When I was a kid, I wanted a kitten very badly. I would often see those four-legged cuties on TV or at a friend’s house and long for a little guy or gal of my own to love and smother with unwanted attention. My parents were not really any kind of animal people, much less kitten people. But nevertheless, I ended up with the most adorable furry surprise on my 10th birthday. To say I was ecstatic might be an understatement – until those unforgettable first and second nights came…
That cat meowed all night long. It walked on top of furniture and knocked things down. It bit and clawed me for fun, using my legs for moving target practice. I lived in fear. And then there came the responsibilities – like, he needed to eat, drink, and have regularly refreshed litter, too? (Insert dramatic eye roll). My pre-teen self had only been aware of the cute and cuddly part of the picture. When reality didn’t meet my expectations, it was no surprise that I was ready to give up and return that bundle of terror.
No, seriously…I actually tried to return the kitten.
Our new feline “friend” came from a family friend, so it wasn’t out of the question. But thankfully, a little angel in the form of my brother’s buddy, Paul, visited our house during that frightful week. He understood these little animals and explained to me that this is what kittens do. He was young, immature, and in a new place. Cats are designed to explore and hunt, and need time to adapt to their new surroundings. He probably got scared frequently. Paul taught me how to handle my new little critter and encouraged me to be patient as we both learned how to live with each other. This changed everything. It didn’t mean caring for this new creature would be much easier, but now I was prepared to move forward for better or for worse and from a more realistic point of view. And me and that little guy became the best of friends for the next 14 years.
Did I really just liken NFP to a cat? Well, a lot of people hate both, but what I am hoping to draw a comparison to is the effect our expectations can have on outcomes and sustainability. For a long time, “NFP” has been sold by Catholics as: “an easy, effective, and inexpensive solution to preventing pregnancy.”
But doesn’t that sound familiar?
It is no wonder that many refer to “NFP” as “Catholic birth control.” Although it was with good intentions, I am one of many Catholics guilty of pedaling it this way. I thought that if I painted a picture that resembled what our culture pushes, then it might appear more appetizing. The hard work it takes to acquire so much new information and form new habits, in addition to the potential length of abstinence, became a dirty little secret.
But the cross is not supposed to be appetizing at first glance. It is His agony that grabs our attention and reminds us that the Resurrection proceeds suffering out of tremendous and completely selfless love for another. That’s romantic! It probably won’t automatically trigger excitement, but the crosses that NFP, or fertility awareness, often delivers to couples could be viewed as part of its appeal, especially when we understand that “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit…” (Romans 5:3-5).
So let’s describe it in terms that many women wish it had been explained to them in the first place – for exactly how hard it tends to be, in learning and in practice. When it is sold as “easy,” it is sold as a counterfeit version of NFP. When the couple goes to take that info to the bank after years of experience, not all, but many of them will be very disappointed as they discover that it was worth nothing.
I took a little non-scientific poll to find out how NFP was sold to 26 different women, most of which were likely Catholic. Many gave multiple answers, but the most common responses were:
- As “Church-friendly” birth control, or a way to prevent pregnancy
Another response I received frequently came in some form of “it’ll be good for your marriage,” which is, indeed, true. But to leave it at that is only the tip of the iceberg. It is not a magical pill (pun intended) that will automatically transform us into good communicators with a selfless disposition and a teamwork attitude. It takes work and patience.
NFP/fertility awareness is often, straight up, very hard. It takes time and effort, just like most things in life that are meaningful. It is hard because marriage is hard; because love is hard! Abstinence is hard because God has made sex extremely intimate and enjoyable. Trust is hard because we often don’t understand God’s purpose in giving or withholding a baby when it’s not what we planned for. But marriage, love, abstinence, self-control, and trust are all also very good. They are all vehicles of incomprehensible joy – like the Resurrection. Unless it is the kind of self-, control has little to do with the way God invites us to live out our Christianity. That doesn’t change once we enter the bedroom.
When we step back and take an honest look at how family planning is communicated to us and how it plays out in real life, we can conclude that:
- Contraception is praised for being relatively easy, is actually practiced easily, but often turns out to be unfavorable.
- NFP/Fertility Awareness is often praised for being relatively easy, is actually practiced with more difficulty, but turns out to be favorable.
Keep in mind that this is a generalization. Obviously not every situation is the same, but this characterization pretty much sums it up, in my opinion.
So, culture, you can keep your “easy” birth control. But know that easy is not always better. Fertility awareness is not mindless, easy, or just avoiding pregnancy. It is nothing like contraception. It is a way of life. It is avoiding, achieving, health, work, discernment, trust, answers, confusion, joy, pain, time-consuming, natural, empowering, and the list goes on. It’s a lifestyle that is challenging, but even more so rewarding, and is well worth investing oneself into. That is information you can take to the bank and actually receive a valuable return on.