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.