Maybe it’s my imagination, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen no fewer than one million posts about Natural Family Planning cross my Facebook feed over the past several days.
It’s “NFP Awareness Week”, and it’s funny because the truth is that I have this weird aversion to awareness weeks in general. Every single year there’s adoption awareness this or Down syndrome awareness that, and I have this vague feeling like I’m supposed to be doing something (because hello, I’m an adoptive mom to kids with Down syndrome), but really I’m sitting there thinking the whole thing seems too gimmicky or kitschy or something, so I don’t do anything. I figure most people are “aware” of both adoption and Down syndrome, anyhow. Also, I like to dabble in being a contrarian.
For those who don’t know, Natural Family Planning is somehow simultaneously the Catholic woman’s Achilles Heel and Holy Graille, the thing Catholic women loathe but also kind of have to love. We believe God is opposed to the use of artificial contraception (hormonal, barrier, sterilization, all of the above), so Catholic marriage preparation classes encourage couples to chart and track and communicate, in order to either delay or achieve pregnancy. They call this NFP. It’s even become a bit of a cottage industry, with apps and programs and stickers you put on a page.
Side-note but honestly, some of it sounds like a lot of work to me! I understand my cycle, and loosely keep track of stuff, but I don’t use anything fancy and I don’t dwell too much on it. (Though if I ever have a medical condition or issue where I need to, I will. THANK GOODNESS for the advances in NaPro technology, all the Creighton stuff, and for physicians and instructors who truly are dedicated to women’s health!)
When I first discovered the historic Christian perspective on marriage (or rather, when it discovered me), what drew me in was the beauty of marriage, and how sexuality and children were designed to fit in with it. It made really good sense to me, all of it, and over time I came to accept that this strange group of Mary-loving, Mass-attending people held the long-sought answers about marriage and family. Of course I was attending a Presbyterian church at the time, which made it all kind of weird, but whatever. There was no denying the things Saint Pope John Paul II wrote, and there was no skirting around the fact that the entire Christian world was united in this view on marriage and children until some Anglicans in 1930 up and changed their minds.
The rest of Protestantism, and society at large, would follow suit in the years to come. But not those stubborn Catholics. Maybe they’re contrarians too.
What drew me into the teachings of old, and ultimately captivated my heart, was not the NFP methodology or the discovery of a replacement for the birth control I used to use. I was driven to find answers because it seemed a most heavy and important thing, how my husband and I approached our marriage and our fertility, and nobody agreed on any of it and it just seemed like God, who created us and our bodies, ought to have intended something. Plus, all of the artificial birth control options just seemed un-ideal for any number of reasons, but so did the held-by-some-Protestants idea of “you must have as many children as possible even if you’re on the brink of collapse”. The Catholic Church’s beliefs however navigate that tension. They tie sexuality to the possibility of procreation. They reflect the wholeness of marriage and tie sexuality to what is happening in the marriage.
But there was a time when I didn’t know all that. I was a young, Christian, pro-life bride, but I used the birth control pill. I figured we’d have our kids when we wanted to have them and have the number we wanted to have. We would control All of the Things. None of this was opposed, in my mind, to trusting the Lord or having a good Christian marriage. I even heard someone on a Focus on the Family broadcast say that the pill was okay to use, which I believed to be true because Focus on the Family was about as conservative as Protestants got. So every day I ingested a carcinogen. I put up with the headaches, nausea, and mood swings, because I thought young married women who wanted to finish college were supposed to. Until everything got so awful and I made the decision to stop taking it, at the pleading of my poor husband who was tired of seeing me so sick. Then began the process of discovering all the yucky stuff about the pill, like its potential for being an abortifacient.
I was horrified. I’d had no idea.
Any time I write about this, I have both secular feminists and Catholic women tell me, accusingly, that I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN!!!!!!!! I should have read the pill insert and connected the dots, I should have been warned by my doctor about the potential side-effects (incidentally I wasn’t, maybe because she was so busy being incredulous that I was still a virgin within weeks of my upcoming wedding day), I should have known that birth control is a no-no because of something or other in the Bible. It always strikes me as amusing that, to some, my ignorance is completely unfathomable in this area. So I just shrug and smile and say, “Well, fine, I’m an idiot. I own that. I didn’t know. Now I do.”
The thing is that it usually takes some sort of turning point to get us to question a held assumption. Why would I launch an investigation into birth control when all the respectable, married Christian people I knew were using it, when a trusted religious source claimed it was morally permissible, and when it met my perceived needs? Why would I assume there were other, older, historically and spiritually plausible Christian views on marriage besides the anemic and fad-driven ones competing in the books at my local Christian bookstore? No, it took watching my quality of life slowly slip away to get me to rethink my approach to marriage and fertility.
Most of us live in a vacuum. I take responsibility for my actions past and present, but at the end of the day, there is plenty I was ignorant about when it came to faith and life. Probably stuff I remain ignorant about, just in general. I’d had no idea up until recently, for example, that Planned Parenthood sold specimens obtained through abortion to medical research companies and universities. I’m not SURPRISED, but this was new information to me. It seems to have been new for a lot of people. And what a beautiful thing to see men and women–who don’t typically align themselves with the pro-life movement–beginning to question the motives and practices of Planned Parenthood. How incredible to see Holly Grigg-Spall, Ricki Lake, and Abby Epstein involved in making a documentary about the problems with the pill. After years of shaming anyone who DARED question the use of hormonal birth control, women.are.waking.up.
And I could not be more thrilled.
And maybe, if you always knew all that stuff, you can’t imagine someone NOT knowing. Maybe you look around and think people are ridiculous for being ignorant of Planned Parenthood’s business practices (as I was), or for thinking ingesting hormones was a good idea (as I did). If that’s you, I’m honestly really glad. You educated yourself, you probably educated other people, and you surely avoided walking around looking pregnant when really you were just bloated (and emotionally unstable) beyond recognition. This is good.
But here, on my blog, there will always, always be space for people to not know things. For people who feel like they have no other options but to use the pill, or for people who aren’t sure Planned Parenthood is the devil. (Incidentally it IS. Also, the pill is really bad for you. You should explore some alternatives, specifically NFP, because your health and your marriage are worth it. Now you all know.) See each one of us is the product of a culture that oppresses women, that tells us being open to children in an otherwise loving and healthy marriage will destroy it, and that motherhood is for the weak. We live in a place where going against the cultural norms set before us is met with scoffs, defensiveness, and occasionally rebuke. Where recently a man seeing me walking my kids into our neighborhood rec center made a very audible sound of disgust, and tauntingly told me I have my hands full. Misogynistic much?
So. I’m not much for awareness weeks, or for keeping complicated cervical mucus charts if I don’t absolutely have to (I’m lazy), but I like to share what I’ve learned on my journey, just in case it helps somebody else. I like to chat with women across the ideological spectrum, and I like to humbly offer alternatives to what I see as a very strained relationship between women, marriage, and fertility. It’s about so much more than family planning methodology (though it may include that) and it’s about so much more than being some kind of pro-life activist (though it may include that.) I like honest conversations, I like to listen, and as far as I’m concerned there is absolutely, always and forever, space to learn new things. No matter where you’re at.
Said the Catholic lady with eight kids, a raccoon trap, and a secret and abiding love for reality TV.
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