Last week was Natural Family Planning (NFP) week. Typically I’m one to join right in, praising NFP and how wonderful it is, but this year I didn’t. Instead, I sat back and read truth after truth about how hard NFP can be.
I started charting years before I married Anthony. When I learned about my fertility I found it empowering. It was incredibly helpful to begin to notice patterns, not only in my chart, but in my general mood, and more (i.e. when I could expect headaches, cramps, etc.). When we got married we had a deep desire to start a family early and conceived quickly. After our first daughter was born, however, my fertility returned with a vengeance. My first post-partum cycle started at a mere 8 weeks after giving birth. Those first few cycles back were long (45-55 days) with most of those days being fertile days. As much as we loved our daughter, I was in no state to be pregnant with a two month old at home. I could barely figure out motherhood as I returned to work full-time and tried to manage these crazy cycles.
After our second child was born, I got a bit more of a reprieve – a full 4.5 months before my cycles returned. But even since then my charts have been filled with fertile days. Our second daughter had reflux which threw me for a giant loop. Her sleep was horrible and it took some time before we were able to get her some help (yay modern medicine!) and finally see a happy baby. There were more than a few nights that I cried to Anthony that I wasn’t sure I could ever handle more kids if things were going to be so challenging – such little sleep, plus a toddler transitioning to being a big sister, and a fussy baby who couldn’t be set down. Then throw in missionary life, bouncing around the country all summer, kidney stones and impending surgery for said stones and you’ve got just a tiny glimpse into my present reality.
Both of my post-partum phases have led me to struggle with NFP. More than once I’ve wished things were easier. If I’m being honest, I’ve even had moments of being jealous of contracepting couples. I’m grateful for my fertility, grateful that we have been able to conceive, but I’ve also railed against it too, frustrated that I’ve either been pregnant or fertile, with very little time of infertility. I want to be part of those happy, NFP loving Catholics who sit around, eating their bon-bons and talking about the beauty of NFP, the honeymoon-type love when couples can come together after temporarily abstaining. There have been days I’d like to throw the chart out the window, even despite being newly post-partum with raging fertility. I’ve read books and blogs from wives, mothers, priests, and bishops about the good of NFP and yet sat here staring bitterly at my own charts. We discern and discuss, pray and talk, and then the stickers come out on the chart and the hype of natural family planning meets the realities of actual fertility and married life.
It wasn’t until we were at training for FOCUS in June that I found some real solace in the struggle of NFP. During training there was a retreat for married couples that featured an NFP panel – three couples with different experiences of NFP. One couple struggled to conceive and NFP helped them in their infertility. Another couple who desired children but also needed space between them because the wife’s fertility returned quickly after giving birth. Another couple who never charted and accepted children as they came. What was so moving about this panel was their stories. It wasn’t about how wonderful NFP is or the happy, beautiful, picture-perfect experience they had all had. Their stories were real. They were raw. Tears were shed as they shared.
As humans we are hard-wired for stories. We can share all day long about lower divorce rates in couples who use NFP and other benefits of using NFP (and there are many!) but if we share those things without sharing our story, we do NFP and ourselves a disservice. We encourage each other by our stories, by the triumphs and the struggles. If we leave out the sacrifices, the frustrations, the please, not another fertile day, I’ve already had 20 of them in a row rants and tell only the pie-in-the-sky ideas then we are selling a lie.
So let’s be honest, shall we? NFP is beautiful. It is also hard. It is sanctifying, in more ways than one. It tries my patience and brings me to my knees – as well it should. Before I got married I only ever heard the good about NFP. Maybe I wouldn’t have listened, but I sure wish I had known someone who struggled, so that when things got tough I’d have had a friend to reach out to, someone to commiserate with and console me. Instead, I’m three years into marriage and just now finding that community, that sense of honesty among NFP users and it is a much needed breath of fresh air. As we go forward from NFP week, can we all agree to be more honest as we share? To be unafraid to pull back the covers (pardon the pun!) and share the unabashed truth? Maybe you love NFP and it really is all hearts and rainbows, and that’s great. But maybe NFP is a daily cross and you are struggling to find your proverbial Simon to help you carry that cross. Let’s stop sugar-coating the hardships because even though NFP can be a cross, it is only through the cross that we find our salvation.