Sometimes, among my friends who use Fertility Awareness-Based Methods (FABM), or Natural Family Planning (NFP) as I first called it, I hear stories of how things weren’t exactly as they expected. It’s true, there are some things you experience while using Natural Family Planning that aren’t in the textbook. But I still wouldn’t choose any of the alternatives! And I’m happy to share what I’ve learned over many years of practicing NFP.
My then-fiancé-now-husband and I began taking NFP classes 29 years ago. Along the way there were a number of things that surprised us when we actually put it into practice, while other aspects were just as we had been taught.
The first unexpected thing I encountered in practicing Natural Family Planning was how hard it could be. Before our wedding night, we were abstaining 31 days a month, so abstaining 7-10 days per month sounded relatively easy. Turned out though that it could be harder at times than I’d anticipated.
A related surprise was that my greatest interest would coincide with those very days we were supposed to abstain: the fertile days of the month. Now there was something I wasn’t expecting. At times, this could be frustrating for both of us, since a husband prefers his wife to share this interest. There were moments when I felt a little irked with God for setting it up that way; but generally it just made me realize how much God must like creating new people to bolster that outcome so much. In the end, it actually brought my husband and me closer, because it gave me greater understanding and compassion toward him (whose interest was more constant) such that when my interest waned, I’d try not to deny him just because I wasn’t as interested.
Another unexpected difficulty was how hard I found it to get up at the same time every morning to take my temperature, while using the Fertility Awareness-Based Method known as the Sympto-Thermal Method. I’m a bit of a night owl, and as a freelancer it isn’t necessary for me to get to work at a set time. Later when the kids came along, it was even harder as they’d interrupt my night’s sleep in inconsistent ways. So, waking to the alarm at the same time every day on weekends or on days when I really needed to make up sleep was probably the hardest part for me. Especially since, no matter how tired I was, I wasn’t always able to go back to sleep. Thankfully, we learned about the Billings method, which doesn’t require temperature readings.
There were also some unusual quirks to my body that made NFP not a textbook case for me in a couple respects. First, I tend to have really low temperatures—literally off-the-chart low, so that using a pre-set temperature chart didn’t really work that well for me (during the times we were checking temps). I had to cross out and change the numbers by a full degree. The other bodily quirk I had was extra mucus cropping up even post-ovulation. Our instructor thought it was due to residual seminal fluid. She taught me how to test to see if it was (or a mixture of the two), which was really helpful, otherwise we would have had to abstain a lot more often.
Other aspects of NFP—including some that sounded too good to be true—turned out to be precisely as described.
While I didn’t have wildly variable cycles or skipped months, I never had super-regular cycles. Usually they varied in length by a 3-7 days. It was fascinating to learn in my NFP class that Phases 1 and 2 are the variable part, while Phase 3, the post-ovulation phase, is consistently 2 weeks long. This turned out to be the solidly reliable case for me. Similarly, when our NFP instructor encouraged us to use the Billings Method, a mucus-only method, it worked wonderfully for us, just as she said, despite the extra mucus I had.
Another benefit I found fantastic was how well it worked in tandem with breastfeeding. Some months after our first child was born, I discovered and devoured Sheila Kippley’s Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing: How Ecological Breastfeeding Spaces Babies. Yes, the interval of lactational amenorrhea (or breastfeeding-induced natural ovulation suppression) varies from woman to woman, but Kippley shows how it depends on the frequency of feeding. Knowing NFP allows a woman to confidently recognize when fertility is returning and it’s time to start using FABMs again.
Our NFP training was spot-on again when due to a new medical condition and the medication I was given, it became imperative that I not become pregnant. My doctor wanted me to start using contraception, even though no form (aside from sterilization, which I wouldn’t want) is absolutely fail-safe. And though we knew FABMs are highly reliable, we were a little worried about the tiny chance and wondered if we needed to abstain altogether, possibly for years. But having used NFP for so long, we felt confident that we knew when ovulation had taken place and that saving intimacy for Phase 3 alone would be safe. To be extra sure, we went back to checking my temperature daily and didn’t take any chances if any seminal fluid showed up in case it might hide a little mucus. And it was fine.
Finally, we found that though the abstaining element of NFP could be challenging (a little more so than I expected initially), it was, just as we had been taught, still definitely doable. We found what situations we needed to avoid so as not to get overly frustrated and took walks, talked more, and enjoyed just being together. The alternation of abstaining and then coming together again really did feel like a return to dating followed by a little honeymoon each month, just as we had been told. In fact, practicing periodic abstinence very likely aided our relationship in that we didn’t take intimacy or each other for granted.
And for me, during the years of pregnancy, breastfeeding, and mommyhood, when I was more often tired than in the mood, it was kinda nice to have certain days each month when we both knew that intimacy was out of the question. Those breaks, in turn, made me more compassionate toward my husband, whereas if intimacy were constantly a possibility and expectation, it very probably would have caused friction between us.
All in all, NFP proved to be very much what we were taught to expect, and any surprises or exceptions we found in our own personal experience with it turned out to be quite manageable. It has undoubtedly been a real benefit to our family.