“How’d you do it?” I once asked my 87-year-old grandmother, the mother of nine children.
“Do what?” Nana asked.
“Have nine kids,” I said. (I mean, obviously.)
“Oh honey, if God gives you rabbits, then He gives you grass,” was her response.
Nana was of the “God Family Planning” mindset. God plans families; couples don’t. While this laissez-faire approach did nothing to assuage my fears about being open to life, it did make me question whether GFP’s distant cousin NFP was really nothing more than a Catholic barrier method. Abstaining is, after all, the ultimate way to block a pregnancy, right?
I should know a thing or two about blocking pregnancy: I spent the first two months of my married life on the Pill. Eventually, I came to see that the Church’s teaching on contraception wasn’t an oppressive voice telling me “no,” but a voice saying “yes” to God and the way of truth, yes to the dignity of the human person, and yes to a culture of life.
My husband and I took a leap of faith and began practicing NFP, and I became its biggest booster after the birth of my first child. NFPers (myself included) like to tout its 98.9 percent effectiveness rate — but does that make it significantly different from contracepting? Is natural family planning no more than what the name implies — a natural, low-tech form of birth control?
Only if you let it be.
NFP is not birth control if you recognize the act of sexual intercourse is both love-giving and life-giving. Every intimate encounter involves a total and complete gift of self-love between husband and wife, and there’s always a chance that this giving will result in what the Catechism calls the supreme gift of marriage (CCC 2378) — another human person.
When my husband and I had been contracepting, we were rejecting even the possibility of opening that gift. It was like waking up on that first Christmas morning when you realize Santa Claus isn’t real. It’s still fun, but the magic is missing.
NFP is not birth control if you pray about your family — a lot — and constantly ask yourselves: Is our desire to manage our family size purely a selfish one, or are we truly acting out of prudence for our family’s best interest? With NFP, my husband and I must keep a constant dialogue open with each other and with the ultimate family planner — God.
And NFP isn’t birth control if you cooperate with the way God made you. With NFP, you see fertility as a gift, not something to be suppressed. Even when we decide to abstain out of moral sensibility, we’re still cooperating with the way God made us as male and female.
However, NFP can start looking a lot like birth control if you treat NFP as a way of taking charge of your fertility and are more focused on how NFP works than the why behind it. I learned this when I was trying to have my second baby.
After nine months of scrupulous charting and sufficient carnal embrace, I still wasn’t pregnant. I arrived at my Catholic midwife’s office with my spiffy charts, and she immediately told me to toss them out. “Stop thinking of it as natural family planning, but God Family Planning.”
My immediate reaction was, “GFP? Wait a minute, that’s what Nana followed — and she had nine rabbits!”
It’s tough to accept, but my midwife was right. Following the “rules” of NFP too vigilantly — whether to postpone or achieve pregnancy — is really no different than approving of society’s contracepting mentality that having a baby on our time is our right.
NFP can also become more like birth control when your list of “just reasons” (CCC 2368) for postponing pregnancy starts to rival your weekly grocery list. The Church’s teachings do not forbid us from prayerfully discerning if it would be prudent to abstain during a fertile period, but we have to be careful not to allow our weaknesses as humans (primarily selfishness) to stand as reasons not to have a baby.
The bottom line is that, if I truly want to embrace the Church’s teachings behind NFP, then I must never put an obstacle before God, or to allow my own selfishness and need for control to get in the way of what God has in store for my family, whatever it may be.
It reminds me of more practical wisdom from my Nana: “God knows exactly the number of children you need. No one wakes up one day with a house full of children. God gives you the graces as your family grows. You just have to trust Him.”
Now that’s advice I can use.