In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae this summer, Sick Pilgrim will be featuring a series of essays on Natural Family Planning, the only acceptable method of achieving or avoiding pregnancy according to the teaching of the Catholic Church. These essays will not present ideological stances or theological arguments, but will simply offer unvarnished testimony from individuals who have used NFP. The struggles and sufferings that NFP carries with it frequently go undiscussed, and we wanted to offer a space for honest conversation. The essays are being posted anonymously to protect the privacy of the writers, who otherwise might not feel comfortable telling their stories. When it comes to NFP, “all things conspire to keep silent…half out of shame perhaps, half as unutterable hope” (Rainer Maria Rilke). We want NFP to work, and when it doesn’t, we keep silent and believe our struggles are unique. It is the hope of the editors of Sick Pilgrim that these essays will be a source of hope to those who struggle with NFP, and will convey the message: You are not alone.
When I first started NFP, it was perfect. It worked exactly like I was told it should – cycles were a pristine 30 days and completely predictable. So much so, I knew in January of the year that we were married, that my period would come on our wedding day that July. It did. It was like clockwork, and I believed wholeheartedly in the beauty of NFP. I never understood why anyone would want anything different. My first postpartum experience was fine. I remember banking on breastfeeding to keep my cycles at bay, but much to my surprise, 2 months after our first baby my cycles fired back up. They were a little abnormal, but nothing too confusing or serious. We waited 13 months, and then got pregnant again. NFP was just great. However, at this point, I had had 2 c-sections in under 2 years and was told that I definitely needed to wait before I got pregnant again.
I knew this time around that breastfeeding wouldn’t delay my cycles. I was given a copy of “Natural Child Spacing” by a friend and Creighton instructor. I practiced it like a religion…and it still didn’t work. The longest I’ve gone without a cycle postpartum is 4 months, despite all of my breastfeeding efforts. The next cycle – I was pregnant with twins – I was just 6 months postpartum, after my doctor had told me that I NEEDED to wait. I had no idea how or when in my cycle I had even gotten pregnant because we had been so careful. But we were joyful and open, until the ultrasound…
…no heartbeats. They were gone.
I felt entirely to blame. My body wasn’t ready and I MUST have overlooked signs, because Creighton does an awesomely abusive job of making the woman feel like any unintended pregnancy is due to HER error. Their system is, “99% effective in avoiding pregnancy when correctly applied” after all. When someone repeats this stat I always want to scream.
The cycle after that I was pregnant again. I was hopeful though. God couldn’t surprise us with another life after our twins without it being a rainbow, right?
At just 9 weeks, the baby died on the one year anniversary of my brother’s very tragic death. Two days later, I lay hemorrhaging on the bathroom floor just minutes after my husband got home from his night shift at work.
If the timing had been off, even a little, he would have come home to a dead wife in a puddle of blood. With that, NFP betrayed me so deeply… but still, I trudged on.
We didn’t have time to catch our breath, or find out why our babies were dying, because I was pregnant yet again. We had been together TWICE from November to February and we had followed Creighton rules exactly. We were terrified. We held each other sobbing in the kitchen because we were so traumatized by our last experience. The concern that I could die, or that we would lose this baby as well, was overwhelming. There was nowhere to draw our hope… and I felt like the biggest idiot of all time. I stared at my chart for hours that day (my birthday) sobbing and counting and reviewing every single day in my mind trying to figure it out… counting… obsessively counting.
After my daughter’s birth the doctor said, “please don’t get pregnant for 2 years. Your body needs a break.” And that’s really when NFP broke me…
To rewind a bit – I was sexually abused repeatedly by a family member for a few of my teen years. Following episodes of abuse, I would often find myself wracked with anxiety/worry/panic. I would ask myself over and over again: Could I get pregnant from this? Would this happen again? What could I do to change this? What could I do to make sure it didn’t happen again?
At the time, I didn’t know NFP, and there was obviously no contraception used in these situations. So I found myself counting the days until my period, doing internet searches, and trying to figure out what was going on and what could happen. Counting the days… the hours… the minutes until my period.
In college I met with an amazing and wonderful priest, who heard my story and helped walk me through a long, twisty, painful path of healing. I forgave my offender and was completely open with the wonderful rock-of-a-man who would become my husband. I told him about what had happened and where I was with my healing and addictions. Up until the 5th year of our marriage I truly believed the Lord had healed those wounds and we had no issues. It was beautiful.
Fast forward to practicing NFP in my 3rd postpartum experience: I had been told not to get pregnant for at least 2 years. Now, anyone who has been abused or experienced trauma knows that we don’t get to choose when, where, or why we are triggered and, like with this experience, it was totally unexpected. In the 15 months that followed our daughter’s birth, my cycles were so long (one was 72 days with 64 non-consecutive days of mucus) and so absolutely confusing we were only able to be together as husband and wife 6 times. Complicating matters, my husband worked 12 hour night shifts. So “non fertile times” literally never cooperated with his work schedule. On the rare occasion that it did, each time we had sex it ended with me wracked with the same questions as when I had been abused. For the next few years, after nearly every time we were intimate, I would lock myself in the bathroom, turn on a hot shower, and sob through a panic attack and flashbacks because I KNEW I shouldn’t get pregnant.
I didn’t confess this to my husband until recently. I know how deeply he loves me and I know that he would have internalized it and been plagued by it too. I’ve thankfully been able to work through most of the anxieties and connections to my abuse, but with another baby on the way and the promise of an immediate return to confusing and impossible cycles, I’m afraid it’s only laying dormant for now.
Tragically, any priest I tried to talk to through this journey has been anything but helpful. It’s not because he “wasn’t saying what I wanted to hear.” I did my senior thesis on contraception. I know what I should know, but what they were saying was just so wrong.
Every priest cited “a need for self control,” but that wasn’t the problem. I think only having sex 6 times in over a year, and not straying a single time from NFP in a decade, should have been enough to display that we are pretty damned good with “self control.” No matter the physical, emotional, or spiritual consequences for me and my unborn child, we followed the teachings of the Church and NFP. What I needed was comfort, not direction. I needed consolation, not “just pray together more.” I really, really needed them to not repeat a bunch of nonsense lies that I had already been told. But they didn’t understand. They still don’t.
The Church and her priests want me to risk my life, the lives of my babies, my marriage, and my emotional stability to faithfully practice something that NO ONE COMPLETELY UNDERSTANDS! I’ve had to stop expecting celibate priests to understand the suffering of NFP, and instead find lay people to help direct me spiritually, because the priestly vocation simply doesn’t allow them to understand a single piece of this equation. They can “be trained in NFP” and “never have sex” but neither of those translate in a marriage that’s SUPPOSED to engage in a “bonding and procreative act.” I’m not faulting them, my dearest friend is a priest, but when I cannot turn to the clergy for realistic guidance on a Church teaching I feel like we have a problem. What I have found in my desperate search for “the right method of NFP,” is that if it “doesn’t work” then it’s my fault. We can say that men should share some pressure in this, but that’s totally unrealistic unless he’s going to be in the bathroom with me every single time finger-tipping my mucus – I’m sorry if that’s a perverse image but let’s be real. I have a great and open relationship with my husband, so it’s not like I’m not sharing the daily details, but if I’m in error he doesn’t share any of that weight. If my confusing, hyper fertility leads me to get pregnant and put my life in danger, the Church shrugs its shoulders and says my suffering, and possible death, is beautiful and I must carry on. That doesn’t feel like Christ’s mercy.
I did everything I was “supposed to do.” I dutifully followed my chart. I didn’t touch my husband at times I needed his affection the most for days, weeks, months. I frequently went to spiritual direction, met off and on with a friend who is a therapist, talked to other women in my position, called my Creighton instructor 1000 times sobbing and confused. I even tried doing my basal body temperature only to find out that it’s off and really doesn’t rise, yet by all accounts my thyroid is fine. I prayed and prayed and prayed for peace and grace and perseverance. I sobbed. I shook. I counted the days until my period was due, and recounted and counted again when it didn’t show – What did I do wrong? Oh, God. Not again. A positive pregnancy test… Would I live? Would my baby live?
Let me tell you – there have been no burdens in my life so heavy as looking at a surprise positive result on a pregnancy test with dread and anxiety. Then, to find clots of blood in my underwear, only a few weeks later. The guilt, the feeling of fault and failure. If I had charted correctly I wouldn’t have a dead baby. If I was more in tune with my body I wouldn’t have to go to my husband and tell him another one of our children is dead and I don’t know why, and that I don’t know how to read my cycles better to keep it from happening again. And before you say “progesterone” or “NaPro doctor,” just know that I’ve had vials and vials of blood drawn… my last round was 23 vials in January. They were testing for everything imaginable. I had had several cycles with zero mucus or signs of fertility and yet I had gotten pregnant and miscarried that previous November. We have even entertained flying me across the country to New York, to try to find answers at the Gianna center.
In the midst of doing all in our power to track my cycle, and to figure out what was going wrong, I found myself pregnant again. According to NFP, I shouldn’t have gotten pregnant. Upon realizing that I was pregnant, I full on panicked. So far this baby is alive, and I’m so beyond grateful. However, not a trip to the bathroom goes by without a half second of panic that I’m going to wipe and see blood. That this time I will hemorrhage and die, because my faithful practice of NFP has never given me enough time to find the answers. Once you’ve buried more babies than you’ve gotten to meet, you come to expect miscarriage as inevitable. You come to expect that NFP will make you see another, thoughtfully and prayerfully, chosen name chiseled on cold granite, along with an avalanche of medical bills that gets sent to collections because you’re trying, really trying, but you can’t keep up.
The Lord knows I’ve prayed to love NFP again, to even just be able to follow it without being terrified. I just don’t know if I have the strength to continue on once this baby is born. I genuinely don’t. I’d never discourage a couple from using it, but I certainly won’t applaud it. I struggle to speak positively of it at all, so I rarely say anything.
In all the time that we’ve trudged on, I can’t say that I’ve ever felt like NFP has helped my marriage be stronger or that it’s helped strengthen my faith. If anything, it has tried my faith and induced suffering in ways that have been horribly unnecessary.
NFP stole my innocence in many similar ways to sexual abuse. For a solid year it took away my ability to pray or see a loving God, despite all of my very heartfelt efforts and my deepest desires to be a saint. My love for the Eucharist is the only thing that has made me hold on as long as I have… but I feel that fading, expiring. I no longer have the faith to believe that it’s enough. And before the self-righteous come out to prey on my story of suffering, to gawk and poke at my wounds, and tell everyone in the comboxes how I should be doing x, y, and z better – pray for humility in your own heart, pray for all of us women baring our souls here. Pray for those of us who hope that in telling our dark stories that a crack of light might open for us or for another suffering woman. That she might not feel alone and silenced in her suffering anymore.
The essays in Sick Pilgrim’s You Are Not Alone series are written anonymously by Catholic women and curated by editor Maren Grossman.