I have a confession to make: In 5 years of marriage, all 3 of my children were the unplanned results of NFP.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not bashing NFP; I support it entirely. Even just last week, I wrote about the need of the Church – clergy and laity alike – to speak more frequently and more publicly about Natural Family Planning.
Among the comments to last week’s post was a common thread of disdain for NFP as somehow limiting trust in God, as if the flaw of some people using it somehow makes the method itself flawed. I’m not going to pretend that this concern hasn’t crossed my mind.
Even pro-life, pro-family Catholics will jest, “Our kids were unplanned! Thanks, NFP!”
Others go further; I’ve heard once-faithful Catholics call their kids “mistakes” and use the claim that NFP didn’t work for them to justify their contraceptive lifestyle.
It sure sounds to me like such folks were hoping for NFP to protect them from God’s will. What about you?
Let’s take a look at three scenarios leading to this “NFP didn’t work for me attitude.”
- Couples who don’t know NFP.
- Couples who lack self-discipline.
- Couples who are open to another baby. (In this case, the “failure” is usually noted by friends and relatives only.)
I’ve been the husband in each scenario. I want you to consider them for a moment:
The First Scenario
When my wife and I got married, we planned on having kids right away. As a recent college grad with a new job, her insurance took a couple months to kick in. When we learned that, we figured we would wait a couple months to try to conceive so that we wouldn’t start our marriage with crippling debt. Delaying kids just a couple months to avoid the kind of financial situation that would prevent them from caring for a baby? Seems legit. We conceived our first son weeks before the insurance kicked in. See, we never actually learned NFP. We figured we’d learn it when we needed it, and we’d just learn it from reading up on the Billings Method. After all, we were two recently degreed theology majors. Surely we could figure it out, right? Wrong.
We were a bit frightened, not because we didn’t want a child, but because without insurance, we couldn’t afford one. It was a relief to know that insurance did cover the pregnancy after all, even if it did kick in a bit late. (We had thought it would count as a pre-existing condition, disqualifying the entire pregnancy from insurance benefits.) In the meantime, my wife went to the emergency room 6 times to receive treatment for her first bout of hyperemesis gravidarum, a fairly rare sort of morning sickness so extreme only the anti-nausea meds regularly given to chemo patients do the trick.
Did NFP fail us?
The Second Scenario
Four months after our son was born, much more aware of the rules of NFP, we nonetheless conceived our daughter. This time, I assure you, it was a lack of self-discipline. We knew from the doctor’s orders that we should avoid having children that close together following a high risk pregnancy and the near-death of our firstborn, who was born underdeveloped with the cord wrapped twice around his neck and once around his chest, as well as my wife’s placentae abruptio. Along with another nine months of extreme sickness looming for my wife, I was in the midst of changing careers and the associated anxiety made for another difficult pregnancy. Even though Humanae Vitae never says “grave” reason is required for its use – only the terms “just” and “serious” are used – we had beyond a just or serious reason. This was indeed grave. It could have resulted in death. If there was ever a valid use of NFP, this was it. We just didn’t have the discipline.
Did NFP fail us?
The Third Scenario
After two back-to-back pregnancies, my wife was in serious need of rest and healing and our finances were pretty stretched. We do not live a luxurious life by most standards – save, perhaps, the dirt floor standard some NFP critics have proposed – so we didn’t feel any guilt in using NFP to avoid pregnancy for a longer period of time. It wasn’t a lack of trust in God’s providence that led us to this course of action or, rather, inaction. We trusted in God, but we also wanted to have lots of children. In our situation at the time, another child would have tanked our finances into the red so badly that it would have cemented our inability to have any more kids for the foreseeable future. We believed in the use of reason and responsibility, so we took Gaudium et Spes to heart, which reads:
Thus, trusting in divine Providence and refining the spirit of sacrifice, married Christians glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate. Among the couples who fulfill their God-given task in this way, those merit special mention who with a gallant heart and with wise and common deliberation, undertake to bring up suitably even a relatively large family. -Gaudium et Spes 50
We used NFP to avoid conception until last year, when our situation had improved enough and our discernment began more and more to point toward that gentle prompting of the Holy Spirit. We were still using NFP while discerning our situation and our call when we conceived our 3rd child.
Some family thought we were crazy. At least one made an ugly comment. I’m sure they thought NFP had failed us. Had it?
NFP is like tending a vine. In a season when bearing fruit may not be best, you have to prune a branch that might otherwise be fruitful in order to make it even more fruitful in a better season. Avoiding conception the last few difficult years before our third child made it possible for us to bear much more fruit for God’s glory. From this point on, we should be able to have as many children as safety permits. NFP can be not only trusting, but generous.
After my wife’s third high-risk pregnancy and second medically necessary caesarean, we were instructed by her physician to give the womb at least 2 years to heal. We’re back to the waiting game, giving the vine time to rest so it may bear much more fruit in future seasons.
With the storytelling done, we arrive back at my confession: In 5 years of marriage, all 3 of my children were the unplanned results of NFP – and I’m proud of that. You won’t hear my joking around about how NFP didn’t work for me. Why not? Because it did work for me. And if you’ve ever been in the same boat, NFP really did work for you, too.
My will was to do what seemed reasonable and responsible, but always to remain open to God’s plan. That’s how it works. You can’t blame NFP for failing when part of NFP is accepting God’s will. There are times many natural family planning couples feel like it isn’t working for them. If you ever find yourself there, instead of blaming NFP, remember “Thy will be done,” and thank God for revealing His will for your life: you’re going to have a baby! Congrats!