Monday, November 14, 2005

NFP Essay

I submitted an essay on NFP for publication in a book, but I found out it didn't get in. I'm going to publish it here, now that i know it won't be going anywhere else.

I am half of a couple that uses Natural Family Planning (NFP). Our use of NFP has not always been easy. The problems we encountered were not with the method. The problem was with us.

I was a senior at Bishop Mc Devitt High School when I first heard about NFP. Mrs. Agster had the unenviable task of teaching a classroom full of 17 and 18 year old kids in no uncertain terms that sex is a gift from God destined for marriage and that using the Pill, condoms, and all other forms of contraception were sinful, regardless of whether or not the people using them were married.

I next heard about NFP during college. My boyfriend (who is now my husband) and I took a class together called Marriage and the Family at De Sales University. Dr. Kane taught us about the different methods of NFP, outlined its efficiency vs. the Pill and condom use and gave testimony about it from his own marriage. Since I am the sort of woman who is loath to take an aspirin for a headache, the idea of taking a hormone pill derived from the urine of pregnant horse was extremely unappetizing. DH and I were sold on NFP.

When were getting married a few years later and heard more about NFP during the preparation, but we were too busy to enroll in a class on how to use it. A couple of months before the wedding, I called my best friend. Aimee and Rob used NFP, and she gave me as much detail about it as you can give in 20 minutes over the phone. She mailed me a form to order an NFP home study course.

The big book arrived a few weeks later and in all of the pre-wedding craziness, I never read it. Since DH and I weren’t living together, I was the one with the responsibility to learn about this NFP thing. Based upon the precious little I gleaned from my conversation with Aimee, I determined I was probably nor fertile during our honeymoon. But we bought a box of condoms, just in case. Trouble with that was, we really didn’t know how to put one on. I went to Catholic school, so I never learned about it in health class. Were we doing it right? Was it going to come off? It just felt too weird, physically and spiritually, so we decided not to use it. We took them on the honeymoon, but they never made it out of the suitcase.

Life happened after we returned from the honeymoon, so we did little more than skim the text. Basically, for the first two months of our marriage, we used the rhythm method, abstaining for about two weeks after my period ended. We fudged it a little in month two and one dark and stormy night we conceived our first son. The big book went back into its box and the box went under the bed.

We reaped the (in)fertility benefits of exclusive breastfeeding. But this time we got smart and signed up for a class on NFP running at our parish. The book came out from under the bed. Over four months, I charted my temperatures and cervical signals, but since I was infertile due to nursing, my charts were not really useful as practice. My fertility returned almost as soon as I thought about weaning him, and since we were inexperienced, we conceived immediately. We also miscarried almost immediately. After about four years of charting, we’ve gotten pretty good at the mechanics of charting and temperature taking, etc. We have had only the one unplanned pregnancy, even after weaning our second son from the breast.

Using NFP correctly is not easy. As a couple, we had fallen into the trap of thinking of it as Church-approved contraception, which it is not. We struggled with it when were not trying to achieve pregnancy. Because we were still pretty inexperienced and because we are not hyper-vigilant charters, we wound up abstaining for almost a month when I was weaning Bubba. My desire always peaks during my fertile phase, which was frustrating for me and for DH when we were not trying to get pregnant. Adding to this frustration, it seemed like 14 out of 28 days are in my fertile phase. We even considered sleeping in separate rooms during that time to avoid sinful sexual behavior.

Given the fact that the way we used NFP gave us about 2 weeks of abstinence when we were trying to avoid pregnancy, there was a sense of urgency on (mostly) DH’s part during the infertile phases. A “Let’s do it while we can” mentality. This led to some significant bedroom tension for us. There’s the “Why can’t he just hug me without expecting anything else?” and the “Doesn’t she understand that I love her and this is my favorite thing we do together?” and the always popular “OK. Let’s get it over with so I can go to sleep and you will leave me alone.”

It was worst when I was busy with work and the kids and DH was very busy at work, getting home at 10:00 at night. I just didn’t want to do it. I found myself withholding sex from my husband to punish him for not paying enough attention to me outside of the bedroom. “Can’t he see I’m tired?” I thought, “Why won’t he just let me go to sleep?” The Church teaches that a couple must have grave reasons to avoid conceiving another child, and we didn’t have any grave reasons. Neither does the Church teach that all Catholics should go and have 6 kids. Couples have to pray constantly about their family size and welcome new life whenever God seeks to bless them with it, not only when we seek the blessing.

The turnaround came about a year ago, when I went to confession and confessed my sin against my husband. I did some reading about the Theology of the Body and I prayed a lot. I had what I think you can call an epiphany. I realized that my marriage, and the gift of sexuality within it, was not about me. It wasn’t even about DH. Our marriage is about God. God wants to use DH, our kids, our relationship, and me to reflect His love to the world. Others should be able to look at us and see love. I guess I should have known that, having prepared for and received the Sacrament of Matrimony and all, but sometimes you just don’t hear what you ought.

A couple cannot effectively use NFP without a lot of prayer. We pray together now. We never did that before. I would always sort of shyly ask him to pray with me occasionally, but it is now part of our routine. With the help of Our Lady and St. Monica, I have been able to cheerfully (most of the time-I am NOT a saint) give myself to my husband even when I don’t feel like it-and even enjoy it! I cannot describe in how many ways our marriage has improved. I don’t feel like I’m being used anymore. DH is willing to let me simply go to sleep when I need to. We have finally figured out what we were told all the time about NFP: It is for acting with God to determine how big your family will be within your means. It’s not just for preventing pregnancy.

In spite of our fitful start with NFP, we wouldn’t go any other way. NFP has forced us to communicate better with each other. Let’s get real; if you can talk about the quantity and quality of your cervical mucus with a man, you can talk about anything with him. Can charting be a pain? Yes. I can’ t tell you how many times I have had to drag my lazy self out of bed to go check my cervix just as soon as I got comfy. Can being attentive to my sometimes obscure body signals of fertility be frustrating? Yes. Is it frustrating not to have sex whenever you feel like it? Yes! Will it kill us to offer up the inconvenience and frustration? NO. Will it make our marriage stronger? YES! The frustration and annoyance are small compared to the joy of having a husband who has a relationship with and loves ALL of me, not just one part of my body.

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