When I was a blushing bride-to-be all of three years ago, I remember excitedly discussing the various merits of ‘Sympto-Thermal’ vs. ‘Creighton’ NFP models with another engaged coworker. An older, wiser office-mate happened upon our little chatfest and rolled her eyes good-naturedly at our innocence.
“NFP?” She asked, grinning mischievously, “you mean ‘Now I’m Flipping Pregnant?’”
She walked away chuckling to herself and we stared at her retreating form, mouths agape.
What could she possibly mean? Obviously she and her husband weren’t ‘doing’ it right, because NFP was, we knew, the most perfectly-crafted and money-back guaranteed way to ensure a happy, healthy and low-stress marriage free from the perils of domestic unrest and discontent.
In other words, we had it all figured out.
And then we got married.
Five minutes later, I was pregnant. Not because NFP had failed us, mind you, but because we were really and truly hoping to have a honeymoon bebe, and we came this close to achieving our lofty procreative goal. Joseph Kolbe was born 10 months to the day we said ‘I do.’
As the reality of parenting a newborn set in, we went back to our NFP instruction manual desperately seeking some kind of ironclad guarantee that we were - okay, I was - not going through that again anytime soon.
We charted, we recorded my temperature, we gingerly engaged in occasional marital ‘action,’ but I wouldn’t say I was operating out of a place of freedom. It was more like thinly veiled terror masked by sleepless zombie reasoning – “Oh, the moon is full tonight and the baby slept for 54 minutes between 3 and 5 am so probably, probably my cycle isn’t going to come back this month and we’re most likely ‘safe.’”
It was funny, because for all my idealistic fervor to live out a truly counter-cultural, natural vision of marriage, I was starting to sound suspiciously like an advertisement for Planned Parenthood’s high school curriculum, which I believe applies an equivalent degree of the rock-solid logic employed above, backed by the catch-all dictate ‘and don’t forget to take your Pill.’
I had fallen – leapt, really – into the trap of seeing NFP through secular eyes and viewing it as a sort of ‘Catholic birth control.’ As if the Church were somehow against contraception simply because it is physically or technologically ‘unnatural’ to the sexual act, and not because its use is actually a symptom for a much deeper and more serious problem.
I was seeing NFP as an ‘out’ for avoiding pregnancy, because my heart was closed to the possibility of new life, but open to the possibility of using sex on my terms, for my goals, refusing to recognize its intrinsic design.
But, one might easily argue, I had just gone through a hellish labor experience and had a brand-new, sleepless baby dominating my nights and days. If anybody had the right to avoid pregnancy, surely I might qualify.
But qualify for what, exactly? An exemption from reality?
Natural Family Planning is no more a ‘baptized’ and approved form of contraception than chewing up and spitting out a Snickers is an acceptable form of bulimia. We aren’t simply avoiding the ‘unnatural’ introduction of chemicals or a barrier of latex into the body – or a finger into the throat. It’s the act itself – the attempt to separate the pleasure of an act from its natural end – that is the issue.
For chocolate, that natural end is caloric content absorbed into the body and re-purposed as energy; (or in my case, love handles) for sex, the natural end is often times the creation of a unique and unrepeatable new life. Here’s the catch: we don’t actually control whether or not this happens. And when we try to, we do violence to ourselves. Because when it’s me vs. Reality, I’m going to lose. Every time. Just ask anyone who has ever jumped from an airplane without a parachute. Gravity is a pain, whether or not you give it credence.
We can play at this concept of ultimate control, certainly. We can chart and track and pop pills and inject biological materials and mix egg and sperm in petri dishes … but we cannot guarantee results. For all the scientific advancement in the last century or so, we still stand fundamentally helpless before the great mystery of creating new life. Either it is willed by God, or it isn’t. (An aside, my formerly engaged friend and her husband are still waiting to conceive, and wondering why it hasn’t happened yet.)
Just ask any couple struggling with infertility, having made recourse to every available procedure and fertility drug, and still childless. Or look to the other side of the fence, to the hassled young mother of four under four who is blessed (or is it cursed?) with an apparent abundance of super-fertility and would just like to spend a season or three out of maternity clothes.
The truth is, we aren’t in control of our lives, and even less so of the new lives we usher into this world.
Contraception, as any remorseful teenager could attest to, isn’t 100 percent effective. Condoms tear, pills get missed, nature breaks through and thwarts the cleverest of copper coils … but one certainty remains: sex is ultimately a mystery.
NFP invites couples into that mystery, beckoning them ‘Come, see what your bodies – what your relationship as spouses – are capable of. Come and stand in awe before the masterful biological makeup of the human body. This is not an accident. You are not an accident.’
What it does not promise, however, is complete control. Because it can’t. No more than Ella or Yaz or Trojan or any other brand of contraception can.
NFP offers, rather, a peek at the owner’s manual of the human body. Armed with knowledge and practiced in application, yes, a couple could conceivably (pun intended) use NFP as a form of ‘birth control.’ But that isn’t the point.
The point is, with NFP a couple is confronted with reality. It isn’t masked by a thin sheath of plastic or suppressed by a precise blend of synthetic hormones. It’s right there, staring them in the face once each month in the form of undeniable signs screaming out: “Hey, you’re fertile! If you have sex right now, you might make another person ... isn’t that wild?”
Contraception denies the reality of sex. And it isn’t that it must lead to new life each and every time, but that it is ultimately designed to do so. And not necessarily at our beckoning.
NFP says to nature – and to God – “We bow our heads before this great mystery, and we choose either abstinence or possible parenthood.”
Contraception throws a paper bag over the mystery, believing that what you can’t see can’t hurt you. Except the truth is still there. And sometimes, paper bags tear.
Simply saying something is or isn’t so does not alter reality. We simply aren’t equipped with that power.
And perhaps that is for the best. Because a curious thing happens to couples who enter into the practice of NFP with truly open minds: their hearts become softened.
When a couple who are known to be ‘practicing NFP’ show up at church with four little people in tow, knowing smiles are exchanged behind their backs. Because obviously that prehistoric method of dart-throwing fertility tracking is working out soooo well for them.
But the thing is, it may very well be. Because the darndest thing can sometimes happen to couples who embrace the mystery and the natural design of sex in their marriage: they find themselves willing, and even eager, to embrace the gift of a new life.
Even if that gift comes wrapped in a diaper.
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