Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Few Thoughts on NFP

Sometimes you run across an argument which strikes you as wrong in such a way as to crystallize and clarify your thinking on a topic. Such a case, for me, was running into this debate from last week at InsideCatholic on the topic, "Is NFP Misogynous?"

The "yes it is" argument contained the following key elements:
Assuming any methodized sexual intercourse devised to avoid pregnancy by an otherwise open-to-life-marital-couple can actually "work," who bears responsibility for the method? I seriously question whether NFP, for many, isn't a misogynous practice -- imposing upon women an undue share of the physical and emotional burden of the theologically questionable quest of planning pregnancy.

First, we must be real. Modern NFP practices demand daily bodily measurements of women, not men.... A woman most desires sexual intimacy when she is at her most fertile.... This is also the moment when we are most likely to conceive a child. It's the moment NFP-practicing women measure and chart and predict as "fertility awareness," a "maybe-child" zone. For NFP-practicing women avoiding pregnancy, it is the moment they must say "no" to both themselves and their spouses....

I don't buy it. It sounds like a scheme to impose on women who wish to time pregnancies an almost penal practice of self-measurement, self-control, and self-denial, while requiring, at a minimum, a sort of suffering acquiescence from a spouse whose interest in the chart becomes rather strategic....

NFP needs to go the same way as the rhythm method -- which did not "work" and was, more importantly, female unfriendly. In its place, perhaps we all need to suck it up and admit what the theology asks of us: Have sex whenever you both want to... and expect a baby every time. Otherwise, don't copulate. That's a fair burden on both spouses.
The woman presenting the "no it isn't" view did a perfectly decent job of presenting the standard arguments for NFP, but I'd like to dig into one aspect in particular, especially given that by the sixth comment on the article we already see a theology student trying to argue that the "planning" involved in Natural Family Planning is really no different than the use of barrier methods of contraception since it involves "the intention of having sex without baby" and is thus "using one's intellect to create a tool which limits the possibility of procreation".

I'd like to start from a point of biological realism. The bodily organs which are used in this very pleasant thing we call sex are part of the reproductive system, which means than whenever we have sex we are performing an action which is at a biological level meant to be reproductive, in the sense that our bodies would not have this capacity were it not for the fact their function is reproductive in nature. (Interesting side note: think of all the most pleasurable things the human body can do and ask yourself, how does each one of these relate to a basic element of human survival. Generally speaking, the greater the physical pleasure, the greater the relation to survival.)

Within the overall structure of intercourse, a normal, healthy man is capable of begetting children any time he has sex. However, women (like females of virtually all other mammals) are only biologically able to conceive a few days out of the month. (Both of these reproductive strategies make a lot of sense for the individual and the species as a whole at the evolutionary level, but I don't think it's necessary to go into all that here.) Even at the "right time", a woman may or may not conceive as the result of having intercourse. Conditions have to be right for the sperm to reach the egg, the egg has to be healthy, and the sperm has to successfully implant. What this boils down to is that while the probability of getting pregnant from any one random act of intercourse is perhaps 1-10% depending on the people involved, having sex frequently will almost invariably result in pregnancy unless there is a health/age problem involved.

Other creatures, our non-rational brethren in the animal kingdom, do not worry about when they should not reproduce. Driven by instincts and natural compulsions, they mate when it is their season, have as many offspring as they can, and hope (if one may apply that word to the unthinking) that those offspring will thrive. If there are not enough resources to go around, the young, weak, and old die off. We humans see this kind of suffering as something to be avoided, and so human societies in all times and places have striven not to outgrow their resources -- using methods ranging from self denial to slaughter.

From a Catholic point of view, human life is sacred and thus abortion and infanticide are completely unacceptable as means of population control; and the sexual faculties have a moral integrity resulting from their relation to the creation of new human beings and so the sex act should not be modified (as with birth control) to remove its inherent fertility. Thus, for Catholics, the answer to the need not to have more children than one can provide for is to have sex less. Because sex has a clear and inherent reproductive aspect, which we consider it wrong to try to circumvent artificially, if you want to not get pregnant you will have to avoid having sex at least some of the time.

Now, this is where the question of whether Natural Family Planning (NFP) as practiced by modern Catholic couples is "natural" comes in. The woman's body gives certain signs of when it is likely to be fertile. These signs are rather less obvious than those of many of our fellow mammals. Female chips, for instance, have a large pink swelling around their genital area when they become fertile, such that one can tell if she is fertile from quite some distance away.

Signs of human female fertility are much more subtle. (The evolutionary reason for this would make a very interesting inquiry, I can think of a few very interesting reasons.) However they are now pretty well understood and easily learned.

So, what are the options for the Catholic couple who are seeking to remain true to the Church's understanding of human sexuality and the human person and also seeking to avoid having more children then they can raise and support?

Ms. Campbell advises, "Have sex whenever you both want to... and expect a baby every time. Otherwise, don't copulate. That's a fair burden on both spouses."

The thing is (leaving aside the dangerous problem of trying to figure out what is "fair" for both spouses in some sort of power politics sense) that this is in a sense not actually all that natural. We are not made such that sex results in a baby "every time". Sex is somewhat likely to result in a baby perhaps 30% of the time, and highly likely to do so only about 10% of the time at best. Since unlike a lot of our fellow creatures, our sex drives are not only "on" when we're fertile, the rest of the time sex serves to strengthen and deepen the bond between a couple who are going to have a lot of work and difficulty together raising children. So if you only, ever have sex when you absolutely expect to have a baby, you're actually using sex in a more minimal fashion than we're physically designed for.

If they know anything at all about their biology (from experience if nothing else) a couple is going to know they won't get pregnant every time. And knowing this, the drive is strong to say, "Surely this time is okay." Though husbands should try hard to be sensitive to the greater difficulties that pregnancy means for their wives than for them, this line of thinking is naturally going to appeal more to the man than to the woman. Desires for "fairness" aside, pregnancy is naturally going to effect the woman more directly than the man.

Given that we have the understanding of female fertility signs available to us quite easily in the modern world, it is going to cause significantly less stress without couples to use that knowledge to actually know "we might get pregnant now" versus "we almost certainly won't get pregnant now" rather than relying the more more amorphous "chances are decent we won't get pregnant this one time" or the inaccurate "we shouldn't have sex unless we're absolutely sure we want to get pregnant."

NFP works within the natural structure of what sex is -- a natural act which has both unitive and procreative elements. It encompasses self denial in that it accepts that if you want to avoid pregnancy for a while you are going to have to forgo having sex, but it provides system and achievability to that self denial by telling a couple when it is that they need to forgo sex. If you need to avoid having another child for the next year or two, you may end up having to avoid having sex nearly half the time. However, that is much more achievable and healthy for a couple than attempting to avoid it entirely for those same years -- and the differentials of fear and desire that would result from such an attempt.


bearing said...

(Interesting side note: think of all the most pleasurable things the human body can do and ask yourself, how does each one of these relate to a basic element of human survival. Generally speaking, the greater the physical pleasure, the greater the relation to survival.)

I was just thinking about this today as, after making dessert for tonight's dinner, I furtively ate all the raw coffee cake batter left clinging to the bowl. I'm not sure how important it is to my survival, but it was definitely pleasurable.

Darwin said...

Well, in the sense that eating is essential to survival. And the fact that sugars and fats both taste particularly good to us doubtless has much to do with sugars and foods being particularly concentrated forms of food energy.

bearing said...

But aside from that, two points I think are very important.

(1) If I may generalize about the sexes. Yes, women have a certain sacrifice to make vis-a-vis NFP in that the most enjoyable part of the cycle is also the most fertile part of the cycle -- to avoid pregnancy, women choose to give up sex at the very time in the cycle when they most want to have sex and most enjoy it. But this seems to me well balanced against the sacrifice made by men, who would probably prefer a CONSTANT supply of sex whenever they want it.

(2) Many (most?) female mammals are literally incapable of copulation when they are infertile. I think it is significant that humans are not.

Darwin said...

to avoid pregnancy, women choose to give up sex at the very time in the cycle when they most want to have sex and most enjoy it. But this seems to me well balanced against the sacrifice made by men, who would probably prefer a CONSTANT supply of sex whenever they want it.

One might also point out that men probably also desire sex more when their wives desire it -- interest from the other is always more arousing than indifference, I would think.

bearing said...

"Indifference?" I guess that would be a bit off-putting. I have always thought it important to cultivate "cheerful generosity."

(I hope that makes up for the first six months after a baby is born, when about all I can manage is "gritted-teeth tolerance.")

mrsdarwin said...

Let me note here that "indifference" is a general statement, not a reflection of actual practices here at casa Darwin! I am inclined to your view, Bearing.

T. Eric said...

that men probably also desire sex more when their wives desire it -- interest from the other is always more arousing than indifference, I would think.

Yes, which is why I was going to point out that women are not alone in when comes to sacrificing during the most pleasurable time of her cycle. I would argue that is the most pleasurable time for the man as well.

mrsdarwin said...

T. Eric,

You're absolutely right. I would also point out that just because a woman is not actively aroused at the outset doesn't mean she'll stay that way, if she and her husband are willing to put in the time and energy to change that. If a husband isn't willing to assist that, there are other problems in the marriage. If a wife isn't willing to give that time to her husband, again, there are deeper problems in the relationship.

Charlotte (WaltzingM) said...

One might also point out that men probably also desire sex more when their wives desire it...

Whether this is true or not, I can only rely on a husband to respond but from a purely biological point of view it is those symptoms of fertility that a woman records (OK, maybe not temperature but the others) that make the intimate experience more pleasurable during the fertile period and less pleasurable during the infertile period.

I love the phrase "cheerful generosity" and sadly have to admit to my share of "gritted-teeth tolerance". My husband refers to the last few months of pregnancy as the feast before the famine. (Insert smiley face here if I was a smiley face kind of girl.)

Kate said...

My parents (NFP teachers themselves) told me as I suffered through post-partum weirdness, to think of NFP as a gift - a way of taking what would otherwise need to be a completely abstinent time (if it is necessary to avoid pregnancy) and making portions of it available for the good of the marriage.

That is to say, that if you think of NFP as "that awful reason I can't enjoy sex all the time", comparing it with some ridiculous and unrealistic fantasy of constant wonderful sex, you'll feel discontented and cheated. If you think of NFP as "that wonderful reason that I can enjoy sex much of the time", comparing it with the alternative of complete abstinence, or guessing games, you'll feel grateful and blessed.

And considering that sometimes, conception is simply not a good option, and sometimes complete abstinence is simply not a good option, the fact that there is a licit third way is frankly empowering. So says this woman.

And I agree with Mrs.D above. If a woman finds that she can only enjoy the marital act during her fertile phase, then there's some work to be done on both her part and her husbands. Cheerful generosity (and consideration) is it's own reward!!

Anonymous said...

Personally, I tire easily ... of the discussion of "is NFP akin to bc" because of the mindset of "do we want to avoid another?

Look folks, its God's problem. He made us this way, so we use our brains & fertility the way He intended. Emphasis on brains, please.

Don't get hyped up on whether YOU know when & how many children to have. YOU do not know the future. To think that you do, is to play God's role.

Men - talk to your wives, pray a lot, use NFP as a gift towards holiness, and look forward to when you are older - like me - and tire easily...

Sheila Kippley said...

The "planning" in systematic natural family planning should only be done if there is a sufficiently serious reason. Breastfeeding does not require any sufficiently serious reason. What's left out in this discussion is God's plan for baby care and baby spacing. Mrs. Darwin said: "If you need to avoid having another child for the next year or two, you may end up having to avoid having sex nearly half the time." In God's plan most mothers will have many more months of amenorrhea due to breastfeeding than the 9 months of amenorrhea credited to pregnancy. In God's plan for spacing, there is no need to abstain. Read The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding: The Frequency Factor if you are interested in this topic. It is a simple method that does not require any knowledge unless you live in a culture which promote practices which interfere with the breastfeeding, such as the U.S. As one African man said at the family Congress in Rome in 1994 "our women rely on breastfeeding to space their babies."
Mrs. Darwin speaks of the marriage act being pleasurable and part of reproduction. The same can be said about breastfeeding which is part of reproduction and pleasurable. In fact, there are two pleasurable acts which are purely voluntary between two persons which are necessary for the continuation of the human race: 1) the marriage act between husband and wife and 2) the breastfeeding acts occurring between mother and child. In God's plan both are essential for life.
Cliff said, "God made us this way." The same can be said for breastfeeding regarding the structure and function of the breasts. Unfortunately so many in the Church are unaware of what's involved with natural child spacing by breastfeeding.
Free information on eco-breastfeeding and systematic NFP can be downloaded from the NFP online manual at Sheila Kippley, volunteer for NFP International

Audrey said...

The success of both NFP and eco breastfeeding pivots upon proper use of an effective method.

Both The CCL sypto-thermal method and the Kippley's 7 standards of eco nursing tout excellent effective rates WHEN USED FULLY and CORRECTLY. "Correctly" meaning couples incorporate both the spirit and written rules--both partners working together with God to discern etc; using ALL SEVEN nursing standards.

NFP is not misogynous when use correctly, as intended, but any good can become a perversion when used incorrectly.

CMinor said...

Those who argue that NFP is mysogynistic tend to conveniently forget that it's the hormonal contraceptives that mess with a woman's biology and natural hormone fluctuations. Some actually interfere with drive so that the (female, of course)hc user doesn't experience the peaks at all. That's supposed to equalize us?

Thanks, but no thanks. I'd rather put up with the occasional frustrations of periodic abstinence than lose all touch with the unadulterated power of the reproductive instinct.

Charlotte (WaltzingM) said...

Am I correct in understanding that the "NFP is misogynous" argument above was not arguing for contraception as an alternative but rather "you shouldn't have sex at all unless you are ready to have a baby" argument? I wonder how that argument holds up against someone who is battling serious physical health conditions or even mental health conditions? NFP is a literally a Godsend. It is the biological system He created. Yes, so is breastfeeding, I understand, but there are some women for whom breastfeeding isn't pleasurable, it's eye popping painful. Let me guess, she must not be doing it right? There are some women who would go insane from sleep deprivation if they followed the rules of ecological breastfeeding. Wait, she must not be doing it right, either. Frankly, ecological breastfeeding doesn't allow for the fact that every woman is created different. NFP, on the other hand, helps a woman interpret her body's cycles, symptoms and biological rhythms. Every woman is unique.

I wanted to clarify a point I made above now that I have had the chance to read it again. For those who claim that the woman has to sacrifice pleasure by abstaining through the fertile periods, my point was that so does the man. The lack of those fertile symptoms (open cervix, fertile mucous, body temperature) diminishes his sensations as well but working together, both man and woman can still find pleasure in being together no matter what phase of the cycle it is.

mrsdarwin said...

Charlotte, I know I can't be the only woman in the history of the world to rely on breastfeeding to suppress fertility (with my first, so I even got those naps), only to find myself pregnant at seven months postpartum. Talk about shock! Though I don't know why I should have been surprised, since my mother and her mother before her followed much the same pattern...

I'd like to say that sex during the infertile time should and ought to be just as pleasurable as during the fertile time, if the husband and wife are both willing to put the time and energy into making it that way. I say "willing" because I guess some husbands can be selfish, and because some wives can refuse to allow themselves to be aroused because they don't feel like it at first or because they're tired or irritated at their husbands or whatnot. It seems odd to speak of being willing to experience pleasure as a "sacrifice", but sometimes it is. I would argue that what some people call the "marital obligation" involves not only the cheerful generosity mentioned above, but calls upon a wife not to withhold her capacity for pleasure from her husband even though it calls for a greater time and energy investment. (Of course, the husband has to give of himself enough to facilitate the process.)

Charlotte (WaltzingM) said...

And I couldn't agree with you more on every point! (6 months postpartum for me the first time and 8 months the second although, I wasn't surprised by those pregnancy since my cycles returned at 4 months.)

While it is true that the symptoms of the fertile time make it easier to attain those heights of pleasure, they can and should also be achieved if both partners are willing to completely give of themselves as you have described. Thank you for this lively conversation!

M. Alexander said...

What I find interesting is that throughout this article and the commentary, 17 comments deep, not once do I see mentioned- "openness to life" or "generosity".

And I would argue that it is precisely those virtues that nFP seeks to make obsolete.

We start with nPF and move to putting our parents in nursing homes because we can't be bothered with them.

What God asks of us is often inconvenient and to expect anything less misses the call to sacrifice.

Anonymous said...

M. Alexander, I think the reason that "openness to life" and "generosity" have not been explicitly mentioned is that everyone commenting here already assumes those aspects are crucial. Don't you think it's just a tad uncharitable (not to mention unreasonable) of you to assume the worst about the people discussing this topic here? Just sayin.

If anything encourages generosity and openness to life it is trying to practice NFP!

--Elizabeth B.

bearing said...

Hello! Up thread! I mentioned generosity!

bearing said...

In fact, the word "generosity" appears 4 times before you even posted, M. Alexander. Try the search function next time you want to tell people how closely you read the discussion.

Em said...

"So if you only, ever have sex when you absolutely expect to have a baby, you're actually using sex in a more minimal fashion than we're physically designed for."

Darwin (or any other of the lovely commenters), do you happen to know of any good literature, specifically NFP/Catholic, that can further support this point? I ask this not for myself, but for a very dear friend. Over the course of several discussions on the topic, it's become clear that he's of the opinion, after reading up on church teaching (to what extent, I don't know), that a married couple should only have sex during the woman's fertile period because that is the only time during which conception is possible. Apparently, having sex outside that period is against church teaching because of the impossiblity of conception, which for him, translates into an act not being open to life and one purely for the benefit of the couple - selfish, and akin to using artificial contraception.

I'm admittedly not too well read on these matters, but have always understood the church teaching to be somewhat looser than the vision he describes. He, being a debative type, wants Proof, and my own feeble attempts at a search haven't turned up much. Is there anything any of you know of that can help me?

Much thanks, and commendations for a nice discussion.

Mary E.

Warren said...

To my thinking, it is when the thought of a child goes (as well it may, and for good reasons) from the category of "Oh please Lord! Bless us with a child!", to "Oh Lord, if we get pregnant now, how will we cope?" that it all comes to a crunch.

To me, it seems rational, reasonable and good to see all the goods in the situation, instead of just a partial good. To me, a contraceptive mentality is reinforced by the kind of partial-thinking that excludes the parts of reality that one doesn't want to deal with right now; "I want to have sex now! How can I satisfy this urge now, and avoid thinking about the rest of reality, as a whole?".

A catholic moral view does not exclude any good, or any truth. All the other views, intentionally simplify, and reduce moral scenarious to reductio-ad-absurdum by their "you have no right to say what people should do here" moral absolute. (Interesting that the only way of forming such an embargo on moral absolutes is by forming one yourself!)

Anyways, yes, it must be the greatest sacrifice for a husband, I think, to not give in to that look in the eyes of his wife, when she most wants to be with him. I would say, that would be equally difficult. And let's not forget that wherever marriage and unity are concerned, one ought to speak more properly of the couple as a unity. For that is what they are, especially in relation to their marital bond, and those things pertaining to it.

You are nothing as a couple, if you are not first together on these things. If anything drives a wedge into it, it's when reality becomes inconvenient for one or the other, and they choose to reject reality and substitute their own delusions.

What a great discussion going on here. I think you've made an excellent argument for the bare truth of bedrock reality, in which Catholic morality properly operates, along with its friends logic, and reason, and love.


Sheila Kippley said...

Regarding eco-breastfeeding there is a distribution. Only 7% of American mothers doing eco-bf had spotting or bleeding during the first 6 months. On the other end, one-third of eco-breastfeeding American mothers were still in amenorrhea at 18 months postpartum. I encourage Mrs. Darwin, Charlotte, and others to fill out a breastfeed survey on this topic at For those interested in natural spacing, read The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding: The Frequency Factor ( It's inexpensive and an easy read.

Charlotte (WaltzingM) said...

With all due respect, Mrs. Kippley, I have no desire to attempt eco-bf again and I completely disagree with the AP parenting philosophy. Maybe I am too damaged from my emotionally stunted upbringing to be able to give myself that completely to a baby or just plain too selfish as some proponents of your philosophy suggest. I had a child attached to my body every hour for comfort, food, companionship, boredom for the first year of his life and I almost went insane (literally, not figuratively, from lack of sleep). I really didn't appreciate and suffered incredible pains from the guilt of being told "I wasn't doing it right" when my cycles returned at 4 months pp and I was pregnant at 6. (I'm not complaining, in fact, we were thrilled!)

Being older and wiser now, I've learned that God is calling me to be the best mother I can be, not the best mother you can be.

Faustina said...

I really don't see how NFP could possibly misogynous.

As in all things in married life, we should be acting as a unit. Hence the 'unity' aspect of the marital union. We can't (shouldn't) have sex by ourselves. We can't (shouldn't) raise children effectively by ourselves. We can't (shouldn't) conduct a marriage by ourselves.

I'm certain that the way God intended for us to approach these issues, both before and after the progress in understanding that made nfp scientifically possible, was for the husband and wife to act as a unit. As previous posters have pointed out, in times past this would have (should have) meant the couple as a unit deciding to abstain completely or not at all. In today's world we have a third option. As a unit, we can decide to practice periodic abstinence and should count ourselves lucky.

In my experience, and that of my parents who have been practicing NFP for thirty years, it is essential that both spouses be involved in the observation, charting and interpretation of charts. I make observations during the day, my husband records them every night along with any behavioural symptoms that he has noticed, and he interprets the charts. He is one saying 'yes' or 'no' at the end of the day. I am not the one handing out sexual 'candy bars'.

There have been many times in our marriage where on Monday we are both united in our discernment that this month would not be a good time to conceive. And by Thursday, I am climbing the wall and making any kind of excuse that I can to dismiss our prayerful agreement on the subject. It is my husband, who out of concern for MY welfare and the welfare of his children, has practised heroic self-control and held off my rabbit-like advances.

It is then I, sometime later given my crazy cycles, who respond generously in a spirit of marital charity, by deciding to be interested in sex.

Marriage is about unity. How we practice NFP and how we conduct ourselves in the bedroom is informed by marital unity and charity. The wife bearing all the burden of making nfp work is just as dis-united as the husband unilaterally deciding to get a vasectomy.

If NFP in a particular marriage is misogynous, it is a symptom of that marriage, not caused by NFP itself.

Darwin said...


Over the course of several discussions on the topic, it's become clear that he's of the opinion, after reading up on church teaching (to what extent, I don't know), that a married couple should only have sex during the woman's fertile period because that is the only time during which conception is possible. Apparently, having sex outside that period is against church teaching because of the impossiblity of conception, which for him, translates into an act not being open to life and one purely for the benefit of the couple - selfish, and akin to using artificial contraception.

Your friend is wrong, though doubtless out of great desire to do what is right. While there are a few early Fathers of the Church who held that sex is only acceptable with an active desire for procreation (as in, desire in never an acceptible motive for the marriage act) that has never been the prevailing Catholic view, nor is having sex during infertile periods (or after one is too old or otherwise unable to have children) seen as sinful by the Church.

If what he is looking for is something fairly authoritative to read, the two things that most immediately occur to me at Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae and the book Love and Responsibility by Pope John Paul II.

Of these, the first is shorter and is an authoritative document of the Church, but the latter provides a much more comprehensive philosophy of sexuality.

There are a lot of populizers out there on the topic among the apologetics community, but I haven't read much of their stuff, and if your friend is concerned about understanding what the Church teaches in an authoritative fashion I'm thinking a book by the pope (though written back when he was a bishop) would be the best call.

One could also try Theology of the Body by John Paul II, but honestly I find Love and Responsibility much more readable.

Kate Wicker said...

Mrs. Darwin and others, thank you for furthering the NFP discussion and for expounding on points I was unable to discuss given my word count (and the fact that I had to submit my articles BEFORE I saw the responses/comments to the article).

I just can't see how NFP could ever be hateful (misogynist) toward women when it requires sacrifice from both men and women. Marjorie was arguing that women's fertility should not be something to be controlled and manipulated or to ever be seen as a burden. NFP doesn't see it as a burden; it sees it as a gift and it requires the man to see it as such. I do believe we can use NFP much like artificial contraception and use it to "control" our fertility (I wrote a previous column on NFP v. Catholic contraception), but it's always preferable to contraception because as Mrs. Darwin pointed out: NFP works within the natural structure of what sex is."

Likewise, fertility can seem like a burden to a woman if she's told to copulate whenever to be faithful to the Church's teachings and perhaps truly has just reasons for postponing a pregnancy.

As for EBF, it has worked well for me even when I occasionally "cheat" and pump to use a bottle for a brief date night. I also did end up using a paci with second because of reflux. Still, my first two are spaced 2 1/2 years and my second two 2 years (I actually conceived during a nursing strike). However, I agree there's no such thing as one-size-fits-all-good-mothering, and you have to decide what works best within the context of your family. I do not fault others for not wearing their babies, practicing EBF, etc., but I do wish people wouldn't be so hostile toward me because I do subscribe to AP. Good parents adopt all different parenting styles. Common sense, your gut instincts, and above all, opening yourself to the graces of God and our Blessed Mother are what help us be good parents more than embracing any one parenting “platform.” I've witnessed strong (and often angry) opposition to AP. I don’t criticize my friends who don’t practice AP or extended breastfeeding, etc. and I only ask that others don’t criticize parents who find that AP works for them.

What has been beautiful about EBF for me is that as a mom, I take care of the baby that’s in arms now, responding to her needs, nursing her when she’s cranky, hungry, or just in need of some mommy time and in doing so, I naturally suppress my ovulation and organically space my children.

EBF also beautifully complements Pope John Paul II's teachings on the Theology of the Body. When we breastfeed our babies on demand and fulfill their needs for frequent sucking, we are acting according to natural law; we are cooperating with the way God made us. That’s what “natural” mothering really boils down to: Acting according to the nature God created us and created our babies.

Enough of my rambling! I'm so thankful the Body of Christ is talking about such an important topic like NFP.


bearing said...

Apparently, having sex outside that period is against church teaching because of the impossiblity of conception, which for him, translates into an act not being open to life and one purely for the benefit of the couple - selfish, and akin to using artificial contraception.

My goodness -- would it be wrong to have sex during pregnancy, then, or after menopause? It's hard to come up with a rational basis that allows sex during pregnancy, or after menopause but forbids postovulatory sex or sex during the first few days of the menstrual cycle. But I don't know, maybe this guy thinks everyone over 45 should be completely celibate?

TS said...

First, we must be real. Modern NFP practices demand daily bodily measurements of women, not men.... A woman most desires sexual intimacy when she is at her most fertile... a hoot! And could only have been written by a woman. Fortunately Bearing, who is a woman, gets it and so lets repeat her comment:

"But this seems to me well balanced against the sacrifice made by men, who would probably prefer a CONSTANT supply of sex whenever they want it."

Indeed. While the demands of NFP made on women are by no means insignificant, to say that men are getting off easy (sorry for that unfortunate imagery) is to engage in a fantasy as exuberant as imagining humans can easily walk to the North Pole wearing only tank-tops and flip-flops.

mrsdarwin said...


Thanks for visiting -- and for your original article as well.

I think Ecological Breastfeeding is great, and I thank Kate and Sheila Kippley for mentioning it in the comments. But, as Sheila points out, 7% of American women practicing ecological breastfeed (practicing, I say) will have an early return to fertility. For those of us in that 7% who don't have that biological edge, it's not really helpful to hear that for the other 93% might have nursing amenorrhea for up to 18 months!

I also want to state: it cracks me up whenever I hear people with kids spaced at a neat 2 1/2 to 3 years instruct us on how we should just leave our family spacing up to God, or trust to breastfeeding (as if God had not given us and intellect and biological knowledge to participate in this endeavor with Him). Having children less than two years apart, WHILE SURVIVABLE OF COURSE, puts great stress on a woman's body and on the family as a whole. Kudos to those who have chosen this more difficult road. My commiseration and encouragement, from personal experience, who find themselves surprised this way. But I will never, never judge anyone who cooperates with God in using NFP to space their children to more than 2 years apart, and those who sneer or make condescending remarks about lack of trust are truly binding up heavy burdens for others to carry.

Bernard Brandt said...

Always one to toss a cherry bomb (if not a turd) into the punchbowl, may I suggest a different angle in which to approach this subject.

NFP imposes a considerable discipline upon the female member of the human couple. It imposes none upon the male, with the possible exception of responding with courtesy and self sacrifice when the female says, "Honey, not now."

While described this way, this unequal burden is perhaps not misogynistic, it is certainly less than satisfactory.

My suggestion would be that the male member of the couple investigate a discipline which has been known to the Chinese for the last four or so thousand years. A recent exponent and teacher of it is Mantak Chia. This discipline is described in his book, "The Multiorgasmic Man". An Amazon review of this work may be found here:

Just a thought.

mrsdarwin said...

I should note: I am not accusing anyone in this thread of behaving judgmentally, but am reflecting in general on discussions I've read before.

Kate said...

Mrs. Kippley -

Have you considered using an online service to collect your survey data? I'd love to participate but I don't have a printer and I know I am less likely to complete and return a survey by mail (dealing with kid chaos and every day busyness) than I am to answer one online that I can send in instantly. surveymonkey is a useful tool.

MrsD - GREAT discussion. What a range of opinions.

Kate Wicker said...

Mrs. Darwin, I just want to be sure that I'm not being misunderstood: I agree 100 percent with you. NFP is such a blessing because it gives couples wishing to be faithful to the Church's teachings on God's plan for family and marriage a way to space babies, and I believe that discerning "just reasons" is between God, husband, and wife. My spiritual director and I once had a very candid discussion about this because I was feeling extremely overwhelmed with the little ones I currently had and was growing sick and tired of so many people commenting on how I was going to have nine kids and was so lucky I started my family so young. I have to pray and discern God's will for me and my family All. Of. The. Time. I'm not sure I'm cut out to be a mega mom. Then again, as my nana, a mom of many, has reminded me: You don't wake up one day with 7 kids. At any rate, my spiritual director talked about how what is a "just reason" for one couple might not be for another. We all have different temperaments, kids with different temperaments (my first is an insomniac and I happen to need sleep), diverse financial backgrounds, etc. I just personally have to be careful to not get so caught up in the effectiveness of NFP that I start to embrace a contraceptive mentality. I confess to being guilty of this when I was actually trying to conceive a baby and began to think that having a baby on my time was my right.

Also, one reason I mention EBF is because many women don't know about it or how it can help *some* women naturally space babies. For me, it has helped to relieve some of the pressure and has helped me to further see my feminine design as a gift. However, if following the 7 standards of EBF does the opposite for a woman and places a burden upon her, then she should certainly look outside of EBF (i.e., NFP methods that work in the postpartum period).

Likewise, I should also note what you (Mrs. Darwin) noted. I'm not accusing anyone of being judgmental on your blog thread either. However, I have actually received some hate mail in the past when I've alluded to being an AP mom or to breastfeeding on demand (including discreetly at Mass).

Finally, I once was - I admit - a rather obnoxious poster child for NFP, but as my family grows (and my nights become shorter and days longer), I am learning that despite its many graces, it can be very, very tough. That's why I have to PRAY about it all of the time. It's also why I like discussions like these where we don't compare our crosses but instead share them and learn to shoulder them together.

God bless, and thanks again for continuing this wonderful dialogue!

Charlotte (WaltzingM) said...

I apologize if my comments seemed harsh or too pointed. I did not intend to point the finger of blame at anyone except those people who looked down their noses at me when I decided that I was going to try another means of comforting my second child (playing, holding, massaging, singing) instead of popping her on the breast every 5 minutes. It's what I needed to do for my mental health and I think ultimately made me the kind of mother God wanted me to be instead of the mother I thought I had to be. But I digress....

One question... isn't it completely impossible to use NFP as contraception? The Church, in Her wisdom, allows for it's use precisely because it never creates a barrier to God's plans. Even used in the most strict manner, it leaves the door open for God to work His "magic". I have heard people accuse those with more than 2 years between children of being "too good" at NFP. Those same people are usually ones who have found themselves blessed with a baby they weren't trying to conceive and they say, "Well, I guess that was God's plan for us!" Can't I also say that never having been blessed with an unexpected baby, "Well, I guess this is God's plan for us"? Unless you are practicing complete and total abstinence, our biological clocks are still ticking away and the Divine Clockmaker knows how to tweak them.

Can NFP be used for selfish reasons? Sure. But so can having a baby. The couple who is having a rough go at marriage and thinks a baby will save it. How about the woman who admits to her friends that babies make her feel young while she ignores the older ones? Or the woman who feels like her life is out of control but is too lazy to get it back on track. Being pregnant is a great excuse to pamper yourself and very tempting for the woman who craves attention! We can have selfish desires on both sides of this discussion that is why we are charged with being both generous and prudent and we shouldn't forsake one virtue in favor of the other.

Sheila Kippley said...

Kate or Others without a printer,
Email your mailing address to me at and I will send the number of copies desired. If only one survey is requested, I can enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope as well. Sheila

Sheila Kippley said...

The comment from one mother that she had to nurse her baby every five minutes struck me as extremely unusual. When anthropologists studied the !Kung tribe that is known for its long duration of breastfeeding and consequent extended delay of fertility, they found that the moms were nursing about every fifteen minutes. These mothers conceived on the average of 35 months postpartum. This is a hunter-gathering tribe, and the moms are probably grateful for those breaks in their normal gathering activities. However, such frequency struck us as highly unusual. We have never tried to promote that frequency of nursing, and in reporting our studies, we have noted that our surveys were about ordinary American moms.
In the course of his several studies of breastfeeding and infertility, Professor Bill Taylor developed an event recorder to make it easy for the nursing mom to record both the frequency of nursing episodes and the duration of each nursing event. All she had to do was punch a button at the start and finish of each nursing event, and the computer did the rest. If I remember correctly, he found that mothers who nursed for a long time in order to have a long interval between nursing sessions nursed the same amount of time as those mothers who nursed more frequently with shorter nursing sessions and shorter intervals between nursing sessions. And he found that those mothers who nursed frequently with short intervals between feedings were more likely to ovulate later.
It would be erroneous for readers of this blog to think that following the Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding involves nursing a baby every five minutes or every 15 minutes. Yes, there may be some times of illness or other high stress when it seems that the baby wants to nurse all the time, but it is also clear that such times are the exception and not the rule.
The beauty of natural breastfeeding is that it keeps the baby near its mother. God’s plan is wonderful in this regard. And for us busy mothers we can nurse during our many activities or visits and oftentimes we relish the time we can sit down or lie down and nurse our babies and do nothing else.

Jamie said...

I'd rather nurse my baby every 15 minutes than try to take a nap every day! That's the piece of EBF I just can't get behind. Are there any hard data supporting that standard? I've seen anecdotes about women who experience a later return of fertility after napping with baby, but there are many other factors that could contribute.

Sheila Kippley said...

This standard regarding a daily nap is the most ignored of the Seven Standards. I tried to make a strong case for this Fifth Standard in Chapter 5 of The Seven Standards of Ecological Breastfeeding: The Frequency Factor and gave other mothers' experiences with naps or no nap. A 30 minute nap or rest is extremely beneficial also for better mothering and more energetic mothering toward the latter half of the day. I must leave this debate to get other things done. I encourage anyone interested in this topic to read the book mentioned above.

CMinor said...

I'd say the male can be as involved in the process as he chooses to be; therein lies the option of being as disciplined as his wife.

If the book you recommend covers coitus reservatus and some of the tantric stuff, those practices got some mention in Mary Shivanandan's Natural Sex. Some of them are iffy as to their licitness; others, while not strictly illicit, have a tendency to result in babies and are not a good substitute for abstinence if the objective is to avoid pregnancy.

CMinor said...

This perhaps won't be much help for Charlotte, being after the fact, but if you have a baby nursing every five minutes (besides short-term in cases of stress, I mean) that might be a good time to call in a certified lactation consultant. It could signal a correctable nursing problem.
Certified LCs are well-trained and can work within the bounds of Eco-breastfeeding.
For the record I eco-breastfed three babies of four, seldom took a nap, and was infertile for a year or longer after each one. I have had friends in the 7% group; one remarked to me that she believed she had many anovular cycles for some time after return of menses. Might be an interesting thing to study.

Katherine T. Lauer said...

I am now ecologically nursing my second baby. I find that babies nursed this way do nurse often, but it doesn't bother me because it's not often and lengthy, it's often and short. My current eight-month-old pops on and off for just a minute or so many times per day, I have no idea how many times. But her lengthy nursing sessions (five minutes) are fewer--maybe three or four times in the daytime, plus about three times overnight (we cosleep). It's certainly a lifestyle that works for me to keep my fertility at bay without causing me to have to search for a serious reason to use NFP (which I'd say we don't have). Our first two children are spaced 23 months apart from nothing other than ecological nursing.

Anonymous said...

I would like to add that I am Eco BF my second child. I breastfed my first "culturally" and had a nine month delay in fertility. I am 18 months postpartum with my second child and still have not had a cycle. I am here to state that it does work. My baby nursed very often when she was younger but now goes longer between feedings.
As with anything else, your attitude has a lot to do with whether or not you are ok with something. If you have an attitude that a baby nursing every hour is just too much, then you probably will find eco BF too much work or not possible. If you look at breastfeeding as a beautiful way to comfort, feed, put to sleep, and bond with your baby, breastfeeding every hour is just not so bad. I would also like to add that this attitude is really hard to get. I did not have this attitude with my first baby and have learned to "chill" out with my second.
Everyone does things differently and that is ok. You have to do what is best for your family. Eco BF has worked very well for my family. I do recommend if you are looking into Eco BF that you seek support. It is very difficult without it.
God Bless,

Nella @McDonald's In Heaven said...

"Regarding eco-breastfeeding there is a distribution. Only 7% of American mothers doing eco-bf had spotting or bleeding during the first 6 months."

Mrs. Kippley and others, please be aware that that 7% actually exists. This statistic is often used almost as a throw away as in: well, it's SO uncommon to see spotting or bleeding 6 months postpartum that YOU must be doing it wrong. I'd like to know how many of you, despite tandem nursing a newborn and a 15 month old and following all 7 precious standards of ecoBF have had their period return at 2 months postpartum? How many of you have continued to nurse 2 children for another 16 months despite expecting ANOTHER child and facing the prospect of nursing 3 children at the same time? To suggest that all of this fear and "selfishness" about whether or not we might be able to cope with such a demand is very very real for some of us. To suggest that we have not been selfless, that we are not educated properly on NFP or BFing is hurtful judgmental behavior. I am part of the 7%, we are real mothers, with real children, and real hearts trying to serve our families and the Lord. I am blessed to be able to care for my children this way, and I am grateful for it, but it can be at times very difficult. I don't mean to complain about it, but to point out that it is a very real circumstance that some mothers face. This is the Lord's will for my family, I believe it, and I do my best to accept it with joy. For those of you who ecoBF works, God Bless You. I'm truly happy for you, please though, reserve your judgement for the rest of us who pour ourselves out for our families, and have a return of fertility anyway. I'm sorry Darwins, I know this was not exactly the point of the original post, I disagree that NFP is misogynous (despite my rambling!), but ecoBF propaganda can be so hurtful to many women. I agree it is an important tool for many women but it is not a panacea, even practiced as virtuously and perfectly as the other 93% of women manage to do.

Kate said...

nellakat -

Are you sure you aren't really my friend Jen? 'cuz your story sounds EXACTLY like her. Which was really galling in her case because she grew up in NFP circles and devoutly believed in the virtues of EBF until she had 3 children in as many years.

(also interesting - her mother in law also claims to have attempted EBF spacing several times and has never succeeded in postponing pregnancy more than a few months. I've often wondered whether the men in that family send out some particularly strong pheromonal signal triggering fertility in their wives!)

Natalee said...

"Have sex whenever you both want to... and expect a baby every time. Otherwise, don't copulate. That's a fair burden on both spouses."

Has anyone else found that this point is completely moot, once you understand your body's signs of fertility? The wanting becomes intertwined with the "not wanting a baby" part, and one's desires for space can trump your desires for sex. It's God's perfect plan, the way I see it, where something actually becomes more important than sex. It took years for us to get to that point (and seven kids) but now our desire for each other could not even (ahem) perform when faced with the knowledge that we are sure to conceive.

And I also am one of the 7% (is it still 7%?). I did ECB with my first, but since my cycle returned so soon afterward, and we conceived, again and again, it became virtually impossible to do so as the years went by. Who can nap with 3 kids under 4 running around?