The Super Suckage of NFP

*Like any post about NFP, you might encounter terrifying words like “cervix”, “mucus” and “vagina” should you choose to continue reading. Fair warning.

Let’s talk about NFP, and how it sucks.

Image via the wonderful Katie

I know, I can hear the furious clicking as my faithful followers abandon my blog in droves. But look, y’all, I have to be honest here, because honesty is kind of a thing with me. It’s like a tic or something; deep in my subconscious, there’s an inner Dalek shouting “HON-ES-TY” instead of “EX-TER-MIN-ATE.” Know what I mean? (If you don’t know what I mean because you’re not a total sci-fi geek, well then, I’m sorry and I hope you find something in life that makes you as happy as Doctor Who makes me.)

With the HHS mandate drama, the floodgates have opened and discussion about contraception hath poured forth. Everyone is talking about it, even WaPo. Dear, wonderful Janet Smith, the woman who I can only hope to be like if ever I grow up, has asked us to talk about it, and the blogosphere has responded with people talking about it.

I have been mostly silent, except for wearing a snarky T-shirt and offending the Duggar-hating underbelly of the interwebs.

Part of my unwillingness to post about NFP has been due to my own internal inconsistencies. I agree with every single one of the posts I linked to above, and they all basically disagree with each other. It’s kind of hard to write a coherent post about NFP when everything I read makes me say, “Yes! That!” But mostly I haven’t brought it up because quite a few people seem really keen on “re-branding” NFP. Making it hip. Showing that it works, that it’s simple, that it makes our lives so much better, that we freaks who use it don’t have sixty bazillion children all dressed in matching denim jumpers, and even picking up on the vernacular du jour and telling the world how green NFP is. And frankly, that’s not a bandwagon I can jump on without lying through my teeth. But I also don’t want to write a post about how NFP is, in the words of Darwin, “some sort of Bataan death march of marital suffering.”

So what’s a blogger to do? Stick to my strengths, I guess, and just tell it like it is for me.

I don’t use artificial birth control because five years ago this August I swore to follow the teachings of the Catholic Church. I don’t use birth control because I think the Pill is a very dangerous carcinogenic. I don’t use birth control even though, as my favorite OB/GYN ever so helpfully points out when I see him, my hormone-induced migraines qualify me (maybe) for an exemption from the Church’s moratorium on the Pill, I believe that the Church knows what she’s talking about. The explanations make sense to me. The rules make sense to me. Seeing the rapid free-fall into moral decay that our society has plunged into since the Pill was approved gives me empirical evidence to support the arguments laid out in Humanae Vitae

I don’t use artificial birth control because I believe it fundamentally damages the relationship of a husband and wife and consequently undermines the fabric of society. My husband is dearer to me than anyone else on this earth. The worst times in our married life have been times when something has driven a wedge between us. Using contraception would be the mother of all wedges, and I couldn’t live like that. Neither could he.

But I also don’t walk around touting the magical wonders of NFP. As far as I can see, NFP has no magical wonders except for the magical ability to confuse and frustrate the hell out of  me. We’ve gone through two methods now. The first, the Sympto-Thermal Method, was ridiculous on its face. The “thermal” part of it measures your basal body temperature, which requires you to wake up at the exact same time every morning, go to sleep at the exact same time every night, never have a cold, and most horrifically, never drink alcohol. It seems to me that the creators of this method never actually realized that it might be used by human mothers as opposed to the robotic variety, but there it is. I never go to sleep at the same time, nor do I set an alarm clock (because I have these loud things called children), someone always has a cold that inevitably ends up all over me, and I love wine. So my basal body temperature is all over the map, all the time.

The Sympto-Thermal Method also requires its users to *ahem* check their own cervix.

I know, kid, that’s how I feel too

Here’s the thing about that: Blue Cross Blue Shield and I pay highly-trained professionals good money to do that for me, and while I’m sure they’re doing an excellent job, those annual exams are an annual rite of torture. I am not about to go voluntarily spelunking around inside my own vagina on a daily basis until I figure out where my cervix is and what its various positions can tell me about my fertility. Because that’s gross, and quite frankly it sounds terribly uncomfortable. Count me out of the “internal examination” camp, for the foreseeable ever.

So that leaves the (sorry, everyone) mucus thing. The Sympto-Thermal Method does a bad job of explaining that particular sign of fertility. The Creighton Method, which is very magical and amazing when you’re taking the classes, does an excellent good job of explaining how to recognize and identify cervical mucus, and even provides you with an encyclopedia of color photographs to clarify and make you vomit. Here’s my big problem with Creighton, though: it’s equally as unrealistic in its own way as the basal body temperature nonsense.

Creighton requires that you “check your signs” each time you use the bathroom, both before and after, and before and after showering. Theoretically, that’s totally doable, right?

Right. 50% of my bathroom breaks usually come to an abrupt end when Sienna comes rushing in to tell me that “Liam has broken a dish/eaten out of the sugar bowl/pulled out all the knives/swan-dived off the bookshelf/gotten wet and turned into a Gremlin right on the kitchen floor!” Can you guess how many times I’ve responded with, “Oh, okay, I’ll come save his life, right after I check my signs?”

Uh-huh. Like I said, the creators of these methods seem to forget that they’re being used by human mothers with at least partially human children. If you miss checking, even just once, you could miss THE SIGN that tells you that if you throw yourself into your husband’s arms tonight, four months later you’ll be writing a blog post about how NFP sucks while sucking on anti-nausea Preggie Pop Drops. 

The Marquette method holds promise, I think, particularly because it doesn’t require absolute faithfulness in checking temperatures or signs. One of my readers left a comment about a method that she developed that I will be trying in about six months. It’s basically the Marquette method minus the expensive monitor, and it sounds quite intriguing.

But the point is, I’m not interested in re-branding NFP. I can understand why some people want to do that, but I personally don’t use NFP because it works or because it’s green or because I love finding out about how neat my body is (I don’t…it’s neat, let’s leave it at that). I use NFP (or more accurately, fail to use it) because I believe in the teachings of the Catholic Church, and because I believe that artificial contraception is wrong. Period.

I think it’s a little dishonest to try and convince people to give NFP a try for any reason other than the one that matters. It isn’t fun to try and guess if you’re fertile or not. It’s not a pleasant bonding experience or a return to an “engaged state” when you haven’t had sex with your husband for three months because you cannot, for the life of you, figure out what the hell your mucus is telling you. It’s hard. It sucks. It hurts to have to say “not tonight, and I don’t know when.” It hurts to have to turn away from the one you love when you’re both stressed and weary and you really just want to seek the comfort of each others’ arms. It’s frightening to find yourself pregnant yet again when you don’t know where you’ll be living in six months or if you’ll have insurance or even a job. It requires faith. It requires trust. It requires an absolute commitment to attempting to live a virtuous life. Anything less, and you’ll find yourself cursing Humanae Vitae and wavering in your faith. I still find my faith wavering sometimes in the face of those two pink lines. But God has blessed me with a faithful husband and faithful friends who remind me that what I’m doing is right and good, that things will work out, and that even if they don’t work out, following Christ is worth suffering for.

I love the Catholic faith because it is beautiful, magical and wondrous. Not using artificial contraception is an integral part of that. It shows a deep respect for the dignity of both woman and man that I have never found elsewhere. But living that faith is not easy, and we ought not try to “re-brand” or re-package Catholicism to make it look more attractive. We don’t practice our faith because it’s attractive, we practice it because it’s true. The same can be said of NFP. Yes, the manuals are woefully dated and off-putting. Yes, we could use new and more practical methods based on the latest scientific innovations. I’m all for addressing those concerns. But I don’t think we should white-wash why it is that we chose this road, nor the difficulties that we face. It is fundamentally more difficult to practice NFP than it is to pop a pill or use a condom. It’s also a fundamentally better choice for humanity. That should be our message…not that NFP is easy, or fun, or green, but that it’s right.   

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12557248434888642114 Melanie B

    I agree that it can put a huge strain on a marriage for the couple to deny themselves of the very thing that helps them to be connected, physically, emotionally, in every way, really. However, the idea behind NFP is that the couple is responsible for making decisions about the couple's fertility. It should never be about the wife denying her husband sex but about the two of them discussing their situation and determining together whether they have reasons to refrain from welcoming a new life into their family. And the Catholic idea is that it shouldn't be a decision just between the husband and wife but that it should be made in prayer, seeking to hear God's will for their family as well. And that if you're using NFP it should be for a pretty serious reason. Of course it is often much harder on the husband to go without sex, that being the way men are built (though I have certainly heard of couples in which it's the other way around and the wife is the one with the greater sex drive); but if they are truly making the decision together then it is a sacrifice he willingly makes for the good of the family or for the good of his wife. And you know military families regularly have much longer periods of being apart so there are certainly other reasons why couple might not have sex for months on end. NFP should never be about some kind of power struggle where the wife is denying her husband sex. If that kind of thing is going on then the problem is really bigger than NFP, don't you think? In that case there's a fundamental communication problem.

  • Jim

    Truth cannot conflict with truth. What is morally right is also going to be good for your health.Some people come to NFP for the moral reasons and come to appreciate the health reasons, others come for the health reasons and come to appreciate the moral reasons. Both are good reasons to use NFP, sufficient in by themselves and no one should be run off because they don't accept everything.As for rebranding NFP, start with the name. "Natural Family Planning" is not natural (see the original post) and it isn't very good "family planning" (many NFP users have a few marginally planned "what the heck" babies). A far better term is "Fertility Awareness" because the whole reason behind going to all that effort is to find out when the woman is and is not fertile. The couple can use this information as they see fit.

  • Anonymous

    Given your complaints about Symptothermal and Creighton, you may want to take a look at the original Billings Ovulation Method. It was developed by doctors, and is the most researched and most used method of fertility awareness in the world, although it is not that big in the United States.While Creighton is derived from Billings, Dr. Hilgers has made some major changes to create the Creighton Model. Don't let the baby stamps fool you, these are two completely different methods. See http://www.woomb.org/omrrca/BOMvCrMS.pdfAs for the BBT, it isn't necessary for most women. Nor is it as accurate as the cervical mucus because so much can throw it off. And the internal checks are more likely to confuse than enlighten. http://www.woomb.org/bom/lit/teach/indicators.shtmlAs for our experience with different methods, Creighton tries to standardize something that should not be standardized. Every woman is different and if your pattern does not fit the standard model, you are likely to be very confused. Most importantly, Creighton gets so caught up in the mucus codes that they never teach a woman to recognize when she has actually ovulated. Thus the nonsense about "double peaks" and always requiring relations at the end of the day. STM gives you too much information and doesn't do a good job of teaching how to sorting what is useful from what is noise. The Billings Method just makes sense: No temping. No internal checks. No obsessive checking at the restroom. You merely observe what you see and what you feel and chart accordingly. There are only four simple rules to remember and it can be used at any time in a woman's reproductive life. You can find out more at http://www.thebillingsovulationmethod.org (and BTW, this website is a great example of how to "re-brand" NFP.)

  • Anonymous

    This is my experience as a conflicted Catholic in the 70s and 80s:before we got married in the mid 70s I asked my priest what we should do about contraception, given that my periods were so irregular that the ‘rhythm method’ was impossible. His answer was, “Go on the pill.” So I did. My body did not particularly like it and I went up a bra size (with accompanying stretch marks.) After a year we decided that it was time for a baby, so I stopped taking the pill. My body reverted to its previous mode of completely irregular and unpredictable periods, and it took nearly two years to get pregnant.We decided that we would like another baby straight away, so set about trying enthusiastically. It took another two and a bit years, so that the new baby was due three years to the day from his elder brother. Sadly our second son was stillborn at full term. After this I was given the rubella inoculation and told that under no circumstances should I get pregnant during the next three months. We decided to use condoms for those three months, after which we immediately conceived our third child, a daughter. During the pregnancy I was given a book about the Billings method and after our daughter’s birth we used the method successfully. I was able to plan the pregnancy which resulted in another daughter two years and eight months later. It was a difficult pregnancy and her delivery was by caesarean. I did NOT want another pregnancy anytime soon.My husband is not Catholic and as an Anglican (Episcopalian) had no objections to using contraception. The pill was out of the question, as were most other available methods, so it was back to condoms. As a Catholic I was faced with a dilemma – it was medically inadvisable to have another child but theologically inadvisable to deny my husband, which would have destroyed our marriage. He was the one actually using the contraception, so I went along with it in obedience to him, although, to be honest, i was in full agreement. This did not seem to harm our relationship, or our relationship with God.Seven years later I became pregnant again, at the age of 38. This is known among some Catholics as a ‘late blessing.’ We decided it must be God’s will, as we had not stopped using condoms. Our fifth child, another son, is indeed a blessing, and has been the easiest of our children to raise, although the pregnancy and caesarean delivery was the hardest. After this it would have been life-threatening for me to have another pregnancy so we used condoms again. We felt that five children was sufficient to honour our marriage vows, although I had to struggle with my disobedience to the church’s teachings and confess it. I thank God that now I have passed the menopause contraception is not something I need to worry about. I often pray for younger women in the church and the sometimes difficult choices they have to make.Christine S

  • Anonymous

    Thank you Christine for your prayers. I need them.I am new ro NFP. 2 KIDS. The baby is six months. My hubby and I went through three years of troubled waters. I converted back to the faith. We decided to have another baby. My hubby less enthused than I. I told him I wanted to try NFP. I am finally starting to mend our relationship. I feel like if I get prego it will push him over the edge. Every month I pray to God to please not let me get prego. Not to mention the last pregnancy was so painful I thought I was not going to survive labor and delivery. Thank you Jesus for your mercy!!! I am TERRIFIED of BEING pregnant because the sickness was so intense. I need the prayers. My husband needs them too!.toothed

  • Anonymous

    I can't disagree with you more. NFP has done tremendous damage to our marriage, and no, not because we don't love each other enough. Sex is an important part of unifying a couple and being forced to abstain when we both really need each other — emotionally, not just physically — is detrimental to our marriage. Marriage is sacred and practicing NFP is intentionally causing damage to that sacred bond.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09942928659520676271 JoAnna

    Perhaps you need to find ways to emotionally connect that don't involve sex.

  • Anonymous

    We do have ways to connect that don't involve sex. However, if I wanted just a best friend (and he IS my best friend too), we wouldn't be married. Sex is an integral part of a married relationship.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09942928659520676271 JoAnna

    I never said it wasn't. But there are times in a marriage that abstinence is necessary (postpartum period after childbirth, during pregnancy if pelvic rest is ordered, etc.), so Catholic couples need to have a way to meet their needs for intimacy in a moral, non-sexual fashion.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12557248434888642114 Melanie B

    JoAnna,I don't think you're wrong but I do think your response comes across as a bit too glib. The fact is that prolonged periods of abstinence do put an enormous strain on a marriage– especially if one or both of the spouses has physical touch as a primary love language– and NFP programs in general do a terrible job at addressing the problem of how couples can deal with that strain. My husband and I have found it an enormously difficult to deal with. I think if a couple is not aware going into NFP with ways to cope that it can do damage.If I were to give one piece of advice to anyone teaching NFP or writing a teacher's manual, it is that they need to devote at least a chapter, maybe more, to the unitive aspect of sex in a marriage, both in psychological and in spiritual terms. Your advice about finding other ways to communicate does address the psychological strain; but doesn't offer any concrete advice about how to meet those needs for intimacy and figuring that out when one is already stressed can seem impossible. More, your advice doesn't at all address the spiritual aspect of the problem.But lets look at the spiritual component first. Sexual intimacy is the normative channel of grace for the sacrament of marriage. It is the equivalent of receiving communion or of receiving absolution or of receiving anointing. When one is forced to undergo a long fast from the Eucharist, one is strongly encouraged to make spiritual communions in order to continue to receive the graces normally present in the sacrament. Yet I have never seen anyone discuss ways in which a couple can work to keep the channels of sacramental grace open in their marriage during periods of abstinence.I would suggest that a couple who are abstaining should redouble their efforts to pray together as a couple, to make a sort of spiritual communion together during those times they cannot partake of the feast.I would also strongly encourage both of them to make a point of receiving the other sacraments more frequently. Go to daily Mass as often as you can, go to confession more often. Go to adoration as often as you can. You are cut off from the normal channel of grace that is necessary for a spiritually healthy marriage, do your utmost to compensate with your reception of the other sacraments. Also, if you don't have a spiritual director then do your best to find one. They can help enormously with the spiritual aspect of the struggle to be abstinent and to be spiritually close with both God and with your spouse. My other piece of advice to couples who are facing a prolonged period of abstinence would be to seek marital counseling to help to deal with the psychological strain. There is a terrible stigma associated with seeking counseling; but there shouldn't be. If your diet is out of balance, you seek advice from a nutritionist, if your heart is ailing you seek help from a cardiologist. Likewise, if your most important relationship is undergoing a strain, then seeking help from a knowledgeable and sympathetic counselor can help. (Though if your marital counseler is going to scoff at NFP and tell you to go have sex, that would obviously be counter productive. I'd suggest catholictherapists.com, I found my Catholic therapist through them and she is awesome.) Almost any marriage can benefit from improving the communication between husband and wife and this goes doubly so for a marriage enduring the strain of prolonged abstinence.

    • Suzy

      Thank you Melanie B for your reply. I am the one who JoAnna responded to. I agree that the response comes off as glib. This is the one of the biggest problems encountered by those of us are suffering with NFP. When we actually have to courage to voice our suffering, we are scoffed at.

      The suffering endured with NFP is so very real. I am deeply troubled that the anguish that many couples (including us) experience with NFP to the detriment of their marriages goes virtually unheard and is thus deemed de facto unimportant. Is the sacred bond of marriage somehow less important? Is it not also a sin to intentionally harm this sacred bond (which CAN happen with NFP)?

      It is exceedingly difficult to reconcile that NFP and abstinence are the only options regardless of whether the marriage bond is irreparably damaged. The Church’s teaching focuses so much on “each and every act” and the procreative aspect of sex, that it neglects the unifying aspect of sex and therefore the health of this very sacred bond.

      I am completely at a loss as to where to turn. At times I feel completely abandoned by my faith.

      • calahalexander

        Hi Suzy,
        Would you email me privately? My email address is calahalexander (at) yahoo (dot) com. I think your points are extremely valid and I’d like to discuss something with you.

      • Anders

        Suzy, take it easy. There are other ways of making love. I found an old, 1960s Catholic nihil obstat brochure on NFP in the back of a church I was working in. It quite straight-forwardly promoted ‘creative cuddling’. My parents, who had ten children before my mum was 35, promote it (quietly, and with deep embarrassment too!) not as the total ideal, but as a sometimes necessary thing. There is nothing in Humanae Vitae which states such a thing to be wrong; indeed it specifically and solely prohibits the use of artificial contraception. Magesterial teaching does not prohibit this.

        Underpinning all this difficulty with NFP and many other ‘Catholic culture’ stuff is the tendency of people to make themselves the arbiters of their own destiny. We have the Church, it tells us the rules. When it doesn’t state a rule, there isn’t a rule to state. So just relax and love your husband.

        My father, good man and true, crossly pointed out ‘The Church didn’t invent marriage.’ Rather it sanctifies a pre-existing natural institution which is the union of man and woman for the purposes of making and raising children, using sex. When well-intentioned (I hopoe!) people make new rules on sex between an man and a woman they are falling into a Protestant error, of making themselves the Pope. You’re not the Pope: don’t invent the rules.

        • Karen

          I agree. When we were going to pre-Cana counseling our priest (who was a youngun himself) talked about the importance of learning how to physically connect without having sex. He personally recommended massages (and you can imagine how much I blushed while this priest talked earnestly about how my future husband and I should give each other full body massages–after we were married, natch). He was a fervent proponent of NFP and was so excited that we were planning to use NFP.


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