There is not a moment in which God does not present Himself under the cover of some pain to be endured, of some consolation to be enjoyed, or of some duty to be performed. All that takes place within us, around us, or through us, contains and conceals His divine action.
Jean-Pierre Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence
Emily: One of the funniest contradictions that you hear about NFP is that it’s Catholic contraception, but also Catholic couples who use NFP are always pregnant. I really don’t understand how it can be both, and the fact that it’s attacked from both sides indicates to me that it’s probably exactly what Jesus intended.
Emily: I will say that this misconception is due in large part to miseducation. As we’ve discussed, it wasn’t an uncommon experience in marriage prep for NFP to be pitched in a way to make it sound like birth control. But once you start practicing it, you realize very quickly that it’s nothing of the sort. It’s not about controlling anything. It’s about understanding our bodies precisely as God made them. The truth comes out the minute you start charting and your cycle shows you in real time how external factors impact and affect your fertility, and consequently your sex life. It can be utterly disorienting and lead to many switching to birth control when they realize the truth.
When I got married, I expected to be able to control what my family would look like, and discovering I couldn’t was a very large and difficult pill to swallow. But that struggle and the questions I asked in that time actually facilitated my ability to grow in my relationship with God. Then over time, with great patience on God’s part, I began to place my trust fully in him and to relinquish that illusion of control.
Jen: I never really understood how NFP could limit the power of God…because we likely wouldn’t have as many children as we do now had it not been for NFP and our ability to identify the fertile window. I heard once that NFP causes “lost souls”—as in, some babies that were meant to exist end up not being conceived—and that’s just crazy. If God wants you to have a baby, he will make it happen! I have so many friends who use NFP and end up conceiving, despite their attempts not to get pregnant.
Emily: Hahaha, like me!
Souls can never be “lost” if they didn’t exist to begin with. Abstaining from sex during what we think is the fertile window does nothing to artificially prevent conception, and spoiler alert – we can get that fertile window wrong. I find it utterly infuriating that some make this claim when millions of souls have been lost to abortion. More than that, it sends an incredibly damaging message to mothers who have suffered miscarriage, compounding their grief. And if we want to face facts, it is this kind of untruthful talk that will send more and more Catholics running away from the Church.
Mary: Such good points! NFP is appreciating and respecting the will of God. No method is 100% effective at avoiding a pregnancy, so whether the couple declares they are “open” or not, he has room to make anything happen. You could, of course, say the same about birth control, but consider how God has designed woman. He has not created her to be fertile every single day like man is. The fact that every woman that has existed is naturally rendered infertile for at least several days within each cycle intuits that God has ordained us to utilize both days of fertility and infertility for sex and that there is value in being conscious of which days fall under each category. Being able to define our fertile window is cooperating with the way God designed us.
One of the many things I really appreciate about being trained as a Creighton Practitioner is the way we are trained to teach each client how to determine her days of fertility and infertility, and, specifically, to allow her and her spouse to choose when to have intercourse. It is clearly stated that we should not “sway” the couple either way because that’s not a decision we are meant to be a part of. We are simply there to help them make sense of God’s design of their bodies.
Knowledge of the fertile window invites us to do three things: 1) consult God about which days to use for sex depending on the couple’s individual discernment and 2) to place an incredible amount of trust in Him regardless of the days the couple chose for sex and 3) utilize the information regarding our health that He has generously made available to each individual woman. Explain to me how that limits the power of God?
Jen: Exactly! It’s also important to remember that God’s will is for us to have free will. What kind of relationship is it if he just does everything and we just let him do it? Of course, we should be open to his will for us. But he wants us to be able to choose. He wants us to discern whether or not we should use those fertile days, because he wants us to be in relationship with him at all times. No relationship is one sided! When we take the time to truly pray about what God is asking of us in our marriage and for our family, we are satisfying the desire of his heart.
Mary: Dang girl! You said it! And the same goes for infertile couples. We should also be discerning which individual days to use for intercourse. This was hard for me to swallow, but I had a big realization when we began to consider adopting baby #2. I didn’t think God was calling us to bring another child into our home at that specific time, but then I realized we were still using days of fertility to try to achieve a pregnancy! It didn’t make sense. God allows infertility for a certain time and/or season, so it’s important to be open to His will here, too. There was something else we needed to focus on as individuals and as a couple before we were ready to start the process all over again. He always wants to be included in our decisions.
Emily: While God’s will is always perfect for us, and his will should be our will, he allows us to struggle with the fact that the two are often at odds. Out of deep respect and love for us, he allows us to stumble, and then comes right alongside us when we ask with the strength we need to bring our will in union with his. As you said Jen, it’s a relationship! Following God’s will is not something declared in a particular time and place and that’s it. It’s in need of constant renewal and examination, especially when it comes to discerning God’s will for our family size.
It’s a negation of free will if we discard this living relationship and our intellect along with it, especially about something as grave (to use a trigger word) as family planning. God himself doesn’t dare touch our free will. The fact is that couples can avoid a pregnancy for less than serious reasons, but by not impeding or altering the sexual act in such a way that defies God’s plan, God can and does say “Here’s a baby!” even when a couple wasn’t planning on it. He did that to me, and he’s done it to many couples. How else did NFP gain the reputation of having a “high failure rate”?
But that is where God’s will has come to life for me, in that wrestling with what I want versus what he says is best for me.
Mary: And what about the other great value of docility to the Holy Spirit? There is such beauty in inviting God into our most intimate relationship on earth and asking him about how to use each day. There is a difference between permanently leaving pregnancy to chance and using specific days on purpose as the result of prayer guiding the couple into deeper communion with Christ.
Jen: I have a great story about that actually, Mary. Like I mentioned in our last conversation, Logan and I discerned that we should hold off on trying to conceive right before Coronavirus became a big issue. But as the pandemic kept extending closures and everything (and delaying ovulation for me, thanks to stress), we continued to talk and pray about the future of our family. And there came a point where we realized that uniting physically was the best thing for our marriage, even though I wasn’t completely sure that I was in phase 3 yet (which basically means past the point of being able to conceive in my cycle).
It gave us a great opportunity to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit and to trust that God knew what was best for us. We knew he was inviting us to draw closer to him and to each other through the marital embrace. That would not have been possible if we had been using contraception!
Fertility awareness (or NFP) keeps us open to whatever it is God is calling us to on any particular day. Although there are definitely times God is calling us to sacrifice our physical desires and abstain on a day of potential fertility, being aware of my fertility allows us to remain in relationship and communication with God and to continually discern his will for our family.
Emily: Jen, I love that story so much because it just illustrates so perfectly how you have let God plan your family, every step of the way. You and Logan have so tuned in to the voice of the Holy Spirit that you are ready and able to respond appropriately from one day to the next.
I know for me, avoiding pregnancy since the birth of my son was necessary in large part because I had literally lost trust in God, and I had to work on rebuilding that trust, among other things. In the end, God helped me trust him fully again through finding our new home which we desperately needed to expand our family. The whole process of finding our home was totally his providence, from the fact it exceed our expectations of what we thought we could get – down to us moving in the weekend the whole country shut down due to Covid!
Not long after moving in my cycles became wonky, like most every woman experienced with the onset of the pandemic. As a result, we thought there was a good chance I was pregnant one cycle because the circumstances were very similar to what I experienced when we got our daughter. I found myself actually at peace with the thought of being pregnant again, and prayed that God would use this pregnancy to fully heal me from my past trauma.
God’s answer to Emily’s prayer for trust and healing
To my surprise, I was not pregnant, but I realized it was God’s way of showing me that it was time for my husband and me to start trying to achieve a pregnancy – literally for the first time in our marriage! I realized too that if we did have another surprise pregnancy that it wouldn’t have been healing for us (yet another method we couldn’t fully trust in a grave situation), and I felt the negative pregnancy test was God’s assurance that he would answer my prayer for healing the next time I was pregnant.
Mary: I love to see God working in those intimate details. There is so much we miss when we don’t invite him in and pay close attention. Discerning the growth of our family has been complicated in its own right because to add another person for us begins with a very long process of decisions, red tape, and paperwork. It is a road that is different, but should still be paved with an openness and docility to God’s timing and spousal prayer.
Chris was ready to adopt baby #2 well before I was. Bella was a couple of years old when I began to discover how rich and fruitful my life actually was, despite my inability to bear children! God was cultivating me for many purposes, one of which was studying to become a Creighton Practitioner. The difference in Chris’s discernment and my discernment caused us to butt heads, but also to dig deep within ourselves to share difficult truths with one another. This ultimately helped us to grow in intimacy. It brought greater unity to our marriage, better preparing us for many challenges soon to come.
Within the next year, severe and enduring uterine pain due to adenomyosis became debilitating and required another surgery and recovery which would be delayed due to Covid-19. It would have been impossible for me to care for a new baby during this time. Some might perceive inviting God into these decisions to be a nuisance or useless. As hard as it may be to put into action, it is a remarkable gift because his foresight and knowledge are not limited like ours is.
Emily: God sees what we can’t! Our relationship with God and our family plans are not static because life is not static. To say that holiness is dependent upon a married couple trying to achieve pregnancy at all times barring death actually excludes God’s will and our ability to experience how his love for us is unique and individual. It is in its own way a kind of birth control mentality, and that kind of inflexibility is not conducive to a healthy spiritual life.
Mary: -stands up and applauds-
Emily: -bows- As we’ve seen in each of our lives and experiences, God’s will for us changes as our lives change and NFP has given us the ability to respond to that in real time. By not limiting him to what our idea of the perfect family is, we are open to finding the beauty in all the surprises he has given us.