Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Unnatural Family Planning

A few friends recently wrote posts about Natural Family Planning (NFP), which got me thinking. Uh oh. TCIE thinking... that's never a good idea :) But, I thought it was high time to write about how I really feel about NFP... and what you read next might shock you. Hold onto your seats.

Natural Family Planning. Let's break that phrase down a bit, shall we? First - that word "Natural." It's all the rave these days, as more and more people are trying to avoid synthetics, artificials, and toxins in an effort to achieve a more holistic, organic, healthy lifestyle. The problem is, as any food snob can tell you, that word "natural" is not synonymous with holistic, organic, OR healthy/healthful. In fact, when used in food labeling, the term "Natural" is largely up to the interpretation of the food producer. Unsuspecting consumers often unwittingly opt for the "Natural" foods based upon what natural means to them, when in fact they have no idea what it means to the producer.

The term "natural" in and of itself, however, does have a standardized definition. (Many, actually.)

From Merriam-Webster:

Definition of NATURAL

: based on an inherent sense of right and wrong

a : being in accordance with or determined by nature
b : having or constituting a classification based on features existing in nature

a (1) : begotten as distinguished from adopted; also : legitimate
(2) : being a relation by actual consanguinity as distinguished from adoption
b : illegitimate

: having an essential relation with someone or something : following from the nature of the one in question

: implanted or being as if implanted by nature : seemingly inborn

: of or relating to nature as an object of study and research

: having a specified character by nature

a : occurring in conformity with the ordinary course of nature : not marvelous or supernatural
b : formulated by human reason alone rather than revelation
c : having a normal or usual character

: possessing or exhibiting the higher qualities (as kindliness and affection) of human nature

a : growing without human care; also : not cultivated
b : existing in or produced by nature : not artificial
c : relating to or being natural food

a : being in a state of nature without spiritual enlightenment : unregenerate
b : living in or as if in a state of nature untouched by the influences of civilization and society

a : having a physical or real existence as contrasted with one that is spiritual, intellectual, or fictitious

b : of, relating to, or operating in the physical as opposed to the spiritual world

a : closely resembling an original : true to nature
b : marked by easy simplicity and freedom from artificiality, affectation, or constraint
c : having a form or appearance found in nature

a : having neither flats nor sharps
b : being neither sharp nor flat
c : having the pitch modified by the natural sign

: of an off-white or beige color
— nat·u·ral·ness noun

When we use the word "Natural" within the larger term "Natural Family Planning," I believe we mean to invoke several of these definitions above, namely #2, #10b, and #13b. We mean to invoke a feeling that this way of living, within the context of marriage, is in accordance with and determined by (and cooperating with) nature. We mean to imply that there is nothing artificial about it, but rather that it exists in and is produced by nature. And we mean to say that there is a marked simplicity about it, as a result.

What strikes me is that the definition we do not generally intend is the very first one: based on an inherent sense of right and wrong.

And yet, shouldn't that be the most important aspect of the word? Well... perhaps it is. We'll revisit this in a moment.

Let's move on to the second part of the phrase: Family Planning.

Pretty straightforward, right? I think we can all agree on the intended definition of Family Planning as a means of planning a family in the traditional sense of when a pregnancy is to be avoided or spaced, and when the time for a/nother child is deemed appropriate by the parents.

Interestingly, this commonly held interpretation of the word "family" within the context of "family planning" is loosely encompassed in the #5 definition of the word by Merriam-Webster:

a : the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children; also : any of various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to the traditional family
b : spouse and children

(Take note, none of the definitions defined a family as a married couple with no children. No shocker there.)

And finally, the word planning is given in the following context:

: the act or process of making or carrying out plans; specifically : the establishment of goals, policies, and procedures for a social or economic unit

Therein, my friends, lies the bread and butter of this post.

Planning. Oy. Where do I begin.

For starters, on nearly every large-scale article or smaller-scale blog post even remotely touching the topic of Natural Family Planning, I have found comments from our delightful little Infertile Peanut Gallery (I say that lovingly, as a Member of her Board), gently or not-so-gently reminding everyone that NFP is not JUST about avoiding or spacing pregnancies, that the luxury of planning a family is not taken for granted by those of us who suffer from infertility, and that many of us require the use of a system to help us identify underlying health issues. I also hear arguments from couples using the system to space children, defending their natural right to do so, as well as arguments from people not using NFP who question the motives and intentions of couples who do.

But this post? It is about none of those things.

Understandably, I am in quite a unique position, with an even more unique vantage point. I am infertile. I did use NFP for years (to try to achieve pregnancy). I have been teaching the Creighton Model FertilityCare System for over 5 years, to couples and singles from all different walks of life.

But, the fact is this. (Are you ready?)

I loathe NFP.

There. I said it. And I mean it. But probably not for the reasons you think.

See, I find an absolute beauty and truth in the very thing I teach on a daily basis, the very thing that first planted seeds in my life in 2006, and continues to bear more and more seasons of fruit to present day. I trust that the knowledge we have been given of our cycles and times of fertility and infertility is divine. Most importantly, I believe a couple has been given these "Natural" signs as a means of using them, "Naturally," to choose intimacy or abstinence on any given day, and according to their "Natural" intentions for their "Family." Whoooooaaaaa. That was a whole lot of quotations. But my interpretation is simple: God gave us these easily visible, easily interpreted signs and symptoms for a reason - to USE them. And it is a NATURAL thing to have these signs, and a NATURAL thing to want to have your PLANS in FAMILY building be layed out before you.

What is UN-Natural, on the other hand, is that we think any of this actually works. You read that right. No, no, I'm not talking about the statistics of use, which are overwhelmingly high for both avoiding pregnancy and for achieving. And I'm not talking about the statistics of how strong marriages are of couples using NFP versus those who don't. I'm not even talking about the logistics of charting itself. I am speaking about the underlying mentality that what we do to PLAN our FAMILY, or to PLAN ANYTHING, for that matter, matters at all in the grand scheme of things.

It's easy to forget, especially if NFP "works" for you (by measure of your own perception), that the 3rd party involved is not an equal party member, but The Big Kahuna Himself. It's easy to assume that by following the rules of NFP according to your desired intention (to space, avoid, or achieve pregnancy), you actually hold the ability to make OR carry out that plan. It's easy to see the desired outcome make itself known and to then become all too comfortable in future "Planning" endeavors.

Let me just say this: My biggest problem with Natural Family Planning is that it is a misnomer, and as such, gives too many users and non-users alike the wrong impression of its application.

I've heard many an infertile woman lament that they could not "plan" their family. They did not "plan" for their Drs to see their lady business more frequently than their husbands, nor did they plan to do 14 treatment cycles and spend a gazillion dollars, nor did they plan to be 45 years old when they finally achieved pregnancy. And furthermore, I've heard many single women mourn the fact that they have not even the chance to "plan" in the sense of the word family planning, and that if it had been up to them, their family would have started with a spouse years and years ago.

But again, this is not exactly what I'm talking about.

Rather, I think that Family Planning in and of itself is UN-Natural. I think any planning which leads us to believe we are in control of the course of our life is dangerous, at best. Way too often, we see the culmination of the plans we set out for ourselves, in the way we desired, and then expect that same result in every arena, for every plan, and for every goal set in our lives. Likewise too often, we change our plans when they don't work out our way. For example, in infertility, often a couple will choose the path of adoption, and in doing so, are really just changing their Family Planning by setting the goal to adoption rather than pregnancy. Once an adoption occurs, we often hear it said that this was God's Plan all along... but was it? Don't get me wrong. I adore adoption, and wish with all of my heart I could plan my family in the same way. But the process to adopt is another brand of Family Planning which asks of the couple the same criteria as Natural Family Planning: a) to agree in their intention of use, b) to understand that the timing may not be exactly the same from couple to couple, and c) to be open to life.

It is in how we interpret these words Family and Planning, and their combination Family Planning which leads me to find them anything BUT Natural.

Right about now you're probably wondering... wait, didn't she say something about beauty and truth, and fruit and knowledge?? Was this the same post???

Yes. It was.

You may have heard the phrase: To err is human, to forgive, divine.

I say: To PLAN is human, to accept, divine.

We are going to plan. It's what we do. As unnatural as it might be, because in the end, it is not our plan for our lives that matters. But, we can't escape the planning mentality. Our years are broken into 12 months, and those into 7-day weeks, and those into 24-hour days. I imagine the human void of ANY type of planning whatsoever may either be a raging lunatic by the end of his lifetime, or a saint. Could go either way, really.

And so, we go with it. We plan. We succeed. We plan again. We succeed, maybe in a slightly different way than originally intended, but nonetheless, we succeed. We plan again. We... FAIL????!!!

Now, it is fully up to your understanding of God, and His presence in your life, and His plan that will make, or break you in this moment.
We cannot only accept God as the true planner in moments of success, NOR can we only accept His love and comfort in times of failure. We must recognize Him in both. We must understand that we can plan and plan and plan all the livelong day, and it makes not an iota of difference in our spiritual makeup or our final destination. Coming back to Natural Family Planning - we must also understand that THERE IS NO SUCH THING.

What I do every day at work, with couples learning this highly effective form of NFP, is listen, observe, and maybe impart some knowledge from time to time. Not unlike what my client couples do as they track the signs and symptoms of their fertility cycles: they listen to their bodies, observe the signs, and maybe impart some knowledge to each other about what is happening hormonally in those moments. But all of this, myself included, serves merely as tools to a deeper understanding for the couple who uses NFP. An understanding that they must approach it from that very first definition of the word "Natural"- based on an inherent sense of right and wrong. The understanding that it's not about Natural, it's not about Family, it's not about Planning. It's about LIFE. It's about GOD. It's about the things you cannot, could not, would never plan. It's about ACCEPTANCE.

Holy. Life. Acceptance. Now there's a "plan" I could get on board with :)


Endless Strength said...

Oh em gee. This is brilliant and beautiful. When people ask me if a child is planned, I always say, "planned by Someone..." And honestly, if my plan had worked out, I would have a very different life than the one I have accepted (not always so) graciously.

There is so much in this post to love, but the best part I think (if I had to give a "best" part) is the point of acceptance. That is where I have come so many times in my life (often kicking and screaming).

Sunshine said...

This is the best post you have ever written in my opinion.

Acceptance is KEY, absolutely.

Thank you.

DM + AM said...

Funny pictures!

I like the point about acceptance. I think if we all got to plan our lives they would all look way different! Richer, happier, healthier and more... It is good to look reality and find acceptance, teachable moment and more. The great thing about God is there is always hope for a miracle. ...also, no matter how difficult or unexplainable moments are we have the hope for heaven where there is no more tears...

Little Moments said...

Great post! I feel like when I first learned NFP I was convinced in the power of my own plans, boy was I wrong! I have come to the same realization as you about remembering that we can plan until we are blue in the face, but it is all up to Him. It's truly humbling. Thanks for sharing. You worded it so well!

barbie said...

Perfection!!!!! Truly!

Sew said...

omgosh. I can't skim. Can you sum it up for me?????

Sew said...

best post ever.

WheelbarrowRider said...

Guilty as charged. And I totally agree and see what is wrong with it. And I agree it is natural and that acceptance is so important. I am in the midst of the unfulfilled desire part of the whole planning piece and definitely working on the acceptance piece. I love what you wrote. From beginning to end. Can I kiss you? Brilliant? Are you up for most inspiring brilliant blog? Why not? Clearly I missed the nominations. Love you, friend!

E said...

I like your new name for NFP. Were you a philosophy major?!??!

(I always think that it is hammertime...;))

Amazing Life said...

I agree with every line of this post! When I was newly engaged, we were visiting with some people who were also planning for marriage and I got in a hot little tizzy because I was furious with their feelings of control with regard to nfp. I was livid, I can still remember how angry I was! I had the opinion of "when you are in. Mutually loving marriage and the Holy Spirit moves you to be intimate and loving with your spouse you are always aware that God is in charge of life! Not you, I got a very strong sense of hatred kinda of feeeling toward nfp. This conversation with them was my first exposure to nfp (I kid you not) an I detested the attitude they had about seemingly being in control!
I know, I know! God sure used our yes and willingness to be open to life in a way I never would have chose if I could have controlled the outcome! I had to grow in wisdom, love, and grace! Just think if we would have chose to say we are not ready for lor life at the beginning of our marriage, we would have missed out on life! That little ones life is what gave me hope for so much more than the empty arms I was experiencing for the first decade of our marriage!
By the grace of God, we did end up learning a way to track my cycles that allowed us to determine my fertility or lack of fertility. It ultimately led us to more miracles, another in heaven and one in our home! Yet I always believed that the use of the charting was Gods way of preparing a highway in the wasteland to prepare the way for God to bring new miracles! I always thing of CrMS as a tool to maximize the opportunity for coulee to surrender their will to God, to be fully capable to be used by God to bring forth new life.
For me it was a tool to be more obedient to the will of God, surrendering to his plans not my own, but then you are talking to a girl who has been mostly infertile ( I am convince I have only been functionally fertile 3xs). I recently saw this woman and we both have been married for 12 years and they recently welcomed #5, while we have had one successful pg.
sorry I had a lot to say! Sorry for typos, trying to post this from phone!

All in His Perfect Timing said...

I LOVE THIS!!! I could not agree more! I it is about God & Acceptance ... you can't "plan" to always get what you want. Plus ... your pictures are HILARIOUS! I laughed out loud at quite a few of them! :-D DH is looking at me like I'm crazy. He don't get it. :)

[email protected] said...


Unknown said...

Oh my goodness, I totally feel the same way. I've lived this out in so many ways in my fertility--the super fertile times, the secondary infertility, the baby that died suddenly in a miscarriage, the baby that was born with a birth defect that landed her in the NICU. I dislike NFP so much after this journey, and I lack the words as to why most days.

I'm not an expert in latin --but there is this new phrase I learn in Carmel called "vacare deo" --space for God. The "plan" is natural. The gradual trust to leave "a space for God" in your heart, in your marriage, in your family--that is the supernatural work of grace.

Rebecca said...

You spoke words that I didn't know were in my heart; confirming things about myself I didn't know and yet I did know all at the same time.

Holy. Life. Acceptance.


Lucky as Sunshine said...

Amazing !!

Kat said...

OK, so I agree with what you are saying. I feel the same way about the planning part of NFP, which is why I dislike it at times. Let me pose this question to you then, How do you go about promoting and teaching NFP? As an NFP promoter and CrMS practitioner I struggle with this A LOT. Most of NFP promotion highlights the positive of "planning" your family naturally. I have always been uncomfortable with this concept of planning, as an IF gal I know "planning" is just a word we use to make ourselves feel like we are in control. How do you reach a generation/society that feels the need to plan every aspect of their lives to turn away from contraception and embrace NFP? What do we call it? I usually say that I teach CrMS not NFP. Oh and I LOVE all the memes! Great post TCIE!

Unknown said...

Amen my infertile Sister! I could not have said this better and I am so so joyful that someone actually said it!

Amy @ This Cross I Embrace said...

Kat, excellent, excellent question. The way I typically approach it is to get them "in," (i.e., have them begin charting) and through the course of the follow-ups, hope to plant seeds here and there. It doesn't often "work" that I can see, anyway, but every once in a blue moon, I see it just explode in the most amazing way. I also try to use language that really promotes sexual intimacy in marriage rather than "available" days for intercourse, or "good" days for intercourse... aren't all days good for intercourse??? Lol!

So, in essence, I still promote it the way that reaches the most people - meet them where they currently are. Then try to take them on a pretty crazy but beautiful ride :)

Ania said...

I always thought I was a deep person until I met you Amy! You always give me something to think about.

I've been thinking a lot about the planning part of NFP. Little Lillie has me overwhelmed some days and my thoughts drift towards whether there will be another one after her. You're right though I am not in control. It seems I still have a lot of learning and growing to do. Thank you for this.

Carla Dobs said...

This is

so. so. so. so. so. so .so


I am only beginning to learn just HOW true after Henry died unexpectedly...

plans =

things that make God smile the same smile I do at my 3 yo when she trying to assemble her brother's Lego Dragon


JellyBelly said...

You are a freaking rock star. What an amazing post!!

Joy Beyond the Cross said...

"To plan is human, to accept is divine". I love, love, love this!!! So succinct, so direct, so AWESOME! And all the memes were super fun to read. I loved the cat and dog mayhem one. Thank you for this post!

Right Said Red said...

Amy, I normally love your writing and have referred many women to your blog. This is one of the first times I have ever read something you wrote and felt a strong disagreement. Here's the deal -- faith and reason must work together like two wings of a bird. Trust in divine providence must work together with discernment and decisions. The paradox of these things, planning and trusting, belief and reason, is all a part of the beauty of our faith. I think you are overstating things a bit here, to make a point about trust, but I think in doing so you have lost the truth a bit. Chesterton once said that heresy is a good idea gone made from loneliness. Your good idea --abandonment to divine providence -- must stand together with reason, discernment, and, yes, planning. You said, "I am speaking about the underlying mentality that what we do to PLAN our FAMILY, or to PLAN ANYTHING, for that matter, matters at all in the grand scheme of things." I believe this is not correct. God asks us to use our brains and make plans all the time. It is an unhealthy attachment to those plans that is bad. Planning wisely is not a bad thing, but a good thing. But we are asked to plan, to discern, and to make wise choices with our bodies, our time, our talents, etc. Failing to make plans leads many towards the sins of idleness, or an undisciplined life. Balance is key here, and I think you lost that balance in your post.

Stephanie Z said...

I agree with the heart of your post, that the emphasis on human plans neglects God's role, but I wouldn't go so far as to call it "unnatural." I think I would try to separate more along the lines of Human Planning vs. Divine Planning (natural vs. supernatural?). I do agree that planning can be an illusion of control; without any plans, though it becomes too easy to just drift along without goals or ambitions. (e.g. If what I try, what I do don't matter, why should I bother? What will happen will happen.)

the misfit said...

I think this is brilliant. Far too many (faithful) Catholics have been taught that they must automatically respond with "Huzzah!" every time they hear the letters "NFP," and they never direct their brains to an examination of what it implies and whether it's good and, if so, why and to what extent. I have always been an NFP skeptic - I've always complained that many people practicing NFP actually have a contraceptive mentality (i.e., they rely on it as absolutely as if they were on the pill). I was taught NFP by good Catholic folks, and every precept was phrased in terms of TTA, ONLY. If that's your frame of mind, how different is that from being on the pill? Both could "fail." You've examined this issue much more perceptively than I ever did. But my real quibble has been one that apparently irritates only me. If you learn the TTA rules (and that seems to be all anyone cares about), you're told to avoid when, exactly? At any and all times a woman is *naturally* inclined to want to be intimate with her husband. We go on about the natural rhythms of our bodies, and then in the next sentence pretend they don't exist at all. (I will resist the temptation to suggest that this system was invented by men.) NFP apologists go on to tiresome lengths about how much closer they've gotten by finding other ways to be intimate while TTA. Hogwash. Couples who only cuddle when they "can't" have sex are not very imaginative. But I ask you, what does it do for the whole "unitive" bit if you consistently avoid when the woman is fertile? Is sexual desire positive, or not?

Naturally (!), I am not implying that sacrifices are inappropriate in the name of responsible parenthood or other important ends. But to suggest that NFP improves the sexual union of couples when OBVIOUSLY it burdens it is offensively obtuse. (And I do not care if ten million people immediately inform me how much their marriage has been strengthened by TTA. You don't know until you've tried it the other way and compared.) So I'm just greeting the herd of elephants that have been hanging out in the room for forty years ago. Hi, elephants! Champagne and strawberries, anyone? Delicious chocolate truffle? Pineapple? What?

Rebecca said...

WOW. just WOW. you really should write a book!
Hi- I'm Rebecca. i'm a frequent reader but first time commenter on your blog. I'm also a psychiatrist and psychotherapist and a 'new' infertile/subfertile woman. (16 months ttc).
Although I struggle and fail to 'live it out' in my life, there is SO MUCH TRUTH and profundity in your words, that I was blown away reading them. This *is* the crux of life. This is the essence of what Christ did on earth! Acceptance- it really is the heart of things. 'Not my will, but yours be done'. Thank you so much for putting it so beautifully. I'm sure I will come back to this post many times!
Many, many, many blessings to you. Pressed down, shaken together, overflowing.

Unknown said...

THANKYOUTHANKYOUTHANKYOU!! NFP is not a method, it's a mindset. And that mindset is openness to life. We have to accept that NFP leaves God room to work in our lives, despite our plans, and that's the point. So says a lady who used Creighton after baby #5 and got baby #6 anyway. And baby #6 is beautiful and very, very well loved. God knows best.

Connie Rossini said...

I'm new to your blog--came from ACWB. I agree with your point that we must trust God and only He is really in control. But I think Right Said Red is correct in her analysis. Our plans do matter, because God gave us brains to use. If we were living i a monastery with most of our day scheduled for us and vows of obedience, then we would have little use for plans of our own. But living in the world, with a spouse and sometimes kids, we do have to make a lot of plans and try to implement them. We just have to realize that God is ultimately in control of the results, and be totally okay with them, no matter what.