While advocating for the use of fertility awareness -- whether as a family planning method through Natural Family Planning or simply to use as a first step into taking charge of one’s health -- I have been both politely questioned and harshly critiqued on my assertions that NFP is not incredibly hard.
And in a way, I still believe this. You don’t need a medical degree (or heck, even a high school diploma!) to learn about the menstrual cycle and human fertility, and how to apply this knowledge in charting. Tribal peoples, who are illiterate and have concepts of science and the world vastly different from us, have been taught to use variations of NFP quite successfully. If they can internalize it, then just about anyone can if they wish to make the effort.
Besides, you hear it ALL the time from NFP advocates that NFP is easy to use, right? Go to any fertility awareness website, and you are bombarded with images of energized, healthy women at peace with the world. More often than not, they are at the beach, or in the middle of a green field, at one with themselves and Sister Nature.
Still, that doesn’t mean NFP is a breeze in the park as a whole or for everyone. And it makes sense: it’s not just a family planning method, it’s a mode of awareness and a lifestyle choice. It still requires much commitment and time to learn your method efficiently, and in some situations or circumstances, NFP can be very demanding. Just as there are the pros, there are the cons, some much more troublesome than others, depending on the person and their circumstances.
I hope to go over these points that discuss the “not so easy” side of NFP, so that people wanting to learn more about NFP (especially for religious reasons) can get an honest picture before they find these things out the hard way. Then, they can be better prepared and know how to prevent or handle these hardships.
First, a disclaimer: I will be going over NFP only, not the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM), which allows the use of barrier methods or alternative sex acts during the fertile time. Not that FAM has no downsides whatsoever because of that, but because much of the “hard stuff” involving NFP are hard because of the abstinence-only rule for pregnancy avoidance.
“How can NFP be hard?”
NFP can be hard for a variety of reasons, based on the following:
Initially learning the method
Let’s be honest: if you grew up in your 20-30+ years of life and never once learned an ounce about what fertility awareness teaches, NFP will take some commitment to understand.
Some people jump into the classes eagerly, having a natural desire to learn and understand their bodies. However, there might be others who learn begrudgingly because it is required for Marriage Preparation, or because a partner pestered them to try it out. This stubbornness itself may block out information they would otherwise retain, or cause unneeded strife for their spouse who wishes to learn.
They also have to take time out of their day to spend a few hours at a class, and then take two more classes over the course of a month; or maybe they go to a seminar over the weekend that they may need to travel for (classes vary among NFP organizations). Then, they have to spend many months afterwards getting used to their method and turning in charts to their instructors.
And the payment? Some classes are quite affordable, or allow access to financial aid; others may be quite expensive and additional payment needed for future follow ups. It all depends on the method you go for and the instructor you go to. If money is constantly brought up, it could cause more stress than needed.
The last problem may be having a poor instructor. Perhaps they are condescending, or do nothing to help their clients better understand their method. Perhaps they are simply overbearing, and clients feel like a burden for asking them for help. This is a horrible relationship to have with an instructor when you are first learning, as it bars you from growing into your method.
Implementing NFP into one’s lifestyle
Observing your fertile signs, at the most, should only take a few minutes out of your day. Charting them down at the end of a day takes only seconds. And with new apps for charting on the market, charting is now more visually appealing, as well as making traveling with charts much easier to handle.
However, what if someone is new to a method and is confused on what to do? What if they simply can NOT get the hang of the subtle differences in cervical mucus in their own particular pattern? On top of that, some women simply forget to chart, or to check for their fertile signs.
And this goes beyond mere charting. NFP involves the willingness to abstain during the fertile time, and to have both husband and wife openly communicate about their family planning intentions, sexuality, and all that entails. Couples who have deep rooted issues that prevent this from working smoothly will either see this lifestyle change as an opportunity to amend the marriage strife, or as a reality bomb blowing up in their face.
Practicing NFP faithfully/Charting consistently
This somewhat ties into the lifestyle change. It truly only takes a few minutes each day to chart, and can be done as a part of one’s evening or bedtime routine; still, for some, it simply doesn’t click.
I myself do not fully understand it as well, as after getting over the initial hurdles and learning some “short cuts”, charting became second nature to me. However, I have noticed a trend: those who are very serious about avoiding pregnancy tend to be vigilant charters. Those who don’t see pregnancy as being a big deal, on the other hand, may slack in their charting as they don’t feel as much pressure to chart. I have gone through both mindsets myself!
A third group, however, who are serious about avoiding pregnancy but still struggle with charting everyday, are people who are simply stressed out. This is especially true if only the woman has the sole responsibility of charting and deciphering her fertile signs. The husband is not involved at all, and all the pressure to use the method correctly is on the wife.
When this happens, the man becomes bitter with his wife for telling him “no” on fertile days, and the woman becomes bitter to her husband for having to do all the work. When there is this strife, charting is much more of a mountain climb than a stroll in the park!
Accepting NFP as a Catholic
As a Catholic NFP instructor, I sometimes get called a hypocrite for defending the procreative aspect of sex, while teaching people how to time intercourse for the infertile time to avoid pregnancy. Some people, going through intense and even life-threatening health crisis, outright attack Church teaching on sexuality and demand that changes be made for couples who experience such struggles.
This is one that can not be simply fixed with a few charting tricks/short cuts, or lead back to sanity by a competent instructor. This is something that requires a willingness to learn, to pray, and to open communications with between the spouses, God, and Church documents on the Catholic faith.
That is something not every person is open too, or at the very least, not open to learning and understanding more without kicking and screaming. It is a matter of the heart that takes time to accept.
And if the heart isn’t into it, it will be a struggle to truly accept and use NFP.
Using NFP when dealing with a serious reason to avoid pregnancy
This one is the hardest to face, in my opinion. In cases such as these, pregnancy is a very real fear, and it shouldn’t have to be. Yet, the couple finds themselves facing extreme poverty, or a medically dangerous pregnancy, if they should conceive a child.
Now, in extreme cases such as this, you can be assured NFP will work, given that strict guidelines are followed. However, that doesn’t stop the nagging fear and anxiety that creeps into the mind of those who are avoiding for very serious reasons. This is especially true if conflicting schedules, the care of older children, postpartum irregularity, and over-conservative observance of charting rules lead to more abstinence than is necessary.
Add on pressuring doctors to get sterilization, the mounting sexual and marital frustration, or misguided friends urging you to drop NFP, and you get yourself a couple on edge.
Pressure from oneself, their partner, or others to fear NFP as unreliable
Modern society is absolutely horrible when it comes to fully understanding fertility awareness based methods. So-called “women’s health” organizations and magazines snub their articles at NFP/FAM, claiming that it’s not reliable and especially not for women with irregular cycles. They then end their garbage fest with, “And here’s how you can use the Pill/IUD/condom”, with a Planned Parenthood certified OB/GYN to sign it all off as “accurate”.
However, it’s easy enough to correct these articles in the comments section, and rely on more accurate info from fertility awareness organizations. But it’s another thing when you hear this drivel from your own family and friends -- especially your own spouse!
After starting to use NFP, they stare at you from afar, just waiting for you to get pregnant and then ask you why you couldn’t have just used a condom. No matter how many times you try to explain to them what you learned in class about cervical mucus and basal body temperature and ovulation and sperm production, all they keep repeating is, “But the Rhythm Method doesn’t work!”
And such rejections are even harder to deal with when coming from your own significant other. Some are more stubborn than others, and do not care how many scientifically-backed studies on NFP you show them: it’s nothing but “hippie bullshit”, or “the inaccurate Rhythm Method”. They think it will mean months of abstinence and then getting pregnant anyway once you DO have sex.
This gets worse if they refuse to learn the method with you, and want no part in charting. They only make things more difficult yet want to blame it solely on the method or even their spouse.
With these hardships in mind, how can these problems be lessened or even done away with?
NFP will always present a challenge at some point in one’s life, and they can not be avoided indefinitely. This is the reality of any family planning method. However, there are still ways a couple can lessen these issues and avoid unnecessary stress, or at the very least deal with them with a level head should they occur.
Next week, I will share information on how to accomplish this. In the meantime, do you have any insights to the problems presented here? Feel free to let me know!