I am not a fan of Natural Family Planning.
My husband and I have been using NFP—or more precisely, practicing a method of fertility awareness—since the day we were married eleven years ago. We have used NFP not because of the well-crafted lectures that convinced us of its ethical importance. We have not used this medically endorsed approach because its health benefits have proven true. Neither have we chosen to chart our countercultural course because of the legendary “honeymoon phase” that many NFP proponents have lauded in their testimonies. We have practiced NFP because we honor the teachings of the Catholic Church.
The Catholic teaching on contraception is perfectly correct. God designed sexual union to be both unitive and procreative. It is not our right to separate these elements. This basic principle underlies every teaching on sexual morality contained in the controversial Catholic portfolio. Methods of fertility awareness allow couples to cooperate intelligently with God’s design as they seek to exercise responsible parenthood. These practices are licit, not because they are “natural,” but because they respect the divine blueprint for conjugal love.
This teaching is logical, consistent with Christian doctrine, and not difficult to appreciate intellectually. But it is incredibly difficult to follow. At the end of the day (literally), no syllogism can generate the chutzpah needed to dictate a couple’s choices in the bedroom. Only God’s laws have the power to intervene in that intimate realm. This, I suspect, is why well-meaning and astute Protestants like Evan Lenow uphold many elements of the Catholic vision, but draw the line at actually following the teachings of Humanae Vitae to their bitter conclusion. They don’t feel they have to. Catholics do.
On our first date, Joe asked me whether I wanted children. My dutiful but passionless response was, “I want what God wants.” As a faithful Catholic, I knew from the get-go that being open to life was part of the marital deal. But I did not want children. I was deathly afraid of childbirth and simply uninterested in motherhood. My husband, conversely, is the ninth of eleven children and always dreamed of having a large family. But we didn’t have to argue about the issue, because we both intended to follow Christ by obeying His Church. So we have been open to life, using NFP during those painfully frequent intervals when it has not been prudent to conceive, as well as on those occasions when awareness of my fertility has enabled us to conceive on the dot.
Thus, in the first eight-and-a-half years of marriage, we had six children and one miscarriage. I hardly wonder what people think about all this. It surely appears to the world (and we do get awkward comments, from friends and strangers alike) that Joe and I have no “self-control.” Oh, if they only knew.
If they could see the paucity of I’s on our chart; if they realized what it means when my cycle returns around eight weeks postpartum, in spite of claims that nursing on demand will do the trick; if they understood the burden of having a long pre-luteal phase and a short post-ovulatory one; in brief, if they perceived the vast amount of continence required of these parents of six in order to obey God’s law, then perhaps the awkward questions would change—from asking whether the Wisconsin winter got too long, to asking why we think all this self-control is worth it.
For those skeptics who may be wondering, not a single one of our three sons and three daughters arrived by “accident.” The Marquette Model has not failed us. Each child is a gift from God, an addition to our family whom we welcomed, if at times with fear and trembling. But it wasn’t until my fourth child came that I began to understand why all this self-control is, indeed, worth it.
Had it been up to me instead of a matter of obedience, I might have had no children at all. Or, if I had agreed to fulfill my husband’s hope for a family, I would surely have insisted on stopping at two. I hated pregnancy. Childbirth was not a happy experience for me. I felt like a lousy mom because nursery rhymes made me cringe. I was flustered by the needs of two babies and annoyed by the increasing duties of domestic life. Nonetheless, we welcomed our third child. Two years later our fourth was born, and when they handed her to me in the delivery room I was filled with a joy I had never experienced, and I realized that somewhere along the line, I had grown to love motherhood.
By the time my fifth child arrived, I wept at the thought that he might be our last—a radical contrast with the mindset I had had when this journey began. When we brought home our sixth baby, I felt so blessed that I kept telling people, “My cup runneth over.” Yes, our house is messy, the children don’t always have matching socks, and finding a good babysitter is a challenge, but this is the overabundance that results from true wealth.
Lately, people have been asking me whether we’re “done.” As if this were all some master plan that Joe and I laid out in April of 2007 and now have brought to a tidy conclusion. Sorry, no. Being open to life is not so predictable and mundane.
True, we will never enjoy the unrestricted sexual “freedom” that results from the sterilizing procedures so many of our fellow Catholics have undergone in pursuit of their plans. I wish them well and believe their ignorance excuses their error. But sometimes I imagine asking a few of them, fifty years from now, “Was it worth it?”
The Catholic call to be open to life is not a divine decree to produce a family of a particular size. Nor is childbearing the only variety of marital fruitfulness. And those who have suffered the pain of infertility know that God’s plan does not always unfold in accordance with our own. But those who look back wishing they had had children, or more children, may suffer a different kind of regret.
Thank God we don’t have to be a fan of His plan. Even Jesus hoped to follow a different path, but instead obeyed the will of His Father. We aren’t called to be thrilled by Christ’s teachings, coherent and advisable though they may be. We are called to follow them. When we are most tempted to abandon the project is when we must stay the course; otherwise we will never have the reward of understanding where it ultimately leads.
Doing the right thing transforms us over time. It changes us from the outside in. The law is there to guide us just when we would rather go astray. And following God’s law always pays off, sometimes even this side of heaven.
Gina Loehr is the author of The Church is Our Mother: Seven Ways She Inspires Us to Love.