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Hello, elephant in the room! I see you, and I’m ready to talk about you.
The NFP community is full of large families like mine. What the heck? How can we say that NFP is effective, and then show up with ten kids in tow? If a told you I had a really great system for losing weight, but I weighed 400 pounds, wouldn’t you snicker and look elsewhere for advice?
It’s a fair question! Here’s my answer:
1. Lots of people who use NFP actually want, and enjoy having, big families. Many couples use NFP mainly to space their much-desired, numerous pregnancies; and many couples use NFP to help them conceive, when pregnancy doesn’t come easily.
Many couples would have even more children than they already do, if it weren’t for NFP. Hello! Despite round-the-clock breastfeeding, I return to fertility within a few months of giving birth. When my babies are spaced two or three years apart, that’s due to diligent charting, not NFP failure. Ten children is a lot, but it’s not as many as the eighteen I’d probably have without NFP. My large family may look like evidence that NFP doesn’t work, but it’s actually evidence that NFP can be useful to people who like kids but aren’t out to break any records.
And something that should be acknowledged more when we talk about NFP: many couples wouldn’t have children at all if it weren’t for NFP. Many fertility problems can be diagnosed and treated with the help of a doctor who can interpret your charts.
Contraception has one purpose: to prevent conception. If you’re using contraception and get pregnant, that’s a clear failure. But NFP is different: NFP can be used to avoid conception, to delay conception, or to conceive. So a good many couples use NFP while still hoping for lots of kids. A big family is not necessarily evidence that NFP has “failed,” because you can use NFP for different reasons at different times.
And don’t forget, these decisions are private. A couple might say they’re done having kids, and then change their minds and decide to try for more babies without first notifying every aunt, cousin, and mom on the playground.
So, in short: it’s complicated.
2. NFP is easier to mess up than artificial birth control. There, I said it. If couples with normal fertility want to use NFP to avoid getting pregnant, they have to stay on their toes and be committed, and there’s no such thing as “set it and forget it.” If you make a mistake in charting, or if you know you’re probably fertile and decide to have sex anyway, you can get pregnant when you really didn’t want to. And there are occasional head-scratchers, where you follow all the rules to avoid, and you get pregnant anyway. It does happen.
Of course, these things happen to couples using contraception, too. Raise your hand if you know someone who conceived despite using condoms, or the Pill, or an IUD, or even some combination, or someone who trusts the Pill but skipped a day because life is hectic. Heck, I know couples who conceived even after a tubal or a vasectomy.
So, while some couples find NFP simple and easy and effective, other couples find it difficult and unpredictable, especially at first; and yes, they may have unplanned pregnancies because NFP is harder than they expected. NFP is an entire approach to life, not just a pill to pop. There are physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological benefits to deliberately embracing the NFP lifestyle, but the stakes are high. NFP-promoters would do well to be more upfront about the level of commitment NFP takes. The stakes are always high in acts of love, but it’s much easier to forget this fact when you’re taking shelter behind contraception.
In short, it’s complicated.
3. But people who use NFP are far less likely to abort a baby who was conceived by mistake. There, I said that, too.
This is what John Paul II was talking about when he coined that much-abused phrase “the contraceptive mentality.” He meant that when we insert contraception between two lovers, we’re not truly embracing love, with its glories and its crosses — and when we chase love out, death comes rushing in. When whole societies embrace contraception, abortion (and euthanasia, and child abuse, and pornography, and sex trafficking, and every other way to kill love and use people as objects) worms its way into that embrace.
According to Planned Parenthood, over half of the women in the US who have abortions were using contraception in the month they got pregnant. If you are using contraception because it would be intolerable to have a baby, then you may not tolerate giving birth to a baby that appears anyway. You may even be pressured to abort for the good of the baby himself if you conceived while on a contraceptive that increases your risk of ectopic pregnancy, pelvic infections, or other delights that empower women. And of course, your contraception may cause miscarriage. NFP oopsies may mean big families, but contraception oopsies may mean babies with very short lives.
I don’t mean that contracepting couples are all abortion-minded, utilitarian brutes (I know they’re not) and I don’t mean that NFP-using couples are all life-embracing, God-trusting martyrs (I know we’re not). I mean that if you’re already in deep enough to commit to NFP, you’re probably in too deep to seek abortion, even if the thought of pregnancy makes you want to run away screaming.
4. Did I mention it’s complicated? NFP isn’t a lifelong club with a set of firm bylaws that you swear fealty to the minute you say “I do,” and it isn’t a system you necessarily keep using the whole time you’re fertile. It’s something you can stop and start at any time; and lots of couples do stop and start NFP throughout the course of their marriage. Many couples use it more or less conservatively at different times in their marriage. Many many couples aren’t sure if they want more kids or not, so they chart carelessly, or cut corners, and if they get pregnant, they deal (or are amazed at how happy they are). There’s even an acronym for this mindset: TTW, meaning “trying to whatever” (as opposed to Trying To Conceive or Trying To Avoid).
I know a couple who conceived out of wedlock, then had a bunch more kids, then left the church and got sterilized, then came back and got the sterilization reversed, then had to put off having more children, and then decided to have a bunch more, and then had some miscarriages, and then decided they had enough. They have a big family. Is it evidence that NFP doesn’t work? Not really. It’s complicated.
Lots of people only start using NFP after they already have a bunch of kids. Hello, me again: I had three babies in three years before I said, “We need to slow this train down” and signed up for instruction. My family is a combination of babies conceived while making no effort to avoid conception, babies conceived while kinda sorta trying not to conceive, babies conceived because God thought it was a good time even though we did not, and babies conceived joyfully on purpose because we like babies. And a baby who was conceived joyfully on purpose and then quietly died while we were still happily calculating the due date.
From the outside, it looks like I’m a crazy woman who has babies nonstop and yet somehow wants to persuade people that I know something about family planning. From my point of view, the story is stranger and harder and funnier and sadder and sweeter and, most of all, much more complicated than that.
So, why do couples who use NFP have so many kids? It’s complicated. It’s complicated. Like life is complicated, love is complicated, our relationship with God is complicated. That’s why.
For more about the emotional, psychological, spiritual, and sociological issues surrounding the NFP lifestyle, read my book, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning (OSV, 2013), available in paperback, ebook, or audio form.
Elephant photo by Robin Arm via Unsplash