Natural family planning is a beautiful gift to the Church and to the world. Nevertheless, it is frequently misunderstood, both by those inside and those outside the Church. My own story with natural family planning has not always felt beautiful, but each instance of suffering has always revealed the beauty of the gift.
I’ll never forget how confident I felt as an engaged woman. “One diamond for every baby!” I joyfully proclaimed to the middle-aged guest at my bridal shower. I was showing off my engagement ring, studded with 5 modest diamonds, while sharing my desire for a large family. Later, at our wedding, my husband placed a wedding band studded with 5 additional small diamonds onto my finger. We always wanted a large family, and a 1-to-1 diamond-to-baby ratio of 10 sounded ideal to me!
It was such a joy to enter into marriage with our hearts open for many babies. We knew ultimately it was God’s Will and timing, yet we were eager to make our love visible in the world, not out of obligation or an unspoken expectation, but out of an authentic desire to give of ourselves for the good of the other. While we haven’t realized the dream of 10 kids (yet!), the hope for a large family as newlyweds prepared us to learn the truth that fertility is a gift!
Like any good gift, fertility can be a bit of a surprise. We were surprised to easily become pregnant, but have difficult deliveries. After delivering a few babies by c-section, which comes with greater risks each time, we found ourselves looking for a reliable and holy way to plan our family. At this point I wished that I had spent time as a younger woman learning my cycle. We really never know what God has in store for us and our fertility!
As Catholics, we knew the healthy option for our bodies and souls at this point was Natural Family Planning, or NFP, so we began seeking out more information. NFP is the term given to any of the various methods of fertility awareness used to observe and record a woman’s biological signs of fertility. This process of observing and recording is called charting. After gathering info through charting, a couple can pray together to discern and decide if they would like to change their behaviors to either avoid or achieve pregnancy.
Using NFP as a tool to plan a family honors the beautiful design of married love expressed through sexual intimacy. Sex is designed by God to do two things, unite the husband and wife in love, and to bring forth new life: it’s love-giving and life-giving! These two meanings are always meant to remain together, and using natural family planning allows a couple to speak authentic love with their bodies as a sign of God’s love, even if there is a need to avoid pregnancy for a time. (CCC #2363) One of my favorite saints, Pope St. John Paul II, highlighted the truth that this language of the body expresses the free, total, faithful and fruitful love of marriage in his Theology of the Body, and Pope St. Paul VI stated clearly that the use of NFP is a morally acceptable tool to help couples live their call to responsible parenthood when planning their families (Humanae Vitae, §16). I encourage you to seek more information about Church teaching on NFP. Theology of the Body for Beginners by Christopher West is a good starting point!
There are different methods of NFP that you can learn, and they mostly vary by what biological signs the woman charts. We learned a couple of methods over the course of our marriage to help with different phases of life. What I didn’t realize initially was that this same tool that could be used to plan babies could also be used to identify and treat health issues that I had been struggling with since middle-school!
Since the woman’s fertility is being charted, it can provide information about hormone health, as well as overall health. Fertility is considered a “vital sign” of health, because if something is not quite right, your body knows there might not be the best conditions to bring a baby into the world. Irregular cycles, heavy periods, hormonal acne, PMS, severe cramps, and other changes in charting are all red flags for underlying health issues. You might even have asked your doctor about some of these common concerns, only to be prescribed hormonal contraception, which covers up the symptoms but doesn’t treat the root of the issue.
Your fertility is a gift as well, and not something that is meant to be “treated” or disregarded until you’re trying to conceive. God desires wholeness for you right now, and that includes physical health! Charting your fertility, even while single, can give you insights into your health, moods, and spiritual growth. The beauty of the feminine design might surprise you.
If you are called to marriage, the habit of charting won’t just be a tool for measuring scientific data points for your health, but an opportunity to communicate with your spouse. You might find that the awareness of your combined fertility and responsibility as parents (or potential parents) gives you and your spouse a greater appreciation of your roles as co-creators with God.
The discipline of charting might very well prepare you for the discipline and virtue needed in marriage. We are all called to chastity, and married life is no different. Chastity is simply a right ordering of our sexuality, and within marriage this looks different than in the single life. Married chastity might look a lot like fidelity, diligence, patience, and total and generous gift of self.
This gift of self is really the whole issue, and why my husband and I have persevered with using NFP. We got married because we love each other, and this does require sacrifice. But what a gift the sacrifices, big and small, have been. It is true that man finds himself through a sincere gift of self, and my husband and I certainly are learning this every day in our marriage.
While we haven’t realized the dream of 10 kids (yet!), the hope for a large family as newlyweds prepared us to learn the truth that fertility is a gift! As of now, we have ONLY 5 kids, half my dreamed-for number, but a beautiful example of God’s generosity nevertheless! In our marriage, we’ve learned (and are continually learning) quite a bit about the generous love required as husband and wife, and planning babies is just a part of that. Looking back at the young engaged woman hoping for a super large family, I can see now how much there was to learn about self-giving love!
If you’re interested in learning more about your fertility and health, visit Whole Mission to see what we have to offer, including online classes in the Marquette Method of NFP. Consider joining the waitlist for our Cycle Basics class! This group class is ideal for single and married women who would like to know more about their cycles, but don’t need to learn the instructions for avoiding or achieving pregnancy. A healthcare professional will walk you through the normal female cycle, and point out red flags for common health issues from a holistic and authentically Catholic perspective. This class will cover charting for health, but does NOT teach a method of NFP.
For further reading abou NFP and fertility awareness: