Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
I need to be careful with the posts I write now that I have five kids, because any time I make a joke about being bad at NFP my inbox is flooded with concerned emails. The gist of the feedback is usually something like, “Shhh! Don’t say that! Now everyone is going to use contraception and reject the beauty of natural family planning!” I see where these folks are coming from, and always appreciate a defender of the culture of life, but I disagree that these kind of jokes turn anyone off to natural methods of birth control. In fact, as a convert to Catholicism who didn’t always understand the Church’s teaching on openness to life, I think that these kinds of comments are not only not harmful, but can sometimes be helpful in getting people to open their minds to giving up artificial contraception. In fact, I think the world could use a few more good “bad at NFP” jokes. Here are three reasons why:
1. It’s not a commentary on the effectiveness of NFP. To say that you’re not good at NFP doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with it; it’s implying a user failure, not a method failure. But that doesn’t matter anyway, because…
2. You are never going to convince people that NFP is as effective as contraception. Even if someone did misinterpret a NFP joke as a comment indicating that it’s ineffective, it wouldn’t matter. In terms of winning converts to the anti-contraception position, I think that discussions about the high effectiveness rates of the various natural birth control methods are mostly a waste of time. It’s true that, used properly, many methods of natural birth control have effectiveness rates higher than 98%. But, except in rare cases such as people who have grave medical reasons for avoiding pregnancy, most people are intimidated by the learning curve and/or secretly suspect that they’d be too lazy to follow the necessary steps to achieve those near-100% pregnancy prevention rates. Even if people believe that NFP works for others, nobody thinks it’s really going to work in their own lives. The fact is that couples who believe that their fertility must be perfectly controlled with the precision and accuracy of a moon landing are never going to throw out their birth control pills and go sign up for a Creighton class, no matter how many statistics you cite about its effectiveness. Which brings me to my third point:
3. People first must understand that surprise pregnancies aren’t the end of the world. When I was researching Catholicism, I reached a point where I was in a no-man’s land between theory and practice. I came to believe that the Church was right in its stance against contraception and its emphasis on openness to life. But was this something that I could sign up for? We live in a culture where “planned parenthood” is the only acceptable type of parenthood, where unexpected pregnancies are portrayed like a cancer diagnosis, life-ruining experiences that must be avoided at all costs. As long as I clung to this worldview, talking to me about NFP was like talking to a brick wall. My perception of pregnancy and married life had to change fundamentally before I could consider applying the Church’s teaching to my own life—and that’s where the NFP jokes came in.
Around this time, I began reading blogs by smart Catholic women who introduced me to a whole new way of thinking about family life. Instead of seeing pregnancies as precarious, once- or twice-in-a-lifetime events that require extensive planning and hand-wringing, they seemed to see pregnancy as a natural part of married life. They joked that that some of their children were more expected than others, and made passing comments about sometimes being surprised by seeing two lines on pregnancy tests. And here was the crazy part: None of this seemed to ruin their lives. In fact, they seemed pretty happy! Having spent my whole life in secular culture, this was a revolutionary idea. It led me to reevaluate everything I thought I knew about family planning. Like many people, I wasn’t convinced that I would be able to use NFP for the long term to plan my family with perfect precision—but, thanks to the light-hearted commentary from people who had had their own NFP fails, I began to think that maybe that was okay.
I think that getting across this concept that surprise pregnancies are not the end of the world is one of the most important keys to building up a culture of life. So I say let the NFP jokes fly! It’ll show outsiders the lighter side of Catholicism, and may even help them realize that it’s okay if they turn out to be bad at NFP too.