Simcha Fisher is a lay Catholic blogger, speaker, wife and mother of 10 children based in New Hampshire. She blogs daily at Aleteia, weekly at National Catholic Register, and writes occasionally for Catholic Digest. Mrs. Fisher is the author of “The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning," a practical guide for married couples on the various natural birth regulation methods recommended by the Catholic Church.
This year, July 24 to 30 is National Natural Family Planning Awareness Week, a yearly national education campaign of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (U.S.C.C.B.). On July 14, I interviewed Mrs. Fisher by email about N.F.P. and her experience in the context of this week.
We are in the midst of National N.F.P. Awareness Week, which the U.S.C.C.B. promotes annually during the July 25 anniversary of Bl. Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae.” The 2016 theme is “Love, Mercy, Life: Natural Family Planning, Opening the Heart of Marriage.” As practitioners of N.F.P., how will you and your husband celebrate this week?
Hold on, let me check my chart. Yeah, we’ll be celebrating by watching TV. Ha. I’m also going to give away at least one ClearBlue Easy Fertility Monitor on my Aleteia blog, and will be selling my book at a discount.
What is N.F.P. and why do you use it?
N.F.P. stands for “natural family planning.” There are several different methods, but they all involve observing and interpreting a woman’s signs of fertility. Using these naturally occurring signs, a couple can achieve or avoid pregnancy by deciding to have sex or to abstain.
I used it initially just because we had three kids in three years and thought, “Someone’s got to slow this train down!” The church said it was N.F.P. or nothing, so that’s what we used.
Since then, I’ve also used N.F.P. to get pregnant, and to help diagnose and treat medical and psychological issues. We started using N.F.P. out of sheer, grudging obedience, but have developed true gratitude for N.F.P. Over the years, it’s taught us a tremendous amount about ourselves and each other, about trusting God and about what sex really is, and about what love really means.
How is N.F.P. similar to and different from artificial birth control?
It’s similar in that it can be used to avoid pregnancy; but it’s different in the same way that eating a sensible diet is different from sticking your finger down your throat! Not a pretty picture, but you see the point.
The thing about N.F.P. is that it’s just information. It doesn’t do anything to your body or to sex. It simply gives us the choice to work with our bodies as they already are. Every form of contraception adds something artificial to our bodies, or removes or alters something; and every form of contraception changes the character of sexual union—and sex is so strange and so beautiful and so powerful, it’s something that you really don’t want to mess around with.
What you want is important, but how you achieve it is equally important. Another way to look at it: Say I desperately want to inherit my grandmother’s jewels. I could either smother the old bat with a pillow and forge her name on her will, or I could care for her until she dies, and then enjoy my inheritance. Same goal, same desire, radically different approach!
What are some graces you’ve received from practicing N.F.P. in your marriage?
N.F.P. taught me something really hard, but so necessary in marriage: how to look past my own immediate desires and how to think more about what my husband wants and needs, and what the rest of the family wants and needs.
Getting what you want all the time is a kind of prison. It sounds backward, but we’re actually liberated when we freely choose to put limits on ourselves—and this goes for men and women. Self-sacrifice, not instant gratification, is at the heart of love. My husband and I learned this through N.F.P., but it applies to all areas of our married life.
And it’s made us slow down, talk about sex, think hard about it and approach it with gratitude and intentionality. In other words, it’s made sex kind of amazing, even thrilling, even after 18 years of marriage.
What are some challenges you’ve faced practicing N.F.P. in your marriage?
Oh, all of them. N.F.P. means you can’t have sex whenever you want to, even though you’re married, and this can be really hard. What’s more painful, it means that you and your spouse can fall into bad habits, misunderstandings and resentments while you navigate abstinence. Prayer and effort will help tremendously, but the learning stage can be tough.
From your perspective, what’s the best reason for young married couples to try N.F.P.?
Well, there’s no reason they necessarily have to try anything! It’s lovely when newlyweds just go ahead and have a sweet little baby together. But if the choice is between contraception and N.F.P., it’s also lovely to start your marriage by saying, “I love you so much, I want you as you are, without any tricks or chemicals or devices.”
How do you respond to people who say N.F.P. is impractical and too difficult for the majority of people to use?
I wonder what they imagine people used to do before we had condoms and pills and IUDs! Mostly, they would abstain, because they knew that sex often makes babies. Modern people (myself included) feel like sex is a right, and we’ll die or go insane if we don’t get it when we want it.
But that thinking is backward. Sex is a great and glorious privilege and gift, and we’re lucky that we’ve figured out how to both avoid pregnancy and enjoy sex without doing anything grotesque or dangerous or demeaning to our bodies.
At the same time, it can certainly be difficult. I won’t sugarcoat that. But the truth is, marriage is always hard, one way or another. Might as well embrace a cross that teaches you how to love, rather than just suffering.
The Catholic Church has endorsed N.F.P., but there are various forms of it floating around. Which one do you use and how does it work?
I’ve used Creighton, which tracks cervical fluid, and Marquette, which uses a digital monitor to test hormone levels in urine. I have friends who track their temperatures and the position of their cervix, and even a few who just glance at the calendar and make a guess. Some methods cost money, some are free, some are more subjective, some are more objective, and many methods use a combination of signs. There are also dozens of online fertility tracking apps. Something for everyone.
In his recent apostolic exhortation “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis reiterated the teachings of “Humanae Vitae” on artificial birth control. But as you know, there are a number of Catholics who ignore this teaching. What led you to choose N.F.P. over artificial methods of family planning?
Even as I struggled with N.F.P., I could see that my friends were struggling with contraception. There is no free ride. N.F.P. might be a drag, but at least it wasn’t making me sick, or causing mood swings, killing my sex drive or giving me infections or migraines or blood clots.
Some critics accuse the Catholic Church of being “anti-woman” for opposing abortion and artificial birth control. As a woman, how do you respond to them?
I think the secular culture is responding for me. For instance, Cosmopolitan magazine, of all publications, has recently run several articles about how women have been patronized and lied to, and how their health has been destroyed, by the contraception industry. More and more of my non-Catholic friends are realizing that they don’t deserve to be treated like defective machinery just because they have functioning ovaries.
As for abortion: what a filthy offense against the dignity of women. The church, at least ideally, says to women, “Life is good. Come on over; maybe we can help.” The abortion industry says, “There’s no help for you unless you choose death.” Tell me how that is pro-woman?
Others may see N.F.P. as a “religious thing” rather than a medically sound practice because they associate it with Catholicism. What do you think about that?
Modern methods of N.F.P. use cutting-edge technology and research. It’s scandalous how ill-informed so many OB/GYNs are about true reproductive health. More and more secular women are realizing that their fertility may be complicated, but it’s not a disease, and they’re sick of being patted on the head and told they can’t possibly understand their own bodies.
Also, it doesn’t take a religious fanatic to think, “Hey, why is the whole burden on me, just because I’m a woman?” N.F.P. is unique: it invites both husband and wife to think about fertility as a joint concern, and to make sacrifices for the benefit of each other and the family. Contraception says it’s for the benefit of women, but in practice, it gives men the impression that women should be available 24/7.
How does Catholicism influence your approach to being a wife and mother?
On a good day, I try to remember that it’s not all about me. Focusing exclusively on my own wants, my own needs—and trying to accomplish things using only my own effort—always leads to misery.
Who are your role models in the faith, either living or dead?
As a mother, I think often of St. Benedict, who valued both order and compassion. My household is pretty chaotic, but I try to imitate his basic approach: You make rules for the good of the community and out of love for the individual, rather than just for the sake of having rules. St. Benedict also knew when to make an exception to the rules!
And the whole ora et labora thing—you can’t get any more clear than that. Work without prayer is fruitless; prayer without action is senseless.
How has your experience of married love grown or changed over the years?
When I was a newlywed, I would sometimes think, “I can’t do this.” It just seemed too hard to overcome my selfishness, to be patient when my husband was having a bad day, to care for all these children, to be an adult. I just hit a brick wall so often.
Now I still often think, “I can’t do this—and then I turn to the cross. I realize that it’s true, I can’t do it. And I don’t need to. I need to make an effort, and then offer the rest up to Christ, and he will do the rest. He will change hearts, mine and my husband’s. He will make up for what I can’t or won’t accomplish.
From your perspective, what do Catholic women need most to navigate the challenges of family planning in today’s world?
Support from other women. Thank God for the Internet, where there are hundreds of online N.F.P. groups. It’s incredibly important to talk to other people who use N.F.P., to give you advice about charting and to encourage you or commiserate with you when you’re feeling confused or discouraged or like a weirdo—and to remind you to laugh, because after all, it’s just sex!
And women need their husbands to be willing, helpful participants. It's supposed to be a shared responsibility. No whining, badgering, sulking or guilt trips! Men really need to show their wives that they love them all the time, all month long, not just when they're having sex.
In addition to being a mom and wife, you have found time for a writing career and other work. When you eventually see God face-to-face in the next life, which of the many things you’ve done in your life will matter the most?
Whatever they are, I bet they’ll be something I don’t even remember! I’m as vain as anyone else, but I know enough to be grateful if the Holy Spirit uses my words to draw anyone closer to him—to go to confession, to come back to the church, to get to adoration, to try to forgive someone who hurt them. It would be a great privilege if anything I do or say helps people return to Christ, or to see how he loves them.
What regrets do you have about the past?
Assuming the worst about people. That just drags everyone down. God doesn’t define us by our sins. I’m working on remembering to pray to see people as God sees them.
What are your hopes for the future?
I’d love to keep writing and speaking. I’m working on a second book, essays about motherhood. And now that my older kids are starting to leave the nest, I’m dropping heavy hints about settling down close by, because I don’t know how to make a single recipe of anything.
What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?
Isaiah 42:3. “The bruised reed he shall not break, and smoking flax he shall not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth.”
God is so much more patient with us than he ought to be. He sees us make an eyelash-flutter’s worth of effort to repent, and he says, “That’s good enough for me!” What a deal!
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.