I’ve never posted anything in depth about Natural Family Planning, because every time I sit down to write about it I let my nerves get the best of me. It’s one of the tougher subjects to talk about because of the variance in methods and efficacy, and I know that everyone’s experience with NFP is unique and different from the next. I never want to overgeneralize what can be an extremely sensitive and difficult subject to talk about. On top of that, there’s no talking about NFP without getting personal. Talking about cervical mucus, menstrual cycles, sex, and abstinence means being really open about some of the most blush-worthy and personal elements of life. However, in the spirit of NFP Awareness Week, I’m resolved to contribute a bit to the conversation.
So, without further ado:
What is Natural Family Planning?
NFP is a method of tracking fertility in order to achieve or avoid pregnancy. Following one of the various NFP methods, a couple practicing NFP who is seeking to postpone or avoid pregnancy, refrains from intercourse when the woman has a chance of conceiving. Since a woman’s chance of conception is limited to a number of days each cycle, a couple is able to closely monitor and chart the woman’s fertility in order to avoid pregnancy. It’s also an effective method for those trying to achieve pregnancy because it allows the couple to become more aware of the woman’s reproductive patterns.
NFP differs from the outdated “rhythm method” and when practiced properly (i.e. without any user-errors), it has an extremely high rate of efficacy.
Why Doesn’t the Church Allow Contraception?
I’ve written extensively about God’s plan for human sexuality here and here, as well as on the meaning of marital love, here. I encourage you to read those posts to gain a deeper understanding of God’s plan for human sexuality and why contraception is so incompatible with that plan.
The shortened version? The purpose of sex is to communicate an authentic union between man and woman, to mirror the love of God (the love of the Trinity), and to mirror the love Christ has for his Church. In other words, sex is made to be a bodily expression of a love that is free, total, faithful, and fruitful. The use of contraception violates the responsibility of love. When a couple sterilizes themselves, closing off the possibility of life, they are ultimately refusing to be open to all the gifts God has prepared for them in their marital love. This is the primary reason why the Church views contraception to be so incompatible for the love between man and wife.
The Church is also against contraception for the following reasons:
- Fertility is not a disease that should be medicated away
- There are many lethal side effects in contraception (such as cancer, blood clots, heart attacks, and even strokes), and the Pill is also classified as a class one carcinogen. Read more about that here and here.
- Contraception lowers a woman’s state of living by dropping her natural sex drive, causing depression, and inducing weight gain, nausea, migraines, vaginal infections, and even liver tumors. Click here for more.
- Contraception can act as an abortifacient. Watch this video to learn more about why.
The Church seeks to protect the dignity of human life, and contraceptives are harmful in many different ways, not only to a marriage, but also to women and babies in utero.
Isn’t NFP Just the “Catholic Way” of Contracepting?
Properly practiced, NFP is entirely different than contraception. The Church acknowledges that couples may at times want to space births and avoid pregnancy, and NFP is the means by which the Church says they can do this when they have just reasons for doing so.
How is it different from contraception? First of all, contraception causes a whole host of problems (as mentioned above); NFP causes none of those problems. More significantly, the use of contraception drastically differs from NFP in the realm of morality. Remember, the purpose of sex is to unite man and wife together in their love (creating a bodily expression of the vows they made on their wedding day), and also to bring forth life. It is in these two ways that man and woman mirror most closely the divine love of the Trinity and Christ’s love for the Church. So, despite any good intent by a practicing couple, the use of contraceptives is always an interruption and sterilization of God’s plan for life because it is a prevention of the natural functioning of the body, the conception of a child. Contraception places a barrier on the fruit of marital love, drawing the line of love in marriage at the gift of fertility.
Since NFP and contraception are both methods of preventing pregnancy, a lot of people claim that they are the same. However, the main difference between NFP and contraception is that NFP doesn’t prohibit a couple’s total gift of love from flowing and flourishing freely. Couples practicing NFP do not interrupt or sterilize their acts of love nor do they act against God’s designs for fertility. Rather, they work with him as co-creators of life by following the body’s natural patterns of fertility and infertility—patterns created by God himself. However, it is true that NFP can be abused when couples practice it with a contraceptive “mentality.” Since NFP is highly effective in regulating births, couples may similarly and permanently close themselves off from the gift of life in their marriage. The couple practicing NFP must always understand the great responsibility that comes with their love, and this means working to practice NFP responsibly and abstaining from intercourse to prevent pregnancy, only when there is a just reason to do so.
What Model of NFP Is Right for Me?
The answer to this question is based on personal preference. There are many different models of NFP out there (CatholicMom.com provides extensive information on the different models here). Each woman should choose according to what works for her cycle and situation in life. This quiz may help you pin down a model that is right for you.
My Method of Choice:
We used to follow the Creighton model, which monitors the appearance of cervical mucus to detect fertile periods. After three years with that model, we decided to switch over to the Marquette model, which involves daily urine tests with the Clearblue Easy Fertility Monitor. We made the switch because we like the concreteness of using the monitor, and like that it gives us more clarity on when we are entering fertile times in my cycle.
My Thoughts on Practicing NFP:
Things I really love about NFP:
-It’s opened up a deep level of communication and trust between me and my husband. To put it bluntly, once you get used to saying “no” to sex at certain times of the month, it feels like there isn’t much you can’t get through together. It’s very difficult at times, but it’s also strengthened our bond by helping us examine our mutual long-term desires, rather than always being persuaded by our momentary movements of passion.
-NFP has opened up my eyes to the functions of my body, and helped me to read my signs of fertility. For example, when Eli was just 6 months, I knew my menstrual cycle was returning because I could tell I had ovulated. I also knew that I was pregnant with Lucy just two weeks after conceiving her, simply by being attentive to my cervical mucus!
-Though I don’t like the times when we have to abstain, I love that the decision is in our hands. It’s up to us to prayerfully and justly decide whether or not we are ready for another baby, and our conversation about it requires us to bring God into the picture. We know that a fruit of our love is the gift of life, and we have the obligation to approach it justly and prayerfully.
– My husband and I don’t have to place barriers on our love. There’s no need for diaphragms, IUD’s, implants, spermicide, condoms, (etc.) and all the harmful and painful effects that come with them.
-It helps my spouse understand my body, and it teaches us both to be extremely patient with one another.
-By practicing NFP, we’re called to be aware of the reality that God is the author of life and that we are merely co-creators.
-The repeated honeymoon phase.
Things I dislike about practicing NFP:
-The obligation to chart all the time.
-Not always feeling like I’m doing it right or like I’m in complete charge of my fertility.
-Having to say “no” to my husband (and vice versa) at certain fertile times.
-Any long periods of time that we have to abstain.
-Having to take a urine sample every morning. A lot of times I forget, have to stop mid-pee, or pee in a cup so I can test later in the day. It’s a real pain and inconvenience.
Is NFP Worth the Trouble?
NFP isn’t always easy. At times it can feel unpredictable, and pretty daunting to navigate and adhere to. Overall, I think it’s safe to say that NFP is not a very fun thing to practice. It requires a lot of work, effort, trust (in God and in our spouse), consciousness, and communication. A lot of times, it can also feel quite isolating and overwhelming.
So, as hard as it can be…Is it even worth the trouble? At my hardest times, I’ve wondered if it was. When Lucy was still really little, I didn’t feel mentally prepared to get pregnant again because I was still recovering from her really difficult six months of colick. Yet when she was around eleven months old we ended up conceiving a baby. When I found out, I cried so hard. I couldn’t understand how my plan and God’s were so far off, when I was doing everything in my power to adhere to the Church’s teachings, follow the Marquette protocol, and be faithful to God’s plan for sexuality. Then, when I finally started coming around to the idea of a third baby so soon after my second, we ended up losing the baby. It was a really tough thing to go through, and I felt even more confused with God’s plan for our lives. Why did I have to go through that? What was the meaning of all that suffering? I later learned that it wasn’t the method that failed, but I had retriggered earlier than I should have which made me miss my ovulation signals. After we went through this incredibly trying time, I realized that we had allowed our fear and worry to close ourselves off from God so much so that it made it hard to be grateful when he gave us a new life. Despite our troubles with our second baby, losing our third was not what we wanted. It was painful and difficult to endure, but through it all we learned to be more accepting of God’s plans for our family, even when it is not in line with our own plans.
Overall, the primary thing I’ve learned by practicing NFP these last four years is that that, no matter our situations in life or the circumstances of our fertility, God has to be involved for us to find true peace–especially in times of great difficulty. Fertility is something we will always struggle with, whether we are trying to achieve or avoid pregnancy. So often we try to control it and “make it work” for us, but we forget that we are not the primary creators of life. We are co-creators. None of us have absolute control over our fertility because God alone is the true author of life. As the author of life, he has given us the opportunity and responsibility of having a say in the fruits of our love, but a huge part of the responsibility is acknowledging that he is ultimately the bearer of all life. With all the frustrations that can come with our fertility, we have the option of either waving our flags and surrendering to modern methods that harm us, or we can trust our fertility to a God who knows us, loves us, and wants the best for us—even when we don’t clearly understand or like his plan for our lives, and even when his plan for us involves suffering and pain.
It’s not easy to swallow the fact that our plans don’t always align with God’s, but through faith and trust in him–especially in times of great burden and price–we begin to more closely mirror the love that Christ has for his Church. Along with Christ, we say to God, to our spouse, and to our future children: This is my body, given up for you. It is in this great out-pouring of the self that we gradually learn how to love as Christ loves: wholly and completely; freely, totally, faithfully, and fruitfully.