About a year and a half ago, I wrote a blog post where I suggested that it was necessary that we have an honest conversation about NFP, debunking some of the myths that are often purported about the use of Natural Family Planning: (1) that it is easy, (2) that is requires conversation between partners, (3) that it is not time-consuming, and (4) that all forms of NFP have the same outcome. These claims are often made with good intentions, as proponents try to convince other couples to try using NFP for themselves. I have heard NFP proposed as the best thing since sliced bread, and the best thing that you could do for your marriage. I have heard couples gush about the beauty of NFP, how it improved their marriage, encouraged communication between spouses, and allowed parents to space out their children perfectly (I vividly remember a Pre-Cana video where a woman talked about how she used NFP to ensure that her three children would all be born three years apart and during spring).
I believed all these things well into the first year of my marriage. My husband and I had wanted to start a family immediately, so there was no discussion of using NFP (with the exception of our agreement that we would use NFP to try to get pregnant if nothing had happened after six months). We had been married for less than a month when we learned that we were pregnant. It was only towards the end of my pregnancy that I began considering our NFP options, and I made the necessary arrangements to begin charting according to the Creighton Method as soon as John had been born. Two months and three methods later, Andrew and I decided to take the initial hit and purchase the rather expensive Ovacue adapter for my phone. We had chosen against multiple methods for various reasons, and I was becoming very embittered towards the whole NFP requirement as the weeks passed. While my husband and I have been very satisfied with Ovacue in the year and a half that we have used it, even with the best possible method, NFP has still been more difficult than I thought it would be.
I learned a few truths about NFP very quickly. I am sure there are methods of NFP that only require 3-5 days of abstaining (though I imagine this would only be with professional assistance and quite possibly years of practice), but many methods require more than that. Methods like Ovacue and Clearblue, if you’re going to abstain on days of any degree of fertility, will require abstinence for anywhere from six to eight days (avoiding marital intimacy during the varied days leading up to ovulation, the day of ovulation, and the two days following it). Then, if you plan on abstaining at the beginning of your menstrual cycle, you can add another 3-7 days, depending on the length of your period. If I’m going to be completely honest, a woman might find herself needing to abstain for two whole weeks- a week for her period and a week to avoid the fertile period, and sometimes one week will blend right into the next. That would mean that if a couple wanted to be very conservative in their charting, they might be required to abstain for two weeks. That’s half a month.
A quick word- this might be extreme and only apply to a handful of women, but it is certainly possible. Some women have shorter periods than others. Some NFP methods can be more precise than others. The chances of getting pregnant on a day of mild fertility might be slight, but it’s certainly a possibility that must be considered.
We also learned that precision often requires more time. Andrew and I settled on a very non-invasive, quick NFP method, but we also had to accept that this came with a less-than-desirable side effect: a rather lengthy period of potential fertility. It wasn’t ideal, but as I continued to recover from the birth of John, we both understood that we needed to be conservative in our charting. And so we made that sacrifice in our marriage for the sake of my well-being. It was necessary, but still a sacrifice.
After a year and a half of using NFP, I have reached a conclusion that might be a tad controversial, but I still think it is worth considering. I’ve come to suspect that NFP was never intended to be used, particularly so conservatively, for long periods of time. I think this is especially true when couples do not actively seek out alternative forms of intimacy during those periods of abstinence. If you are abstaining for two weeks out of every month for months on end, I imagine that in time, this could be detrimental to a marriage. If you are abstaining for half the month and not intentionally seeking out alternative types of intimacy, my suspicions are that it would only be a matter of time before it begins to take a toll on a person’s marriage.
Another quick little caveat- I completely understand that there are going to be times where couples might be required to use NFP to prevent pregnancy for a lengthier period of time. Women struggling with postpartum depression might choose to use NFP for a year or more while symptoms persist. Couples who are struggling to support themselves and their current children might want to avoid getting pregnant until their circumstances improve. There are plenty of completely legitimate reasons to use NFP for longer periods of time, but I think couples should consider the possibility that there might be risks involved.
So if NFP is more difficult than originally thought, is there anything that can be done to improve the situation? I suspect that of the 2-5% of Catholic women in the U.S. who use NFP, most of them adhere to all the teachings of the Catholic faith: they attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, they pray regularly, they are pro-life, and they believe that marriage is the covenantal union of one man and one woman. The mere difficulty involved in practicing NFP is not going to deter them from continuing to practice it. While the challenges of NFP might not be enough to lead them to abandon it, even the most dedicated NFP-user could benefit from a few improvements, specifically, (1) continued efforts to develop more accurate NFP methods and technologies, (2) the creation of support groups for married couples who have chosen to use NFP, and (3) the cultivation of a culture within the Church that encourages trust in God, recognizes all children as a gift from God, and teaches its members from an early age that we never need to fear God’s plans for our lives, particularly when it comes to the birth of children.
Today’s methods of NFP have developed a great deal beyond the rhythm method, but there is still certainly room for improvement. Many methods now have apps that make tracking easier, and depending on the method, some apps are capable of interpreting the results for you, using conveniently colored blocks to inform you of your current fertility or lack thereof. These apps are incredibly useful, but more accurate readings could potentially reduce the overall number of days of abstinence. If the Church is really serious about increasing the number of couples relying on NFP, it is in her best interest to encourage the development and perfection of such apps, as well as other up-and-coming, acceptable technologies, leading them to become more accurate, more user-friendly, and less time-consuming.
In addition, I think it would benefit the Church at large if individual parishes offered NFP support groups, where married couples, and perhaps even single or engaged individuals who have chosen to chart their cycles, could gather to discuss the benefits and challenges that come with using NFP. I have heard stories about women posting about the difficulty of NFP online, only to have their comments deleted or to find themselves reprimanded for voicing such an unpopular opinion, as if their experience means nothing and their end goal is to lead unsuspecting individuals away from NFP and right to the path to hell. It’s as if by deleting these comments, other couples will never learn of these challenges themselves, will never know how difficult NFP can be at times. And therein lies the problem, because couples inevitably do learn these lessons themselves. That’s where a support group could be very helpful. It’s easier to endure challenges and difficulties when you know you’re not alone. It’s easier when you have a support system in place, one that perhaps even includes couples who are older but have used NFP in the past. Sometimes, these groups can form on their own, as friends come together and talk about their experience of using NFP, but it would be convenient for couples who might not have that support in their friends to find it at their parish.
Finally, I really do think we need a cultural shift, even within the Church. Our society at large is not very supportive of young families. Mothers find themselves back at work much too early, and they struggle to balance the demands of work and family life. Postpartum depression is experienced by approximately 10% of new mothers, though many healthcare providers suspect that this number should be higher because it most likely goes undiagnosed in many women. Motherhood can often be overwhelming, and without a proper support system, it can be downright terrifying. Honestly, I can’t say that I’m that surprised that many couples stop at one, or possibly two, children.
Christians are not immune to the surrounding culture, and sometimes it influences us without our knowledge. We assume that because we’re using NFP, we’re on the right track. We don’t realize just how much of our decision to prevent pregnancy naturally has been made out of fear and a lack of trust. We are afraid to have another child. We are afraid to even open ourselves up to the possibility that God might want to give us another child. One minute we are affirming that all children are gifts from God, and the next we are rejecting the idea that God might want to give us that gift ourselves. When this rejection comes from a place of fear, I think it’s important that we pray that we might trust God more. It’s also important that our actions communicate that desired trust as well. Entrusting ourselves to God and trusting that He will give us nothing that we can’t handle can be frightening, but in the end, it is also freeing. It takes courage, but we will be rewarded for our faith and trust in God.
Trusting God is a lesson that we teach children of all ages, but I think it could be very helpful to discuss it in the context of fertility beginning around the age of puberty. It would be a fantastic topic to incorporate into a Theology of the Body retreat for teens, and certainly in a Pre-Cana session for engaged couples. I wish someone had told me years ago how freeing it could be to just trust God with our fertility and our family, to stop focusing on what I can’t do and start considering what I can do with the support of God. I think if we are aware of our personal fears and the resistance that we might encounter within our culture, our relationship with NFP might improve.
Natural Family Planning might be difficult, but it’s definitely worth it. I trust the Church, who has been called an expert in humanity, to have my best interests at heart, and that has led her to affirm that artificial forms of contraception are immoral and can be damaging to our souls and our marriages. I believe that self-control does have a place in marriage, and if we need to postpone pregnancy for an indefinite span of time, we should do so virtuously. NFP is difficult, yes, but so is Christianity. We do not stop believing in the Trinity just because we can’t explain it fully. We do not stop believing in the Truth of the Gospel just because it can be difficult at times to act with honesty. We don’t abandon morality just because it’s sometimes difficult to behave virtuously.
Yes, there are ways that we can make NFP easier, but ultimately, I don’t think NFP was meant to be that easy. Virtue is not always easy, and certainly abstaining in a marriage is not always easy, but virtue is always good. Self-control is always good. I think NFP is difficult because its challenges lead us to ask ourselves: Is it really necessary right now? Do we really need to postpone potential pregnancy right now? Are we really not ready to open ourselves up to the gift of a child? If our answer is honestly that yes, it is necessary, and yes, we do need to postpone, and no, we are not ready, then we have the gift of NFP to help us. If not, maybe it’s time to see what God has planned for our family.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!
Do you happen to remember where you heard the “three days of abstinence” claim? My mom used to tell me the same thing, but every method I’ve looked at is more like 7 on the low end.
Honestly, I’m in the same boat. I’ve always heard the “three days of abstinence” claim, but in my personal experience of using NFP, it has been closer to 7-8. I use Ovacue, so it can’t be very precise and thus my husband and I have always been very conservative in our interpretations of the readings. I received some very basic instruction in Creighton Method, but am no where near an expert, but I have heard that with prolonged use and professional guidance, couples can cut down their days of abstinence closer to the 3 days generally suggested. I believe that the three day rule comes from the fact that the egg will only be viable for three days (so day of ovulation+2), but I have also heard that sperm can survive for a similar amount of time, meaning that sexual relations in the 2-3 days prior to ovulation can also lead to pregnancy. Potentially, older sperm/eggs might not be as viable, reducing your overall fertility the further away you move from the day of ovulation, potentially drawing you closer to that 3 day rule.
I learned the symptothermal method, and was taught that sperm can live up to five days in fertile mucous, plus the three days that the egg is viable. That seems to completely discount the 3 day rule, and Creighton is kind of the “gold standard” of NFP, so it surprises me they would teach that as a possibility. Maybe if someone was subfertile with almost no mucous at all, but that would be an exceptional case, not anything close to a general rule or goal.