Where Logic Meets Love

Pregnancy, Fear, and NFP: Response to a Reader

Friday, November 9, 2012

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Pregnancy, Fear, and NFP: Response to a Reader | Faith Permeating Life

On the post Being Pro-NFP Doesn't Require Being Anti-Everything Else, I received a comment that I thought deserved its own post as a response.

I should probably mention upfront that this post deals with both my and the commenter's dislike of the idea of being pregnant, so it might be a painful or offensive post for anyone currently struggling with infertility and a desire to be pregnant. Also, if you think it's a Christian woman's God-given duty to bear children, you probably won't get anything out of this post and might want to just leave now.

Regina wrote:
Hi Jessica,
I was just curious if you ever feel afraid that using NFP could fail for you? I absolutely never ever want to have children and have a huge fear of getting pregnant. This is partly because I have two special needs brothers and a lot of anxiety issues. But I was also raised to be very Catholic and part of that anxiety includes the fear and threat of hell. I'm not sure I could ever use contraception because I just picture the endless hell stretched out before me when I die. But on the other hand, I have too much fear that if I rely solely on NFP I would get pregnant and don't know if I could handle that at all. So I basically feel my only option is to remain single and hope that I reach my later years and can find a mate. It's just always been a dream of mine to get married and have love so it's hard to be so alone now. (I'm 26 right now.)

There's a lot to unpack here, and I'm going to do my best, but I hope many of you thoughtful, brilliant readers will take some time and share your thoughts as well.

The first and primary question is Am I ever afraid that NFP will fail?

Natural Family Planning, as I've said before, is a method of tracking one's fertility, though it usually comes lumped with a whole package of theology about contraception, sex, marriage, and so on. It can be used to achieve pregnancy, but given the context of Regina's question and the way Mike and I use it, a "failure" here would be a pregnancy. Whether being pregnant would actually be a bad thing is something I'll get to in a moment.

In order for Natural Family Planning the method to fail, it would mean that a woman would get and record signs from her body indicating (according to the rules of the specific method she was using) that she had ovulated, would wait the few days for the egg to leave her body, and then would have intercourse and become pregnant.

But as Toni Weschler explains well in Taking Charge of Your Fertility, the line between method failure and user error in NFP is so fuzzy as to be practically non-existent. For example, I use the sympto-thermal method of NFP, a combination of basal body temperature and cervical fluid observations. I don't check and record my cervix position because I feel confident based on the two signs I do use that I know exactly when I've ovulated. I would feel less confident if I were to use only cervical fluid observations because I don't see those as pinpointing ovulation clearly, though I know many women feel confident using only cervical fluid. And it's certainly possible that were I to become pregnant using this method, someone might say it was because I didn't use the third sign of cervix position to verify my fertility signs.

I'm sure there must be some women out there who felt they had a clear handle on tracking their fertility signs, abstained what should have been the appropriate number of days after ovulation, and still became pregnant, but I haven't heard one of those stories. And if that were the case, it would not be immediate obvious what the cause was: Did the woman interpret her chart incorrectly? Did she not chart accurately in the first place? Or did she do everything perfectly and her body somehow indicated, according to the rules of NFP, that it had ovulated when it actually had not? Only this last could really be called a failure of the method, and then only of the particular method she was using (sympto-thermal, Billings, Creighton, etc.).

When I've heard stories of NFP "not working," they've always fallen into one of these categories:
  • The woman's body indicated that she was potentially fertile, but the couple decided to have intercourse anyway.
  • The woman or couple was confused about how to interpret her fertility signs, but decided to have intercourse anyway.
  • The woman or couple was misinformed about how to practice NFP, or conflated NFP with an unreliable method such as the Rhythm Method (which assumes ovulation happens on the same day every cycle).

So all of this to say that, no, I don't really worry about becoming pregnant while practicing NFP. We use a pretty conservative set of rules about when we have intercourse and I have a lot of practice charting by now, so something pretty crazy would have to happen with my body for me to somehow think I had ovulated when I actually hadn't.

I would actually be a lot more afraid of using another form of birth control, personally. When hormonal birth control fails, it's not always (or even usually) because of user error; in other words, you could take the Pill exactly as you're supposed to every day and still get pregnant because it didn't work the way it was supposed to. I actually trust NFP more than I even trust tubal ligation, knowing at least one person who got pregnant after supposedly being rendered sterile. But that's where my own personal comfort level is, because I trust my own reliability of charting, accuracy of interpretation, and self-control not to have intercourse when I'm fertile. I don't try to push NFP on everyone because I know not everyone feels comfortable with the demands of NFP.

Then there's the issue of what would happen should I become pregnant.

I've written previously about how much I don't want to be pregnant and how I've mostly made peace with this. Besides my visceral recoiling at the idea of being pregnant, there are genetic conditions on both my and Mike's sides that raise ethical issues about knowingly passing these things on to biological children.

There's a great book called Stumbling on Happiness, which I've mentioned before, that talks in part about how bad humans generally are at anticipating how they will feel at some point in the future. In the simplest terms possible, when we think about ourselves in the future we assume we will be pretty much exactly like we are currently, except if something drastic were to happen to us, in which case we overestimate the impact it would have on us.

So you may have heard about the phenomenon that people think winning the lottery will make them infinitely happier than they currently are, whereas in reality most lottery winners have an initial spike of happiness and then return basically to where they were before. The interesting thing is that the reverse is also true; that is, people believe that some terrible event, such as getting cancer, would absolutely devastate them and ruin their life, whereas the reality is that people adjust surprisingly well to terrible events. I mean, it sucks, but it doesn't suck as bad as they thought it would because it quickly becomes their new normal.

I've heard from both my own readers and those on other sites' posts like this one at Offbeat Mama and this one at From Two to One who hated the experience of being pregnant... but they lived. It doesn't change my mind about not wanting to be pregnant, but it also reassures me that even if it happened and was as bad as I imagined, I would get through it.

It sounds like you're also concerned, like I am, that getting pregnant would mean passing on undesirable genetic conditions to your biological child(ren). The way I think about it is this: By choosing not to get pregnant, I am making what I consider an ethically positive decision not to knowingly create a human being who has a good likelihood of having lifelong health problems. However, we plan to adopt children, and even if we adopted an infant who was not genetically predisposed to health problems, they might still develop health problems. That's part of the nature of being human -- people get in accidents, they develop cancer, they have terrible things happen to them. Everyone wants to give their children the best possible chance in life, but it's unrealistic to think you can predict and prevent any bad thing from happening to them. If I were to unintentionally become pregnant and pass on genetic conditions to our child, I would have to accept that I had done what I could to prevent that from happening and that I can't protect my child from everything.

I also think it's important to address this issue of whether using contraception will send you to hell.

I'm not going to attempt to argue the finer points of Catholic theology with you on this because, frankly, different theologians and different priests would tell you different things anyway. But it brings to mind a great homily that our priest back in Chicago gave about Jesus telling His followers to be perfect like God is perfect, and other such impossibly high standards. The point, the priest said, is not that you must meet a standard of perfection in order to make it to heaven. The point is that the standard is so high that no one can earn their way into heaven. Even Catholic theology, though it emphasizes the importance of faith and works in salvation, doesn't say that you are saved by your works but rather that your works are necessary evidence of your faith, in accordance with James 2:14-26. By making the standard impossibly high, Jesus is making us aware of just how short we fall... and how much, therefore, we need Him.

Using NFP is not a ticket to heaven. You don't earn heaven points for not using contraception. Using NFP can be a sign of someone's faith in God, but that doesn't mean that using artificial contraception is a sign that they've turned their back on God.

For some much blunter discussion about whether there's actually a hell or whether it even matters (actually, for blunt discussions on just about everything), I suggest checking out johnshore.com.

Finally, let's talk about this notion of the importance of finding a mate.

First, I think it's necessary to ask yourself why it's important to you to get married. There are a lot of great reflections from different people here on the meaning of marriage. In particular, I think you might find Karen's post on why she wants to get married helpful in thinking through this. (I'm not going to get into the whole issue of whether a long-term commitment needs to be a married one, given your clear concerns about Catholic teaching and also the fact that your first concern is finding someone to be in that relationship with in the first place.)

Karen lists some reasons that I think are pretty good ones for wanting to get married, and I say that because ultimately none of them require her to find a husband in order to having a fulfilling and happy life. And that's really key for me. If your reasons for wanting to get married hinge on an idea that you can't be happy in your life without marriage, then you'll probably have difficulty being happy with your life even if you do get married.

Do you want to get married because you feel you're supposed to get married? Work on separating out what things make you happy from what things other people tell you will or should make you happy. Do you think that marriage is the only way to guarantee you'll be continually loved? There are no guarantees when it comes to other human beings, only God. Start by nurturing the relationships you do have. Do you feel incomplete without a life partner? Then even in a relationship you won't be fully yourself; you'll just be fearful of doing something wrong to end your partner's affections. Pursue those things that make you feel most alive and most yourself, and don't worry about whether those things make you attractive to potential mates.

I think you might appreciate this post on marriage from the blog of a friend who is planning to become a Sister. It's a good reminder that God calls everyone in different ways, even if it's not what they envisioned for their lives. And that goes for everything from whether you'll be married to what kind of birth control you'll use to whether you'll end up having children. I think it's important to prayerfully ask God to guide our lives, to pull us toward the path meant for us, while always remembering that God's plan is bigger and wiser than we can ever be. And that's not something to be afraid of.

One final thought is that if you don't already have a counselor helping you dealing with your anxiety issues, please make that a priority! I think basically everyone could benefit from a good counselor at one point or another, and it's especially needed if you are having fears or issues that are seriously impacting your outlook on life.

Readers, what do you think?

16 comments:

  1. Great response! (Did you really post it at 5:00am?!) I particularly like your advice about finding the love in existing relationships so that marriage doesn't seem like the only possible source of love.

    Regina, I think it's important to remember that all methods of avoiding conception can fail. NFP practiced carefully is about as effective as birth control pills (about 4 couples per 100 will conceive within a year using these methods) and more effective than condoms (about 14 per 100). As Jessica explained, most NFP "failures" are caused by deciding not to abstain after all at a time when you know there might be some chance of conception.

    So, the risk is not in choosing NFP over another method but in choosing to have sex at all. Risk is built into it--and I think it's odd that so many people seem not to understand that, both non-Catholics who assume their contraception is foolproof (without ever bothering to read the facts) and freak out when it wasn't, and Catholics who snarl about how those contraceptors have it so easy with their constant carefree sex.

    As an Episcopalian, I believe that God will guide you to the decisions that are right for you in this area of life, if you ask and listen for that guidance, and that it is okay for your decisions to be different from mine because we are called to different things. I know that Catholic teaching is much more narrow about which decisions are acceptable, and I hope that through prayer you will find a direction that's comfortable for you.

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  2. My comments were too long to post all at once, but I'd like to add:

    In my personal experience, having NOT been raised with a belief that contraception (or abortion) is wrong but having learned about the failure rates of contraceptive methods years before I had sex, I have always had a fear of unplanned pregnancy. It wasn't any less when I was using artificial contraception. I started having sex in high school, and I was very determined to complete college, so if I had become pregnant in those early years I probably would have had an abortion--but I was very afraid of doing that because I knew it would be so difficult for me; I didn't think it was morally wrong, but I knew I would always think about the child that could have been, and that would be painful.

    I learned more about NFP when I was ready to have a child and we were having some trouble conceiving. By the time we did conceive, I had become so aware of my body's signals that when my cycle resumed (when my son was 18 months old--so I hadn't felt those signals for 27 months!) I knew exactly what was happening. In fact, it was a relief to have the cycle for knowing when I was fertile, instead of nervously worrying that my fertility might return at any time. The cervical cap I used to use was no longer made, so we'd tried several barrier methods and didn't like any of them and felt nervous about relying on them...and over the next 2 years, we gradually quit using artificial contraception because we felt more comfortable with NFP.

    I've found that avoiding pregnancy by paying attention to my body and adjusting my sexual activity accordingly, rather than by adding chemicals and devices to my body and hoping they "work", has gradually brought me to a calmer perspective on the whole thing. I still feel that I'm not meant to be a mother of many children, but if we someday have another one it will be because it's the right thing for us, natural, what God is calling us to do...not a "mistake" on either our part or God's.

    But I'm coming at it from the perspective of someone who DID want to experience pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood--just not over and over again! I'm sure it's easier to be calm about the possibility of *another* baby after having had one, than to be calm about the possibility of *ever* having a baby when you don't want *any*. I hope my thoughts are helpful anyway!

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  3. And I still have more to say!

    We did, actually, have a surprise pregnancy this past spring, but then the embryo died and had to be surgically removed. That was a horrible experience--we had just gotten used to the idea of a new baby, when we had to switch gears again! and it was awful physically--but I think I would have been much more upset about being pregnant if I had been preventing it artificially, because that would mean the products on which I had been relying had failed me and I'd never be able to trust them again and this kid was some faceless corporation's fault! Instead, we were able to say, "Well, we were confused about what was happening that cycle, and we got tired of waiting and decided to take a chance, and then ovulation happened suddenly right after that--we knew it could happen." And then when it died, we reviewed those feelings of confusion again and said, "Maybe there was something wrong with that egg and that's why the signals were unclear." It's still very upsetting--I don't want to make any wrong eggs! I'm furious that I suffered weeks of pregnancy for someone who callously died inside me instead of growing into a cute baby!--but NFP lets me feel it all unfolding in my body instead of as a duel between my body and Science. Does that make sense?

    I recommend charting your cycle now--at least tracking dates of your periods and changes in cervical fluid--because if you do get married the years of experience will be very helpful, and even if you don't it is very handy to know when to expect your period and to be aware of any emotional or physical events that correlate with ovulation. (For example, I'm prone to headaches in general; ovulation is one thing that can trigger a headache, so at that time I need to be especially careful about controlling the other triggers.)

    Have you tried praying about your fear? Often I respond to fear by praying for specific things that I think will make me feel less afraid, but we don't always know what we are asking. If you lay down your fear before God and ask for help in dealing with that fear, perhaps the help will come from a direction you didn't expect.

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    1. Thank you for all these fantastic thoughts! I especially want to echo the point to start charting your cycle now -- that was something I forgot to mention. Starting to chart when you're not sexually active is a great way to get familiar with your body's cycles without having to worry about charting exactly right. And the point about (heterosexual) sex inherently coming with a risk of pregnancy is an excellent and necessary point!

      And yes, I always schedule my posts to go up at 5am -- that way they're published for people starting work at 8 on the East Coast, and the link is live to be posted to Facebook and Twitter when I wake up, before I go to work.

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  4. Very good thoughts and I also liked Becca's thoughts. When we used NFP, we had far more confidence in it than we would have in artificial methods; it felt more like something under my, not control exactly, but purview. If it failed, it would be most likely my own carelessness; therefore I could counterbalance it by being more careful. I had a place to go with anxiety; something I could actually DO. (I have far less confidence in the vasectomy, ironically--we know at least two couples who conceived post-vasectomy. But the combination of NFP with my husband's irregular health was getting too hard.)

    Something I realized over time is that everyone who is having sex (except those permanently, irrevocably sterile through age or removal of all relevant body parts) either has some of this anxiety or is being naive. People are either trying to get pregnant and worrying about that or trying not to get pregnant and worrying about that. It's like being a farmer--there is much that modern technology has helped us with, but there is still that part that is outside our control. I think that is a good thing. We were not wired to be masters of the universe.

    I was too optimistic to be afraid of pregnancy; it took me three tries to be convinced that yes, pregnancy was going to be a horrible experience for me every time (and it isn't for everyone! It really isn't!) But as torturous as it was--my own symptoms compounded by guilt of watching my husband's condition worsen because I wasn't doing all the things I usually did--it is over now. It was a small part of my life. It has long since faded in the rhythms of daily life and been replaced by amazement at the people I got to be a part of making.

    We also had to deal with the genetics question--although in our case it was the near-certainty of passing on a (relatively) minor condition (i.e. one that only affects the extremities, rather than life span, intelligence or core movement) rather than the modest chance of passing on a severe one. For us that was not a tough call; much as my husband struggles, he'd rather exist than not, and he felt no guilt about passing it on. We have arranged our lives to do what we can to minimize the impact on our children (the condition is highly affected by environment, though it's still an open question when and how) and so far none have shown definite signs, so we are very grateful for that.

    Finally, I would definitely second the counseling for anxiety. Fear is a miserable thing to drag through life with you. Getting free from that can let you make choices on what you value, not on what you are afraid of.

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    1. That's an excellent point that basically everyone having sex has some anxiety, or else they don't really understand that there are no guarantees when it comes to getting or not getting pregnant. It reminds of how I realized that so many women feel selfish about their childbearing decisions, so I wasn't abnormal for feeling that way.

      I think it's kind of funny that you were so optimistic about pregnancy every time; I'm pretty sure that if I did get pregnant, even if it was an easy pregnancy I would spend the whole time thinking it was about to get really bad. But it's good to hear you echo the idea that even when it is a horrible experience, it is still a small part of your life.

      Thanks for sharing all your great thoughts -- I appreciate hearing your perspective!

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  5. In the original comment, the part that stuck out to me the most was the idea of wanting to use contraception, but fearing the punishment of hell for it. I personally don't agree with the Catholic church's teaching on contraception, but even if it is true that God thinks it's a sin, he has a good reason for that. I don't believe in a God who gives us totally unreasonable, unrealistic laws and then punishes us in hell for not following them. Instead, our motivation for obeying should be that God's laws are ACTUALLY A GOOD IDEA, and not because we fear punishment.

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    1. I think the commenter, and many Catholics, believe that God does have good reason for not wanting us to use artificial contraception. For me, the question is always whether something is a good idea for everyone just because it's a good idea for many. Even though I think there are many benefits to NFP, which is why we're practicing it ourselves, that doesn't make it the best choice for everyone. It comes back to the diversity of the human race and whether God created so many different people for them to act exactly the same way -- which seems unlikely.

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  6. This is a really great post!

    First, I think that the issue the Church raises with contraception is about one of self-gift and one of trust. The Church feels that the use of artificial contraception is a "holding back" of your whole self to your spouse, fertility and all. It doesn't live up to the ideals established in the sacrament, to become "one flesh", and therein lies the difficulty with it being acceptable to the Church. For my husband and I, having a child at this point in our lives, while we are trying to pay down debt and still living with his parents, would not be ideal; yet, we are very open to God's plan in our life. We were using NFP Creighton Model when I became pregnant last spring; I found out I was pregnant and having a miscarriage within 48 hours of each other. It hurt like hell. We were so happy even though we knew things wouldn't be ideal because we trusted God's plan. For whatever reason, it was not meant to be. And I think that is the second big part of it: artificial contraception, for me, states to God that we don't care what your plan is for our life, we don't care if you want to create another person with an eternal soul; we are doing this completely according to us! And so creation of a new life is not in cooperation with God. This realization helped me to cope with the loss in the weeks and months following. I am still coping with it, and it is kind of right in my face now because my sister in law is 18 weeks pregnant following her own miscarriage. So I have been forced to reflect upon this instead of being able to put it out of my mind.

    As important as it is to trust in God and be self-giving in marriage, I don't think it is something you need fear Hell over. It should be about growing in understanding and holiness and love. As perfectnumber628 said above, we should follow these things not because we fear hell, but because we want to grow in holiness. If that is the motivation of your heart, I believe you have a pretty fantastic chance of NOT going to hell.

    I hope this helps. Trust in God; remember, if he brings you to it, he WILL bring you through it!

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    1. Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Mary Kate, and I'm so sorry to hear about the pain you went through last spring. That must have really been an emotional rollercoaster for you and your husband. I appreciate you sharing your story here and your thoughts on contraception and God's plans, and I hope that they are helpful to Regina if she reads them, or anyone else who needs to hear this.

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  7. A lot of good thoughts here! "I would actually be a lot more afraid of using another form of birth control, personally" is how I have always felt. At least with NFP you know what you are dealing with.

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    1. Yeah, that's how I feel, although I have to acknowledge I'm coming at it from the perspective of having charted for a number of years now. Until someone's taken the time to track their own cycles and seen their own patterns, I can see how it could seem like an inexact science. (Though it drives me NUTS when I see comments like, "I could never do NFP because my cycles are too unpredictable." Um, do you know what NFP is? Have you tried tracking your cycle?)

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  8. This is a fantastic post.

    I especially like the part about whether "contraception will send you to hell".

    My own opinions on the matter are how I found your blog. I see a lot of couples have a lot of problems because they bring this fear of hellfire into their bedroom. When they run into extended periods of abstinence, they starve their marriages for intimacy (or take inappropriate risks of pregnancy) because they are afraid of falling into sin and/or they want to earn God's favor.

    Almost as harmful is the more modern "idealizing" of marital sexuality, which I think you have written about in other posts and making this ideal the norm. That anything that isn't "perfect" in the bedroom is somehow a sin. That's not a healthy way for two people to have a relationship.

    And I think this perfection and fear of imperfection are keeping people away from something that can be a true positive in their relationship.

    I do agree with Catholic teaching on sexuality. Like perfectnumber628 mentioned, I believe that the teachings are reasonable (though difficult), healthy, and actually a good idea. We started using NFP grudgingly out of desperation, but have found it to be a tremendous positive for us.

    But at the same time I recognize that sexuality is only one area of our lives and our marriage. It should never be a "litmus test" of who we are as Christians or who we are as people. I think that some people reduce individuals to their sexual self-control and marriage to sex, which causes all sorts of problems.

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    1. Yes -- so much about relationships, faith, you name it, has somehow been reduced to what we do with our genitals. And that, I believe, cheapens the value of our lives as a whole, of marriage, of religion, and of sex itself. Healthy marriages are not defined solely by what we do in the bedroom, and neither is our relationship with God.

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  9. Saw this on my twitter feed about fear of pregnancy and thought of this post. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=1743358&l=18ff10481b&id=131485143538712

    Apparently this is pretty common, but there isn't a lot of awareness of it. It is a real psychological phobia and counseling seems to be helpful.

    I know nothing about pregnancy for obvious reasons, but I do know about fear. And fear should never get in the way of living the life you are called to lead.

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    1. Interesting; I'd never heard of that. That sounds way more extreme than what I feel, but it may be a good description for the reader who left the comment in this post. Thanks for sharing.

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