Next week is Natural Family Planning Awareness Week. (Do we get thermometer pins?) Talking about NFP tends to be awkward because it’s so personal and it rapidly descends into the realm of “too much information.” On the other hand, a little honesty on the subject is long overdue, so here goes nothin’! And anyway, Danielle Bean started it. (And God bless her for it.)
I have a real love/hate relationship with NFP. There are days I’d give anything for another way to live in harmony with my faith and my reproduction. It’s a great tool for understanding and managing fertility, but it’s not fair to put a pretty ribbon on NFP and sell it as just a shiny, wonderful wedding gift. NFP requires some real sacrifice, and we should be honest about that without sugar-coating the challenges.
If you’re a healthy woman whose body is great at being pregnant and giving birth, and you & your hubby are thrilled to receive as many children as God wants to give you, then you probably don’t have any complaints about NFP because you probably have no need of NFP.
But what if you’re slightly less than healthy, or you have complications during pregnancy and a pattern of premature labor with every child (like me)? What if you have serious reasons for not having more children? (Some of us may wish the Church would come out and define more specifically what qualifies as a “serious reason” but She wisely leaves that for each married couple to discern for themselves through prayer and honest evaluation of their circumstances. The Church gives guidelines regarding health and finances, but the decision is between the spouses and God.)
If, like me, you fall into this latter category, then NFP becomes a necessity. In my case, I’m able to take care of my family today thanks to a wonderful drug that is “incompatible with pregnancy.” Another child for us would have to be a very intentional choice, would have to be well-planned beforehand and would involve some risk for me. Should we? Shouldn’t we? Don’t think for a second that my husband and I don’t wrestle with that decision. (We’d be thrilled to welcome a new baby.) You know how often I’ve wished for writing on the wall? It doesn’t work that way. So we keep praying and doing the best we can to follow God’s lead.
In the meantime, it means very careful NFP. It means living by The Chart. Not much room for spontaneity or surprise romantic interludes. (Here comes that “too much information” part.) It means small windows of opportunity for sex. And don’t think abstinence is only hard on the guys! Women are hard-wired to want sexual intimacy when they’re fertile, so if you must be diligent in avoiding pregnancy, you have to say ‘no’ precisely when you most want to say Yes! It stinks!!
Times of abstinence are ideal for finding other ways to connect and be intimate with each other; or to pray together, relax and watch a movie together and above all, to “offer it up.” When that actually happens, it’s wonderful and rewarding. But in reality, this is where it can sputter and falter because we’re only human and we’re vulnerable to mood swings, fatigue, and chaotic schedules. Alas, often those times of abstinence are just, well, uneventful. That’s life.
NFP can also feel very one-sided. It’s never the man’s fertility we have to be concerned with; only the woman’s. It’s not his temperature being taken at the same time every day, or his – ahem – fluids being checked (what am I, a car engine?). No wife wants to feel like the Gatekeeper. It’s crummy to have to turn your husband down time after time. And when it’s your health issues that necessitate all this trouble, well, you feel doubly crummy.
It’s not NFP’s fault it’s so one-sided. Reproductive biology does not spread the burden equally between men and women. We may not always like it, but it’s simply a fact that women bear the heavier load (no pun intended). We’re the ones who get pregnant; we’re the ones who breastfeed. We’re the ones who deal with weight gain, sickness, complications, exhaustion, loss of freedom, and the pain of childbirth.
The flip side is we’re the ones who get to be pregnant! How many of our husbands would love to know what it’s like to carry a child inside you and feel the kicks and hiccups and experience the miracle of new life? I bet a lot of men would love to know how that feels. But that gift has been reserved for us, ladies. Along with the ability to feed our children with the most miraculous food God ever designed. The men have no share in that; it’s all ours.
So come to think of it, maybe all this one-sidedness presents another perspective that gets overlooked. All this woman-centeredness means that a husband who loves his wife must really love her as St. Paul described, and give himself up for her. He must really tame his own desires in light of her body and her needs. He must truly prefer her above himself. It forces him to acknowledge the wondrousness of her co-creator status with God, and treat her with appropriate reverence. No longer is his wife merely his source of physical satisfaction, but she becomes someone that, dare I say it; he should be in awe of.
And then, this perspective should also compel women to behave accordingly! It should make us ever mindful of the miraculous ability we possess, which was given to us by our Creator with intention and generosity. God chose us to be co-creators of life with Him! It ought to give us a holy pause regarding our bodies and how we treat them; while every man is a temple of the Holy Spirit, only women are “temples” of new souls. Yes, it is an awesome weight, and in difficult times can feel like a “burden.” But has an awesome gift ever come without an awesome obligation? To whom much is given, much will be required.
I’d say that’s the real treasure NFP offers and this is why I love it. Like a pair of eyeglasses, NFP helps correct our vision of each other and our physical love. NFP is worth the “cost” because some things are sacred – like sex. And people are sacred – like my spouse.
Love is never sterile or “preventative.” Love is self-giving and sacrificial. By definition, that means it is not easy or always convenient. NFP requires selfless love that honors the other and reveres life because marital lovemaking is life-generating.
While our contracepting counterparts are swallowing pills, snipping body parts and aborting babies in order to “free” themselves of the worry of an unplanned pregnancy, we are implored to treat our bodies and each other differently. While the world separates love from sex, we are called to love that brings life. If more of us lived that way, then maybe those contracepting counterparts would see the blessing of living a holy sexuality.
So after careful reflection, I think I’ll keep my chart and thermometer, thank you. It’s worth the trouble after all.