Once again, National NFP Awareness Week is here, and our feeds will all be bombarded by the joys, hardships, medical benefits, and new technologies available to aid our journeys with Natural Family Planning (NFP). At the risk of stepping on a few internet toes, I would like to posit that NFP is a valuable tool, especially for those seeking medical help, but not one for general use in orchestrating family size and structure. NFP is Not For Planning.
The world, both Catholic and other, commonly will ask if I want another child. This is the wrong question. Whether or not I want another child is irrelevant. I am a Catholic, married woman and therefore called to be open to life. That means that unless I have a good enough reason to avoid pregnancy, one that I can defend to the Lord when I show up on His doorstep, I should allow my fertility to be in divine hands rather than my own.
Many quibble over what the reasons to use NFP might be, but the Church leaves it up to the discernment of the spouses. Pope Paul VI explains it most clearly in Humanae Vitae:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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With regard to physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time…From this it follows that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out. (10)
This is a beautiful teaching because it is flexible enough to apply to any and all marital situations; as frustrating as the lack of concrete rules is, the flexibility offers far more respect to the intricacies of life and marriage.
For me personally, I find that it only takes one question to determine if NFP is a moral choice: would I be able to stand before the throne of the Almighty and explain to Him with no embarrassment why I could not accept the gift of another soul if He chose to give it to me? If I can do that, then riding the NFP bandwagon for a while is probably a good choice; if I think I might be blushing while explaining…maybe I’d better go back to the discernment drawing board.
Certainly, there have been times when I could not only have explained why NFP was a good choice for my family but also could have explained at such length and with such vigor that the entire heavenly host would have tired of the topic. We have all had those times. But those are not the daily norm for most couples.
Open to life is a mindset—not just a physical action.
Nowhere does the Catechism use the metric of whether or not we want children to be the deciding factor in our marital procreation. It says that, “Children are the supreme gift of marriage and contribute greatly to the good of the parents themselves” (CCC 1652). Children are gifts; and like gifts, they are not forced upon us but rather offered to us in heavenly generosity. How much are we willing to accept the gifts from the Lord, knowing that because they are given for our salvation they also will bring suffering? These are the questions that should be asked far more than whether or not we want more children. Nowhere does the Catechism use the metric of whether or not we want children to be the deciding factor in our marital procreation. Tweet This
What if the answer is that we are called to have more children and yet…we don’t want to? We are happy with the status quo, and the status quo feels plenty hard enough! This is a frightening call. Manners dictate that we avoid declining a gift unless there is a significant reason, and the gift of our children is no different. And that is really scary sometimes, especially if you know that, should history repeat and biology remain constant, you will be having new children every one to two years. That, of course, is why the Lord has given us NFP, but it is a call where the answer demands an immediate gift of self and sacrifice of personal comfort.
Life situations are, of course, different for all, and we are not all called to demonstrate our trust for Divine Providence in this way; but we as a Church need to support those who are. We need to stop thinking about whether we want more children and instead ask if we can accept the gift of another soul.
The families who pump out a new baby every fifteen months—and likely had to use NFP to get even that spacing—can garner raised eyebrows (even in the bubbles where large families are common) simply due to the chaos inherent in a ratio of one parent to six children under the age of ten. I get it. I’m there right now—and yes, it is controlled chaos much of the time.
But when my relatives find ways to assure me that, “Five is plenty! You need to take care of yourself, too,” I wish I could tell them that each one of these children whittles away the sharp, sinful logs in my eyes. Each barf bucket held, diaper changed, tear wiped; each talk about the challenges of life; each relationship created, step by step, in the hopes it will bear fruit; each soul taught the Faith; in each of these is the selfishness inherent to my fallen condition sanded down. Painfully. Joyfully. Exhaustingly. Like anything in life, where there is growth, there is also suffering. But the prize is worth the effort.
Although I am more busy and more tired than before my children, and cannot leave the room for two minutes without someone screaming about something, my soul is in an amazingly better place than it was back then. The fears I had about having them, the fears of handling their needs, all those emotions winch me, click by click, closer to the Father, who knows and cares for all.
Those fears resurface with each new soul created. And, each time, He gives the grace at just the right moment that allows me to handle the gifts I have been given. The grace is never given early enough to reassure me about the future—oh no! As always, it is given just in time, in the present moment where the Lord resides. And, with His help, I can just about scrape through life. The closer to Him I come, the more I find grace and joy in the noisy, dirty, insanity that is life with many little boys.
It is hard to be open to the gifts of the Lord. As Mother Teresa said, “Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus—a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you.” No one who has ever parented in any capacity will tell you it is easy; however, it is infinitely worthwhile.
Be open to what God is telling you, whether it is to be open to more children or be content with fewer. But whatever you do, be careful not to fall into the trap of placing children equal to any other possession that we acquire at a whim. Despite the mundane feelings and overwhelming minutia that family life can at times bring to the fore, children are a gift, and we should try to be open to receiving them.
So, as we all read about the benefits that NFP brings to Catholic life, we must also remember that it is a tool, not a requirement. I do believe everyone should have a working knowledge of NFP because life situations do arise suddenly at times, where it would be highly imprudent to have a child; and preparation is never a bad thing. However, for most of us, most of the time, we need to rethink our use of NFP. Are we truly not in a position to have more children, or are we just comfortable where we are and afraid of the all-encompassing mess that comes with new life entering the family?
It is certainly a hard question, but it is one that should be prayed about and braved this week above others, as we focus on what we are called to do in our families. I’ll be right there with you, praying and discerning, trying to figure out what is heavenly calling and what is my love of peace and uninterrupted coffee time.