Women’s health and a deeper faith: The benefits of NFP

Therese Bussen

Natural Family Planning (NFP) is an integral part of family life for many Catholics, helping them achieve, avoid or space pregnancies. But the benefits of NFP don’t just apply to fertility; for one couple, and perhaps others as well, it was life-changing.

Steve and Eileen Michalczyk had been married for seven years and at that time, their marriage “was falling apart.”

“We had financial problems…which led to debt, which led to stress on the relationship,” Steve said.

The couple had both been raised Catholic, but their faith hadn’t been “personal” to either of them — and without having been raised knowing why contraception was against Church teaching and harmful to their marriage, they were using it to space children.

With crippling debt causing their relationship to fall apart, they still attended Mass with their family.

“We were still going to Mass, but it was because it was just what we did,” Eileen said.

And that proved to be a doorway to something better.

She had heard from a friend at church about NFP, so they sat down and talked about it; after that, she and Steve decided to take a class, feeling ready to “try anything.”

Learning about NFP saved their marriage — it opened them up to God’s plan for man and woman, both individually and together, as well as how God fits into that relationship and into the overall plan for family life.

“The biggest reminder for me was that God has a plan, and if you’re not an active and willing participant in that plan, you’re going to struggle,” Eileen said. “Just hearing about God’s plan for a man and a woman and their union together, how our bodies were created to work together…I had this [realization] that God created me to be a mother, to be fully open to the gifts he sends, to give myself fully to my husband, and right now, I’m trying to be in charge of my own plan.”

Natural Family Planning helped to enrich Steve and Eileen Michalczyk’s marriage and family life. (Photo provided)

Steve was as equally moved by what he learned about God’s role in their marriage and his role as a husband and father.

“I knew that at that point I wasn’t really respecting my wife as my wife, as God was calling me to, and I didn’t feel that mutual respect in return,” Steve said. “In order to move together as a couple, you have to have mutual respect.

“We’re a gift from God to each other. Together, we’re no longer ‘her’ and ‘I,’ it’s ‘us.’ It opened me up,” Steve continued. “At that point, I was very frustrated with feeling that [things were] always falling on me, and learning NFP, we were able to take that step back and put faith back where it belongs, and let God handle things. Instead of simply asking God for help, letting God help. And making faith more of a central focus in our marriage as opposed to something we did on Sunday.”

“It forced us to have time together, to re-look at our marriage with new eyes and remember that it’s between three of us, not just Steve and I, and to put God back into our marriage, and finally, to trust God,” Eileen added.

After learning about NFP and beginning to put it into practice, the couple quickly realized it was a doorway that opened up a real relationship with God for them, in addition to healing the relationship between the two of them.

“It opened us up in so many other ways in putting trust in God,” Eileen said. “If you can entrust your family to God, you can entrust anything to him. And once we got there and started using NFP, things fell into place, and there was this release of control to God — things didn’t magically get better, but we were better.”

Eileen and Steve are just one couple who experienced a change of heart in learning NFP; but its benefits don’t end there. The practice of NFP has also helped people immensely in learning about their fertility as well as their overall health, even treating underlying issues that may have gone unnoticed.

“One of the things that I love about NFP is that it enables a woman to be an integral part of her own healthcare,” said Caitlin Burnett, a registered nurse and NFP instructor at Bella Natural Women’s Care in Denver. “Instead of coming to a doctor, wondering what’s going on, we’re able to provide valuable information that can help our doctors and nurse practitioners treat women more efficiently.

“A woman’s chart can bring us so much information, like risk for early miscarriage, severe PMS, limited mucus leading to infertility, abnormal bleeding that could indicate fibroids or other uterine conditions,” Burnett continued. “You aren’t going to be asked to start taking artificial birth control to mask your symptoms. NFP and more specifically, NaPro Technology, seeks to find the root of the problem and treat it in a way that preserves fertility and remains open to life.”

NaPro Technology, or “Natural Procreative Technology,” works with the body’s natural procreative cycles to enhance its function and was developed through the research of the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Neb.

Practicing NFP led Carrie Keating, NFP and marriage specialist at the Archdiocese of Denver, to the Pope Paul VI Institute to diagnose her infertility.

One of the things that I love about NFP is that it enables a woman to be an integral part of her own healthcare.”

“My initial charts didn’t look like the typical example charts. It was my first indication that starting a family may be a challenge for us,” Keating said.

After diving more into the Church’s teaching on treatment of infertility starting with Christopher West’s “The Good News about Sex and Marriage,” she and her husband, Stephen, discovered the Pope Paul VI Institute.

“I received wonderful care for my health and fertility issues through a newly-developed medical science for women called NaPro Technology,” Keating said. “Our journey had a lot of ups and downs, and it was a hard time for us as a couple too. I went through several surgeries and three miscarriages. Stephen and I felt alone in our suffering at times. Was God listening and would he help us have a family?”

Eventually, she and her husband were encouraged by friends to ask God to show them other ways in which their marriage could be fruitful, and they began helping at their parish with marriage preparation.

“Our newfound ‘fruitfulness’ helped lift us out of our deep, internal sadness,” Keating said. Later, their family came through adoption.

“Through it all, we found God’s redemptive graces. The ‘cross’ of infertility eventually revealed itself as a gift in disguise,” said Keating.

Fortunately, the Archdiocese of Denver is blessed with an abundance of NFP resources with clinics like Bella Natural Women’s Care and Marisol Health, which both provide women fertility care rooted in Church teaching. There are also several NFP-trained doctors in the greater Denver area and many instructors.

“Our Archdiocese is very blessed to have a strong NFP community. We have a lot of NFP teachers and a variety of NFP methods taught in our diocese,” said Keating. “If you have a need or question, don’t hesitate to call our office, we have a lot of great resources to share with you.”

For more information on NFP in the archdiocese, visit archden.org/eflm/nfp.

COMING UP: NFP in real life: Hard, but worth it

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In honor of NFP Awareness Week, which begins July 23, let’s talk about sex.

Natural Family Planning (NFP) is offered as an option to help Catholic families either achieve or avoid pregnancy, including spacing children. Training in NFP is required for marriage preparation in the Archdiocese of Denver, but after that, it’s not much talked about outside of certain circles, either in everyday conversation or from the pulpit. It’s nearly foreign to mainstream healthcare, although more NFP-trained doctors are now available. But it’s a very important part of family life for many Catholics — and, like family, it is both beautiful as well as hard and messy.

And it is worth it.

Life after marriage prep

Jenny Uebbing, who writes at Mama Needs Coffee, a blog connected to Catholic News Agency, recently wrote, “What do you want/need from the Church in order to live NFP?” and the resulting comments from readers were eye-opening.

Many people are seriously struggling with living it out.

The difficulties are as varied as the people themselves: Crosses in all shapes and sizes, including infertility on one end of the spectrum and super-abundant fertility on the other, making it hard to space children apart. Long periods of abstinence, medical problems, feeling isolated from instructors, finding trained doctors or other like-minded people are just some of the other common hardships.

“People are so hungry for support from the Church, who they’re trying to be faithful to,” Uebbing said. “And a lot of people are feeling that the Church doesn’t see them in this particular struggle, or have anything to offer past marriage prep short of an emergency intervention when they’re on the brink of divorce. There’s no middle ground.”

But most NFP users are walking the “middle ground” of every day family life with very little help, and many find themselves disillusioned as they encounter these difficulties.

“One big [realization from the many comments and emails] is that so much of our expectations of what marriage should look like are very rooted in a Protestant understanding of love, which is white-knuckle chastity until marriage, and then once the rings are on, all bets are off,” Uebbing said. “There wasn’t really a category mentally for chastity within marriage. There’s this disconnect that there’s an ongoing training in chastity as a couple, that you don’t actually have complete 24-7 access to each other’s bodies, unless you want to end up with 25 kids.”

That expectation only works with the assumption of using contraception, which is true for most of the world. But for couples who practice NFP, marital intimacy doesn’t work that way, said Uebbing. Even so, in her experience, it’s still easy to fall into the trap of practicing with a contraceptive mentality.

“That’s always a temptation, slipping into playing God with it, that trying to avoid should be the default setting. I don’t think that’s normal or healthy but that is the normal in our culture,” Uebbing said. “That’s such a bummer to me that that’s always our default setting, even as practicing Catholics. That it’s remarkable when a baby is conceived.”

People are so hungry for support from the Church, who they’re trying to be faithful to. And a lot of people are feeling that the Church doesn’t see them in this particular struggle, or have anything to offer past marriage prep short of an emergency intervention when they’re on the brink of divorce. There’s no middle ground.”

But trying to avoid a pregnancy or space children for “just reasons” as the Cathechism of the Catholic Church (#2368) notes shouldn’t be looked down upon, either, and is, in fact, a responsibility of the parents that’s based on their discernment of God’s plan for their family.

“I’m so grateful the Church doesn’t have a list of [what just reasons are]. And she never will, because she is our wise mother who is raising adults, not a preschool teacher with a list of classroom rules,” Uebbing said. “So it is up to them, but also depends on each couple working continuously to form their own conscience and be submitting their will for the marriage over and over again to the Lord and asking, ‘What do you want?’”

Common, and uncommon struggles

The journey to holiness in marriage is not without suffering. But it’s always an opportunity to trust God more deeply and receive his gifts in ways we could never have imagined for ourselves. Some of those crosses come as people practice NFP.

“The biggest struggle I’ve seen with people is just that we live in a contraceptive culture. So no matter how you slice it, you’re going to get pushback,” Uebbing said. “It’s not normal to have children anymore. So just that positions you in a place of complete defiance of what the world says is normal and expected and typical.”

Medical issues are a common struggle. Uebbing knows couples who have to abstain for extensive periods of time due to serious underlying medical issues.

“If they don’t want a baby, they’re looking at years of abstinence. And it’s heroic, and it’s something that God has called them to particularly in their marriage,” Uebbing said. “It’s not something that any of us would plan for in our marriage, just like we wouldn’t plan for a spouse to get cancer, or for a child to struggle with mental illness.”

Mental illness has been a struggle in Uebbing’s personal experience: After each birth, she suffers from severe post-partum depression, which is one of the reasons their family spaces their children, simply so her mind and body can heal after delivering.

“A super-abundance of fertility is it’s own kind of cross, and it’s easy to look at a family with six or seven kids and think, ‘Well, they must have been made to have a really big family,’” Uebbing said. “I do love my children, but there’s not great material support, or even psychological support for families who are in that situation.”

How the Church can help

Following conversations with readers after her NFP blog post, Uebbing spoke to friends who are priests about ways the Church can better support couples who practice NFP.

“One piece that was really clear was that we need better formation for our priests on a seminary level. I have some really interesting conversations with priest friends…who had no idea that there were different methods, that it wasn’t cut and dry and that not every couple used it the same way,” Uebbing said. “One said, ‘This would be helpful information to have in the confessional when I’m counseling people pastorally.’ If we’re asking our priests to accompany married couples, they need to know the nitty-gritty.”

“Few people take advantage of talking to their priest. There is no question that can’t be asked,” said Father Timothy Hjelstrom, pastor of St. Louis Parish in Louisville, Colo.

The biggest struggle I’ve seen with people is just that we live in a contraceptive culture. So no matter how you slice it, you’re going to get pushback. It’s not normal to have children anymore.”

“Priests should become familiar with it beyond the technical aspect of it. And couples should be willing to talk to their priest if they have questions or struggles. We’re not here to be condemning,” he added.

Uebbing said that there should be “real material support” for people who practice NFP, and one way to help could be creating a slush-fund for people who can’t afford to pay for meetings with instructors or classes and are desperately needing help.

“This is an aspect of women’s healthcare that’s a really critical piece of knowledge [for women’s overall health], and it shouldn’t be this weird add-on that you learned about during your marriage prep, but that it’s an ongoing, essential part of what it means to be human and what it means to be living out a married vocation,” Uebbing added.

Where to go for help

If you’re struggling in using NFP, first know that you’re not alone. Second, reach out.

One great help to those seeking support in NFP is other married couples, said Uebbing.

“I think every couple [should find] one other married couple, even if it’s not locally, and really come into an honest exchange [with them]. Find at least one other person or couple to talk frankly with,” Uebbing said. “I think people are afraid to be too real, but it doesn’t do anybody any favors to pretend that it’s super easy and super beautiful. They need to know people struggle with this and make huge sacrifices for it, and it’s worth it.”

If you’re struggling with the ins and outs of your fertility, Uebbing said make the investment and get an instructor or doctor you can work with regularly.

“I think because the internet exists, there’s no reason you can’t find an instructor. You don’t need someone to sit down with you in person, you can do everything over Skype or over the phone,” Uebbing said. “There are increasingly more NFP-trained physicians, so for people with harder cases, I just can’t underestimate finding a doctor who can do those blood draws. Even if it’s long distance and you go to the lab and they’re analyzing your stuff once a year — what’s more important than your health and the health of your marriage?”

For more resources on what the Church teaches about NFP, visit Jenny’s blog at catholicnewsagency.com/mamaneedscoffee. For resources on NFP in the Archdiocese of Denver, visit archden.org/eflm/nfp.

The office of Evangelization and Family Ministries is also hosting an event for NFP families on Saturday, August 5 with a vigil Mass at 4 p.m., followed by a picnic and lawn games at the John Paul II Center. Call 303-715-3252 to RSVP.