On February 5, TOH published an article by Sophia Martinson titled “Why I don’t use NFP (or the pill or condoms or anything).” Below, Gerard Migeon, CEO of Natural Womanhood, an organization that promotes natural family planning as not only an excellent family planning method, but as a key tool for women’s health and a boon for married relationships, presents a different point of view to Sophia’s piece.
By Gerard Migeon
Molly*, a wife and mother of 6, recently shared with us how she and her husband believed that the Catholic Church taught couples only to use Natural Family Planning (NFP) for serious reasons, i.e., that “it should be an exception,” rather than the rule, of the Church’s requirement of married couples to “accept children lovingly from God.” As a result, NFP has not been part of Molly and her husband’s married life, and they have thus far relied upon breastfeeding to space pregnancies. But after so many children in a relatively short amount of time, Molly has begun to desire more space between future pregnancies, and wonders whether NFP might be a reasonable and faithful way to do so. Despite the Church’s repeated assurances that NFP is a legitimate means for spacing children, Molly and her husband cannot come to an agreement about using it in their own marriage.
Among Catholics who strive to follow the Church’s teaching on contraception, I have encountered many who have embraced NFP as the method by which to live their marriage from the beginning, and then many others like Molly who believe that even using NFP is taking too much control of a couple’s fertility and family planning. The heated comments on a recent article I wrote on this topic illustrate this division well, as does Sophia Martinson’s recent piece about the pitfalls of NFP in these same pages.
It is not my goal to explore and clarify the theological question behind this difference of opinion, or to convince anyone of the Church’s (very clear) position on this issue. For this, please refer to Section II paragraph 16 of Humanae Vitae, or listen to this interview.
Last year, I conducted a number of in-depth interviews with Catholic married couples to learn about their experience and insights in this area, including couples who had large families from an initial openness to life without any planning (see full report here), yet “picked up” the practice of NFP later on (many of whom still went on to have more children). What I learned from sitting down and speaking with these couples showed something beyond a shadow of a doubt: Even couples who were initially very open to “unplanned” children eventually found great joy and peace in their marriages through the use of NFP.
Below are the 5 reasons I’ve identified for why the practice of NFP is a great boon for women, couples, and marriages, even for those who desire (as many who practice NFP do) to have large families, and to accept as many children from God as He is willing to give them.
#1 NFP is knowledge and appreciation of a natural, God-given function
First and foremost, NFP gives a woman and her husband not only a better understanding of fertility in general, but insight into their own unique (and combined) fertility. “You don’t see it because you don’t know, and then all of a sudden you start seeing it: it reveals your body to yourself,” one woman told me during our interview.
Most men may have a general idea of how these things work, and how their own fertility works, but most don’t have a clue about the way their wife’s cycle and fertility functions. There is a big difference. “Learning about the fertility of a woman” was the biggest surprise for a husband when he learned NFP, “that fertility is such a huge aspect of who a woman is.”
An important discovery for women and men whose eyes are opened to the mystery of the wife’s cycle through charting is the complexity of the female reproductive system, of conception itself, and the uniqueness of their own fertility. There is a fine balance of hormones required which can be impacted by physical, environmental, and psychological changes. Furthermore, it’s eye-opening to learn that there are many variations on “normal;” no two women will have the exact same cycle, and it is a unique part of each woman’s design.
Understanding how our combined fertility fits together as a unique man and a unique woman is an astonishing gift for many couples, one which can deepen a couple’s appreciation and gratitude for God’s creation and for the meaning of sexuality and marriage.
#2 NFP is an essential component of authentic women’s health care
Out of the 36 couples I interviewed, 10 had experienced a miscarriage and/or infertility. That’s 28%! Using the menstrual cycle charts that are a necessary component of NFP allowed some of these couples to get help for these issues. As we have written often on our website, menstrual cycle charts give trained doctors a window into a woman’s unique cycle issues, and can be a key diagnostic tool directing a doctor towards what other procedures and treatments may provide further answers.
In other words, menstrual cycle charting is a core component of authentic women’s health and medicine, (and for that reason, knowledge of it should be available to all girls and women, regardless of their marital status) and NFP may be especially helpful for those who are open to a large family, because it might be the very thing that makes it possible for a couple to have the family they long for (especially as fertility wanes in the late 30s and early forties, or if issues of secondary infertility crop up after initial ease of achieving pregnancy). It’s also worth noting that some women and couples may encounter serious health issues that make any further pregnancies incredibly dangerous; in these cases, doctors often pressure couples to pursue sterilization via tubal ligations or vasectomies. With good knowledge of NFP, couples can confidently navigate these tenuous situations, without giving into sterilization or without giving up their sex lives altogether.
#3 NFP helps husbands pay attention to their wives
One of the natural struggles for men (even men who love their wives!) is to fully appreciate and understand them. We’re designed to be problem solvers, take action, provide, and fight for what we believe. We don’t usually understand the cyclical changes a woman naturally experiences in energy, emotions, and libido each month. NFP helps men go deeper in really understanding–and therefore better caring for–their wives, through the knowledge of their cycle and fertility as integral to who she is as a woman.
As one husband put it: “Being in tune with your wife's cycle builds empathy and understanding. It's a unitive process not just during the act but in between, not just during sex, and in a real way, not just emotional” tells a husband.
A wife similarly shared: “My husband also started thinking more about me, he started dating me again, and it helped him gauge when it was more important to be there for me, to bring flowers or go out to dinner.”
#4 NFP enhances a couple’s unity and intimacy
Another key change for couples who practiced NFP was that, by design, NFP led to an intimate form of communication between husband and wife that didn’t exist, and wouldn’t likely exist, without it. At the beginning, couples struggled with charting, and it often led to difficulties. But over time, it changed into an amazing opportunity for working together. Couples gained respect for one another. They were more humble and vulnerable with each other. They overcame the shame that surrounds sex and fertility for women are not taught to love and understand their bodies, and when couples don’t fully understand the essential goodness of sex within marriage.
One wife shared with me how she “hated the [NFP] class,” as she was embarrassed by the information about her body that was presented in it–and ashamed that her husband was there to hear it. But later on, she was surprised by “how comfortable I have become with my husband being part of that.” In other words, it was a huge step towards bonding, authentic intimacy, and meaningful self-love and acceptance.
Furthermore, NFP has the power to enhance physical intimacy by creating a rhythm for it, as a man in his early 50s and a father of eight reported: “I have a better memory of sexuality lived in chastity by being attentive to the limit (of abstinence), than the sexuality of the beginnings of marriage, which was more spontaneous. A chaste sexuality that is regulated, temperate, is more human, it is deeper, it is more intimate, it is more tender.”
I heard how these couples had become more trusting of each other, which in turn gave them the desire, faith, and courage to accept more children and to have a large family. Another wife explained how it “brought us together as a couple, it was very unifying for us. Our pregnancies were very difficult, but we were always on the same page.” She goes on to share:
“Looking back, when we lost our son, our way of grieving was very different. I see how people who lose a child split up. NFP is what kept us together. I fell apart right away while he was managing the funeral. Then 6 months later, when we started talking about trying again, he fell apart. NFP gave us something to come back to that we were doing together, it was a small step to get back together.”
#5 NFP builds freedom
Faithful Catholic couples know that freedom doesn’t come from a license to do whatever they want, whenever they want, but that it resides in the ability to exercise our will for the good of ourselves and others. I am not free because I can have candy any time of the day. In fact, I am a slave if I can’t help but eat candy any time of the day! I am only free if I can NOT eat candy when I will it for the good of my health and spirit. This exercise of the will is like a muscle.
I’m surely preaching to the choir among couples open to life as they certainly have plenty of opportunities to exercise self-control. NFP is a formal avenue to exercise the will in the area of sexuality and the sexual drive, and my research showed that this practice helps men and women become more confident, helping them in their self-control even beyond sexuality. With the practice of NFP, couples learn how to say ‘no’ to themselves when it is for the good of their spouse, marriage, and family.
“Virtue is exercise, and NFP is a tool to keep marriage in a constant exercise mode, not get lazy, out of shape, make assumptions” reports one wife. NFP is a strategy to be completely other-focused. “It takes a while. You start off polarized and move from being the center to seeing the marriage as a whole.”
A husband shared how he “learned patience, compassion, to go outside myself and think about my spouse.”
This practice also empowered these couples to teach the tenets of self-control for the good of themselves and others to their children. As this wife expressed, this strength “bleeds into other areas: strength of character, it’s not all about me. It made me more kind with people who are struggling.”
NFP is work
With all that said, I want to add a few concessions and qualifying points to the bold statements about NFP that I’ve laid out above. First, there is no denying that living your marriage without any concern about tracking cycles can feel freeing, and it’s certainly much better than using any artificial means of contraception (like pills, condoms, etc.). Also, there are likely two ways that NFP could be detrimental to a relationship: when the couple is too focused and anxious with avoiding pregnancy, especially at the beginning of their use of NFP, or when the couple is too focused on, and anxious about, achieving pregnancy. In that context, the marital act risks losing its intention if couples forget the essential importance of both the unitive and the procreative aspects of sex. (And we know all too well that if there are deep, serious, existing issues within a relationship, NFP won’t necessarily be a silver bullet, and may actually bring those problems to a head.)
“It took two years for us to lift the fear we had of having children. We would fight over charting, I would try to take control. The beginning was to trust each other,” reports a husband of 30 years, and a father of 8 children.
A wife shared how they became better aware of the importance of working together as a team, “because there were times when I was feeling ‘Oh, I’m kind of alone with this.’”
As these quotes demonstrate, the biggest hurdles we found from interviewing these couples were: 1) the difficulty of charting itself, 2) the challenge of abstinence, and 3) the communication challenges. However, as I heard from one couple after another, when NFP is practiced with love, consistency, and persistence (and, for Catholics, the graces of the Sacraments), these hurdles became the very stepping stones towards greater peace and freedom for these couples.
I want to add a final consideration for couples who are totally open to life without recourse to any family planning: Although you might not believe it now, it’s possible that at some point, you may find yourself desiring to pause the growth of your family–and, again, the Church has always maintained that it is within a couple’s legitimate purview to do so via NFP, if, after careful consideration, they have determined it is best for their spouse, marriage, or family life. Consider that it may be more difficult to get started with this practice once you already have the responsibility of a large family, and the stress of an urgent need to postpone pregnancy, without already knowing how to effectively accomplish that legitimate goal.Finally, I want to stress that couples who have large families are in many ways heroic in today’s culture. They’re a powerful sign of hope and faith. But I believe some (if not all) of these couples have much to gain from reconciling their convictions with the practice of NFP. As our research has demonstrated, NFP faithfully practiced will not impair a couple’s ability to intentionally be open to many children–and it may be the thing that makes it possible for those struggling with miscarriage and infertility. When practiced with faithfulness and love, NFP will only add a beautiful, new dimension to one’s marriage that will help both husband and wife flourish as individuals and as a couple.