NFP: Not Freaking Practical

When we got married, I knew a few “absolutes.” Tommy was going to snore (I’d heard him do so during naps on the couch), we would probably fight on the honeymoon, there’d be a bit of a learning curve when it came to living together, and we needed to figure out NFP early if we wanted to avoid a February surprise. Snoring I can handle. There are breathe-right strips and earplugs aplenty. As far as fighting on the honeymoon: who cares who’s right or wrong…we’re literally living in a postcard for a week. I’ll apologize first so we can just order another Mai Tai from the bar at the pool. And living together: thank God we have two bathrooms and separate closets. The learning curve was fairly small.

But Natural Family Planning…go ahead and throw up a few thousand Hail Mary’s for us. I think the one thing everyone forgot to mention in marriage prep was that NFP sometimes stands for Not Freaking Practical.

Before I’m condemned for my tongue in cheek description of what I’ve heard described as “the best part of our marriage!” by dozens of couples, let me preface everything else you’re about to read with this simple and truthful statement: my husband and I learned NFP, are practicing NFP, and are discovering the tangible benefits and grace-filled gifts of NFP. But, and I cannot stress this enough: NFP is easily one of the most difficult parts of married life, and I wish people had been honest with us about that sooner.

I’m not writing this to degrade the Church’s teaching on naturally planning a family or being open to the will of the Lord when it comes to having children. I love the Church. I’ve spent the better part of my life learning, teaching, speaking, and writing about Christ and His Church. I love what we believe as Catholics and Tommy and I are committed to NFP because we know it is a good and truthful practice. We aren’t harboring a secret desire to use contraceptives, nor are we privately politicking for the Church to “get with the times” and just allow “modern methods” that are more convenient. Artificial contraceptives have their dangers: the pill has been linked to a myriad of health issues and IUD’s and condoms can lead to usury, with sex becoming just another recreational activity. This blog isn’t necessarily about that. This is not a commentary on why we chose NFP and why you should too, nor is it a definitive list of the best methods to use or apps to download.

This, just like every other blog we’ve written, is an honest glimpse into our married life. We were asked to write this blog to give a snapshot into the lives of an engaged, and now newly married, couple. We were asked to share honestly about the ups and downs of our life together, and we’ve done that.  We’ve written about the struggles of sharing a home, the beauty of marriages we’ve witnessed throughout our lives, and even the annoyance of organizing seating arrangements for the wedding reception. We’ve shared that marriage is tough, our virtue has been stretched, and that we have tangibly felt the grace of the sacrament every single day.

So too is this an honest look at a few of the challenges we’ve faced with NFP in these first months of marriage, and how those struggles have caused fights, a few tears, and forced us to grow. We have chosen to practice NFP. We know that not everyone chooses to practice NFP, and our goal here isn’t to convince them otherwise, though it is what we wholeheartedly encourage and what the Church teaches. This, just like every other blog we’ve shared, is a small snapshot into the difficulties of learning an entirely new rhythm to life, while also trying to figure out how to balance a budget together, live together, cook together, and share the covers on our bed (a constant, nightly battle). We took on the practice of NFP because we believe it’s what is best, and we quickly discovered it to be a cross that can be pretty heavy to carry.

NFP has been difficult for us because it’s required intentional routine at certain points of the day. I have to check certain symptoms. The information has to be logged. I have to let Tommy know what’s going on. We have to purposefully and deliberately talk about and pray together about whether or not we’re ready to have children. That takes time. That takes diligence. That takes intentionality, and in the midst of teaching, grad school assignments, traveling, and everything else, the last thing either of us wants to do is sit down and have a little chat about cervical mucus. It doesn’t make for the best dinner conversation.

NFP has been hard because sometimes symptoms are ambiguous and temperature readings aren’t always accurate due to lack of sleep or travel, so the “I don’t know, should we risk it?” back and forth begins. So much for NFP being this magic bullet of happiness and holiness…sometimes it feels like a monthly game of Russian roulette.

NFP is a struggle for us because were told by so many people that it was this perfect and beautiful method that led to wonderful dialogue and peaceful moments of prayer in which the very voice of God could be heard. Imagine our shock when we discovered we were more confused and frustrated than anything else. What were we? Bad Catholics who clearly didn’t love each other enough to make this work? Either we were failures or they were lying.

NFP has been difficult because we were both chaste before marriage. We both learned, and believed in, the value of “waiting for marriage.” All the cheesy phrases employed upon us in our youth had worked: modest was hottest, we were worth waiting for, and we had each “saved it” because Jesus saved us. We knew and believed sex is so beautiful and such a gift that it is meant to be shared with your spouse alone, and we are both incredibly grateful we waited to experience it only with each other. We waited our whole lives – we waited for each other – and now, with NFP, there are a few days every month we have to keep waiting if we have discerned against conceiving a child at that time. Like I said…Not. Freaking. Practical.

I share about these challenges because I want to be honest. I heard again and again throughout marriage prep, and even now in these newlywed months, “NFP is so beautiful and wonderful and the best thing you will ever do as a married couple! You’re going to love it!” It’s what we were told. It’s what we were sold. And I feel duped.

It’s time to change the language. Let’s stop leading with “NFP is beautiful and wonderful and awesome,” and instead honestly say, “NFP is hard and challenging, a little confusing, sometimes disheartening and frustrating, occasionally a romance zapper, and, in the end, worth it.” We don’t do young couples any favors by saying, “This is the best thing you can do when you’re first married because it brings you closer together.” Will it make you closer? Absolutely, because if having a discussion about cervical mucus doesn’t bring you closer, then I honestly don’t know what will.

Let’s move beyond the fairytale “NFP is a joy” commentary and get real. The joys of NFP are evident: a couple must discern the will of God together. The benefits are straightforward: no nasty side effects from artificial contraceptives. But, if we just leave it there, we’re selling NFP short. I think couples would be far better served by hearing, “It’s difficult, you will fight and sometimes cry and want to throw your calendar and phone across the room because you are confused.” Only then, after we have shared about some of the honest to goodness difficulties and explained what is fully entailed, will we then be able to articulate the growth that can come from it, showing the ultimate benefits for a marriage.

NFP is not the best part of our marriage. Far from it. The best part of our marriage is our immense faith and trust in God’s greater plan. We met on Facebook, dated long distance for a year and a half, and managed to pull off planning a wedding while juggling four jobs, three grad school classes, and twenty-three ministry events between the two of us. Clearly God was in charge, and our trust in Him has only grown deeper since getting married. The best part of our marriage is the fact that we are brutally honest with each other. Not only does Tommy tell me if something is hanging out my nose, but he calls me out when I’m spinning in circles and not seeing something clearly or properly. He’s the only person in my life who can be this straightforward and honest with me. The best part of our marriage is an unfailing commitment to communicate. We openly discuss, for hours if need be, the big and little things. Whether it’s where the knives belong, how much money we should be saving, what show we should binge watch next, or when we want to have children, we aren’t afraid to talk together and we value that conversation. The best part of our marriage is our desire to grow in holiness together. We are in it to win it: we want to get each other to Heaven, and that requires daily prayer with and for each other, frequent sacrifices, blatant honesty, and constant growth.

NFP is just one experience within our marriage where the best parts of our marriage are lived and practiced.

NFP is not the pearl of great price within our relationship. NFP is, at times, the grimy, rusty old nail hanging off the beams of the cross we’re carrying, digging into our backs as we lug that hunk of wood up the hill. And every single time we feel that pain and want to wallow in the remarkable difficulty and seeming impracticality of NFP, we are reminded of the One who hung on the Cross, nails driven into His hands and feet so that we can someday be united with Him in Heaven. NFP is a burden, at times, and it’s taken us a few months to realize that the practice of Natural Family Planning is, in some ways, supposed to be impractical, because so too is our faith.

It wasn’t necessarily practical for the Father to send His only son into the world to reveal the plan of our salvation. A simple memo sent down on a cloud probably would’ve been fine. It wasn’t practical for the Son to be born of a Virgin, arriving as a baby, helpless, weak, and in need of potty training. It wasn’t practical for that child to grow up in a simple home, unknown and unimportant. It wasn’t practical for Jesus to choose twelve ragtag guys to walk with Him through His ministry, nor was it practical for Him to heal the sick (who didn’t even say thank you) or preach to the crowds (who were just grumbling about being hungry). It wasn’t practical for Him to tell us bread changes into His flesh and wine into His Blood, and consuming that will transform us. It wasn’t practical for Him to be arrested, tried for blasphemy, and sentenced to death. It wasn’t practical for Jesus to carry a Cross, hang high for all to see, and die surrounded by crowds of people who hated Him for simply speaking the Truth. It wasn’t practical for Him to defeat death three days later. It wasn’t practical for Jesus to leave a fisherman in charge of His entire Church, nor was it practical to send a Helper in tongues of fire to empower that man to then passionately preach the Gospel and build the Church.

It wasn’t practical for Jesus to come here in the first place, and then die. But, He did, because it is what we needed. NFP doesn’t always seem practical to us because we see the myriad difficulties and annoyances and there seems to be a far easier route. But, we choose to practice it because it is a practice field – a training ground – for the best parts of our marriage. It is a sanctifier within our married life, one that isn’t always practical, but definitely always needed.

Our entire faith is anything but practical, it seems. The Cross is heavy and the path to Heaven isn’t paved with rose petals. We struggle. We fight. We endure trials. We don’t understand it all and we sometimes throw our hands up in confusion. But, at the end of the day, we are called to trust. We trust in the greater plan and divine providence of the One who knows us better than we know ourselves. We believe in His perfect wisdom and understanding, which far surpasses our own. We hold fast to His enduring promises and rely on His unfailing help. We revel in the joy He gives us, knowing that His goodness outweighs any temporary pain we may endure.

NFP is a practice within our marriage that allows us – forces us – to grow in faith and remain steadfast in our trust of each other and the Lord.

NFP is tough. Let’s call a spade a spade. It isn’t easy, it can be frustrating and confusing, and I find it remarkably annoying from time to time. NFP is not the best part of our marriage, but it does bring out the best of our relationship when we are trusting and patient with it and each other. It is a daily sacrifice, a weekly struggle, and occasionally a monthly toss-up, but no matter how impractical we may feel it can be, NFP has proven to be a remarkably practical way to practice becoming holy, and for that, we are grateful.