It’s Natural Family Planning Awareness Week. I guess that’s a good time to tell the truth about NFP.
What is NFP? The term has really become a catch-all for any form of natural fertility management. In plain language, it means that we allow healthy reproductive systems to function without impediment. Instead of altering or interrupting the body’s fertility patterns, we simply try to understand them, and make choices with the relevant facts in view. If you’re not prepared for a baby just now, avoid sex at times when it would lead to a baby.
Natural methods tend to involve a lot of charts, apps, fertility monitors, and instructional books. They don’t involve condoms, IUDs, hormonal birth control, or artificial reproductive technologies (such as artificial insemination or in-vitro fertilization). Think of it as the “organic humans” movement.
Here’s the most important truth about NFP: There is really no under-the-table secret to expose. People who ask for “the real story” are confusing NFP with Scientology. It’s not a cult. It’s just a decision some people make to allow the body to be what it naturally is, especially with respect to fertility.
Anyone can embrace a natural approach to fertility. People do it for a wide variety of reasons. No passwords, secret handshakes, or ID cards are required. Insofar as there is mystery, it is simply the mystery of the human body itself. Honest physiology is the central pillar of NFP.
On the ground, people’s experiences vary enormously. That’s to be expected, because bodies can be remarkably different, as can people’s circumstances and life goals. For some, NFP brings deep satisfaction and true bliss. For others it may bring tragedy and trauma. We’re talking about new life here, so the potential both for joy and for suffering is immense.
Female Biology Is Burdensome
If you were hoping for dirty secrets, take heart. I can let you in on a few things. Although NFP really isn’t about secrets, it does throw light on a few general truths about the world. Here’s one: Female biology is naturally burdensome. It’s not politically correct to admit this in our time, and indeed, some seem prepared to move heaven and earth to make it untrue. It’s still true.
To live as a fertile woman is to accept significant constraints on one’s personal freedom. Even the men married to us (although their responsibilities are still massive by modern standards) generally aren’t expected to accept such constant, lifestyle-invasive burdens for the sake of perpetuating humanity.
A woman naturally has the capacity to conceive a child for the space of 20 years or more. If she engages in conjugal relations between 20 and 35, that will probably happen. After the first child is born, she is usually able to conceive another within a year (although often much sooner than a year).
The biology itself is not a choice, although of course we can choose whether to accept or subvert it. As in government, so in physiology: the choice to subvert always has consequences, some unintended and undesirable. Those consequences can be both personal and social. We actually do need large numbers of women to embrace their reproductive capacity if human society is to endure. Living with biology will deeply impact a woman’s daily life, in large and small ways.
Here is a small personal example. Suppose I am at a professional-social event, conversing with a peer. He mentions an upcoming event (perhaps a conference or symposium) that might be appealing to me. It’s a year or more away. Although of course I do not say it, almost my first impulse will be to begin mental calculations as to the latest point at which I could conceive my next child and still be involved in the event. To be clear, I’m not even planning at this point; it’s just a mental reflex. Nine years into marriage, these constraints on my professional activities are par for the course.
Mars Is not Venus
My husband doesn’t think this way, naturally. Paternity entails many burdens and blessings in its own right, but it isn’t immediately invasive in the same sort of way. Technically there are about two weeks, right around the due date of each child, when I would discourage him from leaving town. But it would never occur to him to think about that when planning events more than a year away. He’s a man. It’s different.
I’m not bitter about this, but it took a little time for me to not be bitter. After our first child was born, my husband took a few days off and was back at work by the end of the week, teaching classes and attending symposia and hitting the gym on his way home. From new-mom limbo, it was hard not to resent my better (luckier?) half when he came breezing through the door after eight solid adult-oriented hours, casually mentioning lunches with colleagues. (When do I get back to having lunches with people? Oh, that’s right. Just 18 more years.)
Not every woman feels this way. Some are thrilled to dive in to maternity, and good for them! Speaking for myself, I absolutely understand why so many women are prone to resentment over their burdensome biology. It’s not the right way to see it, but some of us have to live with ourselves for a while before we can appreciate how great it really is to be a woman and a mom.
Putting It All Together
If you want to know the truth about NFP, try a thought experiment. Imagine that embracing natural fertility was the normal thing for women, and that birth control, ARTs, and the like were exceptional. Guess what? You’ve just imagined most of human history.
Even if you don’t accept the physiologically natural as absolutely normative, mightn’t there be something salutary about being as we are? Perhaps you’ve noticed that women today worry a lot about these questions of whether and when and how to have babies. Mightn’t there be some good in looking to the body itself for insight into these questions?
Women are not born broken. Our bodies are burdensome in certain respects, but some burdens are worth carrying. That’s the truth about NFP.