Just a few years ago, though, I wrote a post about how NFP sucks. I meant every word of that post. I still mean every word of that post.
But now I have experienced a counterpoint to NFP’s magnificent suckery, and I think I should tell you about it, because until now I truly believed that the benefits of using NFP were about as real as a unicorn made out of leprechauns.
Wait, let me just head off at the pass the rabid objections that I can feel the Cathokrakens preparing to unleash in my combox. Yes, using NFP has manifest benefits, such as not shoving class 1 carcinogens up your lady bits, not needing strategic time-outs to gird your actual loins in the heat of the moment, and not accidentally killing your offspring.
But I’m talking about the less tangible benefits, like the “return to an engaged state” that your CCL instructor waxed eloquent about to a room full of couples desperately wishing their own engaged states would just end, already. Or the nebulous promise of becoming “blissfully in tune” with each other by playing a daily game of “how stretchy is this gunk on my toilet paper?” All the things that NFP manuals try to convey by adorning the cover with pictures of couples holding hands in meadows, surrounded by carefully spaced and suspiciously Aryan-looking children. Those are the things I always knew were lies, damned lies, and unconvincing ones, at that.
Then something weird happened to me.
In the past few months, I’ve finally gotten a handle on my cycles. The biggest breakthrough was following the advice a blogging friend gave me a few years ago, and writing down literally everything I notice. Not just the dates of my period or the infamously misleading consistency of my goop, but seemingly unrelated things, like whether my stomach hurt or how I felt emotionally or – and this was the breakthrough for me – how I smelled. (Yeah, sorry. That was gross.)
As it turns out, the way I smell — like the actual scent of my freaking body odor — changes when I’m ovulating, and then again when I’m on my period.
That was the piece that helped everything else fall into place. It gave me enough time to postpone pregnancy so that my cycles could stabilize for the first time in almost 10 years (because remember, I breastfeed my children until they can pour their own milk). After they did, I was mystified to find that they were, indeed, regular, and I could predict with terrifying accuracy the day my period would begin, and the day it would end. The ovulation thing is still somewhat hit-or-miss, but only within a window of 1 or 2 days, which makes abstaining something possible, and even easy. For the first time in our marriage, abstaining is not an onerous, endless, months-and-months long time of confusion, frustration, agitation, and chocolate.
And you know what that means.
We’re having lots of sex. Lots and lots of insanely awesome sex. And sorry if you need to clutch your pearls, but I am enjoying the ever-loving hell out of it.
I actually get it now when people are like, “oh, sex is fun and wonderful and divine!” Because it TOTALLY is. However, much like good sleep, it’s self-begetting. You know, sleep begets sleep and all. Toddlers who don’t nap at a regular time have a hard time going to bed on time and sleeping regularly. Likewise, skipping sex for months upon months because of child-spacing needs means that even when you do have it — and even if you manage to block every urban legend about sperm that lives for 20 days from scrolling through your brain in neon — you’re out of practice, and it’s not as awesome as it could be.
And it could be so awesome.This is a whole new state of marriage for me, a decade in. The Ogre and I keep joking that we need another honeymoon, only we’re not joking, because we totally do. He’s even more my favorite person now than he was before, and our relationship is infinitely better in all its facets.
Which leads me to sublimation.
Eve Tushnet talks about sublimation a lot, but I never really understood what that word meant until the other day.
The Ogre came home from work early, and I was delighted, because that meant extra-long alone time. After the kids were in bed, I wrapped him in my arms and whispered something delightfully naughty in his ear…and then he jerked away and sneezed about seven times.
That was followed by a coughing spell, which was followed by him collapsing on the couch and saying, “I’m sorry babe, but I feel like crap.”
I was totally bummed out…and then I suddenly understood how he must have felt for the past decade when everything was all-no-all-the-time because who knew what was happening inside my ovaries? I even felt a little flash of loneliness, because I was looking forward not so much to the sexy fun part of sex, but to the the being with my husband part.
And then I thought, “he feels terrible and he looks like he might die in five minutes.” So I made him some tea and put on a horrible action movie and sat next to him and read while he graded papers. It was still nice, because we were together. But more than nice, it was right. He was sick and needed me to care for him in a different way than the way I had in mind…and I love him. I love him, for everything he is and is not, when he’s healthy and when he’s ill, and love in that moment required self-giving in a different way. Not giving myself to receive him, but giving myself to preserve him. To sustain and comfort him, without needing or expecting sustenance and comfort in return. In a thousand different ways over our ten years together, he’s given all he has and all he is to keep me going. It was my turn to do the same for him.
It was a flashpoint for me because I was able to sublimate my desire for with my husband into an equally beautiful form of love. It didn’t involve sex, and it didn’t even involve kissing after that first go-round, because he was pretty disgustingly snotty and he could only breathe through his mouth. But it was the first time I’ve experienced the peculiar joy that accompanies sublimation. And I was joyful, in a quiet but giddy way, because I was able to recognize that although I wanted my husband, he needed something different. It didn’t match my desires, but my husband needed something that only I could give him — and it wasn’t sex. That in itself was a kind of sweet fulfillment.
I still call shenanigans on the silly “returned to an engaged state” rhetoric. That’s just absurd. Abstinence in marriage is never like returning to an engaged state – it’s always something deeper, more frustrating, more infuriating even, but also infinitely more meaningful. There’s real bliss in marriage, but I contend that you don’t find bliss in periods of abstinence. What you find in marital abstinence is the beauty of self-sacrificing love, the joy of sublimation, and the heavy cross of learning to love someone else in all the hardest ways.
It’s still not a soft-focus and romantic way to live. It’s still hard, and it still sucks sometimes. But not all the time. There’s not a doubt in my mind that NFP is a lot like purgatory…it hurts like hell for most of the duration, but after years of doing it you’ll wake up to find you’re both infinitely more virtuous, and maybe, just maybe, Beatrice will let you see what heaven looks like.
And if she doesn’t, at least you’ll be enough in tune with each other to rush the gates at the exact same moment.