Love, Naturally: Reflections on natural family planning
When I first learned in college about natural family planning, I was surprised by how exotic and marginalized it was as a family planning method. There was a stereotype that NFP is only for the most devout Catholics who were willing to have big families. There was also a common belief among those in the women’s movement that fertility awareness and NFP did not allow adequate sexual freedom for women, and was thus seen as outdated and limiting compared with “modern” and “simple” methods like the pill. Many others simply dismissed NFP as ineffective and impossible. So why did I pay any attention to it?
My professor at the time, Andrea Bertotti Metoyer, an NFP researcher and user, introduced it to me with such clarity. From that moment, natural family planning seemed like a no-brainer. It fits well with the values of care for creation and honoring natural cycles—charisms sacred to me. I couldn’t help wondering: Why subjugate our bodies to medical, economic and chemical control when God created our bodies with all the wisdom and workings we need?
John and I married in September 2011 and have been using NFP for almost two years as a family planning method. So far we have used it to prevent pregnancy. If, however, we decide to pursue creating a new life together, NFP will be the method we use to help achieve pregnancy.
For us, natural family planning reflects five particular values inherent to our marriage vows and mutual commitment:
Faith. Our call to faithful lives leads us to trust that God will take care of us as we commit ourselves to lives of love. We seek to honor and praise God by celebrating the lives and bodies God made for us.
Simplicity. We use the Billings Ovulation Method, which requires only observation of the changes in cervical fluid. I like the simplicity of a method that does not require buying any tools or medical devices; it hinges on my ability to interpret my body.
Care for creation. How I listen to, care for and respond to my body is integrated into a holistic lifestyle of care for creation. Sometimes it is easy to forget that our bodies are part of creation.
Nonviolence. Part of a nonviolent lifestyle for me is not forcing my desires, or manipulating conditions to make things happen only when I want, but being mindful of the needs of others around me.
Community. I cannot practice NFP alone. I choose to live in community and in partnership, practicing interdependence. We are able to face the challenges of our broken selves and world only by being together with others. The practice of NFP is conducive to a mutually loving and supporting relationship.
Even with these wonderful ideals, John and I had fears going into it. At first, John was wary. Would it stifle the spontaneity of our intimacy? I, too, was a bit fearful that the lived experience would not match my excitement about the idea of practicing NFP—even though I had studied and presented on it.
NFP has its challenges, but I have never wondered why I am not manipulating my body with hormones or tools so my cycle works like a clock, which is what happens with the pill. In fact, it has been a joyful experience to feel so connected to the rhythm of my body. I understand when I am physically or emotionally stressed and ovulation is delayed, when I feel really motivated and productive as I am approaching ovulation, when I feel the need for more introspection and a slower pace prior to menstruation or a sense of relief and peace when I begin menstruation.
John is well aware of this cyclical rhythm. He notes, around the time of ovulation, a change in my touch and manner. Indeed, when this time is identified, John often jumps in as the responsible party and firm one in reminding me when we are not available—meaning, for those trying to avoid pregnancy, we are potentially fertile. This is when teamwork really comes into play—when it is most challenging for me. John and I interpret the signs and decide our actions together. Some say this is what makes NFP “unnatural”: the very time you most desire sex, you are forbidden it. For me, this is the crux of the method: a spiritual practice in detachment from physical desires. It is an opportunity to explore sexual expression more widely and share affection in ways not limited to sexual intercourse. Periods of abstinence become normal and even remind us what it means to care for and love each other.
One life lesson I have garnered from the practice of natural family planning is that the best things in life, including life itself, are freely given and received as gifts. As a farmer and a person who is increasingly living on the land, I am blessed with an invitation to remember our interwovenness with creation daily. I cannot help but draw the connection between our own bodies’ rhythms with the body of the earth we live on and its rhythms.
Natural family planning honors the power of the created body—like many other parts of nature—to miraculously create a new life at times, and to not do so at others. John and I practice abstinence by recognizing that power and respecting it. The method calls on us to wait for the proper time, just as there is a time of waiting from when we plant a seed to when we harvest the fruits. To receive the gifts of the moment is a miracle because we do not have control over it. To me, it is a beautiful experience to share in this connection together as a couple, on a journey.
Abstinence has been a practice used throughout the history of the Catholic Church as a way of spiritual opening and selflessness—for example, through fasting, almsgiving, vigils or giving things up for Lent. Abstinence can be seen as an act of resistance in our culture of instant gratification that tells us we can have whatever we want whenever we want it. The sometimes challenging moments of abstinence for me serve as reminders that our bodies, like nature, are not predictable machines. For example, we cannot always predict the weather; we can only observe it, appreciate it with detachment for what it is and respond accordingly.
In the philosophy of permaculture, a practice of sustainable agriculture based on natural systems, there is a principle that “limitations create abundance.” In general, I have found that the limitations of natural family planning have created abundance for my relationship with John. NFP encourages a deeper bond beyond physical intimacy, and physical intimacy becomes more special. Also, neither of us is putting chemicals in our bodies or using synthetic materials. I also have more energy; I am not experiencing weight gain or depression from my birth control method. I have increased body awareness as I listen to and observe my body. It is received as a gift. Practicing NFP certainly limits my control and manipulation over my body and sexuality, but the abundance I experience from following this natural rhythm reminds me what W. H. Auden once wrote: “As it is, plenty.” Just as God created all of life, the invitation is to come and simply enjoy, as it is.