Living NFP joyfully

Mama Needs Coffee blogger launches new community to support NFP couples

Anya Semenoff

A touchpoint has consistently appeared in the course of Jenny Uebbing’s writing career.

Over the past 10 years, Jenny Uebbing has covered a wide range of topics on her popular blog, Mama Needs Coffee: the joys and challenges of motherhood, travel, style, liturgical seasons, spirituality, and more. But she consistently returned to one subject: natural family planning. Whenever she was invited to speak publicly, that was the topic she was asked to speak about.

In 2017, the topic took on renewed urgency. She posted a guest commentary about the difficulty of faithfully living out Natural Family Planning (NFP), and a flood of reader comments ensued. So, Uebbing turned to her national audience to ask a seemingly straightforward question: What do you need? It was a question her audience was eager to answer.

A woman named Kathryn wrote: “My gut reaction to the question of what we (my husband and I) need to keep living NFP is literally anything. We have no more NFP contact in the archdiocese, no priestly support, very few families at Mass, and complete silence from the parish about anything related to Christian marriage (and) sexuality.”

Another reader responded: “Coming from a place of infertility rather than hyper-fertility, my husband and I could use more reassurance from the Church that just because we don’t have any kids, we’re no less Catholic and no less a family than those who are so blessed.”

Another shared: “I feel some sense of relief in reading these posts and that is EXACTLY what I need right now — to be part of a conversation …. NFP is.not.easy (sic). It is a cross, it is counter-cultural, it is a roller coaster ride, it is so many things all together.”

“I think the Holy Spirit was starting that conversation, and kind of lining things up,” Uebbing, 36, said during a conversation with Denver Catholic in August.

So this spring, as Uebbing prepared to welcome her sixth child — due in November — she decided to seek out where else the Holy Spirit may be leading.

My number one hope is just to connect people to a community where they feel like they are not alone anymore.” – Jenny Uebbing

“I had kind of a do-or-die reckoning, you’re going to have half-a-dozen children, are you going to keep having a public ministry, or is it time to hang up the keyboard for awhile?” Uebbing said. “So I thought, ‘OK, if I’m going to keep working, I’m going to have to figure out a way to scale myself, so that I can do this work that I really feel is a mission.’”

After brainstorming with a friend, she developed an idea: a membership-based community centered around NFP called Off the Charts.

“I threw the idea out there in May and wanted to kind of test the waters with my audience, and there was a huge response. I had people signing up and saying, ‘I’m in!’ And I was like, ‘I haven’t built a website yet! There’s literally nothing, it’s just an idea!’” Uebbing said.

She did a beta launch and refined the idea by incorporating feedback from a limited number of early users. Off the Charts officially launched to the public Sept. 15.

While the site will have many features, at its heart, it’s a community — one made up of instructors, couples, and clergy, who offer support, continuing education, and resources about NFP.

“My number one hope is just to connect people to a community where they feel like they are not alone anymore,” Uebbing said. “Even if that’s the only thing I can do for someone, is to alleviate that sense of alienation and overwhelm, that’s my number one hope.”

Members will have access to live webinars and workshops, Q&A sessions with NFP professionals, essays, blog posts and more. Uebbing will contribute video and written content, and there will also be a feature that allows people to anonymously submit to a priest delicate questions about their struggles and uncertainties with NFP.

For this feature, Uebbing will work with Father Luis Granados, academic dean and associate professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, and the J. Francis Cardinal Stafford Chair of Moral Theology.

“I cannot say anything but: I will do my best to help,” Father Granados wrote in an email to Denver Catholic. “[Off the Charts] is a very good initiative that helps us look at NFP with realistic and positive eyes…. Enough with fear and hesitation about the beauty of the Church’s teaching on sexuality and human love. We can be proud: We have received the amazing gift of God of the truth of our love.

“It will help couples using NFP not to grow resentful. It will remind us about our vocation to heroism in our love.”
In Father Granados’ experience working with couples, he has noticed several trends, one of which is a vocational loneliness.

“Nobody speaks about NFP. Couples are tempted by relatives and friends to go through the ‘broad gate’ of contraception or even sterilization. Everybody and everywhere they are invited to do that. Only a few prophets (other couples, maybe a priest or a bishop) talk to them about the beauty of their vocation, and about its difficulties from the perspective of a vocation to holiness,” Father Granados wrote.

This scarcity of pastoral guidance is an area in which Uebbing hopes to make significant strides, specifically by helping to better equip clergy.

“I really would love to create something for priests and seminarians to just give them the tools that they need. It’s all there, it just needs to be repackaged and refined in a way that’s user friendly for everybody,” she said.

Father Granados agrees.

“It is critical to form seminarians in this area,” he wrote. “Without shepherds that embrace the challenge of accompanying couples in their path to holiness, families struggle to be faithful to the truth of their love. Priests are called to lead by example and remind the couples their high origin and vocation. Otherwise, the temptation to give up or to live the teaching with resentment is huge.”

As Uebbing and her husband prepare to welcome their sixth child, she is following the call of the Holy Spirit to launch Off the Charts, a membership-based community that she hopes will serve as a source of support and encouragement for couples practicing NFP.

Uebbing said that some have expressed uncertainty about why she would build a community that requires a membership, instead of exclusively carrying on with her blog platform. But she recognizes that publishing is largely moving toward paid membership and subscription products and believes that if people are willing to pay for Netflix, Hulu, or Formed.org, they’ll also invest in a product that touches a key part of their lives.

“I want to give people access to quality content that can really enrich their marriage and enrich their experience of married life,” she said. “We have to take ownership for our own formation, our own experience of the Church, acknowledging that we are also the Church.”

Still, she understands that for some, any cost at all can be prohibitive, so she is offering a scholarship option when needed.

Back in May, when Uebbing first introduced Off the Charts to her blog readership, she spoke of the inspiration that had led her to this moment.

“That prickling sense of, ‘I should do something about this;’ it just hasn’t abated. Even into this sixth pregnancy, I’ve still been nudged and prodded by the sense that there is something more I can do here, something I’m supposed to do,” she wrote.

“As God often does, He kept nudging. Prodding. Waited until life was moving along at such a clip that I’d be out of my own way, so to speak, and then said: ‘Go.’”

To learn more and join the waitlist, visit
offthechartsnfp.com.

Photos by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic

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.