NFP, Providentialism, and Future-You
Among the small fraction of married Catholics who don't contracept, there are two camps: those who space pregnancies by practicing NFP; and providentialists, who may or may not actively pursue pregnancy, but who do nothing to postpone it. Maybe we have respect for Catholics who are in the other camp, and maybe we don't, but we readily identify ourselves as belonging to one or the other.
Well, stop it. Why? First, because if it pits us against other Catholics, it makes us anxious to show that we're right, which is never an attitude conducive to discerning God's will. Second, because when we identify our marriage as a providentialist type or an NFP type, it implies that we have to make decisions for our future selves, rather than just making decisions for today.
It reminds me very much of the debates over homeschooling. (I know, NFP and homeschooling in one post! If I were getting paid per click, I'd also mention circumcision, vaccination, veiling, the gold standard, and legalized pot. ) The decision to homeschool is so momentous that parents will often load their entire identities into the basket labelled, "We are homeschoolers." This way of thinking is satisfying, and helps us to commit fully to our decision when we deal with the day-to-day challenges.
But what happens the next day, when life changes, as life will do, darn it? The basket tips over, and our identities get all spilled out all over the counter, and it's a big mess, right when you're trying to get supper made.
I always advise people considering homeschooling to realize that they're not signing up for a twelve-year commitment. They're just making a decision for one year. You give it your all for that one year (and obviously it's a good idea to plan ahead), but don't think too much about "How can I do this for the next twelve years?" Maybe you won't be. Maybe you will move, or get a job, or get sick, or maybe your child will turn out to have special needs you need outside help with, or maybe a new school will open that will do a better job with your kid's talents than you can. Maybe you'll just get tired, and need to take a year off.
The point is, you don't know what will happen. This is how life goes, and it's foolish to be such an extremist that you end up eating your words when you end up doing the thing you once railed against. You simply don't know what your future self will have to handle.
The other point is, you don't know what your future self will be able to handle. The future may require entirely different things from what you're managing now. Can't imagine yourself doing those things? Good news: the now-you doesn't have to. Your future self will, but your future self will have a whole new tool kit.
Do you imagine that your moral development is at its highest peak right now, and that you know and understand and accept everything you will ever need to know, understand and accept? Of course not. So if the idea of, for instance, yourself with nine kids freaks you out, that's because you're imagining the NOW-you with nine kids. If you do eventually have nine kids, you will have changed immensely in the process of having them, one by one.
Same for the idea of having to pay attention to a chart: maybe it would feel horrible to you now, but in the future, maybe it will be clearly the right thing to do. So don't even worry about that. Deal with today. Deal with this month, and this year. Don't try and deal now with the things that you might have to deal with one day.
Here's a handy example: Here I am with nine kids, with another ten years of likely fertility. For me and my husband, learning how to reach the fabled marriage-building aspects of NFP was a slow and tortured process. You'd think that a couple who practices NFP would grow more and more entrenched in an attitude of control -- that learning self-control and prudence would, almost by definition, make a couple less and less willing to accept and be at peace with the unexpected. You'd think a couple using NFP are all about saying no, to each other and to God. That's how the then-me imagined the now-me, fifteen years ago, when I thought about learning to use NFP.
But in fact, the opposite has happened: as we learn self-control, we are both a thousandfold more at peace with the idea of giving up control to God -- accepting the unexpected, adapting, being grateful. This is what self-control has taught us. That was unexpected! You never know.
So if you are a providentialist, please be a providentialist right now. Don't assume you know the first thing about couples who use NFP, because you may be one some day, and you might even like it.
And if you practice NFP and are satisfied that you have good reasons for doing so, don't assume you'll be in this situation forever. Don't think about how now-you will handle all those potential then-kids if you stopped charting: just think about what to do now.
Maybe that's why God designed women to be fertile each month, rather than, say, quarterly: so we'd have to keep thinking and thinking about it, revisiting, revising, comparing our desires and needs against our current capabilities. Our challenge is to think about eternity, but to act in the now.