The Unique Challenges of Practicing NFP as a Military Family

posted on October 27, 2018 by Grace Stark

Sometimes promoters of Natural Family Planning (NFP) or Fertility Awareness-Based Methods (FABM) get criticized for painting too rosy a picture of these methods. And, truthfully, the promotional materials, workbooks, and charts for NFP—methods that help women know their cycle and their fertile time so that they can achieve or avoid pregnancy effectively without the use of contraceptives—are full of pictures of smiling couples, who look thrilled with their choice to plan their families the natural way. While I do believe that Natural Family Planning is a great choice for anyone looking to plan their family while learning about and respecting their bodies, I will willingly admit that sometimes, in a good-faith effort to turn people on to NFP and all of its wonderful benefits, we may shy away from discussing the harder aspects of these methods. So today, I am going to focus on a particular situation that can make Fertility Awareness-Based Methods challenging, and that is military life.

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Family-Planning Challenges for Military Couples

It seems that each of my military-spouse friends has a story about her desire to plan for or postpone a pregnancy, and how she quickly came to the realization that the realities of military life simply wouldn’t allow for that. One friend’s husband was scheduled to deploy very soon after their wedding, but his actual departure date kept getting pushed back at the last minute, and so (as she put it) they “had to keep saying goodbye,” despite what her charts were telling them.

You might not have ever been in this position, but you can easily imagine how (life-threatening reasons aside) even the best intentions to postpone pregnancy will go out the window when you know you won’t be seeing your husband again for several months . . . or ever again, God forbid it, should the absolute worst happen.

I have another friend who was struggling with infertility, who tried to plan for a trip to go visit her deployed husband so that the trip and her fertile period would match up; she eventually gave up when she realized she would drive herself crazy trying to find a window where her cycle and her husband’s ever-changing leave dates would coincide. It was easier just to wait the months out until his return, even though they’d been trying for a baby for ages, and she was desperate to get pregnant.

When I married my husband at the tender age of 22, we’d already taken a Fertility Awareness-Based Methods class, and I had been charting my cycles for 4 or 5 months. We’d planned on waiting at least a year to get pregnant, but after 6 months of marriage, we decided we were actually ready to start trying for a baby. When about 6 months of trying went by with no luck, we began to be concerned; after all, one of the benefits of using Natural Family Planning in trying to conceive is that statistically, it should cut your “trying” time in half (about 90% of couples having “random” intercourse will conceive within one year; about 90% of couples having “targeted” intercourse, i.e., ensuring they have sex on their most fertile days, will conceive within 6 months). It is at this time that we first began experiencing the particular difficulties of using NFP in a military family.

You see, at the time, we had just gotten orders to leave Bethesda, Maryland, where we were currently stationed, and move to Guam for the next two years. There was a Natural Procreative Technology (NaPro) doctor that I desperately wanted to see nearby in Virginia in the 3 months before our move, but Tricare (my military health insurance), would not pay for me to see this doctor, and all of the (considerable) expenses would need to be paid out of pocket. I was anxious and devastated, but I was left with no choice but to make my peace with the fact that the military was sending us somewhere where I would not be able to find the care that I wanted or needed, and that there was little I could do about it.

I was beyond fortunate to (completely unexpectedly) find myself assigned to a new doctor at the Naval Hospital on Guam who was familiar with NaPro methods, who was able to work with a NaPro doctor stateside to provide me with the care that finally allowed us to overcome our primary infertility. But timing a pregnancy around a deployment proved to be impossible for us, and I ended up spending the second half of my first trimester and the first half of my second trimester (and the height of my worst pregnancy symptoms) alone on the island without my husband. Fortunately, my husband was home well before the birth, and we were able to bring our son into the world together. But I have other military spouse friends who know all too well the reality of giving birth without their husbands because of deployments and trainings. As we all well know, you can try your best to “plan around” these events, but deployments can get extended or postponed or can come up without warning, and sometimes (most of the time, it seems) our cycles just don’t match up with the military’s timing.

Benefits of FABM for Military Families

But challenges in family planning for military spouses are not unique to Natural Family Planning users. I’ve heard my share of stories about military doctors pressuring wives into using birth control—or worse, tubal ligations after their second pregnancy, especially if it ends in a C-section—because, after all, our health care is paid for by your tax dollars, and pregnancies and deliveries are expensive. 

Family planning, in general, can be tricky in a military family. But because I’m not on hormonal birth control, we can change our family plans on a dime (which can be a very important feature of NFP for us, thanks to unexpected, constantly changing deployment and return dates). Couples using NFP have some family-planning advantages over those using birth control because they don’t have to wait for up to 12 months for fertility to return after discontinuing the Pill, for example.

In addition, NFP adds another dimension of intimacy to our relationship, which helps strengthen our marriage. And maintaining a sense of intimacy when you can’t be physically intimate is doubly important as a military couple (because of distance/deployment/trainings, and so on), which is a skill you need to learn with the periodic times of abstinence required by NFP.

So despite all of the difficulties associated with NFP or military life—and especially the difficulties associated with NFP AND military life—I would not change either of these major aspects of our lives. As a military spouse, you often have to trust in your abilities (husband is gone and the car breaks down? You’ve gotta figure that out on your own, sister). Because military spouses are so often left to their own devices when their service-member is not around, I am glad I have not been on hormonal birth control which for many women causes side effects of depression and worse; being alone for long periods without my spouse would not be a time I’d like to gamble with my mental health. What’s more, using a Fertility Awareness-Based Method of family planning can provide a boost in confidence that spouses need when trying to figure out how to chart your cycles properly, and make good decisions based on the data that you’re given.

Ultimately, I’m glad I use Natural Family Planning because it helps me live a kind of radical authenticity in my marriage. I think both military life and NFP teach us all an important lesson: that as much as we’d like to think we’re in complete control of our lives, that really isn’t the case. With an unexpected pregnancy or deployment, we can only control how we will react, and how we will prepare for what’s to come to the best of our abilities. We can do our best to plan, plan, plan, but ultimately, life is going to happen. It’s a freeing lesson that this self-professed Type-A planner has doubly learned while choosing to practice NFP in a military family.

We’d love to hear your experiences using Natural Family Planning as a military couple. Email us at maryrose@naturalwomanhood.org to share your story.

Posted by Grace Stark