state of life is not easy. In fact, I think the virtue itself is difficult to comprehend. But ultimately its about self mastery. It is learning to take command of your sail and to thus have the freedom to truly steer your choices in the direction of goodness and charity. Its not just saying no. Its saying yes when you don’t feel like it too.

    I will say though that I don’t find NFP difficult. Its inconvinent at times, but charting is actually pretty straight forward. That said, I began charting my cycles years before I married. I was doing a paper on NFP in college and decided to chart my own symptoms to see if I could identify what the books said I’d be identifying. It was interesting knowledge to have. I actually found it helped me remain chaste as a single person. My signs told me I needed to be extra cautious with how I went about avoiding sexual sins. If I were tempted, I also found it easier to deny myself because I knew the increased sexual urge would only last a few days. I knew why I was feeling a bit more heated up than I usually was. Eventually I stopped charting, but continued to be very aware of my symptoms of fertility. They became so obvious that it was like a second period. Prior to marrying, I took Creighton class and charted for six months before my wedding. It added more knowledge that allowed me to better impliment it into married life.

    What I find sad is that its very frown upon to teach this sort of self awareness to single girls. There are some individuals who see the fear of pregnancy as a needed fear deterrant from sexual activity. Perhaps this is because it is viewed strictly as Catholic birth control even by those claiming its not. I fully plan on teaching my daughter to be aware of her full fertility cycle about when she hits puberty.

    I do disagree with you that the Church is out to try to spy on people’s sex lives through the number of children they have. While it is understand that couples have a responsibility to space and limit family size to be responsible parents, the Church favors larger families as evidenced by Karol Wojtyla’s (JPII) “Love and Responsibility”: “To create a family means to create a community, since the family is a social unit or else it is not a family. To be a community it must have a certain size. […] We are sometimes told that it is easier to bring up several children together than an only child, and also that two children are not a community — they are two only children. It is the role of parents to direct their children’s upbringing, but under their direction the children educate themselves because they develop within the framework of a community of children, a collective of siblings.” p 242 and 243

    That said, the Church doesn’t mandate we have huge family’s. How we use NFP is up to our discretion.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Honestly Catholic. I absolutely agree with you that girls should be taught this information about their bodies as soon as they reach sexual maturity, and not just if or when they plan to marry or become sexually active. Overall, I feel dissatisfied with a fear-based approach to sex and think that knowledge is the best way for anyone to make thoughtful, mature choices about their sexuality.

  4. NFP is scientifically sound, and is effective for many women – but not all, and I think the failure to acknowledge that is where the Church comes up short. As with all medical science, there will always be exceptions. There are three methods for figuring out a woman’s cycle: basal body temperature, cervical mucus, and the calendar (I believe that the NFP most often taught by the Church uses a combination of the three). The calendar method is widely agreed to only be useful for women with perfectly regular cycles – a rarity. Cervical mucus can be affected by medications, most notably antihistamines & decongestants, so women with severe allergies who take medication daily may not get accurate data (the Creighton model relies on this method, and they retain their excellent success rates by having their practitioners screen out women who are not good candidates for the method. I do applaud their honesty for that.). Basal body temperature relies on waking at the same time each day, with a block of a few hours’ uninterrupted sleep beforehand. Women with sleep disorders that cause frequent nighttime waking – apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy – or women whose work schedules vary greatly may not get accurate data. For a woman – like me – who has barriers to accurate data in all three categories, the Church has no solution. According to the official teaching of the Church, I’m just out of luck. That official teaching talks a lot about “openness” to conception. It is my belief that openness is more a state of mind and soul than a state of body.

    • I agree with you completely about “openness” being more about a state of mind, soul, and heart than a state of body. Thank you for your insights. This reminds me a little of the argument that it is one’s responsibility to abstain more often if one cannot financially or physically support many, or any, children. While the Church prescribes Natural Family Planning as a “one-size fits all” solution for having some control over our reproductive lives, the truth is that it doesn’t fit well for a great many people. It doesn’t fit well for people who, like you, have physical reasons for not being able to accurately or easily interpret fertility. It doesn’t fit well for people who don’t have the financial or emotional stability to accept an unplanned pregnancy, since user-failure rates are higher than with other methods. It doesn’t fit as well for people who already have children, both because post-partum interpretation of symptoms can be tricky AND because many mothers will tell you that consistent sleep schedules are a thing of the past (thus making temp taking, one of the most reliable symptoms, less accurate). It behooves the Church to acknowledge ALL these things in their promotion of NFP; to ignore them is, in my opinion, irresponsible, and damages the Church’s credibility in the long run (which is probably why 98% of married Catholic women use artificial contraception, without feeling much, if any, reservations or guilt about it).

    • Actually you’re list was short. There are four primary symptoms which can be used for NFP: basal body temp, cervical mucus, hormonal fertility monitors like clear blue easy (see Marquette model), there is cervix position. Sympto thermo uses 3 of the 4 methods, as the Marquette Model is a younger model of NFP.

      There are two calendar methods. The Church, oddly enough, promotes neither. I’ve never seen any recognition that the Standard Days method even exists. I’ve never once seen an advertisement for cyclebeads. http://www.cyclebeads.com

      Sympto thermo encourages you to utilize mucus, BBT and cervix position. Billings and Creighton are mucus only methods. Marquette can be used in combination with mucus or with just the fertility monitor. BBT can also be used alone, but I have never seen that promoted by the Church either. I’ve never seen a parish bulletin or board posting indicating that Ladycomp even exists. http://www.ladycomputer.com/faq_babycomp.htm#shift

      I’d say the hard part of NFP is being anovulary. After having a baby, your body eventually will try to ovulate and fail several times. This can create long mucus patches where even if you use a BIP rule, you can go for very long stretches of abstinence. I have also heard that premenopausal women also get very long mucus patches as their fertility goes crazy. If its fertile mucus, you have to abstain. I figured it out. With Creighton after having a baby, if you have mucus every 4th day (it only has to be a small amount showing up one time that day), you cannot ever have sex.

      Not that women tend to be in favor of having intercourse with a new baby. Every baby forum I’ve gone to where I’ve seen women discuss it seems to indicate to me that many women aren’t comfortable having intercourse for months after having a baby. While the NFP circles are all desperately fighting for the woman to heal as fast as possible so that intercourse can resume…when it can..because the man must go inside the woman.

      I know there are challenging situations. I don’t believe I dissent from Church teaching. I rather think Church teaching gets simplified for the masses too often. It gets generalized and misunderstood and I think that leads to moral errors in morally complicated situations. And because we’re so concerned about dissenters, if you seek council from a priest and he oks something that you’ve been told is immoral, its hard to trust that because “Is he dissenting? Am I being misguided?” You can go priest shopping to get almost any answer you want.

      Its when I’m in situations like this that I try to remember that sexual morality is not the whole of Catholicism. This is about my relationship with Christ. The Church is my guide to Christ, but there is a step further. In some cases, where I see that “you know, I’m not sure what the right path is and I’m afraid I might be doing wrong.” that’s when I remember that knowledge is important and that God is just. I am trying to do good.

      And that makes me feel better too about those I know and love who do contracept. I don’t fear their lack of salvation even though I could never contracept myself. I’ve met many who are pursuing and discerning and even educating their consciences. There is a difference between educating your conscience and following a rule book. The education sort of takes time for God to chisel His law on your heart. It being on your heart makes it more precise. More complicated moral situations become clearer to discern. but it takes time and errors can be made. While following a rule book tends to generalize to catch all the possible sins and in practice can lead to harmful and even immoral decisions for the sake of following the letter of the law. I don’t believe what I’m saying contradicts anything the Church says. Still I get nervous saying it for fear someone will say I’m a dissenter.

      • I really appreciate — and agree with — your sentiment that forming your conscience carefully and diligently is more important than strictly following all the rules (regardless of what is happening in your heart). You’re right that we often face morally complicated situations, situations that a rule-book could never foresee or account for. And just listening to what someone in authority says — whether it’s in line with official Church doctrine or not — is really a way to get off the hook for wrestling with those decisions. Such advice should definitely be reflected upon, prayed over, but ultimately, you’re right — this is about our relationship with Christ, and that needs to come first.

        Your perspective of discerning to follow Church teaching on this issue while not judging or fretting over those who don’t is refreshing, and I’m sure a gift to those who know you. Thanks for your thoughtful, nuanced responses!

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  8. I find this bit confusing “One blog post I read even asserted that married couples were forbidden to engage in non-procreative sexual activities during a woman’s fertile period, which I don’t think I’ve ever come across in official Catholic teaching, and which doesn’t seem like anyone’s business, as far as I’m concerned.”

    What do you mean by non-procreative sexual activities? I hope you don’t mean orgasm. My understanding is that that is the entire point that the sexual activity must be potentially “fruitful”. I don’t class kissing as sexual activity so it isn’t like you need to abstain from that during fertile periods. But orgasm is another issue… Can you clarify?

    • No, the restriction doesn’t apply to orgasm. It refers to oral sex, mutual masturbation, and/or anal sex. Some sources even say these activities are forbidden as part of foreplay (http://www.catechism.cc/articles/QA.htm#03), although I’ve read elsewhere that they’re OK as long as they are leading up to traditional intercourse. I think that whatever is happening between mutually consenting and committed adults isn’t really the magesterium’s business.

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