“The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning” has 95 percent five-star reviews on Amazon.com. Despite its growing popularity and critical acclaim, however, the book's author humbly describes herself as “a housewife with a bunch of blogs.”
I found myself curious to speak with the woman who writes this message to married Catholic couples in her introduction:
“Maybe...you love each other, but your sex life is kind of a mess. You refuse contraception out of obedience to Church teaching, and truly believe that natural family planning is better than those awful chemicals everyone else uses anyway. You're doing everything right...but having no fun at all...How natural is that?”
I caught up with the 38-year-old mother of nine last week to ask her some questions about her new book. Our conversation ranged from the hilarious to the profound. What follows below is an edited version of the conversation.
Editor's Note:“Natural Family Planning” or “NFP” is a non-contraceptive method of fertility regulation approved by the Catholic Church. The method entails keeping track of a woman's cycles of fertility, (often through charting her body's natural signs) and if trying to avoid pregnancy, abstinence from intercourse during the fertile period.
Q: What inspired you to write a book called 'The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning?'
A: What inspired me to write it was struggling through NFP for many years and not being able to find anything that was honest about what it was really like to live it. You can find a lot of books about how to chart and you can find a lot of books about the theological reasons why NFP is an acceptable way of spacing children but you can't find a lot about how you're supposed to have a relationship with your husband or how you're supposed to figure out if you have a good enough reason to postpone another pregnancy, or something like that.
I was looking for this information and I was looking and looking and I couldn't find it, so I thought well heck, I can do this.
Q: Who is the intended audience of your book?
A: My book is aimed at people who already know the mechanics of NFP, who are already pretty much persuaded that they are going to be using it: they're either already very interested in it or they're already using it, and they're already more or less committed to it and are discovering that it's not the bed of roses and walks on the sunset-lit beach holding hands that it is sometimes portrayed to be. A lot of people take their pre-Cana (marriage preparation) course, or they read their first NFP book, and it talks about the marriage building aspects or how it improves communication and how people who use NFP very rarely divorce, but it sort of glosses over how you get there.
Q: Where do you think the 'glossing-over' comes from? Why do you think many NFP proponents have such a 'rosy' view of the method?
A: I have a lot of sympathy for it. Like I said in my book, if you take somebody who has never even considered not using contraception – if you talk to somebody for whom contraception is just normal, it's just what responsible, reasonable people do – and you tell them, 'well, we're not going to do that. Instead, we're going to do something that requires self-sacrifice and self-discipline and denial of self, and it's redemptive suffering!' (Laughs) People are not going to line up for that: they're just not.
It's something that's so foreign to the way that people think nowadays, that you have to make it seem like a good thing. But it's very easy to fall into the trap of making it seem like it's only a good thing, and sort of glossing over the part where the way that you get to love your spouse and have better communication is to talk about things that make you both feel very uncomfortable; or the way that your marriage draws closer is because you go through suffering together and you have to sacrifice for each other.
They just sort of skip over that part because they want people to have something that's good, and they're very afraid that if they paint a realistic picture that they will frighten people off. And I understand that very, very much. I even fall into that trap myself sometimes, because people write to me, and they say, 'wow, NFP sound really interesting! What can you tell me about it?' (And I think,) 'Um, well, let's see...' It's really hard to know how to approach it because we don't want to frighten people off.
People don't understand what love is. That's the main problem. People don't understand what love is: they think it's all about feelings, and they think it's all about being swept away by passion and they don't understand that love is a gift of self. I think people actually do want to hear that. I think people are very thirsty for something that is meaningful in their lives.
We all have this thirst for true love: not just romance, but a thirst for something higher, and something that takes us out of ourselves. Everybody is really looking for that and when you use NFP for a long enough time, if you let it, it can show you the way to escape from the prison of your own desires.
But that's not a great selling point, if you're just introducing it to people! (Laughs again.) So, see, I totally understand what the dilemma is.
People write to me really angry, and they say, 'we've been married for two years and we went to the pre-Cana class and we were just flat-out lied to.' In some places it's not just a matter of people putting rosy-tinted glasses on, they're just flat-out lied to. They say, oh you only have to abstain three or four days a month. And the way they get at those numbers is they say, 'well, nobody wants to have sex when they're on their period anyways so we won't count those days and people tend to have sex only on these days anyway, so we won't even count those days…' and it's a lie. And I think that's stupid and awful when people do that – that's just a mistake. Nobody wants to get lied to, and then when you find out it's not really true, you think 'well I wonder what else is a lie?'
I think that the way to teach people about NFP is to give them several different ways of approaching it and not just tell them that it's all one thing. So I'm hoping that my book will be a companion piece. I don't think it's necessarily appropriate as everybody's introduction to NFP if they've never heard of it before.
Q: Do you see a difference in the way younger people, the 'Millennials,' are approaching NFP?
A: I have been noticing more younger readers lately; I guess mostly through Amazon reviews. There are people who are saying that they've been married for a couple years and they feel like they've been lied to (about NFP).
Younger people are used to the idea that everything is fake. My kids are like this. They've grown up with CGI Animation – they see a picture on the internet and it's a completely realistic photo, they say, 'is that real?' When I was little I never would have asked that because I think, 'it's a photograph, it's real,' but with my kids it's a perfectly reasonable question because there's Photoshop and all these fancy animations.
I think that people of that age are in the habit of questioning reality. When something is presented as true, they just automatically question whether it's 'really really true,' or just 'fake-true,' so I think it's very important to be very clear with people that this is not a trick – this is not some kind of illusion that we are talking about.
And they do get angry, because no one wants to be a sucker. It's one thing to be a sucker if you're sitting in a movie theater and you got tricked into thinking that that guy's guts are getting pulled out or King Kong really is on the Empire State building or whatever, and then you realize, 'oh that's not really true, ha ha I got fooled,' but if you're a few years into your marriage and you realize, wow I got fooled – that is a whole other thing, and that is a really serious disturbance, especially when it's being done in the name of religion. When people are presenting something as God's teaching and it turns out not to be true, that's incredibly damaging.
So I think I would rather err on the side of scaring people a little bit, as long as you also present the beauty of it. I think that's extremely important to present it as something that is hard but beautiful – and I think people are going to be up to that challenge, but people are not – and rightly so – going to be up to the challenge of being lied to and getting over it, because that's too painful and humiliating and damaging.
Prosperity gospels and ridiculous bodies
Q: We've talked about some of the pastoral problems associated with teaching NFP – sometimes proponents of the method feel like they need to exaggerate the benefits and ignore the challenges because NFP can be a “hard sell” in a culture that doesn’t value self-sacrifice. But do you think there might also be underlying philosophical or theological presumptions behind such practices that need to be corrected?
A: You know how in some Protestant churches they have the idea of the 'prosperity gospel,' in which if you follow everything God says, you'll get rich? I think that in the Catholic Church there's something of (that idea) that if you do everything right you're going to be happy – and that you will feel fulfilled: that if you follow all the right theological methods you're going to feel 'sexy' all the time.
They talk about the 'honeymoon effect' as if it appeared in an encyclical somewhere. You hear these phrases so often you start to feel like it's actually part of theology and that just as Jesus said, 'if you follow me I have the words of everlasting life,' he probably also said, 'if you use NFP you will have a happy marriage.' Or, 'if you use NFP you will not divorce,' or 'you will always enjoy sex.'
And that is certainly not true. This is one of the things that obviously you're not going to put on the front of the pamphlet teaching somebody about NFP, but I think there's a little bit of the equivalent to the 'prosperity gospel' in NFP circles.
That's part of it: they've convinced themselves that it's your guaranteed ticket to happiness and contentment and fulfillment. And the other part of it is that there are a lot of NFP 'cheerleaders' who are so used to saying, 'use NFP instead of contraception,' that they've convinced themselves and tried to convince other people that you have to use NFP: and you most certainly do not!
And I get accused of this a lot of the time, about telling people that you have to use NFP. When we first got married, we had three kids in three years: we weren't using NFP. I have actually heard from people that it's somehow sub-human not to plan pregnancies, that God has given us this information and we are so privileged to be able to understand how our bodies work, if you decide not to find out how your bodies work and just go ahead and have babies, then you're sinning or you're disrespecting God in some way – you know that's crazy! That's insane – you're married and you want to have a baby, so go for it! I mean, what are we talking about here?
I don't think that they have bad hearts or anything like that, but people are so enthusiastic about it that they really do get carried away and they forget that NFP is something that we use if we have to, and not something that we use because we must or because we should. We use it if it makes sense in our marriage right now, but we are certainly not required to use it. Anybody who's been married for a few years knows that there are some times when it's just not a good time to have a baby. But I really hesitate to ever say that it could be a wrong thing for a husband and wife to have a baby – I can't quite get my mind around that.
So there are two dangers there for people who are really enthusiastic about NFP: one is behaving as if its the equivalent of the 'prosperity gospel,' and two, that 'you must use NFP.' (I certainly didn't have this experience myself but a lot of people in their pre-Cana classes hear that).
But the Church should be encouraging people to have babies if they possibly can because it's such a gift!
There's no possible way that we can deserve or understand what we're receiving when we receive another baby. And there is a danger of the Church being indistinguishable from the rest of the world in its attitude toward children and saying that you have to have their college education already in the bank before you even consider conceiving or something like that. That's really sad and depressing. There's a difference between being prudent and being afraid of children.
Q: Sometimes in Church discussions of marriage, we hear a lot about how the sacrament is somehow a 'participation in the life of the Trinity,' but no mention of the practicalities of married life, such as the sick child who has kept the parents up all night. Do you think that the discussion around NFP tends to be similar – it’s portrayed as a golden ticket to the 'inner life of the Trinity' without mention of the life-long struggle it often is?
A: Yes, and that can be extremely discouraging for people because they look at themselves and they say, 'well, I am doing NFP and I am going to mass every week and we are going to confession at least once a month. We're doing everything right and I'm miserable! I have postpartum depression, and we never have enough money for the rent and I thought it was going to be joyful!'
Or, things are actually going well and they're just experiencing the normal ups and downs of having a body, of being a creature that has a body: sometimes when we have sex, it doesn't seem particularly holy or profound, but that's not a sign that we're doing it wrong. That's just a sign of: 'I have a body, and my body is a little bit ridiculous and it's extremely limited, and this is what it's like having a body.'
The reason that we seem dissatisfied with it is because the world is not our true home. But being dissatisfied is not a sign that we are doing something wrong, or that we don't understand the profound meanings behind sexuality or something like that.
This is something that C.S. Lewis wrote about a lot – I quoted a passage in my book where he talks about us being balloons, and we're flying so high and then somebody gives a little twitch on the string and we get yanked down again...and both of those aspects of it, being able to fly, but also being tethered – that's what it's like, being a creature that has a body and a soul.
(When I hear the profound theology,) I don't want to fall into the trap of saying, 'oh what do these celibate men have to say about sexuality?' That's certainly not what I want to imply at all, but we do need to have voices from everywhere coming in so that we have a full picture of how these things actually work.
We have to have the full range of voices in order to get the complete sound, in order to get the complete chorus of what it's supposed to sound like. I would not want to denigrate the people who are extremely into the academic theological side of it, but I really encourage them to be open to people who are not necessarily academics but who have the experience under their belts and are willing to speak very frankly and concretely.
That's something that I really try hard to do because it's a real trap to fall into the theological language: ‘I must have covered it because I'm quoting directly from the encyclicals so I know that this is true.’ Well, it doesn't matter if it's true if nobody knows what you're talking about! It's like cooking a perfectly well-balanced meal, but your children won't eat it because they don't recognize it and they don't like it – it doesn't matter how nutritious it is if nobody will eat it.
Q: Has your own understanding of NFP changed over the years?
A: One thing that I used to believe was that it was possible to use NFP in such a bad way that it was just the same as contraception. That if you were doing so selfishly and for such petty and shallow reasons, it was really the same as contraception. Catholics were just fooling themselves if they thought they were following God by using NFP, if they were doing it wrong. You hear this phrase a lot: 'using NFP with a contraceptive mentality,' and I used to think that that was not only possible, but probably a serious problem within the Church.
You know, you look around and you see Catholics in the pew and they only have one or two kids, and you think, 'hmm...well, none of my business,’ but you know, deep down in the heart of you, you think ‘hmm...I know what they're up to.' And you know, we've been married for 16 years and we have nine children and I no longer assume that I know anything about anything about anybody, ever. And that's the truth. Sometimes I find myself making assumptions about people, and then I'm reminded: 'you don't know anything!' That's one of the messages of my book: you have enough to do keeping track of your own marriage and your own heart and your own conscience, and there's no benefit whatsoever in imagining that you know the first thing about anybody else.
I think that's it's possible to use NFP selfishly, but that's the sin of selfishness, that's not the sin of contraception. I've had enough experience in my marriage to understand that the physical difference between contraception and NFP is an extremely meaningful difference. This is one of the messages of 'Theology of the Body': that what is in your heart matters, but what you do with your body also matters and it's very bad theology to say that NFP can be the same as contraception – it's just false.
Getting through the dark times
Q: Do you have plans to write more about these topics in the future?
A: I was hoping to write my next book about beauty. And this is just a very faint ghost of an idea because I just barely signed a contract for this book last week, but I was sort of hoping to get away from this. I'm still 38 years-old, I'm still living it, so sometimes it gets a little bit too close to home and I'd like to talk about something else! I mean, I'm really glad that people are interested in it. There's been a very overwhelming interest in this topic and I'm really glad that people are talking about it and I hope that it opens up new discussions for people. But I would be happy if somebody else would carry it on from here.
Q: Is it difficult for your husband that you write so much about NFP/ Marriage? Do you discuss your writings with him?
A: Anytime I publish anything that's even remotely personal, I make sure that everything's ok with him first. And there's a lot more that I haven't told. A lot people say 'wow, you really laid it all out there' (and I think,) 'you have no idea!’ This is something that we've come to a much better understanding of over the years. When I first started writing in public I was definitely too open and that was something we definitely had to learn about, but I always try to make it personal enough so that it will seem real to people and so that they will know I'm not lying to them, without being so personal that it violates the privacy of our marriage.
And he's glad because he knows that as much as women feel the need to see their experience in print, and they feel like maybe they don't have any friends that use NFP, they're really glad to see somebody speaking honestly about it. I think for men there's even more of a need, because men generally don't talk to each other about these things. Women, maybe they can't find the book that talks about their experience of NFP, but maybe they have somebody that they can chat with – one of their friends or their mother or their sister or somebody like that. Men, even if they have a Catholic friend that they know is using NFP, they're probably not going to talk about what they're struggling with, so one of my hopes for the book was that it would spark some conversations between husbands and wives.
I even give examples of, 'here are some of the questions that you can ask each other,' or 'here are some of things that you may not have considered that your husband is thinking: you can ask your husband if he's thinking this.' I was hoping to go beyond what my and my husband's experience has been and to help people to understand their spouses better. Because when it comes down to it, it doesn't matter what anybody else is experiencing. The only thing that matters is what happens between a husband and wife, so that's the main conversation that I was trying to start, is the one between husband and wife.
Q: So far, have you received any feedback about that from men, or from wives who have told you they've been able to talk with their husbands more?
A: Yes, and that's one of the things that I am really happy about, because I didn't know (what the response would be.) Even having talked about this so much in public, I really didn't know how much of it was, 'well, and this solves the Fisher's problems!' But a lot of the reviews on Amazon that I've gotten have said specifically, 'We've already had some good conversations because of this book.' Hearing it from men, especially, makes me feel happy – when I get reviews from men saying 'this is something that has already been helpful in our marriage.'
Q: Would you recommend this book for priests?
A: Yes, please! No really, I would because a lot of the time when I go to confession – and this is one thing I keep mentioning a lot in the book: that you have to go to confession a lot, you have to keep going back and back to confession because that is the only way you are going to get anywhere, really – a lot of the time when I confess things to priests, they'll absolve me, which is great, but when they hear people in confession, they're only hearing a few minutes of the story. I'm hoping to give a larger picture of what the inside of a marriage, and what the inside of a married sexual relationship, is really like. Because I think priests tend to hear people who are in crisis a lot of the time, and that's when people go to them. They hear the dry academic theology of it, and they hear people in crisis, and I think it can only be helpful for them to hear more of the story.
Q: So if you were invited to speak at a seminary, would you go?
A: I love priests! I have never come across a priest who isn't interested in marriage and eager to learn more about married relationships and really just burning to help people, because they really understand that that's where the Church starts, inside a marriage. Whether it's people having children, or raising children who will become priests and nuns or single people who are supporting priests and nuns and supporting the Catholic schools, that's where it starts.
I think sometimes you will come across a priest who is very enthusiastic about these things, having all the enthusiasm of the theological side of it and having no idea what they're going to come across when they start to hear people's actual confessions and things like that. So I would love to, I would jump at the chance!
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say about NFP or your book?
My NFP teacher tells the story of these people who came in one time with a chart that had been torn into four pieces and then sheepishly taped back together, and to me that said so much about the experience of NFP!
We want to give people some reason to come back to it, because it's very normal for people to have those moments where they want to tear the chart up or they literally do tear the chart up.
And it's really important to give people the tools to realize, 'this is why it's important, this is why we're doing it, and these are the things you can hope for' – because my book is not all about, 'yes it sucks and this is why you have to keep on forging ahead and this is why you have to keep on suffering.’ My book is about getting through the dark times and remembering not just that you can be happy again, and you can have good sex again, but when you get through the hard times there is something on the other side of it, which is way more than you imagined and something that you really can't express in a tri-fold pamphlet about NFP.
When you say things like 'fulfillment' and 'joy' and contentment' that doesn't say very much. And it's something that you can't really understand or express until you experience it. So in some ways, they're overselling and promising things that they can't really deliver on, and in some ways, they're really underselling it too, because when we say a word like 'joy,' we're not talking about happiness, we're talking about a completely different animal, and this is something that people can achieve in their marriages, but it doesn't come easy, or cheap, or quickly.
Kerri Lenartowick currently lives in Rome where she is pursuing her doctorate in Theology at the Pontifical Lateran University and working as a journalist for Catholic News Agency/EWTN News. She obtained her S.T.L. and S.T.B. degrees from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit MI, and her M.A. and B.A. in Theology from Ave Maria University and the University of Dallas, respectively. Over the years, she has worked for various aspects of the pro-life movement and spoken to women’s groups across the country.