Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The "Both/And" of Natural Family Planning


Have you ever read St. Pope John Paul II's Mulieris Dignitatem (in English: On the Dignity and Vocation of Women)? Previously I had read bits and pieces here and there, but had yet to really read it thoroughly and in a deeper, more intentional way. Thankfully, I have some pretty amazing friends here and one of them organized a reading/discussion group so that we could all tackle this goal together.

I've been hosting the group at our apartment - and what a joy it has been to host these ladies and be a part of this group! Last night's discussion left me feeling that we had broached some important issues and worked through them in a fruitful manner.

To be brief, one of the points that launched us into a fascinating conversation came from the last line in Part III (Image and Likeness of God):

Thus every element of human generation which is proper to man, and every element which is proper to woman, namely human "fatherhood" and "motherhood," bears within itself a likeness to, or analogy with, the divine "generating" and with that "fatherhood" which in God is "totally different," that is, completely spiritual and divine in essence; whereas in the human order, generation is proper to the "unity of the two": both are "parents," the man and the woman alike.

The quotation above is explaining that man and woman are both made in the image and likeness of God even in the elements of procreation that are gender specific. With God, these generative elements are all present because His fatherhood is one that is completely spiritual and divine. But with people? Our generation is "proper to the 'unity of the two.'" God doesn't need a partner to create because He is the Creator. But as humans we only create life in union with another; we are both parents (ya with me?).

We then began to speak about human constructs that attempt to undermine or evade this reality - the reality that motherhood and fatherhood has been entrusted to the cooperation of men and women. I'm sure you can think of several examples, but with all that's been happening in our nation this week it's no surprise that we landed on one topic in particular: contraception.

One thing led to another and before we knew it, we were knee-deep in a conversation about the Church and Natural Family Planning (NFP). As the only married woman in the bunch, I am the only one with a full experience of NFP - practicing it with my husband, abstaining as a married couple, conceiving a child, figuring things out postpartum, etc. However, at least one other woman in the group has firsthand knowledge of charting.

In short, this young woman who had NFP charting experience felt sort of duped (and I can't say I blame her). She attended Catholic schools her entire life and she always heard about the benefits and happy, fruitful aspects of NFP and being pro-life. Yet, as she grew older and learned more about NFP and began to see the potential difficulties that stem from sacrifice, she wondered how no one had ever presented this information to her. Why did her high school focus so much on girls building their careers - but never touch on the realistic implications that being open to life may have on her future career? To explain the sacrifices that a woman must sometimes make if she is pregnant or taking care of small children?

I see and wholeheartedly understand all of her frustrations. She felt as if the Church was too focused on selling people on the fruitful aspects of NFP and being open to life that She had failed to give women a realistic understanding of the sacrifice involved - perhaps out of fear that it might scare women away and lead them down the path of contraception. Her point (which I think is totally valid) was that it would probably be better if the Church was more direct and upfront about all of this from the beginning (perhaps during PreCana courses) so that women don't wrongfully anticipate all butterflies and roses then throw in the towel (aka turn to contraception) when it sometimes doesn't pan out the way they expected.

And again, I completely understand her frustrations and agree with her that the Church (via little "c" churches -depending on where you live, what programs they have to offer, etc.) doesn't always present the "difficult" truths from the get go - but as I reflected more and more I believe I understand why churches don't always necessarily pitch the hardship aspect of NFP from the get-go.

I believe the problem stems from the fact that our society has become polarized on most issues; this has led to extremely polarized understandings (and presentations) of NFP. 

You know, it always seem to be presented like this:

Or this:

On one hand, we have people who so desperately want to reach out to our deeply wounded culture (that is bombarded by a contraceptive mentality everywhere they turn) with a positive message of JOY that they take all the hearts!hearts!hearts! a bit far. In wanting to help women see the beauty of NFP and openness to life we can go to the extreme of accidentally making this beautiful practice seem...easy. Or constantly joyful - because any hint that it might be otherwise will certainly make you a bad pro-lifer.

On the other hand, we have the women that want to provide support and realistic expectations to those that are practicing NFP. The women that want to say, "NFP can be hard! It requires great sacrifice and can be painful, frustrating, and possibly infuriating!" None of that is wrong and it's great to be realistic about the sacrificial aspect of NFP, but again, these women can accidentally take it to the extreme - which in this case presents NFP as all hardship ALL THE TIME. Nothing but trials and tears - except maybe when you do have a baby and it all feels worthwhile...even though it's hard.

These presentations of NFP are problematic because they fall into the "either/or" trap of secular society. But what ever happened to the "both/and"?

We can't say that Christ's self-gift in the crucifixion was only the biggest hardship known to man OR the most beautiful, fruitful gift known to man. It's both.

As Christians, we understand that hardships and joy are not mutually exclusive. We don't only live in a world of difficulty or a world solely radiating joy, love, fruitfulness. These things often go hand in hand. Sure, there are times when everything seems to be filled with grace - and we give thanks. There are also times when everything looks bleak - and we continue on in our struggle, trusting in our Lord that it will get better. But we also know that the Lord is often planting seeds in those times of difficulty that will later bear fruit we will someday (hopefully) recognize and be able to give thanks for.

If there's one thing I've learned about NFP since getting married it's this: it isn't all joy joy joy/easy peasy lemon squeezy/let's make all the babies all the time nor is it all woe is me/charting is so harrrrrrrd*/abstinence is the worst/what a burdensome cross God seems to have given us. It has the potential to be both/and. Which is precisely why it doesn't do us any good to present only the extremes on either side...but also helps me see why (when facing a world of such polarized understandings) the Church focuses on the Love and Light.

However, the reality of NFP is found somewhere in weaving together each of these "extreme" messages...just as we Christians never focus on the Lord's sacrifice without also rejoicing in the reminder of Hope in the Resurrection. As Catholics, we wear the crucifix not to see only the pain and suffering of sacrifice and dwell in it, but to remember that our true Hope, joy, and most beautiful gifts stem from sacrificial gifts of self in which we die to self for one another. We cannot have Easter without Lent.

There will be times in our married lives when NFP seems like Lent...and in that we are not alone. There will be times in our married lives when NFP (not just conceiving babies - but even charting and abstinence!) will seem like Easter...and in that we are not alone. No matter what, we are not alone and we know that this openness to God and life - in which we cooperate as couples through trust and prayerful discernment about abstaining during fertile periods or letting the charts fly out the window - will bring us into greater union with God and therefore help mold us into the truest versions of ourselves.

And the notion of possibly becoming the truest versions of ourselves through the Sacrament of our marriage - as God intended us to be - is a "both/and" opportunity that I'm so grateful to have been given.

*It's worth saying that if you and your spouse are at a point in your relationship when you believe charting is of utmost importance (regardless of whether it's to conceive or postpone having a baby) but you find charting to be a source of great consternation, you might want to consider finding a new method and instructor that better suit your needs. And sometimes, we must admit that we might not be giving our charts the diligence we should be if it's really that important. Charting can be hard, but it doesn't always have to be! We live in a time when we're blessed with scientific knowledge. It's also worth saying that one NFP method might not be your best fit forever. I would encourage everyone to find the right method, instructors, and possibly even physicians that work with your family's current needs!

"One jewel of John Paul's meditations over many decades concerns the light he sheds on the time before humanity's fall from grace. In that graced time we glimpse the "unity of the two": the true collaboration between man and woman untouched by the darkness of sin. Their unsullied "common humanity" reminds us that each is made for the other, with a shared mission and the ability to bear those fruits that God entrusts to their free and creative generosity."
-Genevieve Kineke


  1. I can't thank you enough for posting this. I needed to read it.

    As you know, I am not yet married. However, Brian and I are eagerly starting our NFP discussion and he is completely on board. We know all the benefits... but the sacrifices and "downsides" are pretty vague. Obviously because we aren't married yet and have no experience in that area! But thank you again for sharing. I'd rather hop on the NFP boat willingly because I see it from a realistic perspective.


    1. Honestly I think the challenges and sacrifices can look very different for each couple. But, of course, for most newlywed couples that are postponing pregnancy the most obvious "downside" is that it can be so challenging to abstain when you can FINALLY be together! Which is why it's good to always be in communication with one another and the Lord about whether or not you really need to wait. :) You guys will have to figure that one out each month as you go along (as we all do). I'm glad this piece helped you in some way as you and Brian prepare for marriage. Y'all will be in my prayers!

  2. Very interesting post! I recently finished PreCana classes with my fiance and we learned so much valuable and intriguing information about NFP that we hadn't heard of before!


    1. Thanks, Elena! Congratulations on your engagement! I hope that your PreCana was a positive, fruitful experience for you and your future husband. :)

  3. This is so beautifully written Stephanie. Thanks for sharing your insights on this!

  4. Starting Year 3 of marriage, and having read quite a bit on blogs about NFP, this one is different than most. Thank you for saying it's okay for charting to feel like Lent or for practicing NFP to be something other than roses and sunshine. I don't often share the challenges with others when I mention NFP because I want them to be on board with it rather than scared away. It's like, if we "hook em" first then talk reality after, maybe we'll have enough YES to accept the difficult parts too. Anyway, maybe I"m rambling, but...thanks for writing!