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!