As a Catholic, I could, but right now there’s no need. Total openness to life brings peace of mind and joy.
By Sophia Martinson
Growing up, my parents taught me that asking a couple how many children they intended to have was bad manners. But three years into marriage, I’ve found questions about family planning as common as questions about holiday plans.
“Were you planning this one?” “Do you plan to have more?” “How many kids are you planning to have?” I’ve gotten these kinds of questions not just from close friends but from all kinds of people — new acquaintances, my husband’s coworkers, the local hairdresser.
At first, this curiosity unsettled me, but now I welcome it. It gives me the chance to explain the approach my husband and I have chosen. “We don’t really have a plan,” I say. “We’re open to life, and we’ll welcome as many children as God gives us.”
Whether the reactions are positive, negative, or confused, I get the impression that my answer isn’t a common one. After all, the pill is so widely used that it seems more popular than acne cream. Even among groups that discourage using hormonal contraception due to damaging side effects, fertility awareness methods are pitched as alternative birth control.
For practicing Catholic couples (including my husband and me), those fertility awareness methods — commonly known as natural family planning, or NFP — are the only sanctioned option. (NFP can be a helpful tool for couples struggling to achieve pregnancy, but in this article, I will focus on its application of periodic abstinence to delay pregnancy.) Based on my own experience and conversations with friends, Catholic marriage prep courses tend to present NFP as the norm. The assumption is that everyone will do some kind of planning, and this is the moral way to do it.
So when I say that my husband and I don’t do “family planning,” that is to say that we don’t use any kind of birth control method — at all. No pills, no gadgets, no charting, no timing. We simply live our lives, love each other, and see what happens.
And it’s wonderful.
Is this irresponsibility? Laziness? Lack of communication? I certainly hope not. While I believe that NFP is a good and effective tool, I also believe that it isn’t always necessary or even advisable. And when I don’t need it, living without it brings peace and joy.
A Struggle and Strain
I recently came across an article entitled “NFP Sucks.” In it, blogger Stephanie Weinert argues that NFP is often marketed as easier and more pleasant than it really is.
For the most part, natural family planning doesn’t come so naturally. As women, our bodies are programmed to desire sex the most when we’re most fertile. That means that if a couple has discerned that they should delay pregnancy through NFP, they’re not coming together on nights precisely when it’s most difficult to abstain.
Weinert’s words convey the intensity of this challenge: “I don’t enjoy having raging hormones and desires for my husband during fertile times that are imprudent for us to conceive another child,” she writes. “I don’t find ‘working hard to communicate in other ways’ fun and enjoyable when I just want my husband and he wants me.” There could be times when NFP helps couples bond in new ways — but there are other times when it’s just plain frustrating.
It also makes sense that NFP is so hard because it limits an essential part of marriage. Sex is more than a nice marital perk that can be picked up and put down without consequence. It’s no accident that Canon Law (1061) states that sexual union must consummate a marriage to seal the wedding vows. And each time a married couple comes together, they renew and strengthen those vows.
Dare I say that married couples need sex, not just to have babies but also to grow in love and to protect their sacramental bond? Without it, we’re more prone to drift apart or even fall into sexual temptations outside marriage. Within this context, I can easily believe those who say that banishing sex from the most inviting time of the month is torture.
Serious Denial for Serious Reasons
Even so, Weinert and many others using NFP feel the need to put up with the torture because it’s “the right thing to do.” Following the Catholic understanding that contraception violates God’s will, these couples have taken the harder path to do what they have discerned is best for their families. And in this pill-happy culture, that’s a tough but noble decision.
At the same time, given the strain that NFP can bring, I can’t help but wonder, is it always the only right path? What would be the damage if we threw out the plan, passed up “protection”…and ran the risk of getting pregnant? After all, if God attached intense desire to periods of fertility, shouldn’t we take it to mean that barring some extraordinary circumstance, he wants married couples to act on it?
As it turns out, the Catholic Church has always indicated that NFP is hard for a reason: it’s the exception, not the rule.
Long before NFP methods developed, St. Paul wrote that periodic abstinence in marriage should be temporary and prayerful: “Do not deprive each other, except perhaps by mutual consent for a time, to be free for prayer, but then return to one another, so that Satan may not tempt you through your lack of self-control.” (1 Corinthians 7:5).
When the Magisterium first officially addressed the question of periodic abstinence to avoid pregnancy in 1853, the Church again articulated that it should be used only for “legitimate reasons.”
A century later, Pope Pius XII stated in a 1951 speech to obstetricians, “The moral lawfulness of such conduct [limiting sex to periods of infertility] would be affirmed or denied according as to whether or not the intention to keep constantly to these periods is based on sufficient and reliable moral grounds.”
In a nutshell, the Church allows NFP because it does not directly hinder the unitive and procreative purpose of sex. That is, it still allows the spouses to come together in love, and it is still open to life because the possibility of conception (however small) remains. At the same time, as the citations above indicate, the Church also teaches that if NFP is used to delay pregnancy without legitimate reason — or to avoid any pregnancy ever — then it is essentially being used as contraception, which is wrong.
While most faithful Catholics believe (correctly) that artificial contraception is always wrong, they might also believe (incorrectly) that NFP is always okay. And a culture saturated in birth control is quick to call any reason to limit family size “legitimate,” from financial goals to career plans to personal comfort level.
If Catholic couples walk away from an NFP course thinking, “As long as we use NFP, we can delay all we want,” that course has done them a disservice. And if a couple absorbs the idea that they must endure NFP in order to be responsible parents, they could be inflicting unnecessary and even damaging strain on their marriage.
With all of this in mind, the decision to abstain on peak fertility days carries a lot of weight. Within my own marriage, we’ve concluded that for such a serious denial, there needs to be an equally serious reason. And as much as we do budget, living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world makes it hard for us to justify using NFP for financial reasons.
This is not to say that we will never use NFP. There may come a time when a serious circumstance leads us to discuss whether NFP is necessary for us to live our vocation. Should that happen, we would take the discernment process as seriously as we would in making decisions about a grave medical condition, how to care for an ailing parent, or whether to uproot our family to another state.
In God’s Hands
It’s a wonderful truth that God respects the freedom of each couple he has united in marriage. This is why the Church does not articulate exactly what constitutes a “legitimate reason” to use NFP; it’s a matter of personal discernment and spiritual direction.
At the same time, God wants to be part of each decision we make, and he wants each decision to glorify him. The more we align our lives to his will, the happier we are. For my husband and myself, the best way for us to do that right now is to leave all the family planning entirely to him.
In a world that champions unlimited choice, control, and comfort, I can understand how our approach might raise some eyebrows. But I take consolation in the fact that God is a much better planner than I could ever be, so I’ll work with what he gives me.
Yes, that might look like eight children who wear hand-me-downs and share rooms. It might mean that we drive a cheap minivan and seldom go out to eat. It might involve miscarriage. I don’t expect openness to life to give us an easy life, but I know that it brings a happy one. Knowing the joy that new siblings bring, the support family and friends offer, and the countless virtues I can gain by welcoming children early and often — not to mention how much fun big families can be! — it’s more than worth being free from a sex schedule.
I have met several parents who have admitted that they wish they had had more children. I have never met a parent who regrets having the seventh, eighth, or ninth — however unexpected each might have been. I’ll take the second path any day.Sophia Martinson is a wife, mom, and freelance culture writer for various publications. Her blog, Homemaker Hopeful, explores the skills of taking care of home and family.