Natural Family Planning Needs a New Name

Family by Chris Sigmon. Used under Creative Commons.Family by Chris Sigmon. Used under Creative Commons.

I was sitting in my pro-life, NFP promoting doctor’s waiting room, leafing through a secular magazine. Ever since I started having children, I have always detested these magazines, but early pregnancy often leaves my brain in a fog and I could not read the book that I had brought. I was pulled out of the fog by a two-page advertisement for a new form of birth control.

Normally I just flip past those in disgust, but this one made a statement that embodied everything that is wrong with mainstream society’s view of the family. The image in the ad was a father and mother laying in their king size bed, looking seriously up at the camera. Between them were three small children, probably aged 1-6, laughing and oblivious of their parents’ intention to have no more children. “Your family is complete,” it stated in bold white letters under the family.

Then it gave the medical details of this irreversible birth control, including a list of dangerous side effects. But the details of it did not shake me; it was the belief that we can decide when our family is complete. That it is socially acceptable to see the gift of children as something so easily dismissed or controlled is one of the things that is wrong with the world. And this is the prominent mainstream mentality. Just do an internet search of “family is complete” and dozens of links to blogs and message boards come up where people evaluate how they “know.”

This idea is completely foreign to Church teaching, and to the way I was raised as a Catholic. Even after the birth of my parents’ fourth and last child, I always got the sense from them that they would welcome another child if that is what they discerned as right for our family. As a married adult, my parents’ understanding of openness to God’s will and use of charting still strikes me as a truly Catholic approach to having a family.

Last September I wrote about this same issue, criticizing the idea of being able to “plan” our families. This idea of a complete family is a consequence of the family planning mentality. The title of “Natural Family Planning” is not working. It is time to think of a new way to talk about charting cycles and using periodic abstinence when one has grave reasons to do so. It is too much like the mainstream mentality toward children. I am not sure what title would be the best, but recognizing the problem is the first step to solving it. The Creighton Model, calls it a “Fertility Care System.” Billings is the “Ovulation Method.” The Marquette Method and the Couple to Couple Leagues Sympto-Thermal Method both claim to be methods of NFP. Another part of the problem is that they are all often promoted as a form of “birth control.” We, as Catholics, need to stop using the language of “planning” and of “birth control.” Something like “Fertility Awareness” seems like appropriate language, though it leaves out the rational aspect of discerning God’s will.

In the Creighton Model (which I have been charting with for seven years), the pregnancy follow-up includes several questions about the couple’s intentions regarding the pregnancy. One of the questions is, “Was this baby planned?” It always strikes me as weird that I am being asked this question. Every time we have conceived a child, I realize the great gift of a new life coming into existence inside me. While we can hope each month for a new child, it is never something that we have planned. We can do everything we can to make it possible for a human to come into existence, but we can never plan this child into our family. We can look at the calendar and have an expected due date, but we cannot entirely plan or control when the baby will come out.

Most recently, we had a baby leave us much sooner than we had hoped. I lost a baby at 6 weeks pregnant, and I realized even more how our children are gifts to us, whom we can never plan or think we deserve. Before we were married, we talked about wanting ten children, looking at our ages, how much space we might have between children and at what age I would stop being fertile. We never planned on having ten, nor do we now, but we hope for one child at a time. There is nothing we plan until the child is conceived, and then we plan for the months after the child’s birth. Before a baby is on the way, we cannot plan at all. Even then, our plans are always tentative, since there are so many uncertainties when it comes to pregnancy.

But, from the language you hear in the parenting world, most people think otherwise. A friend told me about one of her Catholic friends questioning her about at what age does she want to stop have children. The questioner had the age of 32 in mind. My friend thought this idea was so strange, being 30 herself and having just a one year old to care for. We chatted about how we always imagined having children into our early 40s. But then, maybe one should be open to even later, if it is possible. It is anti-cultural, but it is not anti-life.

God calls married couples to have children, and each individual couples He calls to follow His plan for them, not their own plan. I do not know what God has in mind for my family, our little unborn baby who passed away was not something we had hoped for, but we are trusting in God’s plan for our family. And if you have not yet read, Bridget Green’s article about how Catholics maybe should think seriously about having large families, then read it. If you have read it, read it again.  I responded to her piece, talking about it is important to use reason in our decisions about being open to children, but I want to emphasize now, how we are called to generous when choosing when to hope for children. I wonder more and more if what society really needs is a whole lot of Catholics trusting in God’s plan and giving up the concept of “family planning.”