I have hesitated for a long time to publish this, because in the past I have caused scandal by bluntly stating certain aspects of Church teaching without bothering to dance in the nuance. And then, of course, there is the little fact that I learned long ago that few are like me in their approach to NFP. Yet I know that it is good for people to see another side, even if they would never wish to walk it themselves. And there are at least a few pre-Cana couples out there who actually want to have NFP work in their future marriages. So here goes something…
What I tell my sisters about NFP.
NFP can be easy. Sure, not all couples will need to concern themselves with planning their families, but for the majority who do need NFP, it can work very well. NFP can be easy for faithful Catholics who care deeply about following the Church’s teaching precisely. Of course NFP can be miserable. We all know that. But it does not have to be. The truth is that if you expect NFP to be a challenge, and then go on to make it even more difficult on yourself… well, you might break under the burden. Or you might flourish. I suppose that is the Catholic way of saying that your mileage may vary? Ehem. Anyway.
Abstain on your wedding night.
No, I am not joking. So many couples freak out because they think that they are making a tremendous sacrifice if they happen to get married on a day with indications of fertility. Either they feel so terribly deprived as they abstain, or they ignore their consciences in regard to responsible parenting, or they start their marriage off with a “just this once” use of contraception. Not cool. And don’t tell yourself that you *must* have sex in order to have a valid marriage. Because that’s just not true. And truth is good for marriage.
There is a flipping easy solution to this problem. Simply plan for abstinence on your wedding night. If you are sexually experienced then it won’t kill you to wait another day (or 10). If you are *not* sexually experienced, then it might do you a whole lot of good to take things veeeery slowly. Like your whole honeymoon slowly. In either case, planning ahead of time to abstain on your wedding night can set you up for success with NFP. Sure, I am crazy, but you are the one thinking of avoiding sex as a way to avoid babies. If you are not crazy too, then you should expect failure. Or something.
And if you are extra concerned about this issue, then delay your honeymoon and start your marriage off with a religious pilgrimage instead. You won’t regret it.
Avoid pregnancy for at least 3 months.
Actually, I really think you should probably avoid for at least 6 months, but since any timeline is arbitrary and the number 3 is symbolic of the Trinity or something we’ll go with that.
If you read enough I-Hate-NFP stories you will notice a theme so resounding as to become, dare I say it, hackneyed. It is the story of couples who thought they were going to be so perfect and open to life all their lives and have lots of babies and let God decide whatever. So they had no need to learn NFP. So they had babies. And then needed NFP. And then could not figure it out during the very stressful postpartum period. So they had another baby that they could not handle. And they hated NFP. Because NFP DOESNT WORK, and it is SOOOO HARD. Etc.
According to my very scientific survey of anecdotal evidence, precisely 50% of these couples (half!) would have found NFP significantly less of a burden had they chosen to learn it, and practice it at least for a little while when first married.
Some people say that you should not get married if you do not want to have a baby right away. I say you should not get married if you can not handle 3 months of avoiding pregnancy. #Snark.
Follow the liturgical cycle.
If you thought the first two suggestions were bad, you will love this one. One of the reasons that people find NFP insufferable is that they see it as a poor (self-denying) alternative to the more Catholic (fun) option of having sex whenever they want. While this view has its merits, it is also very new in the scope of Church history.
For the vast majority of years during which Catholics have been Catholic, faithful married couples abstained for religious reasons for far more of the year than modern NFP-users abstain in order to avoid pregnancy.
This sounds scary and unnecessary. And maybe it is. But it is also a great way to get some perspective on the abstinence required for avoiding pregnancy. If you are finding that abstinence for the purpose of avoiding pregnancy feels like too much of a burden, then consider the counter-intuitive method of abstaining more–for more obviously holy reasons.
Even if you have no reason to avoid pregnancy, abstaining during times of penance (Fridays, Advent, Lent, random days determined by your diocese, whatever) can knock some Catholic sense into you and renew your thoughts on sex and abstinence. If nothing else it will allow you to compete with your holier-than-thou we-use-God-family-planning pew neighbors. Nothing like penance and abstinence to help with arrogance, right?
Learn about various disorders.
And by “disorders” I mean the reproductive health sort, not the you-must-be-disordered-if-you-think-marriage-is-about-more-than-sex type.
Getting a clue about the basic problems that could make NFP more difficult will help things not be so difficult. Education is useful. Shocking, I know.
Even if you are one of the lucky ones who never has any reproductive health issues, knowing about them will help you to be less stressed when other people start telling their horror stories. Hint: no woman is actually fertile all the time. There are, however, many reasons for a woman to have continuous symptoms which some schools of NFP would declare to be “fertile.” Learn about these things, and your life will be sweet as honey and your wife as lovely as a flock of sheep. Or something.
Knowledge is good. Sure, you know that you will never need it, but maybe you can help someone else with it some day when they are asking you about how you have such a perfect marriage. Or something.
Learn about multiple methods.
What I really want to say is to learn multiple methods of tracking fertility, but I’m thinking that I will have to settle for telling you to at least learn about multiple methods.
There are as many ways to determine fertility and rules for avoiding or achieving pregnancy as there are ways to skin a mouse. Warning: this may come as a shock to your NFP-teacher, but not all methods are equally good for all couples.
It should be obvious that some ways of tracking fertility will work better for some women’s bodies than others. What is slightly less obvious at first is how other factors, such as the strictness or style of a method, will make it better or worse suited to each couple.
If you are a control freak couple you may love Creighton. If you enjoy dancing in the woods in a rhythm determined precisely by your own body you may love Billings.
Some methods are beautiful in their simplicity. Other methods have the genius of complexity that is incredibly reassuring.
You may love whatever method you stumble upon. But you may not. And if you at least know about the basics of some other methods then you will have a tremendous advantage in being able to make NFP easier, better, and hotter. Or something.
. . .
The wonderfully secret truth is that NFP may be quite a challenge–for all the same reasons that marriage may be quite a challenge–but it does not have to be impossible. If following all those blasted Catholic rules is important to you, as it is to me, then there are pretty simple ways to set yourself up for success.
Have serious talks with your significant other. Realize that if you cannot currently have a coherent, loving discussion about the possibility of things such as abstaining for weeks after your wedding, that NFP may not work for you in this relationship. Don’t be stupid. Don’t be selfish. Don’t ignore red flags… Or any color flags, actually.
Know that the ease or challenge that NFP presents in your marriage will have little to do with your bodies and a lot to do with your minds. And hearts. And souls.
Spend a little time expecting–and preparing–for the worst.
Then move on with your life and marriage knowing that you get to make the choices which can make NFP… dare I say it? Easy.
Practicing NFP for a few months before trying to conceive is very good idea. You’re right, it is way harder to learn in the transition times, and people would be less stressed about it if they learned when the stakes were a little lower.
Hey I just discovered your blog through Twitter… This is an amazing, and frankly quite courageous, post. Thank you!
I am assuming a few things here because I am commenting in an eager rush before I’ve had time to read more about your full thoughts on NFP, but I’m guessing you’re a lot like my husband and I in this area. And I have felt incredibly judged and held inferior by other young Catholic couples.
We believe that it is a modern misunderstanding of the Church’s teachings that a marriage without contraception equates a marriage without family planning (unless there is GRAVE matter, which is interpreted today to mean a matter life or death. Apparently just keeping a healthy happy marriage or maintaining a sense of peace and order within the home with each new child is not a serious enough reason.)
We believe that the Church’s commandment for love and responsibility means a proper respect for the gravity of the role of parenthood, of creating life. We deeply respect and value this call, we do not take it for granted nor do we ignore it… Yet we take it seriously as a matter requiring a constant, loving, attentive process of discernment.
In other words, we do not believe our call to marriage is a call to have as many children as quickly as physically possible. We do not rush it, any more than we rushed down the altar to get married, no matter how badly we wanted each other! I love your recommendation of waiting 6 months – why should we not, when the Church equally requires us to wait that amount of time from when we say “yes” to when we say “I do”?
My husband and I were one of those young and impetuous couples who decided we didn’t need to worry about when the first baby came and conceived promptly on our honeymoon. Of course I love my baby – but I had that exact experience you described of being totally overwhelmed and TERRIFIED that NFP wouldn’t work when I was trying to learn it and raise my 6 mon old, and breast feed. A lot of grace, communication, sex-less nights and harried calls to my practitioner and we miraculously learned it really well without any “oops”es. But it took about 4-5 months to really gain confidence.
It is truly easy now, as you said. I’m so grateful to God I didn’t allow myself to be guilted into giving up when I felt bad about my new mom feelings of anxiety over the idea of accidentally getting pregnant. I prayed for grace and an open heart to God’s will, and stuck it out. With the gradual feelings of confidence in the method, the feelings of dreading pregnancy vanished. My husband and I have now been able to calmly, joyfully, lovingly discern GOD’S will for our family without any distractions.
I understand some couples may be called to have huge families right away, and if so God will give them the grace to do so with joy and beauty. But He certainly does not call everyone to that. The Catechism says the Church has always recognized large families as blessed by God’s generosity… But the Church never says we all must be like that.
In fact, such a wrong assumption directly leads to openly judgmental criticism of the most intimate concern of married couples… I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard inappropriate questions or comments about why So&so hadn’t had a baby yet, (when in at least one of these cases, the poor girl was silently struggling with the fear and anguish of infertility). Families are not going to look the same and that expectation leads to wrongful judgments when they don’t.
Ahhh sorry super long comment! Please check out my blog or at least email me? I’m dying to have a fellow-Vibrant-catholic who understands my own frustrations with all the many misunderstandings of the meaning of openness to life!
It is a shame that with so few couples even TRYING to live the Church’s teaching that some have to be so judgmental about it.
“Grave reason” is a mistranslation of the Italian into English. The more recent English version of HV on the Vatican’s website refers to “serious reasons”, “well-grounded reasons” and “acceptable reasons”. The Catechism uses “just reasons”.
In fact, Humanae Vitae 10 encourages Catholics to plan their families and to prayerfully discern God’s will in the matter. HV mentions that learning the biology of NFP and learning self-control are part of the couples’ call to responsible parenthood in their marriage vocation.
Yes, thank you! I did recently check out the Vatican’s site on this, and it is so much more clear.
You are so right – the criticism of family plannjng needs to stop! Esp in today’s culture when we’re already beginning to be persecuted for our refusal of contraception… The body of the Church must be in unity more than ever!
Awesome Post, Rae.
Our wedding night was Peak. Seriously. A few pointers on that:
1. Whatever you do, do NOT use contraception. Your first married time is special and using contraception is not.
2. Don’t think God this means that calling you to make a baby, either.
3. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t follow all the rules. You are also learning marital chastity, which is extremely difficult when you are in the sleeping in the same bed AND married. But do at least TRY to follow them.
4. Plan a honeymoon where you can still have a great vacation even if you aren’t having sex.
About multiple methods:
One thing I have heard is that if after three cycles you (1) can’t understand your fertility and (2) have not been referred to a doctor for diagnosis and treatment of a disorder, it is time to change methods.
Or change teachers. Not all teachers are created equal. It’s the same as it was in school. If you aren’t comfortable with your teacher or you feel you aren’t understanding the method, don’t be afraid to ask someone else for help.
If you find your teacher more interested in talking you into being more “open to life” than in how to use the method to avoid pregnancy, RUN!!!
I am constantly surprised at the amount of NFP articles that assume that if you aren’t using NFP you are either a) using contraception or b) that you are a zealot that not only thinks everyone should have as many babies as possible and anyone not agreeing is wrong. We don’t use NFP, that doesn’t mean I think anyone or their reasons for avoiding are wrong. I happen to think that NFP is an amazing gift from the Church.
Rae, you know I love you, but you seem to be implying (heated topic, and I will admit to being defensive so if I’m reading too much into it let me know please!) that if we do not use NFP we do not sacrifice in our marriage. This seems to be a common thought, that although we are not TTA there are natural times where the marital embrace isn’t possible, or desired.
I can see how you could read that into the post since this was a very one-sided post, lacking nuance, but that certainly isn’t my intent.
By “not all couples will need to concern themselves with planning their families, but for the majority who do need NFP, it can work very well” I intended to give a slight nod to the fact that there are couples out there who really don’t need NFP. I suspect that you are in the minority–and who can tell what the future will be for either of us?–but I know you are real.
The idea that not using NFP = not sacrificing is absurd when in reality it tends to mean that either the couple is dealing with subfertility, or else dealing with lots o’ babies. Either way it isn’t going to be easy. I know that. I just wasn’t talking about it here, and I doubt that I ever will. But if you’d ever like to write a guest post ::hint hint::
Ha! I have debated much about doing a post about it, because I’ve gotten so much heat about not using NFP. I knew I had to be reading that in because I know you, and know that you aren’t like that. I do know we are in the minority (makes me sad!) and I would like to get some education out there. From being told we were less educated to we were probably going to get a divorce, we have heard a lot.
I really, really think that you should write a post about it. One way or another.
Um, I love you. In a totally holy-someone-else-gets-it and not weird kinda way.
Seriously. This. is. awesome. All of it. Every point. Including your response to Jeanine.
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My husband and I have been using NFP for 3 years, aka our entire marriage. We are in a band together, and want to continue working towards goals. We both know and have discussed the impossibility of children and the band. When the day comes that I get pregnant, the band is done on the spot. I am a songwriter since young childhood. and my wonderful husband partnered me up with some of his musician friends years ago when he felt I wasn’t using my God given talents. He helps in the creative process along with me and fhe other three guys and we love this aspect of our marriage. We are the best of friends. We both feel that in the future we will be excited to start a family.
I truly can’t imagine being excited about it now, but I also could never envision myself as a mother. I think I may need to just become a mother to understand the idea of it. I asked him today if we weren’t able to have children if he’d be upset. He said he would have been a year ago, maybe, but not now. I feel the same. It makes me sad that we don’t emotionally want a family. We are not exactly young. I’m almost 29 and he’s 35. I can’t help but wonder if our priorities will shift.
I wish we could magically get ten more years of fertile youth. Because of this, we really avoid sex. We both know we would be heart-broken if we had to give up the band, at least this year. This creates problems. I think we’ve both taught ourselves to completely block out sexual desire.
Now, our schedules are screwy, but the only time I desire him is when I’m I ovulating, and that’s just when we can’t do it. I repress my thinking, then my hormones shift and I’m completely turned-off when we’re “allowed” to go for it. I’ve turned him away so many times during this “turned-off” stage, he’s nearly given up trying, but mireso than that, he’s mentally blocking sex out in obidience. The idea of any sort of expectation of sex makes me feel strange, so just because we CAN have sex one day (finally) doesnt mean im obligated to. I think of my sexuality as a snowball rolling down a hill, picking up snow and getting bigger. My snowball keeps stopping, and the next month a new snowball, and stopped. It’s definitely upsetting me that my desire is waning. We have had by no means a fun, enjoyable sex life since getting married.
We started out with loads of desire and today we are a cuddly, affectionate couple. For a long time there was conflict, he always wanted it, I only did (and ferociously) when I couldn’t. Now it’s like he gave up, which makes it easy for me to give up, but I understand intamacy is so good for a close marriage. We are both unhappy with the situation. I pray about it a lot. If like to enjoy our time together more on that level, but I don’t see how. I can’t say NFP doesn’t work, it certainly does, so far so good, but I could gripe about it all day.
The constant scrutinizing of dates and body fluids and tempatures is hardly sexy. I understand it is a means to an end. I have a difficult time with the “completion” always having to be internal, as it’s extremely messy for hours if not days and I’m technically infertile anyway. I just about don’t understand that aspect. I’m not fertile, and still there was some depositing through intercourse, why does it have to be so excessive? I find this aspect off putting when I’m infertile and not desiring anyway. It makes me not want to engage because I think of the mess I’ll have after. I sometimes resent the idea of him just going to bed and I have to go clean up and sleep uncomfortably all night long from it.
I just wish there wasn’t so much keeping us from growing closer in this area. It actually makes me sad to think of. My secular friends cannot possibly understand this situation, and my best friend who is devoutly Catholic unexpectedly got pregnant following NFP 3 months after she was married and has said she could live with never having sex again. I want to want to have sec all the time. I want that desire for my husband and it seems like a chore. I do feel NFP keeps us close in the sense that we need to be open to the possibility of major life changes together as a couple and we need to trust each other deeply, but I can’t help but think how much easier it would be to be able to use condoms or the pull-out method.
We are obedient to the rules and we understand them, but it certainly isn’t a simple solution. I wish our lifes’ goal was kids kids kids like some of our friends. It just isn’t. We’ve both never had that desire. We can’t change who we are, unfortunately, and there is a sort of mold we aren’t fitting into. I wish our sex life was more organic, but it’s interrupted. It’s like a plane on a runway never taking flight. It’s very frustrating and saddening. Any advice here will do.
My deep sympathy with your situation. I will think over it for a while, but it will take a long time for me to respond. There’s a lot here! In the mean time, I will keep you in my prayers.
If you would like a quicker response know some excellent Catholic women who are far wiser than myself who would be glad to speak to you. If you’re interested, just respond.
I feel very deeply for your situation. Firstly I want to reassure you and thank you for your fidelity to the churches teachings. Marriage is a place for fruitful bearing of God’s love into our world, in a beautiful way this happens when a child is procreated. The fruit of a marriage is not restricted to children, you music can bring beauty to people and offer a vision of God’ love. The fellowship you share with your bandmates is also a blassing of your marriage. Do not feel barren.
In considering your sex life I encourage you to talk honestly with your husband about this and share with him your desire to desire him. When I struggled in a similar situation I found a lot of encouragement in the realcatholicloveandsex blog (I hope that’s okay to say here). Remember that sex is a free and loving giving of each spouse to the other, it is a symbol of the love in the trinity. Good News about Sex and Marriage by Christopher West may also be a useful read.
Upon reflection, I think simply that you and your husband should undertake a study of Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body. Christopher West has some great introductions and some parishes offer study groups.
Hello all. My fiancée and I are planning on doing NFP and we realize for our strong catholic background, we are not willing to look to other options. My fiancée is extremely scared and worried that NFP will not work and as our honeymoon and wedding approaches, we don’t know what to so. We aren’t going to use contraceptives but if our honeymoon doesn’t land on safe days, we will be sleeping together in a room and not be able to touch each other. As a side note we have never had sex in the past and I for one am not worried about having a kid right away but I respect where she is coming from. Should be interesting.
Christ’s yoke is easy and His burden is light. The Church’s teaching is not.
NFP is not only awesome for following rules, but for establishing respect. My husband and I lived together while unmarried for 3 years. About a year and a half into it, I became deeper in my Catholic faith, and we talked about how it wasn’t really fair to be engaging in intercourse when we didn’t want a kid, and I kept believing that was what was keeping us together. We shared a bed and were abstinent for a year and a half- I can promise you that I knew darn well when I got to the alter that he loved me for more than what I could offer him in the bedroom. I have not doubted his love for me since we’ve been abstinent, and I still don’t doubt his love for me as we practice NFP. I know our lives haven’t been very “kosher” in a Catholic way, but we do find our way eventually- and I do think that being able to abstain shows a deeper love than engaging in sex.
Dear Poppy, you might be suffering from attachment to the idol that it seems your band could be. I would recommend you seek spiritual direction (you can get an appointment with a priest in your parish or something) and ask them about attachment and detachment. It seems that without this band you don’t seem to see how you can be happy, even if the band can be used for good. Perhaps it is time to offer up this thing that is rivaling Christ to be the center of your life that is affacting all your decision making. Once Christ is back at the center, then everything else will fall into place and you shall have your peace, even if that means having a baby. Hope that helps!