At my 6 week postpartum checkup after the birth of my first child, my doctor asked the question I was loathing to hear, “So what are you planning to do for birth control?”
It’s a humiliating experience for most women who practice NFP when their response is met with scoffs, eye rolls, laughter, and the oh so clever, “see you back here in 9 months”.
My response was met with, “You know, Emily, I’ve been married for 20 years, and I will just tell you men have needs.”
I was too vulnerable at the time to make any rebuttal. If I could go back to that moment in time, I’d tell my doctor that she just blew the lid off of generations of feminist rhetoric, admitting that birth control (BC) has nothing to do with women’s liberation, but rather fettering women to their own whims and to the whims and impulses of men. Well, it was nice to finally be told the honest truth.
Despite my opposition to BC for medical reasons (nevermind the moral ones), I and many NFP users still struggle with why the Church has deemed BC a grave sin in all cases.
In looking for an answer to this question, let’s start basic. The Church is very much concerned that those she unites in marriage have healthy, life-giving (not just children), Heaven-oriented marriages. She wants spouses to grow in unity, and most importantly to grow closer to God. It’s the basic function of all vocations – a ladder to Heaven.
Our ladder is the Cross. Sacrifice. Death to self. Conformity to God’s will. The success of a marriage, therefore, requires one basic ingredient that infuses all the others: self-sacrifice.
It’s hard. It’s not fun. We all fight it. We all try to find other ways. But the truth will still be there in the end staring us in the face. It is Christ who first laid this out. The Church merely upholds it.
At the same time, we must acknowledge that what separates marriage from all other relationships (or should) is sex. Sex is not something we can dismiss or trivialize. It is a beautiful God-given gift, and a heck of a lot of fun.
Because the Church is concerned that her members have healthy marriages, she recognizes that a healthy sex life is an integral part of making that a reality.
The question we need to be asking then is not whether birth control should be licit, but rather how to ensure that couples develop the healthiest sex life.
Which brings me back to my doctor’s slip: men have needs. If we take that statement, we can see that it presumes that a healthy sex life requires instant gratification and subsequent frequency, without being encumbered by the responsibility of a child.
But this pattern of behavior is a hallmark of profoundly unhappy people. As the mother of a 2 year old, I can easily speak to this. If she had her way, my daughter would subsist of a diet of fruit snacks and chocolate milk and watch Moana all day. If I gave into her demands at all times, she would be unhappy, unhealthy, and devoid of any sense of consequences for her actions. I discipline her and deprive her and limit her out of love so that she can grow and mature into a healthy adult rather than a fat narcissist. Research shows that obedient children (of loving parents) are the happiest children. It’s just as true for adults in relation to God.
As to frequency? When I was working in DC, I went to many galas. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to dress up, eat a fancy delicious meal, and hear incredible people speak. After a year, these events became very stale. Something good became boring through frequency. This is why NFP proponents talk about “the second honeymoon” following short periods of abstinence during regular cycles. Far more can be said for that in keeping a sex life fresh and exciting than anything that EL James could concoct.
Before we go on, it is worth stating that NFP guarantees nothing. NFP proponents like to encourage use by saying that couples who practice it have better marriages. Yet, there are not an insignificant number of couples who claim precisely the opposite. They are mistaking correlation for causation. Couples who are willing to make sacrifices for the good of each other have healthier, happier marriages, and these couples tend to practice NFP more often than contraception. Self-sacrifice then is the cause, while NFP practice is merely correlated.
Two of the biggest arguments against NFP are periodic abstinence and its “failure” rate. Go back 3 paragraphs if the first item is your beef. Instant gratification and the subsequent frequency would ultimately destroy your sex life and potentially your marriage. I won’t deny that in stages of life such as postpartum and menopause, periodic abstinence is a big deal. Couples going through these periods can face abstaining for 3 weeks on the short end, to months and even years in some cases. But, when couples bear this out of mutual love and respect for the body’s natural processes, the result is by and large a stronger, more unified, more loving marriage.
And as for the “failure” rate. NFP methods are just as effective as artificial BC when protocol is followed precisely. But let’s think about that word “failure” for a minute. NFP users never describe their children as “failures.” There is no such thing as an unplanned child. All children are planned in the mind of God, even if their parents weren’t smart enough to think of them too. I have two NFP surprises. They are the best things that ever happened to me and my husband precisely because they were “failures.” I won’t deny that being surprised by them was the opposite of rainbows and unicorns. But what we have and what we’ve learned through the struggles we had to face because of them I wouldn’t trade for the house we sometimes wish we had, or the cash we’d like to see in the bank.
Finally, there is typically a desire-imbalance between men and women when it comes to sex. Men by and large have higher libidos than women. Women are more complicated than men. (I hope you’ve been seated for these truth bombs.) As I once heard a pastor say, all a man needs for great sex is for the woman to show up. Women on the other hand need romance, conversation, words of affirmation, a nap (and even then, hormones can throw everything off). Men need these things too, but it usually doesn’t ruin a good time in bed. This does not mean women do not like, desire or need sex, or that a man’s high libido makes him a scumbag. The disparity merely presents an opportunity to put our spouse before ourselves.
So to answer the question of how to ensure that couples can develop the healthiest sex life. It is logical to conclude that in order to have a healthy marriage and a healthy sex life, we need a system in place that best facilitates a loving ebb and flow between the desire-imbalance in the sexes, that fosters the most opportunities for respect and love to grow through sacrifice, and allows for God to intervene if He deems it best for the growth of the couple.
This is decidedly not the original goal, nor arguably the result of contraception.
This, for better or worse, is NFP.