I met Deanna after reading this article, and new that she and her husband had to be part of this series. We’re actually connected in a couple other fun ways as well. She knows my parents through their work with preparing engaged couples for marriage, and she also works closely with Fr. Justin Braun whose story you’ll read on Saturday. As she mentions below, Deanna is the Director of Family Life at the St. Philip Institute. You can find out more about the Institute and connect with Deanna here: St. Philip Institute | SPI Instagram | SPI Facebook | Deanna’s Instagram | Deanna’s Twitter
TW: Let’s start with a brief intro. Tell us a little about yourselves.
We’re Michael and Deanna. We met on Catholic Match in 2010 and got married in October of 2013. We have 4 children: Alexandria (4), Simon (2), Elena (11 months), a little saint in heaven, and a baby due in January 2020. Michael is a high school theology teacher, and Deanna is the Director of Family Life for the St. Philip Institute of Catechesis and Evangelization in the Diocese of Tyler, Texas.
TW: How long have you and your spouse been practicing NFP? How did you learn it? Tell us a little about the methods you’ve used and what resources were helpful to you.
Deanna: NFP is one of those things that I’ve known about for most of my life. My parents had a conversion experience when I was very young, and NFP was instrumental in bringing them into full communion with the Catholic Church. I have memories of seeing my Mom’s chart with different colored stickers, and stickers with babies on them. I remember her explanation being very simple, “This helps me understand how my body works and when I could have a baby.” Now as I think back on that response, how wonderful would it be if every woman understood that she has a right to that kind of knowledge?
I started learning how to chart in my early 20s, in fact, it was around the same time that I met Michael. I learned the Billings Ovulation Method (like my parents), and as I began charting it actually helped to identify health issues. Although blood tests on my thyroid were coming back as “normal”, my charting actually provided additional information to my doctor, who then ordered more thorough testing and discovered that I have hypothyroidism. Most recently, charting has also helped to identify that I most likely have PCOS.
I can’t recall ever having a specific conversation with Michael about using NFP while we were dating, but I did know that we were on the same page with regards to what the Church teaches on being open to life. By the time we were engaged, I had been charting for about 3 years, so we felt comfortable and confident that this would be a tool that we could use to plan our family.
About a month before we got married, I attended a Billings Ovulation Method teacher training so that I could begin helping our parish and diocese in this area of ministry. After the training ended and our wedding day got closer, I distinctly remember feeling like we absolutely could not have a honeymoon baby. This was not because of something someone said at the training, but it was as though I was putting pressure myself to prove that NFP does work. If I got pregnant on our honeymoon it would somehow signal to all of the engaged couples that NFP is not really that effective.
Six years later, I have to laugh at myself and admit how prideful and silly it was to worry so much. One of the things I have realized working in marriage and family life ministry is that sometimes the “sell” of NFP to engaged and newlywed couples is emphasizing how great NFP is for postponing and avoiding pregnancy. I know we heard that during our marriage prep. Sometimes well-meaning people in marriage ministry forget to emphasize how wonderful it is for helping a couple to achieve pregnancy. A honeymoon baby would not have meant failure; on the contrary, it would have meant that something very right and good happened!
Michael and I did postpone pregnancy for 9 months while we were both finishing graduate school and our thesis papers. A few weeks after graduation, we found out we were pregnant with our first. Since then, our journey with NFP has been a roller coaster ride, and we’ve had a mixed bag of experiences: we’ve successfully used the method to conceive; we’ve had a surprise pregnancy that even the chart couldn’t explain; we’ve gotten pregnant when we weren’t really trying to conceive and we weren’t really serious about postponing so we experimented with the rules; and we’ve gotten pregnant by breaking the rules and thinking that we could learn a new method on our own without proper instruction (which is a great recipe for getting pregnant by the way!)
I will never be the person to say “NFP is so easy” because that isn’t always true for everyone. Sure, the science is pretty straightforward: women are infertile most of the time , but there is a window of fertility that comes and goes with each healthy cycle. But the day-to-day experience of using NFP for us has been both a blessing and also an exercise in humility and total trust in God’s plan, which can be challenging.
TW: What is your favorite thing about NFP? Your least favorite?
Deanna: One of the best things about NFP is that it reminds us that any time we put an “I” on the chart for intercourse, it is also an invitation for life. Regardless of whether I’m in my basic infertile pattern, a time of possible fertility, or the postovulatory/luteal phase, if Michael and I put an “I” on the chart, it means we have told God that we are open to life. That’s the difference between NFP and contraception… NFP is a “yes” to life no matter what part of the cycle we’re in. And as wonderful as that is, sometimes it can also be really scary to trust God with this.
I heard someone say that “finances and fertility are the two most difficult things to put into God’s hands.” Boy, isn’t that the truth! Over the past 6 years, my experience has been that NFP can sometimes feel like a cross. Sometimes NFP is not as “easy” and “joyful” as people told us it would be. The science of NFP is incredible, and the theology and sacramentality of marriage is beautiful, but sometimes it is so challenging to trust God with our fertility. It constantly teaches us to say “Lord, your will not ours be done. We’re open” and that can be humbling.
Michael: My favorite thing about NFP is that it incorporates, literally, the nature of human beings in relation to one another and God. In this way, theory meets practice insofar as human beings are physical and spiritual creatures. The concept of NFP realizes this reality in a concrete manner that makes sense to me.
I think that understanding what it means to be human (as a creature created by God for relationship with Him) is made real by a proper understanding AND practice of NFP. In other words, NFP works with both our material and spiritual understanding of who we are as humans. The most difficult aspect for me is having the courage of my convictions, which is that NFP really expresses who we are. The courage is needed, for me, insofar as it can be very difficult to accept the challenge of children – and they can be super challenging. I certainly like the idea of children, but accepting the wonder of children and divorcing my selfish heart from personal gratification is not always easy.
TW: NFP can help cultivate the understanding that fertility is shared, however, the burden of charting typically falls on the woman since NFP utilizes her bodily symptoms to determine the fertile window. How do you share your fertility as a married couple?
I think before we were married I imagined my husband being super enthusiastic about NFP and that he would ask me every evening, “Beloved wife, what shall I put on the chart this evening?” (Haha) But this is real life and we’ll be honest… this is something we are still learning to share. Even though Michael might not always remember to ask about the chart, I appreciate the fact that we are on the same team. During the times we discern that we need to postpone pregnancy, he’s usually the one reminding me that we really do need to follow the rules of the method. We also have the opportunity to talk about our family plans/goals for our family together. It isn’t “Deanna’s Family Planning”, it’s the two of us together, doing our best to seek God’s will for our family, and learning how to appreciate this incredible gift of being co-creators with God. So we might not chart together, but I think NFP is helping us to grow together in our understanding of God’s plan for our family.
TW: Describe a time when NFP was exceptionally hard. How did you work/ are you working through it, together and/or separately?
Deanna: The most difficult time for me was the unexpected pregnancy after having a miscarriage. We lost a baby in December 2015, and our doctor told us to wait three months before trying to conceive again. When we found out that we were pregnant in February, I was terrified. According to the chart we shouldn’t have gotten pregnant (even my instructor was surprised), and I felt like I had been irresponsible. I was scared of losing another baby, and I don’t think I was actually excited about the baby until I was closer to the second trimester. That baby turned out to be our incredible son, Simon, who has brought more joy and love into our lives than I thought was possible. I can’t imagine life without him. Simon is a reminder of how much better God’s plans are than ours.
Michael: The hardest times for me were when we did not follow the rules like we should have and found out that we were pregnant. It is easy to doubt the very concept of NFP in such situations. The way that I personally work through it is to fall back upon a more fundamental understanding of NFP. We cannot rely upon other ways of postponing pregnancy and retain the kind of relationship which is described by a Trinitarian God or by Christ Incarnate. While it is difficult sometimes (especially at first) to accept the unexpected challenge of a new baby, I know that there was no other way for us to have maintained spousal intimacy in an authentic way which honored both ourselves and God. I think the most challenging aspect here is knowing that there are many people who do not strive for any kind of full understanding– let alone practice such a hard saying– and so they utilize birth control. There is a certain anger in that, knowing there is an ‘easy’ path, but also a kind of pity I suppose.
TW: How would you respond to someone who says that NFP has a high failure rate?
I think this goes back to the question of how do we define the “success” of NFP? Does the “successful” NFP couple have multiple children spaced 2+ years apart? If our definition of the success of NFP is based solely on the method’s ability to help couples avoid pregnancy, then we’re missing the point.
We’re a great example of a couple who is blessed with a few surprises. NFP didn’t fail in those pregnancies, it actually proved to work quite well. The science is spot on, but I think especially as a Catholic couple, we cannot forget the sacrament that is also involved in all of this. We are called to be open to life, to entrust our family into God’s hands, and NFP has allowed us to do that while also practicing responsible parenthood.
TW: How do you think the Church can better spread/ teach NFP?
As a Church, we really need to be unafraid of presenting the whole truth of NFP: the beauty, the blessings, and the cross. I’ve worked with engaged couples for 9 years, and I know how challenging it is to share NFP when we’re competing with a contraceptive culture that proclaims an option that is “easy” and doesn’t require stickers or thinking. But we cannot romanticize Natural Family Planning as something that is always going to be easy, always going to strengthen our marriage, or always going to “divorce-proof” our marriage. NFP is one of many tools that a couple can use to strengthen their marriage, but it requires work. The Church cannot be afraid of talking about the sacrifice and challenge that comes with living NFP within marriage. It can be challenging, but it is also so worth it!
We also need to look for more opportunities to collaborate with people in the medical profession. I am so grateful that NaPro doctors and physicians who have been trained in NFP methods are available, but there is still so much work to be done. NFP is all about being pro-woman, and I think the Church wants to support that!
Finally, the Church can continue to encourage and support married couples in their discernment and as they strive to live out responsible parenthood. Sometimes I think there is still this assumption that “good Catholic families” look a certain way, have a certain number of kids, etc. Every family is different. Every couple’s situation is unique. I know beautiful saintly families with 10 kids, and I know beautiful saintly couples who only have one child or are carrying the cross of infertility. That’s the beauty of Church… there is room for us all!
TW: If you had one minute to share NFP with someone, what would you say?
I think I’d have to share it the way my Mom first explained it to me: Do you want to know how your body works? A woman’s fertility is not a disease, it is an incredible gift. Learning NFP is a way to appreciate the fact that God does not make junk. And for married couples, NFP is a way to live out what the Church teaches and learning to trust God in a way that will sometimes stretch us and call us out of our comfort zone. NFP can feel like a rollercoaster ride, and as we look at our beautiful children we can tell you without a doubt that it is the best adventure we’ve been on so far!
Missed the other stories in the Life Abundantly Series? Click here.
For additional NFP resources, click here.
Very interesting and good information. I’m really interested in NFP I would like more info on how the charting works. Is there a website or App I could use to get more informed. Also I would be awesome if y’all could share some information in Spanish. Thank you all this is very helpful.
I unfortunately don’t have information in Spanish, but I did compile a list of NFP resources on my website in the top menu bar of my homepage. I’ve included links to all the official websites for each method of fertility awareness. I’d encourage you to check there and see if they can provide information in Spanish. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if I can be of further help!
This is what concerns me as a Catholic. Deanna is an NFP instructor but she admits that she’s unable to plan her pregnancies. NFP has failed her but she chalks the failiure up to “God’s will” and keeps having unprotected sex with her husband, bringing more kids into the world. Do you have a plan for how to care for all of these kids or is that up to God too? As parents, they have fixed resources. There are only 24 hours in a day. The more kids that are added to the equation, the less time, attention, food etc. is available to each kid. It’s IRRESPONSIBLE to pop out a kid every year without a plan to take care of them. This gives the Catholic Church a bad name.
I will let Michael and Deanna address you in more detail if they like. I would like to ask you as someone who used to share your view at least in part to reexamine what you believe particularly in regards to the very notion of “protected” sex, or the idea that the number of children can only ever be inversely related to one’s wealth or resources. My own two wonderful children certainly stretch our financial capabilities, but I must confess to knowing an intangible opulence thanks to them that money could never hope to buy. You say you are Catholic, yet what you state is precisely contrary to Church teaching. I pray this is not the fault of the Catholic Church herself in failing to communicate to you the profound beauty of her teachings.
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Hi Vanessa! One of the best places to go for Spanish resources or online classes is Liga de Pareja a Pareja (Couple to Couple League) at CCL i.org and then click on the Spanish tab. There’s also Aprendepfnenlinea.com.
I hope this helps!
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Comments like yours, Brenda, strain Christian charity. Mine, I mean. Exactly how does having children of *any* number cause a problem? For anyone?
Kid time is not a zero-sum game. “The more kids that are added to the equation, the less time, attention, food, etc. is available to each kid” is, simply put, an unscientific and frankly ill-informed comment. How many children were raised in your home as a child? How much food was discarded after meals in your house? (I bet their two younger children probably spill as much food as they consume at many meals.)
The particulars of your uncharitable comment directed to them aside, you do realize that AS CATHOLICS, we are all called to be open to the transmission of life in our marriages, yes? Humanae Vitae wasn’t just an academic exercise; it is prescriptive for ALL Catholics.
Lastly…it was rude of you to disparage their openness to life as “popping out a kid every year”. Do you know them? Do you have any context for understanding their family dynamic? Oh, wait: you do. They are faithful Catholics, living out their vocation to Christian marriage *exactly as designed*.
Live out your vocation as you please. God will judge your faithfulness; I won’t deign to.
But you’re so far off base with your comments that you are in the stadium parking lot. Deanna and Michael are living out their vocation exactly as God plans, which is the only plan necessary.
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This is Deanna. I thought I’d take a moment to respond, because you make some bold assumptions about me and my husband and our family planning.
When you say that I teach NFP but I’m “unable to plan to my pregnancies” what i really hear you saying is that “Deanna is unable to control the exact moment that she gets pregnant.” I’m Catholic, and when my husband and I got married we promised to be open to life. Period. Even when we “planned” to get pregnant it didn’t happen exactly on my timeline. NFP is not “catholic contraception”. We are always open to life no matter what. And if it is really important for us to not conceive, then we just don’t have sex.
You also claim that Michael and I keep bringing children into the world IRRESPONSIBLY. Hm. Brenda, how much do you know about our family’s situation? Do you know our income? Do you know the resources that we have available to us to provide for our family? Do you really think that I’m just over here “popping out a baby” and then 6 weeks postpartum saying “ok let’s get pregnant whenever?” If you’re worried that my children don’t eat enough and are wearing sack cloth and covered in ashes, I can assure you… they are doing great. And man, they are amazing.
You ask if we have a plan for raising these children or if that’s up to God too…. yup. Both. That’s what responsible parenthood is. We have a plan but we are also trusting that God is going to give us what we need to care for the children he has given to us.
It would be “irresponsible” for us to continue getting pregnant if it prevented us from caring for the children that we already have or was harmful to my health, etc. This is why I haven’t had a baby every 9 months. Sometimes it’s just a really bad idea to pursue conceiving because it would not allow us to live out responsible parenthood (which is what the Church teaches).
You say I keep having “unprotected sex”…. there’s so much to unpack here especially since you say that you’re Catholic. Protection from what exactly??
If I somehow gave the impression that I am just over here with stars in my eyes saying “oh it’s just God’s will…” I can assure you it’s a much more complicated and intricate situation than that. I know when we conceived each of our children.
Our children. Our precious beautiful children. And you say I’m irresponsible and giving Catholics a bad name because I keep having children? Really?
Our first was planned. Our second (that we lost) we intentionally broke a rule and decided to see what would happen. Our third, I know when we most likely conceived but even though I didn’t “plan” to get pregnant so soon after a miscarriage, I’m so so so glad that God brought him into our lives. Our fourth, we broke a rule because why not? There wasn’t a serious reason to postpone. And with this pregnancy we didn’t follow the rules for a new method (as I wrote in the interview) and we conceived, which we knew was a possibility.
Since people are into “women’s body women’s choice” these days… what if I WANT to have a large family? Why don’t i get to be open to that possibility?
If I were over here saying “EVERYONE should have children 18-22 months apart and if you don’t you’re sinful” then please lump me with the other crazy Catholics that are giving the church a bad name. Because that’s NOT WHAT THE CHURCH TEACHES.
The Catholic Church teaches that we should be open to life AND that we should exercise responsible parenthood. Not every family is going to have 2 kids, or 4 kids, or 10 kids. Our kids just happen to be 18-22 months apart… because that’s what works for us. That’s why I love our faith, there’s room for all of us.
I don’t know your background or your story, Brenda (and I won’t assume that I do). But I sincerely mean it when I say that I’ll be praying for you.
Brenda, you must really dislike me. I’ve been married 18 years and have been pregnant 10 times! (Six living children.) Guess what, my husband and I care for them just fine. But I’d love to talk to you more about what constitutes responsible parenthood, if you’re open to that convo. My email is jrwahlund at gmail dot com
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There are several things in Brenda’s comment that pose problems. On a fundamental level there is a radical misunderstanding of Catholic theology. This problem in itself reduces the comment to mere sound– there isn’t anything to respond to because there is no substance to rebut. The second noticeable problem is that Brenda commits an ad hominem attack couched within a hasty generalization (two logical fallacies)– which once again restricts any possible response to addressing this issue first. More than this, of course is that usually any ad hominem attack in such a forum is normally indicative of ill-will, not rational discourse. The third problem is also one of a fundamental nature insofar as the philosophy proposed in answer to the above post is one of consequentialism. These is not new and not surprising in that many people are consequentialists– usually they are nominally catholic and typically they are materialists. Suffice to say, this is in no way a catholic position. Responding to these myriad of flaws is very difficult because Brenda’s argument proposes to be Catholic and isn’t, and accuses without base.
1. Deanna says that they “broke a rule” and thus were not following proper NFP technique. “breaking a rule” by definition means that she knew there was a rule to break– and thus that a part of the technical aspect of NFP was not in place. This only leaves the ad hominem aspect of your first accusation. I will further state that, even if Deanna was admitting to ignorance of NFP method (and thus a failure of application) does not disprove the method. There are two reasons for this: the first is that NFP is teaching a disposition or relationship. The second is that it teaches a technique within the more fundamental framework of the disposition.
2. Saying “NFP has failed her” is admitting a fundamental misunderstanding of what NFP is being described as in the above post. NFP is not primarily ‘technique’ but a proper expression of Catholic anthropology (disposition or relationship).
3. The solution proposed, at least as inferred by the phrase “keeps having unprotected sex with her husband” is that ‘protected sex’ is the right way to go. This is terribly confusing because it is fundamentally not a catholic idea and thus cannot be seen as the proper solution to ‘failed NFP’.
4. “Keeps bringing children into the world” is anti-catholic and anti-human. It is anti-catholic because it declares quite plainly that someone should not be having children and thus, raise saints. It is anti-human because it plainly declares that human beings are not, in fact, human, but things. Further answered in #7
5. In fact we do leave the care of our children up to God. That is the very first thing that all parents should be doing. This does not dissolve the human intellect and thus our ability to rationally discuss how many kids we have or how we will care for them– but it does properly order our being in relation to an all-good God. Additionally, I would like to point out that this statement is rather boldly ignorant in that it supposes knowledge baselessly. I once spoke to someone who had a formulae for the number of kids parents should have– he said “1 kid per 40k dollars gross income.” I asked him what birth number he was in his family, he told me “4” I then asked him what his parents income was. He grew very quiet when he realized that he had proposed, by his own terrible arithmetic, “I should not exist.”
6. Related to #5: Some people know the price of everything and value of nothing. In this case we see Brenda putting a dollar and time amount on the happiness and wellbeing of our children. This is a utilitarian philosophy– a subset of a consequentialist mindset; in this particular case Brenda tells everyone exactly what will make them happy (or their children) and prescribes a solution. On a very human level, I would like to hear someone like this explain to a very poor child in a family of six or seven that their parents should have been more responsible and not had them. Children are human beings, not things– we have to keep this in mind or we will have the mindset of Brenda (the ends justify the means).
7. It s a very dark philosophy to suppose that more children in the world is a bad thing. Making a statement like this supposes entirely too much intimate knowledge of the people having the kids– how they raise them, what they teach them and feed them, how they educate them and how they love them. This philosophy also supposes that, as mentioned in point 4 and 6, children are somehow things, machines with an input for parenting 1’s and 0’s and outputs for productivity and material success.
In short, in order to have a discussion with Brenda on this topic we have to amputate not only the idea that we are catholic, but that we are spiritual creatures at all. Thus I propose we move the argument to Brenda’s actual turf: materialism consequentialism.
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I’m for that. Except there’s not much to discuss; we are Catholic; materialist consequentialism is definitely not.
This is what we’ve bought with our turn away from teaching people how to think by teaching them philosophy. We create a world of people with such a utilitarian approach toward life, and toward other people, that it’s almost impossible to have a conversation.
Clearly I hit a nerve. My simple point is that Deanna teaches NFP but is proof that it does not work. With NFP, the timing of intercourse can be planned to achieve or avoid pregnancy based on the identified fertile period. That’s the point of it. Achieving or avoiding pregnancy. Deanna failed to avoid pregnancy, therefore NFP failed for her. Twice. She then goes on to redefine failure as success saying that she got pregnant so it must be God’s will so YAY SUCCESS! Why even bother teaching or practicing NFP if you’re living proof that it is not effective?
Where does it stop for her? Five kids? Ten kids? Fifteen? Is it her belief that God will supernaturally see that her 15 kids get what they need because she doesn’t know how to stop getting pregnant? What is the limit? Parenting is hard work, it’s not magical. It’s magical thinking to bring kids into this world and expect God to provide for them.
No, Brenda. You didn’t hit a nerve. You demonstrated the ignorance of the Church’s teaching on human life and its value that is unfortunately rampant among Catholics. And because you chose (and continue to choose) to display your lack of knowledge and understanding, you caused a reaction that sought to clearly articulate the Church’s teaching lest anyone else reading mistake your musing for logic.
Where does it stop for them?
Frankly, none of your business. What would make you think it was?
But I’ll help. We will all pray for you, that whatever wounds you’ve experienced may be healed.
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The fall from your high horse is gonna hurt. Try to tuck and roll, mkay?
Deanna used NFP for exactly the purpose it is meant to serve: to make informed choices about the timing and number of children that she and her husband prayerfully agreed were appropriate to their lives. You seem to think that NFP is meant only to prevent the existence of children, and that makes me sad for you.
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I loved reading your story. I also use Billings. And I think it’s funny one of our priests his parents teach billings in our diocese HA. I’ve actually thought about learning how to become an NFP teacher as there aren’t any in my area of the diocese. Maybe one day I will do it. As much as people gripe and complain about it I think it’s a super powerful tool to understand what our bodies are doing!