Why I practice Natural Family Planning
A few months ago, I was introduced to certain "art," namely the 4000 Years of Choice display at the University of Michigan, that glorifies and celebrates contraception of all kinds-- abortion, horrific primitive barrier methods (ie. early condoms and diaphragms), draughts meant to prevent or terminate pregnancy, and hormonal methods (ie. the pill). Imagine my grief and shock when I discovered, buried in the depths of the lies and misinformation, a poster celebrating the "triumph" of Natural Family Planning* (NFP) as a contraceptive.
Now, if you know me at all, you probably know that I am fully in favor of NFP as the best method of family planning, both for physical and emotional, as well as moral and spiritual reasons. I am a Christian, and I do believe that the Bible is the Word of God. I do believe that humans are humans from the first moment of conception. In many life issues, I do tend to align myself most closely, not with the Protestant church in which I grew up, but with the Roman Catholic Church. This is simply because, despite the abundance of Protestant Christian literature about sex, much of it comes down to how-to guides, the practicalities of being married. While this is good, I believe there is much much more to the topic. I've discovered in the Roman church, an excellent grounding in the theological roots of sex, marriage, and child-bearing. However, please know this: my faith is not blindly led by dogma. Instead, growing in love as I grow in faith has led me to fight and intercede for the dignity of the lives of women, children, and men. This desire for justice, born from my faith, causes me to view all types of contraception as harmful and destructive.
If any of those statements offended you, probably the rest of the letter will be worse. . . so you may want to stop reading. However, if you're feeling curious, open, or desperate-- read on. (If you just want to argue or debate, sorry, I'm not really interested.)
This is not a how-to or a list of steps to follow. This is simply my own story of how God guided and prepared me to practice NFP.
(You still have time to stop reading if you're feeling upset.)
Growing up, my family loved life. I remember, after my little brother was born, secretly watching my mom for signs of another pregnancy. When "final measures" were taken, I also remember hoping that they wouldn't be exactly final. My parents fueled my love of life with their own actions-- they loved us kids, fiercely; celebrated others' pregnancies ecstatically; cooed over new mamas; teared up over tiny babies; and openly voiced their admiration of large families. (Besides that, each of my parents were part of large families-- my father, number five of five; my mother, number seven of eight; and I loved having dozens of cousins!) When I was a teenager, and more aware of both my own body and the deep issues surrounding life in a culture obsessed with death, my parents stood firm in their convictions. I remember my mother repeating, almost pleading, on multiple occasions, that if I ever became pregnant, under any circumstances, to come to her and my father immediately, reassuring me that they would help me however they could, that they would stand with me and help me fight the terrifying battles. That my mother and father would humble themselves that way, to stand by a (hypothetical) pregnant-out-of-wedlock daughter, to defend their (also hypothetical) unborn grandchild, left an indelible mark on my heart. Later, when people around me got married and quickly pregnant, I remember my mom listening quietly to fearful stories, and later reminding me, "You know, getting pregnant when you're married is definitely NOT the end of the world; it might not be the most convenient timing, but having a baby when you're married is ALWAYS something to celebrate." My parents also celebrated and loved babies that were born out of wedlock, knowing that though these young mamas may have made poor choices, they and their children were still beautiful, still worthy of love in the eyes of the LORD.
So I went into the world, armed with a love of life, convinced that babies were babies were humans had rights from the moment the egg and the sperm met within their mothers' bodies. And I knew I wanted to be a mother, and I knew I wanted many babies.
But there were remnants of selfishness, of brokenness, in my thinking. I remember mapping out my life upon high school graduation and deciding that five to ten years was a good amount of time to wait after marriage to have a baby . . . not for financial or other practical reasons, but because I just thought it sounded like fun to have that time alone with my husband. In addition, the only birth control I was really familiar with was the pill, and somewhere in my heart I just assumed that's what I would use. Then a dear friend from university got married, and as part of her quest to live a healthier, more natural lifestyle, she researched (and eventually chose) the Fertility Awareness Method**-- a system that helps a couple predict their most fertile days each cycle by tracking the woman's cervical fluid, temperature, and cervical position. As I listened to what she was learning, I began to think about what this meant for myself. I knew my own body to some extent, and I knew that I was extremely fragile and sensitive to ANY substance (over the counter drugs, caffeine, sugar). I determined that pumping my body full of extra hormones (as the pill does) would definitely not be beneficial to me or my (future and hypothetical) husband. Vaguely, I decided that the "natural" way would be how I would do things, too . . . once I got married.
But it was still so ethereal, so far away. It didn't seem important that I have reasons or logic for my decision. It didn't seem important enough to spend time researching it, or figuring out what exactly it entailed. It was just a thing. Just there. Just something I'd do "someday."
(Side note, my life would have been WAY easier if I'd just started charting when I knew it was an option, instead of thinking of it as something only married women needed to do. Charting is SO helpful to deciphering my physical and emotional state on a daily basis! Why am I craving all this junk food WAY before menstruation?!? Ohhh-- my body is prepping for a possible pregnancy. Why am I noticing babies like crazy?!? Ohh-- today is a fertile day. Why am I so weepy?!? Ohh-- today is a hormonal shift day. It's also really helpful for my sweet husband. Anyway.)
I travelled abroad immediately after university graduation in 2010, and lived in a magnificently diverse community for about four months. One of the women I lived with was married, but her husband was in their home country, hundreds of miles away. One day, I walked into her room to visit, and overheard her explaining why they practiced a natural method of pregnancy avoidance/achievement. Some of what she said I was familiar with because of my previous exposure; however, she and her husband went a step further and used no barrier methods (ie. condoms or diaphragms), only abstinence during their fertile phase. Besides being impressed that she could express with deep issues so vividly in a tongue that was not her heart language, I was deeply moved by her stating with conviction what I had never heard before-- "When we can have sex, I want to have sex with my husband, not with a plastic glove." I had never heard it suggested that barrier methods somehow robbed a couple of the true intimacy of intercourse, the giving and receiving of each other's bodies in a deep and unique way. As I listened to my friend, I began to see how right she was.
To recap, I'd ruled out hormonal methods (the pill) because of their negative side effects, and now condoms because of their blocking true intimacy. Diaphragms had never really been an option (the thought of wedging a foreign object inside myself made me queasy) and at that point, I was unaware of the other methods (spermicide gels, IUDs, etc.). Had I been aware, however, I'm sure my soul would have revolted against those things as well. A strong external chemical applied to the outside of my body? An internal device that acted as a near-constant menstrual cycle? No. Definitely not for me.
(And forgive me this short foray into the gender world, but if anyone suggested these insane things be done to men's bodies, I suspect there would be mass outrage.)
It is clear to me now that God was mercifully leading me toward the embrace of Natural Family Planning for my own life. What also needed to be ready was my future husband's heart.
Fast forward to January 2013-- I stood in a kitchenful of near-strangers, one of whom I knew slightly better than the rest. He and I were the only two unmarried people in the room; everyone else was related to each other by blood or marriage. Many of the other women were preparing for the Esther Cry, a prolife conference for women to pray for the end of abortion in the United States. Discussing this led into a discussion of how to support and celebrate life, and so led into discussing the personal use of NFP. All the couples in the room had used NFP for most of their married lives. The single boy across the room stated, "You know, I think it's great. That's the way I want to run my marriage," and slid hopeful blue eyes sideways at me. (Little did I know that nine months later, this boy would ask me to be his wife.) Although I agreed with most of the concepts discussed that evening, I was, somehow, troubled. Though I knew my own convictions and feelings, some little part of me still rebelled at being told, "This is the way; now walk in it." Besides that, I was operating under the extremely Western idea that my sex life was nobody else's business, that as long as I was married, it didn't matter how my husband and I chose to do things. Looking back, I can see that my heart was balking at inviting God into my marriage bed. It was as if I thought He gave us a fantastic and really complex wedding gift (sex), then waved like the rest of our wedding guests and said something like, "You kids can figure out whatever you think is best with this now. I don't have any opinion on it really."
(Isn't that a horrible idea?!? That a Good Father would give such a weighty and magnificent and complex and sometimes dangerous gift, and just shrug His shoulders and say, "Yeah, I'm sure you can figure this out on your own"?)
What followed that first conversation was a summer of dating my now-husband, and working through the Theology of the Body course with a group from my church (as taught by Christopher West, and inspired by the teachings of Pope John Paul II). One evening, I sat clenched and seething on my dear friend's living room floor, listening to him give his personal testimony about NFP. Though I had no reasons to say no to NFP, I was enraged that he would deign (I thought) to tell the rest of us how to run our own lives, how to deal with this very very private matter. I went home fuming, identifying finally that I believed that birth control was my private concern. I felt all openness in my heart turning to locked doors again. I had a huge fight with my boyfriend; I was angry at everyone in my church. Five days later, my friend came to me, as I sat on another living room floor surrounded by children I adored, looked me in the eyes, and apologized. What I remember best is that he didn't apologize and say that his convictions or his words were wrong; he simply apologized for speaking his convictions to me at a time when I wasn't ready to hear.
I think it was that one small act of humility that finally broke my heart. I realized that my friends, my boyfriend, my church, NFP itself, wasn't the problem. I was. I was selfish and stubborn and frightened.
Three months later, when my husband and I became engaged, I sought out a wise friend for counsel, and she promptly took this marvelous book*** off her bookshelf, rummaged around her medicine cabinet, and presented me with a brand new basal thermometer****.
So my husband and I began our married life riding the rise and fall of my fertility cycles. Looking back, we have to laugh; we often abstained when we didn't need to, and had way more sex during "safe" times than really necessary. (It was like we didn't believe we'd ever get to have sex again. . .) NFP helped us work through some fears of being intimate, totally naked and revealed to another human; as well as the "opposite," a fear of never being truly known or truly loved because of some imagined flaw. We discovered together unknown areas of hurt and wounding in our hearts, because we were not always able to go straight to sex whenever we felt unsure. I will not tell my husband's story, but personally I discovered that I was constantly trying to fill my heart's void with people, instead of leaning on the love of God. Of course we fought; but that is the nature of new partnerships, testing and trying their strength. I think I can count on one hand the number of fights that were about practicing NFP.
We have been married for over a year now. In that time, there has been only one cycle when we thought we had conceived. I cried myself to sleep that night. In the darkest hour of the night, I woke up in my husband's arms, still terrified, and the voice of God told me, "If you reject her, I will allow you. But if you accept her, she will bring you life you can't even imagine." At two in the morning, I lay wide awake and I let go of my final battlefield-- my fear that a child would overrun my life and leave me nothing for myself.
(As it turns out, we were being way over-cautious and there was absolutely no chance in the world we had conceived. I still have no idea why God so specifically spoke of a child as "her," when as yet "she" does not exist.)
We love practicing NFP for multiple reasons. It helps us choose pregnancy or not-pregnancy naturally, and if/when we decide we want a child, there is no period of waiting for extra hormones to clear out of my system. I've not had to experience the bloating, nausea, or mood swings that many women live through just to get a few more days of sex each month. I love that through NFP, I get to see every day what kind of man I married-- a man whose love for me is not rooted in how great I am at fulfilling his sexual desires, a man I can trust to control his urges and wants in faithfulness, a man who is patient enough to learn how to chart with me, a man who is kind enough to just snuggle when my hormones are messing me up. We've learned to function as a team, both in tracking and interpreting our cycle. We've learned to live in transparency with our mentors, having desperately needed their wisdom and advice as we embarked on a journey that was new and a little intimidating. (A hilarious memory, our friend leaning over our charts, and with his engineer's mind exclaiming, "You're definitely not fertile. Can't you see this pattern here?!?") We've learned to gently yet firmly stand together for what we believe, when questioned, challenged, rejected, and even attacked for our convictions on life. We have learned a little bit more what it means to be like Jesus, to sacrifice our own desires in the face of the needs of another. We have learned to live more fully in self control, saying no to the lies of instant gratification and lust. (Contrary to popular opinions in many religious circles, it IS indeed possible to have sinful lustful sex with your spouse. Lust is defined as a desire for another, fueled only by selfishness and intent to use them for your own good.) We have learned to redefine what it means to be a "good wife"(having sex three times a day??) and a "good husband" (never asking to have sex???). And, finally, we have learned more fully how to walk in humility and trust in the Trinity. Part of NFP is always understanding that sex might lead to a new life being created, and being okay with that. When everyone around you knows you're avoiding pregnancy, it is terrifying to think of "failing," ie. conceiving without intending to. In one of the ancient Creeds of the church, however, we acknowledge the Holy Spirit as "the Lord, the Giver of life." Practicing NFP has compelled us, again and again, to agree with Him that if He wills, life springs into being, and it is a very good gift.
That is my story. Hopefully, it doesn't smack of self-righteousness, or pity, or superiority, or arrogance. If that's what it seems like, please contact me personally and privately. (Obviously, I'm pretty open to discussing this . . .)
How has NFP changed my feelings on contraception? Contrary to the lies I believed, and the lies presented in the work I mentioned at the beginning of this, contraception has nothing to do with the preservation of life. It is very fully about death. In abortion, it has its most sobering manifestation-- causing the deaths of children before they have a voice to speak for themselves. More than that, however, I would like to propose this-- contraception in all forms is also about the slow death of adult men and women. I say the latter because I believe, as you may agree, that we kill a part of ourselves when we choose selfishness, when we put our own desires over the desires or the needs of others, or when we harm or destroy another human. Ultimately, we have to silence and extinguish part of our hearts, before we can bring ourselves to silence and extinguish another human life.
And when does life really begin, friends? When did you and I become thoroughly and truly human? Was it when we were conceived? When we breathed our first breath, screamed our first sounds? When we became capable of thought? Or, did we become human when our existence became convenient for another human being?
I think it is telling that a secular "artist" recognizes that barrier methods, hormonal birth control, and abortion are all the same sort of thing. (I disagree, very strongly, with her choice to include NFP, however, for it is much more than a method of avoiding pregnancy/birth). This woman knows that all these methods allow us the "convenience" of sex without the "consequences" of a child. This is horrible. Why is our own sexual "freedom" such an important thing that we would destroy our own bodies and hearts and in extreme instances, another human life to protect this "right"? Every day we sacrifice our "freedoms" to protect others. Sometimes it would be convenient to drive on the opposite side of the street; but I have no desire to head-on crash with an innocent driver. Sometimes I have no resources to buy the groceries I need; but that doesn't make it okay for me to slip money out of my neighbor's wallet while he's not looking. And someday, I may even think another person would make me happier, or love me better, than my husband. Yet I made him a promise, which I intend to keep until my last breath, and he has the right to believe that I will do so. My broken desires, strong as they may be, are no excuse for my violation of another's rights. Especially with sexuality, those I know who most tout their "freedom," are those whose lives are the most bound, the most oppressed, and the most unhappy. Having multiple sexual partners doesn't satisfy us; it just makes us more selfish. Copious amounts of sex don't make us happier; it just feeds our lust and gluttony. And defying the natural cycles and rhythms of our bodies-- whether with hormonal treatments, barrier methods, poorly timed intercourse, abortifacients, or abortions-- doesn't make us more free; it just makes us more foolish. As my extremely wise sister recently observed, any other human appetite-- food, alcohol, sleep, entertainment, exercise, possessions, work, money-- is classified as dangerous or obsessive if it grows outside certain boundaries. Why would we believe our sexual appetite is somehow exempt from this?
Here is where abortion and other contraception twine hands. The abortion industry is largely fueled by fear and a refusal to accept anything that's inconvenient to our status quo. At its root, so is the contraception industry. (In horrifying addition, most contraceptives are also aimed at suppressing and undermining ONLY FEMALE sexuality. Count it up-- how many methods for men? How many methods for women? This is a whole other discussion, but one worth having, too.) If both abortion and contraception stem from the same heart-sickness (selfishness and fear), then how is one really more sinful than another?
Some of you will now be thinking that women have been trying (with varied success) to avoid pregnancy and birth for thousands of years. I assume this is supposed to make me thankful that now, finally, women have access to "safe" contraception like the pill, diaphragms, etc. All I see, however, is poor logic. For thousands of years, mankind has also been engaging in deception, theft, slavery, ecological destruction, violence, incest, rape, torture, murder, and cannibalism. Perhaps we should legalize, regulate, and tax those activities as well, since we cannot blot them out? I don't think you could possibly agree.
Maybe you're thinking I'm one of "those" people, who want to stuff my womb and my house with as many babies as physically possible. (Lord, have mercy, that's an alarming thought . . . ) Not necessarily. NFP isn't about having as many children as you can, as fast as you can. Not every woman wants to be a mother, and though this thought saddens me, I cannot choose for anyone else. If someone decides to use hormonal or barrier methods, I grieve for this beautiful chance they forfeited. That is a wound mostly inflicted on our own hearts, I think. (Though imagine the gift to our children, of not having to wonder if they were an accident we got used to!) I simply believe, as already stated, NFP gives us the chance to fully enter into a special partnership with the Lord. God didn't make female bodies to trick and deceive us, to try to make us pregnant as often as possible. Instead, He gave women cycles that are (in almost every case) fairly readable. (And that includes cycles that are really long, really complicated, or really short. For the record, I do NOT have an "average" 28-day cycle, yet here we are, a full eighteen months after our wedding . . . not pregnant.) Do you think our Father did this accidentally, or just to chuckle at us? I believe that our cycles make sense because God wanted to give us the chance to enter into life-giving as His partners. He's inviting us to stand alongside Him and choose. He gives me and my husband the dignity, every month, of consulting each other, translating our chart, and searching out the motives of our hearts as we enter into His presence. Are we avoiding pregnancy because we are afraid, because we feel like we haven't had enough time to do what we really want to do before kids come along and mess it up? Or is it because I work part time, and my husband is in educational transition and only working seasonally, and we are never really certain if we can make ends meet three months from now, and my student loans aren't paid off, and having a baby now would be the selfish thing to do?
(Because we do want babies. Many of them. Seriously, we spend half our time in church baby-watching, and a lot of time just swapping stories about the kids we've run into during our week.)
Please know this as well-- in my marriage, I absolutely celebrate the gift of sex. I simply believe that, as with every good gift, there are certain boundaries and guidelines that make the gift MORE enjoyable. A sweater is no good if you insist on wearing it in July; a TV is not entertaining if you use it as a baking dish. In the same way, if we flout the guidelines God gave for sex, we may not only experience brokenness or painful circumstances, we will also miss out on the real depth and sacred beauty of our sexuality.
My prayer for every woman, and man too, is that we will grasp the full reality of our humanity, that we will see clearly the true beauty of our selves (body, soul, mind, and spirit), and that we will not settle for anything less than the glory we were created for. This is my prayer for you, friends, and no matter your response to the rest of this letter, I hope you can receive that.
Before I close, I want to apologize to you. I want to apologize for those who claim to know the love and power of Christ, yet have screamed judgment and hate and fear at you for your sexual choices, whether those choices were wrong or right. I want to apologize for those who have harmed you in regards to your sexuality, your heart or even your body, in the "name of God." (ie. telling you that "a good wife would always say yes," or "a good husband wouldn't ever ask for sex") That was wrong; it was not okay with God, and it is not a reflection of how He feels about you. I'm sure you've heard that Jesus loves you. Beyond that, though, I would like you to know that He really LIKES you. Yes, He likes you, personally and specifically, and He enjoys you; His deepest desire for you is not that you obey or fall into line or eradicate your sexual desires, but that you choose to give those desires to Him, to experience the love He has for you, and to love and enjoy Him as well. He knows that being close to Him will give you the power and freedom to ecstatically embrace and thoroughly enjoy all the good gifts He has for you.
Thank you for bearing with this extremely long letter. It was not my intention to exhaust you; as one who has lived in the desert but discovered living water, I simply want to share.
Are you thirsty, too?
*Natural Family Planning is defined by the United States College of Bishops as follows: "the general title for the scientific, natural and moral methods of family planning that can help married couples either achieve or postpone pregnancies. NFP methods are based on the observation of the naturally occurring signs and symptoms of the fertile and infertile phases of a woman's menstrual cycle. No drugs, devices, or surgical procedures are used to avoid pregnancy."
**FAM is nearly identical to the sympto-thermal method of NFP; the main differences are 1) the language and charts, and 2) barrier methods (diaphragms, condoms) may be used during the fertile days to prevent conception. However, if barriers are not used, FAM falls under NFP's moral guidelines.
***"Taking Charge of Your Fertility," by Toni Weschler. This is one of the best texts for learning /teaching yourself the sympto-thermal method. It's also super entertaining! For more information, see this excellent website and book: www.tcoyf.com
**** A basal thermometer is used to track a woman's fertility through her waking temperature. It is more sensitive and precise than a regular fever-thermometer. It also usually comes with a really funny set of disclaimers, warning that taking your temperature alone isn't going to cause or prevent pregnancies.