Thursday, July 24, 2014

The obligatory NFP post

So, it's NFP Awareness Week, apparently.  The internet is plastered with memes and posts and stuff.  My favorite response was Simcha Fisher's, which is that when you're using NFP, the one thing you'd like is to be a little less aware of it.  (She's also having a big giveaway on her blog to promote her book, so if you're interested in free stuff, you might want to mosey on down there.  I wasn't interested in any of the prizes, but if you use NFP you probably will be.)

Anyway, I can hardly be a Catholic blogger and not blog about NFP this week .... but the thing is, I appear to be the only married Catholic I know who doesn't use it!

Before you gasp with horror, let me point out that this doesn't mean I use birth control.  That's an odd sort of dichotomy.  I don't use birth control.  It's just that in five years of marriage, we've never had cause to use anything, so we haven't.  So our kids are "not exactly planned" -- we just kind of let it happen, and that's been fine so far.  Breastfeeding has worked well to space them out.

This doesn't mean I'm opposed to NFP, because I'm not.  I can think of no end of very good reasons why people use it, like to recover after a c-section (a third of us get one, you know!) or to fix hormonal or emotional issues (if you have severe PPD, you might want to get that under control) or just because breastfeeding doesn't work to space their babies like it does for me.  I honestly believe that having a baby every year is very hard on your body, and that our bodies weren't meant to undergo that.  That's why breastfeeding works as birth control -- it's our bodies' natural way of making sure we don't get pregnant that often!  And if it doesn't work, either because we can't breastfeed or because we're one of those people (and it's hard to tell ahead of time!) whom breastfeeding doesn't work as birth control for, NFP can be a corrective.

At the same time, I don't buy a whole lot of the advertising.  Does NFP really reduce your risk of divorce?  Who knows!  The statistic you find of "only 2% of NFP-using couples get divorced!" isn't substantiated anywhere I can see.  And even if it is true, there's no control group of those of us who just have babies.  Maybe we're too buried under babies to even consider getting divorced!

For some couples, NFP helps their communication.  For others, it's just one more thing to fight over.  For some, it's a joyful honeymoon every month.  For others, it's a miserable slog.  I can really see why you would use it for a good reason.  I don't see at all why you would do it just for kicks, for all the "fringe benefits."  And for those who say "oh but you can use it to get pregnant too!" I would say, why go through all that trouble of charting and fussing around with the numbers when (if you are a normal couple of normal fertility) you will get pregnant sooner or later anyway?

The reason Catholics use NFP isn't because it's fun or wonderful or an enriching spiritual practice.  We use it because we can't use birth control, and in a world where kids aren't free labor, but rather an expense; and where almost all of our kids will make it to adulthood so we're not hedging our bets against infant mortality; and where we now realize that maternal mortality can be avoided in most cases -- well, sometimes it does make a lot of sense to avoid having kids for awhile.

I'm not tempted to use birth control.  The aesthetic does not appeal to me.  I don't want to take medications long-term, especially ones that will screw with my hormones.  I don't want to feel like I have to be medicated out of health to function normally.  Thinking about IUD's makes me want to pass out.  Condoms are just kinda squicky to me.  The only way that really makes sense to me to avoid having babies is to not have sex, either at all or periodically.  And luckily, lack of sex isn't deadly.  We all practice abstinence at least sometimes, for one reason or another, and though it's sometimes difficult, it's not the end of the world.

But I'm not going to hand down a lecture about how all babies should be wanted (in the sense of, one should always want a baby) because the fact is, I understand.  A family has no limit on the love it can provide, but it does have a limit on the beds it can squeeze in.  There is a limit on how much sleep deprivation you can undergo before you become a less patient mother.  There is a limit on how close together you can have babies and still breastfeed them all.  Sometimes to care adequately for the babies you have, you have to take a break from having more babies.  This doesn't mean you don't value life, it means you know how to be prudent too.  For everyone, this moment comes at a different time.  Some people bravely have babies in circumstances that look scary to others, and it turns out okay for them.  Others don't feel called to do this, and I'm hardly going to hand down my opinion when I haven't walked in their shoes.

I don't care if you use NFP or not, and I am not going to ask if you meant to have only two kids or if you've had ten miscarriages and desperately prayed for more living children.  I understand that I am not going to be able to tell by looking at your family how "open to life" you are.  I also understand that your blase "oh, we are so done" might possibly cover up a story you don't want to tell me -- like "my life is in danger if I get pregnant again" or "my husband and I are having severe marriage problems."  So you are not going to get any judgment from me.  Having ten kids is not proof of being a better Catholic.

And for those who use birth control, or believe in it -- all I can say is, the life we have works very well for us.  Yes, not using all the pills and gadgets the rest of the world uses does make life more difficult for Catholics.  I'd be lying if I pretended that weren't so.  Abstaining is more difficult than not abstaining, and having ten kids is more difficult than having two.

But I can speak to the joy that I had at 15 when I finally had a baby brother of my very own.  My parents were "too old" to start over, in the eyes of many, but all I can feel is gratitude that they were open to one more.  (Which turned into four more, lol.)  I can speak to the joy that Marko brings to our life every day, even though by every sensible measure we should never have conceived him -- we lived in a studio apartment at the time and neither of us was working!  Being part of a subculture where marriage comes first, then sex, then (inevitably) babies, means a lot of different things.  There's some dysfunction here and there, but I also hear a lot of envy from people outside it -- girls who wish they could have found a guy to date who respected them enough to wait for sex till after marriage, for instance.  Or women who want to have babies but their husbands refuse.  Or women whose husbands insist they stay on birth control but refuse to do any of the work.  Or women whose IUD or implant made them severely ill. 

I hear the stories on all sides; that's kind of how the internet is if you don't hide in your own subculture.  I hear women say they are pregnant for the fifth time in five years and they were using NFP but messed up some detail and now what are they going to do.  And a part of me says, "This is nuts, how can we be okay with this?"  But then I click to another forum where a woman says "I am pregnant again and so happy because I really wanted another, but my husband will leave me if I don't have an abortion."  And I think .... there's no solution here.  There's no solution anywhere.  Being a woman is hard.  Having babies is hard.  Our hearts are going to hurt, we're going to feel like we're not enough.

Really, I'm lucky, because I haven't had anything too terrible happen to me.  Sometimes I feel overwhelmed.  But overall I think my life is about right.  I have beautiful babies -- I'm about to have another beautiful baby -- and as much as it terrifies me to think of the pain of labor and the sleepless nights and how much less I will have to give my other kids for awhile .... I know once I see that baby, I'll think it was worth it.

And at the same time, that doesn't mean at all I'm going to be in a rush for number four.  Maybe next time we'll wait longer.  We know how.  The choice is ours, and although there is no way to make that choice without a sacrifice somewhere, I do feel free in the knowledge that we have it.

22 comments:

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Dare I stick a toe into this discussion? LOL! Obviously, I have no practical experience on the subject, but I might as well confess that one consolation of my single life has been that if/when I do get married, I won't have too many childbearing years left. =P Which, of course, stops being such a consolation the older I get, because then the doors to other, more serious risks (to the babies themselves!) suddenly open up.

Ever since I learned about ecological breastfeeding as a way to space births, I've wondered why it is successful for some but not for others. Have you done more research on that, Sheila?

Sheila said...

I think getting married older is kind of the Catholic solution to the "we don't all want 20 kids" problem. If you get married with 10 or 15 reproductive years left, you aren't likely to have more kids than you can handle. Whereas I'm assuming 20+ years of this .... my mother's last child was at 45, and for all I know she could have kept going, except for (as you mention) the risks. Risks go up for the mother at that point too.

And 20+ years of never sleeping through the night may begin to wear at me, I'm afraid. I can't think too much about it, because the whole thought is rather horrifying and anyway, who knows what the future holds? I have no guarantee of a baby every other year even if I wanted one. And who knows, I might someday get a baby who sleeps!

About ecological breastfeeding, one obvious factor is that a lot of people who think they're doing it actually aren't. I mean, one of the rules is that you have to nap with your baby every day. Who can manage that? Not those of us with multiple non-napping older kids! And then, the highest effectiveness is with *frequent* feeding -- the hunter-gatherer tribes studied on this subject nursed their babies several times an hour, straight into toddlerhood. How many American mothers do that? Our culture is so different, most of us assume our babies couldn't possibly nurse that much. (Michael did, and perhaps still would if I let him!) And here we have an obsession with kids sleeping through the night, and that will put an end to infertility pretty fast -- even if it happens only once. I know my infertility ended both times when I visited my inlaws and unconsciously nursed less because they'd be holding the baby. I hear the threshold is about four hours -- don't nurse for four hours, and hormone levels start to drop drastically. Following all seven rules of ecological breastfeeding means parenting drastically differently from most Americans -- no pumping a bottle of milk and going on a date, no slipping baby a pacifier in church so you don't have to nurse in front of everybody, no putting baby in a crib at all. Even I don't follow all the rules perfectly, though I've come close just because my babies are so demanding.

The second theory I have, which is unsubstantiated by anything, is that weight and diet might have something to do with it. We know that when our ancestors started farming and eating grains (or when modern primitive tribes do), not only does their weight increase, but also their birth rate. And isn't it possible that the body thinks, "Oh, we have some extra calories around here, I can manage another baby even though I already have one?" I'd love a study between ecological breastfeeders who eat the standard American diet vs. low-carb or paleo eaters. But there would be so many variables to sort out.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for actually admitting that parenting is hard. Pregnancy is hard. Being a stay-at-home-mom is hard. Nursing is hard. Thank you for not sugar coating Catholic motherhood. Too many blogging moms make their lives look shiny and perfect. I love your blog because you write about how it really is: wonderful... but also scary, frustrating, and exhausting.

Julia said...

Enbrethiliel, I feel similarly. Although I'm only 24, if I were ever to have had 15 children, I'd have needed to have started by now. I'm single (not even dating), and for various reasons I don't expect I'll get married before 30. I might even be 35 and still unmarried, who knows. And one of the benefits of that is that I probably will never end up with more than maybe four or five children (and that's of course assuming that my fertile years extend into my late thirties at least).

Of course, the older the parents, the greater the potential health problems for baby and mother, which is a worry. Not to mention that these days, parents face the challenges of young kids AND geriatric parents at the same time. For example, if I have my first child at 35, by that stage my father will already be 72, and my mother will be 63. And my husband (should he exist) will be goodness knows how old with parents who are goodness knows how old.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Sheila -- Thanks for the detailed reply! I knew that if anyone could answer, it would be you. ;-) The last person I happened to talk to about this was less nuanced; she just said that it works for some and not for others, based on the results . . . but that didn't seem like much of an explanation to me. So it makes sense that there are other factors involved and that some women who think they are practicing it actually aren't.

Julia -- "My husband (should he exist)" is exactly what I call him these days, too. =P

I don't worry too much about how old our parents will be when they finally become grandparents (if only because my mother is only twenty years older than I am!), but I have entertained the idea that I might marry someone who already has children from a previous relationship--like a widower or a revert. It's not a possibility that I look forward to, either. =/

Now, I hope you don't think I'm trivialising your situation, but oh gosh, how I'd love to be 24 again in this marriage market! When I was 24, some older women said the same thing to me, and I had no idea what they meant. I felt old back then! LOL! Around the same time, I saw some young musicians appear on a chat show with a veteran of the entertainment industry, who, when she she learned they were only 24, exclaimed happily, "You have your whole lives ahead of you!" Again, I didn't get it. Now that I do, I also understand the meaning of the saying that youth is wasted on the young. ;-) A dear friend once told me that I'm far too self-conscious about my age, and although I trust her judgment, it's hard to look at the bright side!

Julia said...

Enbrethiliel, I don't mind your comment at all! I actually feel pretty young. Like, if anyone told me I should be married already, I'd think, "But I'm only 24!"

Sometimes I think I'll ever get married for a few different reasons, and the idea of being single my whole life doesn't trouble me. I'm single and happy now, so I think I could stay single and happy forever. I'm sure there are people who think that my singleness should worry me and that time is ticking and blah blah blah, but I just don't have the energy to worry about it. I don't think I'll ever feel a super strong push towards marriage unless I meet a man I really want to marry. But who knows. My feelings might change.

Out of interest, why is the marriage market easier for 24-year-olds? (P.S. I'm not American, so perhaps this is a culture thing...?)

Julia said...

"Sometimes I *don't* think I'll ever get married" is how the above should read.

Sheila said...

I think it's great not to want to get married "just to get married" and instead wait around for someone who actually makes you want to change things. I can't remember which romance heroine it was (Elizabeth Bennett?) who said she didn't mind being single, and she would only be persuaded to change if she found someone *really* worthwhile. And good golly, marriage is HARD, even with the right person -- you certainly don't want to give up a perfectly happy and fulfilled single life to get married to just anybody.

I think in our culture we have a bit too much fear of having kids older -- which is odd because it's extremely common. But 35 is not old for having kids. 45 kind of is. The risk of infertility doesn't take off till 40 or so and the risk of other problems is pretty low until after that.

And you know, there are downsides to having young grandparents. My parents are each 50. I would love to have my mother come help me out when this baby is born, and I thought maybe THIS time she could .... but nope, she still can't leave her *own* kids because she can't find someone to take them on for that long. My parents are still in the thick of regular parenting, so they can't do all the grandparent stuff.

Like birth control vs. NFP vs. lots of babies, the "get married older or younger" question (which we don't even have much choice about) comes with downsides either way.

I do hear the marriage "market" is easier at 24 for women, just because most men are happy to marry a younger woman but not so eager to marry a woman older than them. So the older you get, the more the field narrows. But that's only in theory -- the individual guy that YOU want to marry might not feel that way anyway.

Anonymous, your comment gave me warm fuzzies.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Julia -- Ha! I'm not American, either. =) For more on my marriage market, please see my reply to Sheila below.

But I must add that I think the "crazy cat lady spinster" stereotype has a great deal of truth to it--something I never would have believed a few years ago. Of course, this is just the opinion of one woman, so take it with a grain of salt, but while I agree in principle with Sheila that "You certainly don't want to give up a perfectly happy and fulfilled single life to get married to just anybody," on this side of 30, "a perfectly happy and fulfilled single life" is an oxymoron. I do not at all recommend marrying anyone just for the sake of being married, but it is incredibly sad not to have children and a home of your own because you can't find the right man to have them with. It may be the lesser evil, but it still takes a huge emotional toll.

Sheila -- When I said the marriage market was easier on younger women, I was referring to women as "buyers" rather than "sellers." In my case, a great number of men in my peer and age group have children from previous relationships. Both I and one of my friends, who have never had children of our own, are now contemplating a future as stepmothers because the men we're seeing already come with kids. My friend says I'm lucky to be dating a widower, because at least there won't be another woman in the picture; but I think she's luckier because her fellow doesn't have a daughter who has told him that she will never accept another woman in her mother's place. (Ahem!)

The reasons for this are a little complex. While the majority of couples still get married in their twenties, there is an increasing number of couples who don't--usually because one of them has a parent who refuses to give his blessing. And whether the parent was right after all or the lack of a formal commitment made it easy for them to give up on each other, those relationships frequently break up after a few years.

The Sojourner said...

"Normal couples of normal fertility" might be a little rarer than you think. I started out marriage thinking I'd let babies happen as they would. Of course, when I thought that I also assumed that at this point (married almost 3 years) I'd have a toddler and another baby on the way. Instead I have an 8-month-old, and while I wouldn't trade him for any number of hypothetical babies, I still feel occasional vague resentment over the fact that I can't *not* use NFP--not if I want to have a large family, anyway.

I should probably offer it up for all those ladies who have 5 babies in 5 years and wish sincerely that they could do some kind of fertility osmosis with people who can't have babies.

Sugar Coater said...

This might be kind of unrelated, but thank you for not bashing people who used birth control. After many years of trying for kids but it just never happened, I was prescribed birth control pills to regulate very VERY irregular and heavy periods (sorry for being graphic). You would be surprised at some people who pretty much condemned me to hell for that. I don't think I'm all that bad! Anyway, good reading. :)

Julia said...

Enbrethiliel - oy vey. Men with kids. What a can of worms. And yes, I expect that the emotional toll of singleness will hit me in some way or another. For now it hasn't, but it certainly could one day. One of my major aims is to have a house/flat of my own. Marriage or not, mortgage here I come.

Sheila said...

Sojourner -- the toughest bit about being a Catholic woman is that there *is* no fertility osmosis. We can't choose. Some of us can't have babies, and some can't STOP having them, and this is especially frustrating when we see people in "the world" having exactly the number of kids they want, when they want, with the help of pills and doctors. (Of course, this is partly outside perception -- I know plenty of non-Catholics who can't have the number of kids they want for whatever reason.)

Sugar Coater, it makes me mad that anyone would judge you -- the pill for medical reasons (not connected to trying not to have kids) is perfectly allowed! Phooey on people who can't keep their noses out of other people's business. It's enough of a job for any of us to be our own conscience.

Enbrethiliel, your comment brings to mind a parallel reality to what I said to Sojourner -- we really can't pick our crosses. The single life has an emotional toll -- so does the married life. The ones I feel worst for are Catholics with same-sex attraction who have to undergo the loneliness of the single life without any hope of a change. But then there's also the loneliness of priests in far-flung rectories expected to be everything for their congregations while no one reaches out to him; the loneliness of widows still having to raise their kids but without the basic help everyone needs; people in struggling marriages. And you don't always see another person's emotional burden from outside. We just have to help carry each other's crosses as best we can.

(And now I'm tremendously curious because I didn't know before that you were seeing someone. ;) )

The Sojourner said...

Oh, yes, the world of infertility isn't any better on the "outside." It's like you said in your post re: unexpected pregnancies. You hang out in Catholic circles long enough you're going to know that couple who's been trying for 5 years and still can't conceive and can't afford to adopt (because the husband is a youth minister, probably) and you think that the Church is being unfair...and then you go on a forum and notice that there are people who've done a dozen ART cycles and had half a dozen miscarriages and finally decide to get sterilized and be child-free by choice because they can't handle the heartbreak any more, and you realize that it isn't the Church making things hard for us, it's life.

Anna B said...

Enbrethiliel: oxymoron is putting it too strongly. It all depends. I just turned 30 and yes, I have several friends my age and younger who are worried and impatient sometimes despondent about their chances of finding a husband. I feel more or less like Julia. I am just as single as I was ten years ago and just as unworried about it. I am sort of providentialist about marriage – if somebody really wonderful comes along, then fine, if not, then it wasn't meant to be, and that's fine too. Women like me are probably a minority, but I have a feeling that each individual woman tends to be pretty constant over time in how important the idea of having a husband and children is to her identity.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Julia -- That's a good plan! =) Something I wish I could have told myself when I was your age was not to put things on hold because I was waiting for a relationship. There were lots of opportunities I let go of because I wanted to do them in

Sheila -- It seems that I only talk about my private life on other people's blogs. LOL! Actually, it happened very recently, so there's not much to say beyond, "I've started seeing someone I've known for a while. He has kids. It just figures . . ." That is, it "just figures" because I know what it's like to be the daughter of a single parent and if you had presented this scenario to me in the abstract, I would have shot the possibility of dating down immediately. But seriously, given my history, if his daughter truly feels unhappy with me, I will respect that and not pursue this relationship.

Anna B -- I'll stand by what I said. But I'll also say you're very lucky to be in that tiny minority of women who find it easy not to turn into crazy cat-owning spinsters! =) ("Cat-owning" is a metaphor, of course. As is "crazy.")

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

And of course I didn't finish my comment to Julia . . .

What I wanted to add was that there were lots of things I wanted to do as part of a couple and which I still haven't done because I've been mostly single for the past decade. And I do regret not grabbing those chances simply because there was no one to share the joy of them with.

sdecorla said...

Wow, this is one of the best and most non-judgmental posts about NFP I've ever read! I also don't understand why so many Catholics seem to think every couple *has* to use NFP. All that's required is that couple not use contraception. Greg Popcak had a post up recently about how *every* couple should use NFP, because otherwise they are not communicating right or something. I think that’s hogwash, and I am personally a huge planner / control freak who is very grateful for NFP and would never, ever just leave things to chance.

I get annoyed with providentialists who seem to think you can only use NFP if you have five types of cancer (and maybe not even then), but I also get annoyed with people who think NFP is the greatest thing since sliced bread and that every couple must use it. Using NFP SUCKS. The best position to be in is one where you are able to welcome babies as they come and not worry about NFP. People in that position are very lucky. But I’m VERY grateful that we have NFP for those of us who are not in that position (which is most of us at one time or another). It’s like I feel like the providentialists are onto something when they say NFP is regrettable. They are far more realistic. Though I strongly disagree with them that NFP can ever be sinful or used with a “contraceptive mentality.” I think a serious reason is a given if a couple bothers using NFP.

I also don’t understand why NFP is necessary for couples trying to conceive, provided that they have normal fertility. If they are having trouble conceiving, then charting can certainly help them identify and treat the problem. But couples with normal fertility will almost certainly conceive within 4 cycles of trying. Why would it matter if it takes you 2 or 3 cycles to conceive (because you don’t chart and are not deliberately targeting fertile times) vs. just one cycle because you know exactly when you’re fertile? It makes no sense. I mean, to hear some of these NFP cheerleaders talk, you would think no one ever got pregnant before we knew about NFP.

momsomniac said...

I've been away awhile and just wanted to say CONGRATULATIONS!

Sheila said...

Momsomniac, good to hear from you again! And thanks!

Sdecoria, I tend to think of being open to babies as like the duty to go to Mass. If there's a real reason you can't go, stay home in good conscience! You have a sick child, you are sick yourself, you don't have transportation, you don't have money for gas? It happens, you're doing your best. But yeah, you're missing out a bit and you'll probably be eager to get past whatever issue is keeping you away and hopefully get to Mass soon again. Some people might never be able to get to Mass, and they'll be sad about that, but they shouldn't feel guilty.

The Popcaks kind of drive me nuts. It's bad if you don't have sex often enough, but it's also awful and terrible if you have it whenever you want. Their book Holy Sex was supposed to be about how good sex is, but I couldn't help feeling it was just listing out yet more ways you are probably doing it all wrong! Like we all need more hangups.

Of course he is going to assume we all use NFP, though, because in his parenting book he is emphatic that you MUST leave three years between births, and hardly any of us are going to get that naturally. I think three years would be well and good, but there's nothing magic about it. And that's a long time to have to NFP just to fill out a certain amount of space just because.

I sure am glad we have NFP these days, because it was a huge struggle for a lot of families getting by without it, but I can't help but think we haven't perfected it yet. In the future, I think we'll all have cheap, easy-to-use fertility monitors. Stick it in your mouth and it will measure the hormones in your spit and tell you if you could get pregnant today or not. It'll be 99.9% accurate, even postpartum, and if it does fail, you can blame the computer instead of your own math.

Of course, that still leaves the abstinence. But that's the nature of the beast.

Betsy said...

Ah, NFP! It's there when we need it, but it isn't fun. I've never come across these people who say everyone should use NFP. I can't help but think that people who say NFP is wonderful and improves their marriage are desperately trying to make the best out of a bad situation. When I see them in my mind, they have forced smiles on their faces. ;)

In my opinion, if you're going through the pain of periodic abstinence, you MUST have a good reason! I mean, really, who would do that if it wasn't necessary in some way? NFP takes self-control and self-denial, and it seems to me that, without a good reason, you would just say, "The heck with THIS!" and start having babies again. The best quote about NFP I ever saw was this: "When is it good to use NFP? When love demands it." Doesn't that make things simple? I think so.

We did use NFP to get pregnant with Rosie. After my miscarriage, I was absolutely desperate to get pregnant again, to the point where not being pregnant almost caused me physical pain. We waited 2 cycles, per doctor's orders, and then tried for the next one. I used ovulation tests and charting, and it worked. So I can see the point of using NFP for pregnancy, especially if you are less fertile and really need to pinpoint the best time.

Sheila said...

Well, maybe they really are just looking on the bright side. Like the person who tells you that having five babies in five years is The Way To Go, often is saying that because that's what they actually have and they have decided to like it -- not because they think everyone has to, not really.

Before I was married, though, I got this argument all the time. Including a suggestion from some that if we didn't use it, we'd become sex addicts and never learn to communicate or sacrifice. It's like .... what?! How did people handle things before NFP? Were their marriages all so completely inferior?

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