If you are Catholic, you have probably heard of Natural Family Planning (NFP). This is not the rhythm method of times past. NFP uses scientifically proven observations of a woman’s body to gain awareness of fertility. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, NFP gives you the knowledge to make decisions about your fertility. Should you use it for that purpose, it is the only natural method of controlling family size and the only method that follows church teachings about marriage, children, and fertility. Some of the benefits of NFP that anyone can appreciate are:
- 100% natural (no side effects)
- nearly free (may be a minimal charge for training classes)
- fertility control that is 100% immediately reversible
- body awareness and understanding
- improved marital communication
NFP requires you to record the fertility signals that result from changing hormone levels during a woman’s monthly cycle. In addition to regulating ovulation, changing hormone levels affect a woman’s basal body temperature (checked upon waking) and affect the amount and type of cervical mucus present. Both of these signals, along with a few others, can be interpreted to determine a window of fertility. The key to avoiding pregnancy is abstinence during this fertile window.
While abstinence is counter-cultural, self denial is a part of life for Catholics. We are encouraged to give up food, pastimes, and income during lent every year. We are asked to abstain from meat on Fridays during lent and to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. These self-denials remind us of the suffering Christ endured. Sexual abstinence is no different. Self denial is not easy in a culture that prizes immediate gratification, but we can grow stronger in our faith through these periodic abstinences.
If you want to learn more about Natural Family Planning, check with the Marriage and Family Life Office of your local Catholic diocese. There is some basic information at the website of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. You can read about international efforts to promote and teach NFP by the Couple to Couple League, an organization that trains married couples to teach NFP to other couples.
You may be wondering: can you really use a natural method to prevent pregnancy? Yes. While my husband and I are still considering another child, we have been postponing pregnancy for the last two years. The church’s recommendation of responsible parenthood asks each couple to thoughtfully discern their ability to parent another child each month. These conversations strengthen the marital bond by requiring couples to respond to and consider their partner’s concerns, and to honestly assess their family life.
For those trying to conceive, knowledge of your fertility and the hormonal changes of a woman’s cycle can give you the tools to maximize success and to be confident of your fertility. Often, borderline fertility can be improved with proper nutrition, and the improvement can be detected during monthly observations. For more information about nutrition’s role in fertility, I recommend the book Fertility, Cycles, and Nutrition by Marilyn M. Shannon.
I used Shannon’s advice myself to improve my hormonal function and enhance my ability to maintain an early pregnancy after suffering two miscarriages. Despite my nutritional efforts, my cycles have not been regular since my first pregnancy, perhaps due to my age or insufficient exercise. Fertility awareness enabled me to understand when my cycles were normalized enough to try for a pregnancy, thus eliminating further disappointment.
Fertility awareness also provides exact knowledge of your conception date, giving you more certainty about your due date. For women with gestational health issues, such as diabetes, sure knowledge of your due date can help you negotiate in favor of a natural birth. Because I was certain of my due date, and I was able to control my gestational diabetes, I convinced my obstetrician to wait rather than inducing birth. While this may not be possible for every health scenario, it made an enormous difference for me. Fortunately, my doctor is also respectful of my use of Natural Family Planning. If you are unable to locate a doctor that respects NFP, consider using a midwife; a midwife will also respect your wishes for a natural birth and for immediate breastfeeding (more on these topics in later posts).
Although the Catholic Church only teaches NFP methods to engaged or married couples, I believe everyone can benefit from some fertility awareness. Our bodies were designed by God in his image, and learning how they work can encourage respect for the power of our fertility and the gift of our sexuality. Such respect can give fortitude to those who practice abstinence and can encourage others to respect that choice.
While NFP has the reputation of encouraging large families, not all users have many children. I have two, and I may have another someday. But, both of my parents come from large families, and I am sometimes sad that my children will not experience the joys of very large family gatherings, as I did during my childhood. Since I have two siblings and my husband has three, we tend to have medium sized family gatherings, so I shall have to write more stories about my large family events for my children to read about.
During Natural Family Planning Awareness Week, I encourage you to learn more about your fertility, share the information with others, and give thanks for the gift of this knowledge.