Recently I read an article entitled "Why everybody loses when we sugarcoat NFP" by Jenny Uebbing. Uebbing notes that one common remark about NFP that she has encountered recently is that it is hard. I really appreciated Uebbing's take on this, and I think she is right to point out that many Catholics encounter NFP as difficult.
"Is it staggeringly difficult? An incomprehensible level of suffering?"
"Yes, it is also that," writes Uebbing.
This is a valuable observation, and I understand where Uebbing is coming from in her concerns. Those couples looking into NFP need to get an accurate picture of the sacrifices it sometimes demands. But as I continued to reflect on my almost-ten years of marriage, I realized that "staggeringly difficult" and "an incomprehensible level of suffering" simply do not apply to my own experience of NFP. Marriage - and even more so, parenting - have certainly presented enormous challenges for me. I can honestly say, however, that adhering to the Church's sexual teachings have never been a tremendous burden for me. And that's what inspired me to write this list of NFP hacks. In short, this list summarizes why my experience of NFP has been minimal and therefore not difficult. Not all the items on this list may be tenable in a particular situation. Like other lists of hacks, these happen to be the hacks that have worked for us.
1. Breastfeeding and cosleeping with an infant. The introduction of the formula industry, and with it, the crib industry brought about significant changes to female fertility. My maternal grandmother provides a great example. Though poor and in a difficult marital situation, she saw the ads proclaiming formula as scientific and the best way to feed a baby. She managed to buy formula for her infants, and when my mother was born, she joined a three year old, a two year old, and a one year old. Without the lactation amenorrhea provided by breastfeeding, her fertility returned quickly.
In recent times, breastfeeding has once again become more popular. The research on cosleeping is indicating more that it is best for babies, and even for most parents. Of course, cosleeping can be dangerous if it is done accidentally (from parental exhaustion) on unsafe surfaces (a couch or a chair) or if it is done with parents under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Intentional, safe cosleeping, paired with on-demand breastfeeding provides a lactation amenorrhea for most women that ranges from five to fourteen months (or possibly even longer). When added to nine months of pregnancy, this means fourteen to twenty-three months of not "using" NFP, but rather natural spacing that does not require periodic abstinence.
2. Openness to a large family. My sense is that those with a "one and done" or "two and through" attitude will find NFP very difficult, as they will spend most of their marriage with regular periods of abstinence. NFP certainly can be used well in situations where additional children pose a real danger to the life of the mother, for example, but I would not consider fifteen or more years of regular abstinence during fertile times to be an ideal situation for a marriage. The Catholic commitment to the willingness to receive children from God (one of the vows made during the sacrament of marriage) should be one of generosity, as much as responsibility. From the very beginning of our marriage, my husband and I have received many questions as to "how many children we want." Our answer has always been (and still is) that we take them one at a time. The willingness to have children - and even a large family by American standards - has made our use of periods of abstinence associated with NFP minimal.
3. Use available days when postponing a pregnancy. (Or: Keep husband happy.) As most couples, especially the men of those couples, will point out, what makes NFP challenging is periods of abstinence, both determining them and adhering to them when the couple has discerned the need to postpone a pregnancy. To the wife, I will say this: narrow down the Phase II fertility window as much as you can (a Clearblue monitor can help with this or possibly determining your cervix opening). Attend as carefully to using non-fertile days as you do to not using fertile days. In other words, plan to initiate intimacy with your husband multiple times during Phase I and Phase III. This is also important during times of pregnancy and lactation amenorrhea. If you want a happy husband who feels loved, keep track and make a plan (at least once a week, for example, or preferably more than that). It's great to be "in the mood," but it's not a great idea to limit intimacy to those times, especially given the significant variation in female libido according to hormones of pregnancy, amenorrhea, and regular cycles.
4. Show love in multiple ways. (Or: Keep wife happy.) The use of NFP is only one aspect of love and commitment in marriage. Husband or wife can grow to feel resentment toward NFP's periods of abstinence when they are not placed in the context of a loving and committed marriage. To the husband, therefore, I will say this: do not let your lovemaking be the only communication of your love for your wife; it may result in her feeling used. As important as physical intimacy can be to a man, so also the other love languages (words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time) can be crucial for the wife (and the husband too), especially given the fluctuation in female libido due to pregnancy, amenorrhea, and regular cycles. The generosity, kindness, and consideration, as well as the gratitude, of a spouse should be expressed in multiple ways. When raising a family, it is important for both parents to be involved and dedicated to the children, but it is also important to maintain the marital relationship outside the bedroom as well as within. A weekly breakfast date and early bedtimes for young children can provide the quality time that greatly benefit the marriage relationship. The helpful husband who is attuned to when his wife is overwhelmed demonstrates his commitment to her as a person and not just a body.
So, there you have it. My NFP hacks. The first two hacks have combined for over eight years of not even needing to think about abstaining. The second two hacks have allowed our marriage to grow even when postponing a pregnancy.