Natural family planning. It’s a topic that I’ve written on several times before- most notably here and here. I have attempted to disprove several common myths surrounding NFP in an attempt to defend it against those who would have you believe that it is not a legitimate form of preventing conception, but I have also warned about the temptation to turn NFP into just another form of contraception, albeit a natural one. As you can imagine, as a practicing Catholic woman, I am a huge fan of NFP, but as I have delved deeper into the different methods of Natural Family Planning, I have also realized that there are misconceptions about NFP on both sides of the fence. I have found both proponents and opponents of NFP who have been more than willing to spout untruths about the reality of Natural Family Planning in order to sway people to their side of the argument. I have already addressed some of the myths held by most opponents of NFP; now I’d like to address some of the myths I’ve come across in my interactions with proponents of NFP.
Myth #1: NFP is easy.
Before Andrew and I were married, we had many people who told us about NFP. We attended multiple NFP classes and did our fair share of research. Oftentimes, as authors and speakers advocated the use of NFP to prevent pregnancy, they would cite its ease of use as a benefit of Natural Family Planning. Andrew and I were told countless times that NFP was as easy as checking cervical fluids daily, or taking your temperature every morning, or a combination of both, if you wanted to be really safe. We were promised that NFP would be easy, but over the past few months, we’ve discovered that it’s not always as easy as we’ve been told, and some methods are much more difficult than others. Also, the method that might be considered easy for one couple might be nearly impossible for another.
Andrew and I attended multiple introductory courses for the Creighton Method of NFP before we were married. Some of those courses were more honest than others. In one class, we were told that I would only need to chart once a day, but the teacher failed to mention that this was only after mentally charting my cervical fluids multiple times throughout the day (by my personal estimations, at least 20 times a day). As a full-time working mother, I just have to tell you- there’s a huge difference between charting at the end of the day and charting every time you use the restroom. Especially when you’re just a month post-partum, and you’re using the restroom as often as you did when you were pregnant.
We were also told that interpreting the observations would be easy. We were told that I could just look and touch, and I’d immediately know what I had to chart. In all honesty, I don’t have any first-hand experience with this one, but I’ve spoken with a handful of Catholic friends who all have had the same experience: the insinuation that NFP charting is easy has made them all feel inadequate. Despite what everyone kept telling them, they did not have an easy time charting. Since I can vouch for the intelligence of these young women, I’d be inclined to think that NFP charting is not easy for everyone. It might be easy for someone who has studied it extensively, but it’s not always so clear to the common NFP user. And I don’t think that it has anything to do with their intelligence or their ability to know their own bodies.
Myth #2: NFP brings couples together because it requires conversation between partners.
This was one of the token arguments in favor of NFP over artificial forms of contraception. Many proponents of NFP have attested that using NFP has strengthened their relationships with their spouses because it requires that you talk every month. Married couples using NFP told us couples at Pre-Cana that they had become so much closer since they began using NFP rather than the pill. They talked about monthly conversations about whether or not they would use NFP to prevent or encourage pregnancy. They talked about these conversations as if they were a necessary part of using NFP. It’s not.
In reality, the only conversation that couples have to have every month concerns the likelihood of sex on any given night. I have encountered couples who have admitted that they have used NFP for months, and even years, on end without ever talking about the possibility of another child, or even a first child. They’re not common, but they’re definitely out there.
I’ve also heard a lot of NFP proponents argue that the act of charting can bring a couple together. Our teachers explained that while it is the woman who must make the observations or take her temperature, the man can be invited to document the observations every morning or every night. Some women even wrote that when their alarms went off at 6AM, they would roll over in bed so that their husband could place the thermometer under their tongue before going back to sleep. From the very start, I decided that this was a tad over the top for me.
When Andrew and I began charting, we followed this rule, just because it seemed like everyone did it that way. After about a week of waking up at 6AM to take my temperature and then waking Andrew to log it, I decided that it really was a useless gesture. I didn’t need to wake Andrew up to record my temperature when sleep was already so hard to come by. I was perfectly capable of recording the observations myself, and my decision to do so has not affected our relationship in the least. Or maybe it has, but only positively, since Andrew can get a bit more sleep.
In all honesty, I do think that couples using NFP tend to communicate more, and thus they consider themselves to have a stronger relationship than those couples using other means to prevent pregnancy. But I don’t think that fact has as much to do with NFP as it does with the type of couples that will choose to use NFP. Couples using NFP tend to view children as a gift from God, a gift to be received with much joy and celebration. It should come as no surprise that couples with this mindset often have more than one or two kids. Consequently, you can assume that they are having the “is this a good time to have another child?” conversation more often than their non-NFP-using counterparts.
So yes, in ways this myth is actually true. Couples using NFP do tend to communicate more. These couples also tend to view children as a gift from God, and love as the giving of oneself to another. This self-gift is stifled when artificial forms of contraception are used. You can’t give the whole of yourself and simultaneously hold something back. It just doesn’t work. Couples using NFP to prevent pregnancy do not have to hold anything back when they engage in the marital act. There is nothing between them. Inevitably, couples capable of giving the entirety of themselves with nothing held back will have better relationships than those couples who have something they cannot give to the other.
Myth #3: NFP is no more time-consuming than oral contraceptives.
The truth or falsity of this statement largely depends on your particular method of NFP. Personally, Andrew and I are using Ovacue, a device that I place on my tongue for about ten seconds before my phone interprets the results using an app. Ten seconds is really not that long. It takes about the same amount of time to take your basal body temperature or pee on a stick. Presumably, it doesn’t take ten seconds to take a pill, but ten seconds really isn’t that long. And I imagine that not everyone would be able to locate their condoms in ten seconds, especially if they’re already in the heat of the moment. But I digress.
Clearly, many forms of NFP really aren’t that time-consuming. I just named three that only require about ten seconds a day: Ovacue, Clearblue, and Sympto-thermal. Others take quite a bit more time, a few seconds at a time scattered throughout the day. Creighton, though a very accurate system, requires that you make observations every time that you use the restroom. It’s only a few seconds at a time, but if you use the restroom as often as I do, the time adds up quickly. Granted, just like popping a pill every morning or taking your temperature, once something becomes a habit, you tend to do it without thinking, and the time required becomes inconsequential.
I also found the time required to properly use the Creighton Method to be a bit too demanding for my schedule. As a new mother who was also working full-time, I did not have the time or the wherewithal to make the expected amount of observations throughout the day. Now, I do know women who use an augmented form of Creighton that limits the number of times that they make their observations, for instance once in the morning and once in the evening, but that actually breaks one of the rules of Creighton: you are supposed to make observations each and every time you use the restroom, in addition to several other times throughout the day. Some women are okay with this altered arrangement, but others prefer to take no risks in the method of avoiding conception.
Myth #4: All forms of NFP, though different in their techniques, are the same in the outcome. Choosing one form over others is just a matter of personal preference.
This is one of the most absurd myths about NFP that I have ever heard. That being said, I have to admit that I believed it for years. I first learned about Natural Family Planning when I was in high school, and over the years between high school and young adulthood, I went on believing that all NFP methods were the same. Even if they all looked different, they all had the same outcome: if you didn’t want to get pregnant, you didn’t get pregnant, and if you did, you might. It was only in recent years that I have learned that this statement is clearly false.
First of all, not all methods of NFP are created equal. Some of more effective than others. Creighton is more accurate than Sympto-thermal. Ovacue and Clearblue are more effective than Creighton, if only because there is less room for human error. The rhythm method is the least accurate of all forms of NFP.
There is also a huge difference in price. Sympto-thermal, if you only purchase a basal body thermometer and use the internet to interpret your observations, will only cost you about $20. Creighton’s prices depend largely on whether or not you want a personal consultant (thereby increasing your chances of success), and how much that consultant will charge you. With Clearblue, you must purchase the fertility monitor (which costs between $20 and $200, depending on the type you choose), and every so often, you will need to replenish your supply of strips. Ovacue can cost between $200-$300, but requires no additional purchasing.
Some methods are also easier than others. Some require less time than others. After discovering that Creighton would not work for us, we tried the Sympto-thermal method. It took barely any time at all to realize that this method is nearly impossible to use if you have a newborn that wakes up throughout the night to eat. In the end, we chose Ovacue, because even though it was expensive at the outset, it was simple to use, included an app that interpreted the results, and could be used after I had given John his first bottle of the day but before eating breakfast or brushing my teeth.
So yes, in a way, your choice of method will come down to personal preference. You have to consider what means the most to you. Is the method’s cost more important than its overall effectiveness? Is the effectiveness more important than the ease of use or time requirement? Is ease of use more important than cost for you? You must consider your personal preferences, but you must also recognize that not all NFP methods are the same. You might have to take a risk in your choice. You might need to spend more money than you had hoped in your desire to choose the most effective method. You might choose a less effective method because your hectic life requires a method that is quick and easy to use. You might even need to try several different methods before you find one that works for your family. You will need to choose, but you should make that choice knowing that not all methods are created equal.
So why would a pro-NFPer dedicate an entire post to debunking myths about NFP that might lead to some people opting to use artificial forms of contraception instead? Honestly, I don’t think we’re helping the situation at all if we’re not honest about the reality of NFP. Yes, I have plenty of friends who will use NFP no matter how difficult it can be at times. I have plenty of friends who will use NFP even if it’s difficult, time-consuming, and requires a monthly period of abstinence. But I also have friends who are using NFP because they’re marrying devout Catholics, while they themselves are new to the faith, or returning to the faith, or aren’t faithful at all. I have friends who are going to use NFP because their future spouse has asked them to. I have friends who plan on using NFP with the support of their partner, though their partner would have no problem with them opting to take the pill instead. I have friends who are not committed to seeking out morally acceptable ways to prevent conception as Andrew and I are. For one reason or another, they have chosen to use NFP, and they deserve to know the truth about Natural Family Planning, both the good and the bad.
If we’re up front and honest with people, they will be more likely to stick with their choice to use NFP. They will not resort to using morally reprehensible forms of contraception because NFP wasn’t as easy as they had been told it would be. If they know what to expect from the beginning, they won’t be blindsided in the long-run. They won’t feel like they’ve been told lies, promised to be given something other than what they had received. They’ll feel more confident in their decision, and in turn, they might share their own experience with NFP with others. Because in the end, Natural Family Planning is a beautiful thing, even if it’s difficult, time-consuming, and demanding. It requires that we be better. It requires that we work, challenging ourselves. It requires that we be virtuous. It requires that we make sacrifices. It requires that we find other ways to say “I love you” besides sex. It requires a lot, but it gives a lot in return. It brings life. It brings communication (if we are open to that element). It brings closeness and creativity during times of fertility. It brings growth in chastity, fidelity, and temperance. It brings love. And that’s why it’s a beautiful thing.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!
Is candid communication on NFP EVER permitted? I have yet to find a website where open-and-honest dialogue is permitted and supported. If 95% of Catholic women are NOT using NFP (and are using some form of contraception instead, which the Church forbids), there is obviously a problem. This is hardly because individuals know nothing about the teaching itself (although I have seen this mentioned many times, scratching my head at the idea). It has been my experience that in candid, yet tactful conversations, if one doesn’t tote the party line of the sugar coated, “NFP-is-the-best-thing-ever. How-did-my-spouse-and-I-ever-live-without-this?” mentality, that the comments that I have left on NFP sites are generally either bashed or totally removed. Not only is this totally uncharitable and unchristian, but to expect that 100% of Catholic married couples are going to swoon over a method that is, with all due respect, not much different than the old rhythm method (yes, it is individualized to each women, but total days of abstention per month vary very little). The Church may never condone contraceptives,, but it needs to stop sugarcoating and misrepresenting the reality (and the difficulty) of NFP, the Church needs to support couples who are truly struggling (I have yet to see any actual NFP support groups, not just an individual who helps with the reading of a chart, but a group where individuals are free to opine that, “Yes-this-is-really-hard” (which we don’t appear to be allowed to do anywhere), and, finally, developer user-friendly apps along with new approaches to NFP where so much abstention is not required (the 3-5 days a month of abstention we are told is required is patently false). Despite all of the hoopla, I have yet to come to the conclusion how weeks of abstention each month (again, contrary to how NFP is actually touted), is good for a marriage. The default being, of course, large families. While NFP users are often noted as having more children and, we are told, being more open to life, perhaps the realty is that, for some at least, they have larger families because that is the result of more intimacy, while those who have smaller families and limit family size for whatever reason while using NFP, are seriously much more deprived of, which greatly hurts a marriage. If the Church is truly concerned with how so few couples are really willing to live by this difficult teaching, then perhaps it is time to be open to honest and open dialogue among ALL of its members, including those of us who have found NFP to be much more of a hindrance to our marriage than a help (as it is currently sold). The Church needs to be open to dialogue with ALL of its members, including those of us who have needed support which was never provided. Silencing members who have had less than a positive experience with this difficult teaching is not helpful, and certainly not productive. It’s time for a change.
I think you make a lot of great points, and I especially love the idea of an NFP support group. I have a few friends with whom I have always been very candid with my experience of NFP, and so we have a sort of grassroots group that has formed as each of us has gotten married. As you said, it does not help to sugar-coat the teaching, or to make it sound easier than it actually is. In my experience, NFP can be REALLY hard. Technically speaking, not all methods work for everyone, and finding the right method for you can require a great deal of trial and error, and inevitably, suffering. Emotionally speaking, the need to abstain for days or even weeks at a time can take a toll on a marriage, especially if that lack of intimacy is not being addressed in another way. Of course, it’s also wrong to reduce intimacy to sex. You can have love without sex. That being said, if your solution to this problem is that the Church should permit artificial forms of contraception, that’s where I would disagree. Just because something is hard, doesn’t mean we should abandon it. Christianity is hard. Trusting God can be hard. Marriage is hard. Virtue can be hard. Abstinence can also be hard, but that doesn’t mean we should abandon it. It might be a challenge, but it also has the potential to make us stronger. Virtue is always good for us. I think NFP is overused, and I think many couples do not adequately trust God. But I also think the Church has a responsibility to do a better job teaching NFP, as well as supporting those couples who use it.
Thank you for your response. It’s very encouraging for me to see dialogue and communication on this topic. You had mentioned contraception ~ I’m not mentioning that the Church condone and/or accept contraception, as that will very likely never happen. What I am proposing is an honest discussion (seldom is any “product” either 100% good or bad, as is certainly the case with NFP). Yes, there are other ways to show “intimacy” , and certainly as a couple my husband and I have done that. But that does not make up for the actual “marital embrace,” and since I entered into menopause many years ago I feel a deep sense of loss of lost marital intimacy through following NFP which can, sadly, never be replaced. As noted in my previous post, I have a three-fold thought on what can greatly help NFP followers, WITHOUT embracing the contraceptive mentality as well as not going against Church teaching.
They are as follows:
1. Stop sugarcoating the teaching. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This is certainly the lopsided approach the Church uses in “selling” NFP.
2. Promote support groups. I was really encouraged to hear that you have had an informal support group with other NFP users to do so. When I was going through NFP, I had no such support. My husband and I struggled greatly with this, and, with all due respect, even years later, find very little positive to say about NFP (including the use of hormonal birth control, etc. Yes, hormonal bc is bad, but it was a moot point with us as we didn’t resort to that anyway). When I mentioned in passing to an NFP promoter the need for such support, my request was met with total silence, as is often the case when ANYONE who is not in 100% agreement with the Church’s teaching on this matter is often met with. Yes, it is a difficult teaching. But rather than couples (particulary women) feeling that they must suffer in silence, which many do, the Church desperately needs to support dialogue. Yes, I understand that that will not change the teaching, or make it easier, but SILENCING individuals, particularly couples, only makes individuals resentful and likely to look elsewhere, which is exactly what the Church is trying to avoid.
3. Most importantly, how can the Church promote and employ current technology to make it easier to use NFP and to shorten the days of abstinence? Even JPII was behind this, as mentioned in his writings. There are those who put NFP to extreme use who will say this supports a “contraceptive” mentality, and I will never likely be in agreement with these individuals due to the fact that the criteria mentioned to use NFP is so extreme (and unrealistic). However, employing apps and technology to better pinpoint exact days of fertility (or at least closer than is done so now), thus helping to lessen the period of abstention and subsequent guesswork might just bring more couples on board. Certainly, individuals are still called to be open to life when pregnancy occurs, but is it really a sin for women (particularly) to want more control than what current NFP methods provide? I know that over and over we read that that is really the point, that we DON’T have control over our bodies, but perhaps HONEST conversation and dialogue might reveal that that is where many couples REALLY have an issue with NFP, and having more precise indicators just may bring more couples on board. I have read material from John Kippley stating that individuals need to stop abusing NFP, using it only during particular situations, as noted below (the default being that not even NFP is to be used otherwise, i.e. taking children as they come without the use of NFP, giving the couples very little control) will bring more individuals on board, yet I question how making this most difficult teaching by making it even MORE challenging is going to bring more couples on board. There are popes who have mentioned it is up to the couples to decide on their own when it is appropriate to bring another child into their family, yet earlier pontiffs and teachings (at least it has been my understanding), have pointed to extreme circumstances under which NFP can only be implemented (dire financial and/or medical concerns, famine, serious social circumstances such as China’s 1-child policy, etc.). If only 3-5 % currently use NFP now, how is it even reasonable to think that by making it even harder that MORE individuals are going to get on board? I seriously scratch my head at this line of thinking.
In any event, I apologize that my post is so long, but I certainly do appreciate anyone who takes the time to read this. I also am very grateful for your previous response, as dialogue and communication in regards to this issue is desperately needed. Silencing individuals, particularly on this issue, will only continue to drive more couples away. Open communication and dialogue, without compromising Church teaching, is imperative (and possible) if we are to bring more couples on board with the cross of NFP.
P.S. I’m not really sure I understand your comment on how NFP is “overused.” If we are truly to only use NFP in dire circumstances, than why do women ever go to college? Why do we have careers? Certainly family and children must come first, but where is the balance if all individuals have large families, which is likely the default if NFP is used only in drastic instances? Do women really have any say over this? I have nothing against large families, but I find it very difficult when women are told they can “have it all.” That is true in the media, but it is also true in the Catholic church, and yet we know that no woman can “have it all,” as something suffers (whether it’s the family, children, etc.). We hear about “support” for families, but I ponder what “support” means to different people, including the Church? We are encouraged to be open to life, but where is Church support when we do? There are NO NFP support groups in my area. There were mother’s groups, but they met only a few times a year. My husband and I desperately wanted for YEARS to go to a ME (Marriage Encounter) but did not have access to weekend sitters. We were never able to go. When we mentioned it to our local ME chapter, we were told that many individuals did not attend because they, too, had problems with weekend sitters, but NOTHING was ever changed. If NFP is truly overused (which I don’t agree with, but we are certainly welcome to disagree : ) ) , then it’s time for the Church to support families. They do so in words, but are lacking in deeds.
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