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.
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?