I can’t say for sure where I first learned about natural family planning (NFP). I imagine it was probably while I was in high school. I definitely knew that contraception was a big no-no by that point, but I can’t really remember where I first heard about NFP. I definitely knew about it by college, and by the time I graduated, I had a vague understanding of how it worked. I taught NFP regularly as part of our parish Pre-Cana program, and of course, Andrew and I sat through an introductory session while we were engaged. Since Andrew and I started using NFP for ourselves after the birth of our son John, we’ve had the opportunity to become familiar with several methods of natural family planning, and following the birth of our second child, Felicity, we are using NFP once again.
I’m going to be honest- I have quite the love-hate relationship with NFP. I imagine plenty of couples can sympathize. I found it incredibly frustrating during those first few months of practicing NFP, as we jumped from one method to the next with minimal support or direction. I still can’t believe how expensive certain methods of NFP can be, and it kills me to know that if I was taking the pill, I could just get a prescription from my doctor and pay next to nothing. And of course, there’s the monthly abstinence period. Using NFP is certainly not easy, and yet I still consider it a gift in my life.
The Catholic Church teaches against the use of contraception, asserting that it works against the couple’s call to be open to life and prevents couples from being fully united to one another. When Andrew and I were married, we made a promise to be always open to life, a promise that was made before God, our family, and our friends on our wedding day. Using contraception is an inherent violation of this promise. We cannot claim to be open to life, while at the same time using artifices to prevent conception (or in some cases, aborting an embryo that has already been conceived). Contraception at the bare minimum does not invite life into a marriage, and at its worst, it brings death.
In addition, contraception prevents couples from being fully united. You cannot promise to give all of yourself while withholding your fertility. Motherhood and fatherhood are essential parts to who we are as human persons, and to hold back these aspects of ourselves, to hold onto our ability to become mothers and fathers, is a violation of our promise to fully give ourselves to each other. Fatherhood is the culmination of masculinity and manhood, just as motherhood is the culmination of femininity and womanhood. When we withhold our capacity to become mothers and fathers, we make it impossible to give ourselves fully to our spouses. Contraception prevents the two from fully becoming one.
This is why the Catholic Church speaks out against the use of contraception, but she has also recognized that there might be times in a couple’s marriage when having another child might be inadvisable. NFP allows a couple of uphold their promise to be open to life. No artifice stands between themselves and the possibility of another child. By learning more about the intricacies of a woman’s cycle, couples can ensure that every act of sexual intimacy is open to life by choosing only to be intimate during times of likely infertility. By coming together during times of infertility and abstaining during fertile periods, couples practicing NFP never need to feel as though something artificial must exist between them, separating them during a time when they should be most fully united.
Andrew and I have used NFP following the births of both of our children. I needed time to physically heal and mentally adjust to my new postpartum life, and while I did that, having another child would not have been in my best interest. This was especially true following the birth of John, when constant sleep deprivation left me anxious and depressed. NFP gave me the time to heal before the time came to welcome another child into our family.
NFP also encourages couples to learn and exercise self-control. Couples using NFP are proof that human beings do not need to be ruled by their sexual urges, do not need to be controlled by lust. We can control ourselves. We can resist the desire for sexual union when such intimacy would be inadvisable. We can say no. Modern culture denies all of this. I was fifteen when my pediatrician asked me for a private moment, where she told me about condoms, the pill, and HPV. When I told her that I was waiting until marriage, she actually gave me a little condescending smile, as if to say that I would inevitably abandon my naive desires when stronger desires took hold. She didn’t think I would be able to control myself. She didn’t think I’d be able to say no. NFP is a very real reminder that we are all capable of self control. We can all say no. We are not animals controlled by our sexual urges. We are all capable of chastity.
Finally, NFP reminds us that children are a gift. As much as we might plan for them, choose the right time to have them, children are ultimately a gift from God. They are given to us not because we deserve them, but because God has chosen us to care for some of His beloved sons and daughters. NFP doesn’t always work. Sometimes we are given an unexpected gift. Sometimes even the most diligent couple finds themselves welcoming a child. When used properly, NFP can remind us that these surprise children are not accidents, or mistakes, but gifts from God. They are God’s way of breaking into our lives, reworking our plans, and giving us the lives that we didn’t think we were ready to receive. Sometimes God reveals to us our strength in the most unconventional ways.
NFP is not always easy, but I trust the Church. Contraception is not an anti-Catholic thing. It’s an anti-human thing. Sex is supposed to be for married couples, and it’s supposed to be about unity and procreation. It’s supposed to bring us closer together, not drive a wedge between us. It’s supposed to be about loving one another, not using one another. I might not enjoy the ins and outs of NFP, the charting and interpreting, the need to abstain for days at a time, but I’m grateful for NFP nonetheless. Natural family planning has given me the much-needed time to recover physically and heal emotionally following the births of my children in a manner that respects myself, my body, and my husband. NFP might require sacrifices, but they are sacrifices that I am willing to make.
Mary Help of Christians, pray for us!