When I was a girl I remember going into my mom’s room with her and seeing a little notebook she had. She also kept a thermometer on her nightstand. She would show me her notebook and I would look at the numbers for each day and a line graph she made charting the ups and downs of the numbers. I really never knew what it was for, except that it was what a grown up woman did to monitor her body or something.
Flash forward to my third year of college. I was engaged, and my fiancé, Mark, and I decided that we should learn how to chart so that we could fulfill the Natural Family Planning class requirement in order to get married in my home diocese. We signed up for an introductory sessions for the Creighton Model Fertility Care System, and we learned there that there is much more to charting than the “family planning” hype surrounding NFP. With this system of charting we had about eight sessions with our own personal practitioner in the first year who personalized my charting to my unique signs but also fit them into the rules that the founder of the Creighton Model, Dr. Hilgers, laid out. It was really great to have someone to bring my questions to who knew my cycles history and kept me accountable for charting correctly. The thing about charting cycles is that it is important to be consistent and thorough, only then can a woman be truly following her cycles.
Because of the consistent charting of women, Dr. Hilgers and those in the Natural Procreative Technology field, have been able to find the cause of many abnormal conditions a woman may have, such as premenstral syndrom, infertility, repetitive miscarriage, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, postpartum depression, and more. Once the cause is pinpointed, then it can be treated. I never had had any of the health issues listed above, but we thought, why not use a method that can help me stay healthy, especially since we hoped that we would be blessed with many children.
After several months of charting, I discovered that there was a good chance that I would be fertile on my honeymoon, and Mark and I were excited about the possibility of having a baby right away in our marriage. We were engaged for 18 months and during that time Mark was applying for graduate school. We were blessed with an assistantship (which we decided was a living wage for a small family) and health insurance for Mark (as a student employee) and his dependants. Thankful for our blessings, we knew that when we were married we would be able to be totally open to the fruits or marriage. We contacted our practitioner to schedule a “pregnancy follow-up” about a month after our wedding. She used my careful charting to determine possible conception dates and project our due date, which is more accurate than a due date projected from the first day of a woman’s cycle. Our first daughter was born nine months and one day after our wedding.
Then we discovered the complication of charting and breastfeeding at the same time. Once again, we had our same practitioner to go over our charts (this time over the phone) and address any questions about charting to. I do not know how we would have understood anything about post-partum charting without her help. For example, you may have heard that breastfeeding suppresses ovulation, but you may not have heard that when the baby does any other sucking (i.e. bottle or pacifier), the mother does not produce as much of the hormone that suppresses ovulation and therefore her cycles are more likely to return sooner.
Two children later, I am still very pleased that we are charting and keeping a record of my health. If it were not for starting my post-partum charting 56 days after the birth of our third daughter, I do not think I would have gone for help with what became a diagnosed case of post-partum depression. The treatment was so simple; an injection of progesterone, which within hours changed my feeling of being mostly overwhelmed by three children under four to a feeling of being able to handle my daily life. If I had not been using a method of NFP where I had a practitioner to talk to and further a doctor who knew the system (which I am so blessed to have!), I may have just credited my feelings to lack of sleep, a long Minnesota winter, and what it is like to have three little kids. I began to enjoy being a mother, instead of feeling resentful and then guilty that I was unhappy with a life I had chosen and wanted.
Now I have heard some say that charting is not for everyone, that people use NFP in with a “contraceptive mentality,” and that the Church needs to define what it means for one to have a “iustae causae” (literal translation: just or fair cause) or a “seriis causis” (literal translation: serious or grave cause). The “just cause” phrase is found in Humanae Vitae 16 (in this translation it is “well-grounded reason”) and “grave cause” is found in HV 10. We know that the ends of marriage are the procreation of children and the unity of the husband and wife, and that the end of the marital act is procreation and union. We also know from Church Tradition summed up in the Catechism that we are to participate in Divine Providence (God’s ordering of all things):
To human beings God even gives the power of freely sharing in his providence by entrusting them with the responsibility of “subduing” the earth and having dominion over it. God thus enables men to be intelligent and free causes in order to complete the work of creation, to perfect its harmony for their own good and that of their neighbors.(CCC 307)
The ability given by science for a husband and wife to understand the wife’s fertility and her cycles gives them the opportunity to exercise the God-given power to have dominion over nature. They can use their reason to understand her cycles and exercise their will knowing all the circumstances of the family, taking into account it the physical and psychological health of the man or the woman as well as other external circumstances. I am not going to say all couples have an obligation to chart, but God is calling them to be aware of their circumstances and make reasonable choices about when they have children. I do not think this takes away from the ideas espoused in Gaudium et Spes quoted by my fellow Truth and Charity writers. I am including the quotation but also going back further in the paragraph originally cited:
Parents should regard as their proper mission the task of transmitting human life and educating those to whom it has been transmitted. They should realize that they are thereby cooperators with the love of God the Creator, and are, so to speak, the interpreters of that love. Thus they will fulfill their task with human and Christian responsibility, and, with docile reverence toward God, will make decisions by common counsel and effort. Let them thoughtfully take into account both their own welfare and that of their children, those already born and those which the future may bring. For this accounting they need to reckon with both the material and the spiritual conditions of the times as well as of their state in life. Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself. The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God. […]
Thus, trusting in divine Providence and refining the spirit of sacrifice, married Christians glorify the Creator and strive toward fulfillment in Christ when with a generous human and Christian sense of responsibility they acquit themselves of the duty to procreate. Among the couples who fulfill their God-given task in this way, those merit special mention who with a gallant heart and with wise and common deliberation, undertake to bring up suitably even a relatively large family.(GS 50)
We need to remember that God gave us all different strengths and different circumstances in which to serve Him, and the bringing about of a new human is a very important matter. Every child is caused by God and in virtue of divine Providence; the parents provide the matter and God the soul. This is a serious thing, and couples should be reasonable when considering becoming co-creators with God. This, I think, is why for every couple what is considered to be a grave or just cause to have recourse to infertile times is different. And this is why I think the Church is not going to define this more precisely. When a couple is truly open to God’s plan for them, they may feel they need to postpone being open to another child for a time, or they may feel that they will be able to accept another child at any time. This is between each couple and God.
For some parents, they may not be able to handle “a relatively large family” due to health or other just or grave reasons. They have discerned between them and God that another child would not be prudent at that time. We do not know that in their hearts they will happily accept another child, if God were to bless them with one, but knowing their current circumstances they feel that should not purposefully do so. Other parents have the ability to handle many children and home school them, even children born very close together. Those who do not do so should not feel like they are inadequate; they just have different abilities and means. Some families can afford to send their children to the very best of Catholic schools, and some cannot. Couples who have a lot of support in childcare from their families have different circumstances than those who live far away from their relatives.
We never can know fully another family’s circumstances or what they believe to be God’s will for them, but we can pray that all couples are open to God’s will for them and are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to trust in God’s providence.
One last point of interest: In my research for this post I found the Magisterium’s first statement about a couple using infertile times to avoid conception of a child in the Enchiridion Symbolorum compiled by Heinrich Denzinger. Here is the English translation in the latest edition by Ignatius Press:
3148: Response of the Sacred Penitentiary, June 16, 1880:
Question: Is it permitted to have marital union only on those days when conception is more difficult?
Response: Spouses who use this above-mentioned method need not be troubled, and the confessor can, though with caution, suggest the idea in question to those spouses whom he has sought in vain to lead by some other means away from the detestable crime of onanism.
Originally posted on Truth and Charity.
P.S. You also could check out if you have not yet My Tribute to my NFP practioner (who is not an iPod App).