I know it has been a little quiet on the NFP front here on Total W(h)ine, which probably seems odd considering all that could be addressed in such crazy times. The truth is I’ve been struggling right along with the rest of you, and I like to be able to add something constructive to the NFP conversation other than just “yea, this sucks.”
In an effort to be constructive, I reached out to my followers on Instagram, asking them what has been the toughest part of NFP during Covid. This post is meant to address the most common questions and issues I heard, and brace yourself: it’s gonna be a long one.
Different Boats, Same Storm.
There’s no doubt that all those practicing NFP are in a tough spot right now. Sometimes when nothing about our situation can immediately change, a little solidarity goes a long way.
You aren’t the only one struggling.
Some couples may have been trying to conceive, but felt called to put their plans on hold due to safety concerns. Others continue to try to add a little one, but cannot pinpoint the timing of ovulation. Those who have been trying to avoid now face indefinite periods of abstinence, compounding stress upon stress. Then there are those who have been longing for children and had to halt fertility treatments due to the crisis, adding even more waiting to a situation already hard to bear.
While our struggles are different, we should remember that our struggles are not made to be compared. Just because we’re not all in the same boat, doesn’t mean the storm would be easier to navigate if we had a different vessel.
Abstinence was never fun, but now…
I’ve written pretty candidly about abstinence before, but Covid has done a number on this already problematic aspect of practicing NFP.
It’s worth starting with a basic review of the fertile window. A lot of the angst that I’ve experienced and heard from others is centered around our expectation to abstain no longer than a week in any given cycle. That number comes from the fact that sperm can live for 5 days in the presence of mucus, and an egg lives for 24 hours – ergo, 6 days for the combined fertile window.
The only way that window works is if ovulation can be precisely predicted and confirmed, which is not possible without daily ultrasounds. Most fertility awareness methods set a wider window of fertility to begin at least 6 days prior to the earliest charted ovulation of the most recent 6 cycles, and end at least 3 days after ovulation is confirmed (accounting for the occasional double ovulation). Thus, the bare minimum fertile window – and amount of abstinence – is 9 days. That number tends to be accurate only for women who have cycles of 28 days or less. For women who have cycles of 30 days or longer, that window can increase to 2 weeks or more. And that’s when everything is normal.
Because few couples begin practicing NFP with appropriate expectations, frustrations are only amplified when even longer windows of abstinence crop up. As beneficial as it can be for periods of abstinence to provide couples with an opportunity to explore other aspects of intimacy, that benefit quickly disappears when ovulation is delayed almost indefinitely.
Unfortunately, I don’t have magic words to make this time easier, except to say that the struggle and frustrations are normal and that weathering the anger, pain, and frustration together will in time cultivate beauty and deeper love in a marriage. For what it’s worth, my last cycle had a 3 week fertile window, which was short compared to many women I’ve spoken to. One thing that took the edge off was adding a little levity by saying to my husband each morning my monitor didn’t read peak, “It’s another stupid high reading” and “Well, let it be known that this is what stress does to our sex life.” (That second one may be used in future to justify a couple of hours at TJ Maxx.)
The silver lining, for me anyway, is that fertility awareness doesn’t let me dismiss stress as I would prefer, and forces me to figure out constructive ways to manage it. Which leads me to the next problem.
Managing Stress When It’s Gonna Be Here a While.
Stress is kind of the name of the game for us for the foreseeable future. Between the isolation, job losses, and general fear and mayhem, stressors are coming at us from everywhere. It’s the “new right now,” even as we are finally taking steps to get back to normal. Consequently, we will have to find new outlets, and get better about stating our needs to our spouses, and maybe even our kids.
Begin by going through what you used to do for stress management and then get creative about what the Covid-version of that might look like. I’m a big believer in taking 15 minutes every day to do something for yourself, maintaining a basic level of hygiene (shower, brush teeth, etc), and making sure to get three relatively healthy meals. Going for walks or getting some sunshine, meeting up with a friend or two, or even occasionally taking a minute to yourself behind a closed door (infinitely better than yelling) are all ways we can try to manage our stress.
We also have to keep God at the center of our days, rethinking how we pray in such a way that each little moment becomes an opportunity to lift our thoughts to him. I recently sat down with some ladies from the St. Philip Institute to talk about just that if you’re in need of some ideas.
Even still, we may be living with extra stress for a while and the wonky cycles that result.
When Cycles are Wonky, You Need an Expert.
I always recommend finding an instructor to anyone using a method of fertility awareness. For starters, the effectiveness rates are based solely on those who do have instructors, and in times of crisis, they become invaluable in a number of ways. I asked a few Marquette and Creighton instructors I know to share some of their experiences and why their support is so important.
Rebecca McEvoy, a Creighton Fertility Care Practitioner (CrFCP) at the Charbel Centre shared, “You may notice hormonal imbalances and increased PMS symptoms, unusual mucus patterns, longer fertile windows, and if you temp, unclear temp shifts and more outliers. The changes you’re seeing may be unfamiliar to you, but they’re likely very familiar to your instructor because we see A LOT of different stress charts. We can help walk you through it and ensure that if you are trying to avoid (TTA), you’re not looking at a ton of unnecessary abstinence.”
Both Creighton practitioners and Marquette instructors undergo tremendous training and education in order to be able to teach their methods. The process to become a Creighton instructor can take years, while all Marquette instructors must be licensed medical professionals.
Sarah Tramonte, a certified Marquette instructor and co-founder of You, Me and NFP ministry shared, ““Special circumstances” for example, a stressful event or illness, knowingly affects ovulation. Having an instructor can provide added confidence and emotional support, as couples navigate through the wonky waters and tumultuous tides of the unknown. Why does my mucus look fertile everyday? Why have I not gotten a peak yet? Why is my period “late”? When should my fertile window end? Is this prolonged abstinence really necessary? Answers to questions like these and similar ones are waiting for you!”
All fertility awareness instructors charge clients for their services as they rightly should considering their extensive education. But in times like this, the cost can be a barrier for some. Rebecca McEvoy addressed this: “Don’t hesitate to reach out to an instructor due to financial concerns. We don’t want to leave couples hanging in a time of need. Let your instructor know you need support and see what you can work out together!”
Toilet paper hasn’t been the only elusive NFP-related item. Clearblue fertility monitor test sticks were quickly sold out on Amazon or exorbitantly priced on Ebay. Marquette instructors like Sara Flood, BSN, RN and Feminine Genius Ministries made extra effort to keep tabs on availability of sticks, and even ordered boxes or found extra sticks to send to clients as requested.
The fact that instructors have access to such an intimate part of our lives puts them in the unique position to see things that maybe we don’t, and offer truly holistic care. Mary Bruno, a newly licensed CrFCP had just such an experience. “I was able to refer a client to counseling after talking about severe anxiety worsening with the onset of Covid. She actually made an appointment and got some good help.”
One other aspect essential to successful NFP practice is community, which may be hard to come by right now, particularly for those just starting out. Sarah and her co-founders of You, Me and NFP specifically address this through their ministry. “We were made for community; we were made to journey with one another,” Sarah noted. “The invitation is open for you to begin your NFP/ instructor relationship; both you and your instructor will be blessed because of it. God does some amazing things with these relationships!”
Trying to Achieve… is now on hold.
Covid and the accompanying stress has been particularly brutal for infertile women, those who are already using fertility awareness and those who aren’t. Infertility treatments and even holistic procedures have been deemed “non-essential”, and couples have had to put their plans on hold. There is still hope. Mary Bruno mentioned, “If your IUI or IVF fertility treatments were put on hold due to the pandemic and this has added to the stress of infertility, learning about fertility awareness & restorative treatments that cooperate with the woman’s body can help find and address the underlying causes of infertility.”
Anna Saucier of Cycle Power Summit recognized this massive gap and put together the Unexplained Infertility Summit which begins today, May 25, and runs through Wednesday. The summit will feature sessions with a wide array of doctors and practitioners sharing the options women have to treat and manage their infertility right now.
A Few Words About Husbands.
It feels like in some NFP conversations, husbands are either left out entirely or can sort of be cast as the villains. The battle of the sexes can easily rear its head as couples try to navigate different libidos and how to practically share their fertility.
I’d first like to say that men are human beings, capable of and desiring to be known and loved deeply for who they are. They are not the insatiable sex fiends as our modern world likes to portray them, even when sex is stereotypially more on their minds than on woman’s. In normal times, this is extremely important to remember when having conversations about sex and fertility, and even moreso in times of crisis.
As you navigate this rough time, I would encourage you to give your husband some grace, and assume the best of him when you encounter misunderstandings or miscommunications. Stress impacts him just as much as you, though in different ways. Loss of libido is not uncommon. Anger and frustration directed at your wonky cycle is certainly possible. As you find time to manage your own stress, encourage your husband to do the same. Create space to have constructive conversations about these issues, and always give him the benefit of the doubt (even when it’s the 60 millionth time you’ve had the conversation). If that means having a glass of wine or cracking a beer first, go for it! Communicate your needs, and take time to listen to his. Know that you still may not agree by the end of the conversation. Coming to a mutual understanding or place of acceptance should be your goal.
It’s Just A Lot.
I hope that this was helpful, but the simple fact is no amount of blog posts can totally ease the struggles of this time. At the end of the day when we’re tired of being frustrated and confused and… tired, we should take a moment, take a deep breath, and give ourselves, our spouses and our bodies a whole lotta slack.
This whole pandemic is a lot to take in, and our fertility going haywire is the tangible daily evidence.
I’ve seen this quote pop up in several places: “These are the times saints are made.” Saints aren’t made when times are nice and easy, when our lives are perfectly ordered and everything goes to plan. Saints are made when everything goes bonkers, and we take our confusion and pain and turn to God and say, “It’s all yours. You deal with it.”
I encourage you to do that often – and about everything.