You see, this week is Natural Family Planning (NFP) week. I'm sure some of you are going to roll your eyes and say here she goes again, and now she's going to get on CONTRACEPTION!?!? But again, I'm going to speak about my experiences of how we went away from my being on "the pill" (why it continues to go by this moniker, I don't quite understand) and how NFP has blessed our lives.
In college, I made a pretty drastic turn around from "wanting to wait to have sex until I got married" attitude to a "hey, I better make this the choice I want to make and not the result of putting myself in bad situations with the wrong guys" mentality. So a few bad situations after my sophomore year, I decided to put myself on "the pill." I don't remember all the details, but I know that I went to our health services and they had to refer me to another source since it is a Catholic college. I remember going to this off-campus site and sitting in a large room on a metal table for an exam. There was very little explanation of how the pill worked and I suppose I should have known better to do the research on my own. But being young-ish and thinking that a doctor would provide me with all the details, I went ahead with my plan.
Fast forward past my tumultuous twenties to getting married the year I turned 30. I had returned to the church but knew that something was wrong. I remember very clearly that the sermon that made me make an about face on contraception and the sermon itself wasn't even about that topic necessarily. The gospel that day was about the rich young man who wanted to follow Jesus but went away sad because he could not sell all his belongings and follow Jesus. And Jesus was sad too (at least according to Luke's account, the other two Mark and Matthew did not mention Jesus' reaction. John didn't even bring this up!). Our pastor asked us, "What is keeping you from a full relationship with Jesus? What is causing you to walk away sad?" For me it was an "oh no!" moment. "Why is God placing this on my heart?"
I talked to my husband about my concerns about being on the pill and how I was feeling about it in terms of my relationship with God. Hubby said, "There's been info in the bulletin, let's look into Natural Family Planning." I can't fully explain how grateful I am to have a husband who wouldn't look at me like I have four heads! He merely said, let's find out about it. We didn't commit then and there to definitely change our ways. We had just moved into our house and we weren't ready for children. We knew we were to be open to children from our marriage vows, but felt that if we were to be good stewards, as we are called to be in terms of discerning family size, we should probably hold off on having children for the time being. By the way, contrary to popular opinion, the Catholic Church does not expect you or even WANT you to have as many children as possible. In fact the Church encourages people to be "responsible" stewards over their fertility. In this view of "responsible parenthood" married couples carefully weigh their responsibilities to God, each other, the children they already have, and the world in which they live when making decisions about the number and spacing of children.* We are to be generous with our openness to life, not motivated by selfishness when discerning family size. I do find myself worry a bit about keeping a balance here. More on that another time perhaps.
So back to our story, we went to the information night and it was very eye opening. I was amazed at all the information I didn't know about how my body works and how the pill works, as well as all the dangerous side affects (hence the need for commercials to talk about the side effects for the majority of the air time). That night I stopped using birth control and we waited for our appointment with the NFP practitioner to learn the Creighton Method (there are several different NFP methods - more on that below). This one is all natural and doesn't require temperature testing at the same time every day. After learning the Creighton method, it's really quite easy - you need do nothing except make observations. We've been using NFP ever since - this was back in 2006.
We started trying to have our first child in 2007, probably about six months or so after coming off the pill and trying to "avoid" pregnancy, and were pregnant by the end of the year. When we started trying again for our second child, we immediately knew something was off with my fertility. That's the best part about NFP - the knowledge you gain about yourself and your body. I had ONE DAY where I was fertile every cycle. That was it. In a regular cycle the window is larger than that, usually five or more days. We were referred to the closest specialist for NaProTechnology - in Gardner, MA at In His Family Image Family Medicine. He took a full hour on the phone with me to review my medical history and made a few suggestions until we were to meet with him. When we met him in person, he was very patient and again took an hour with us to explain what he believed was happening based on my chart. (What doctor these days meets with patients for an hour!) He looks at every patient's individual information and situation and treats their personal issues, not just some supposed "tried and true" method for everyone that comes in through the door. He recommended a few vitamin supplements and some changes to my diet, major changes in my mind, but manageable changes. Within a month we were pregnant with baby number two. I was on progesterone supplements for almost six out of the nine months I was carrying our second little girl. It was scary in some ways, but reassuring that he wanted to keep tracking my progesterone levels to ensure the safety of our baby. I don't know of other OBs that bother to continue this testing past the usual first trimester.
God works through us all in the most amazing ways. After learning that a cousin of mine was struggling with infertility, I was trying to find a way to gently tell her about this doctor I went to. After learning she was doing IVF, I was so concerned for her and was trying to figure out just the right time to tell her. Unfortunately, there really is no best time. I sent her a message with the info, hoping she would look into it. She became pregnant through IVF and I prayed that she would carry to term, but unfortunately she lost the baby. I gently reminded her of the doctor again, and this time she looked into it. She is now seeing the same doctor who helped us with our fertility, has undergone surgery for endometriosis and is learning the Creighton method to start her family. I pray that she will be successful very soon.
I will be the first to admit, it isn't all roses, in fact there are some definite difficulties with it. I won't lie. There are times when abstaining seems to go on forever, although in reality it doesn't. There's usually maybe about a week where you have to abstain. If you think about it, what were to happen if you or your spouse had major surgery and that was out as an option, or any number of illnesses? Would you be abstaining then? Probably and maybe even with a little difficulty. But I think that sometimes in abstaining you find other ways to be intimate.
These days NFP is more scientific than most people are led to believe. So many people say, "yes, that's how we had baby #3, natural family planning." But I'm not sure that they had the information that is now available. I'm pretty sure most people who say this didn't really track their fertility. Current NFP methods are: the Basal Body Temperature (BBT) method, which monitors changes in a woman's temperature when she wakes up each morning; the Ovulation Method (OM), which monitors changes in a woman's cervical mucus (this is what Creighton is based on); and the Sympto-Thermal Method (STM), which combines observations of temperature and cervical mucus with other indicators such as changes in the cervix and secondary fertility signs.*
NFP can also help with things like Ovarian Cysts, PMS, Endometriosis... So, there are reasons to use it even beyond the baby making department. Anyone can use it, including people with irregular cycles (mine are never the same from cycle to cycle) and beyond the initial learning curve, it isn't all that difficult to use. The effectiveness of NFP is very reliable - with around a 99% effective rate at avoiding pregnancy for those who understand and use their method as taught correctly.
Some people will argue that using NFP is no different than using the pill or other contraceptive measures. NFP methods are different from and better than artificial contraception because they
- Cooperate with, rather than suppress, a couple's fertility
- Can be used both to achieve and avoid pregnancy
- Call for shared responsibility and cooperation by husband and wife
- Require spousal communication
- Foster respect for and acceptance of the total person
- Have no harmful side effects
- Are virtually cost free
NFP is unique because it enables its users to work with the body rather than against it. Fertility is viewed as a reality to live, not a problem to be solved.* Contraception says "no" to God's plan while NFP works in cooperation with God's creation of the fertility cycle, using the infertile periods or fertile periods accordingly. But it allows for God to step in where other methods kick God out of the equation.
The dates of Natural Family Planning Awareness Week highlight the anniversary of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae (July 25) which articulates Catholic beliefs about human sexuality, conjugal love and responsible parenthood. The dates also mark the feast of Saints Joachim and Anne (July 26), the parents of the Blessed Mother.*
*Some of the information contained herein "Used with permission from the NFP Program, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved."