I need to make clear that I am using the term "Natural Family Planning" or NFP very loosely and some will probably object to that. People who know will point out that NFP is 99.7% effective when followed and that NFP is based on observations and the couple communicating and deciding whether they wish to achieve or avoid pregnancy. Just "not contracepting" is not the same as practicing NFP. Sorta kinda following the directions is not practicing NFP. So I know I'm not being really accurate. My reasoning is that NFP or Natural Family Planning is easier to say, and communicates what I mean better than any other term I can think of. The most accurate statement is probably "families who sincerely try to practice Catholic doctrine for marriage" or something like that, and a lot of people who have to deconstruct that to figure out what I meant.
I'm not sure any of the 9 families I'm close enough with to have any inside info on are really practicing NFP. I know two of the couples who are currently pregnant, and another couple with recent twins were seriously charting and planning on avoiding pregnancy. Two of the families in our cohort have actually been practicing the other NFP - NO family Planning, those are the two with 9 and 7 kids. Please pray for both of those families. In each of them one of the spouses is saying enough we need to use NFP and their spouse thinks another 5 or 6 kids is no problem. I should point out that both of these wives are just barely 30, so they could have another 7 conceivably. Also, in one couple it is the husband and in the other couple it is the wife that isn't worried about how many kids they have. This is seriously straining their marriages. The other four couples are somewhere in between and actually practice NFP periodically to space births although they are having large families by today's standards. But even these couples find NFP to be very challenging to practice.
I have to admit also, that for the past 2 years my wife and I haven't really been practicing NFP, we've been practicing AFP - Abstinence Family Planning or maybe CFP - Celibacy Family Planning. That is because for us the abstinence isn't the hardest part of NFP. The observations are the hardest part. And I think this is the problem for the couples that keep getting surprised. If the wife doesn't make good observations, and remember what they are, and remember if she forgot to observe, and honestly admit she forgot and the husband doesn't help record it on the chart there is a great likelihood of a surprise. I'm not about to try to conduct in inquiry with my friends, or accuse them in person, but I'd bet Dollars to Donuts that observations weren't recorded honestly.
My wife and I were originally trained in the Creighton Method of NFP - which I still highly recommend and would suggest over Couple to Couple league and other organizations. What I like about Creighton is that it is very scientific and medically based (not saying sympto-thermal is not scientific or dissing C2CL). Creighton just invests a ton of hours in educating their teachers, and following teachers and clients. Creighton also conducts institutes to train doctors in "Napro Technology (probably another post).
The advantage to me is that the Creighton teacher/coach will really be hard on the client couple. They are trained to ask a series of hard questions at each session and really look for any fudging. It's really about honesty and accountability. If you want to practice NFP seriously, you can't be deceiving yourself and fudging the rules.
Whether you are using the Mucus only method like Creighton or Billings, or the Sympto-Thermo like C2CL, observing the woman's vaginal mucus during the pre-ovulation phase of the cycle is the critical piece of NFP. Creighton teachers stress over and over that observations have to be done every prescribed time with no exceptions or the whole day goes down as a "missed observation" which means you must assume the day is fertile and wait three days of completed observations with no signs of fertility before having intercourse.
This is the part that I know has been toughest for us, and at least a few of our friends. I've heard plenty of "woman talk" about the subject and it seems to be universally agreed that it's a pain. I also think it is the most likely suspect for where some couples might be fudging at least a little.
In my marriage at this time we just can't do this. My wife is working full time (I'm home with kids) and doing graduate school. Even before, she had a hard time remembering to observe every time she used the restroom, and remembering what those observations where. It was always easy for her to get confused with "was that yesterday, or today." Now, with her other focuses, she just isn't able to commit to doing that. And for the same reasons, we really feel the need to avoid pregnancy for another few months at least. Thus, our method is abstinence. It hasn't been Total but I'm a little nervous that others, even close friends would be pretty critical of our decision, since it is pretty extreme.
This post on the moral difference between contraception and NFP just happened to show up today. I like this:
Contraception was NOT invented to prevent pregnancy as there was already a fully effective way to prevent it which, again, I’m confident all of you are practicing as you read this column: abstinence. Contraception was invented to sterilize the fertile period so that if the urge to have sex were to arise during that period, neither the man nor the woman would need to muster up the energy to deny that urge in the fear of pregnancy. It is precisely this truth that opens new horizons of understanding between contraception and NFP. While contraceptive sexual acts risk enslavement to the sexual urge, NFP frees one from the all-too-real threat of sexual addiction through periods of abstinence. This makes NFP not only permissible but even virtuous! After all, one’s ‘yes’ is meaningful only when one has the self-mastery to say ‘no.’ However, this level of self-mastery is impossible outside the grace of God concretely and most powerfully manifested through the sacramental life of the Church! May God be Praised!I think for families in the past once a certain age and a certain number of children was reached, relatively long stretches of abstinence was probably not that unusual, and I don't think my wife and I have a "contraceptive mentality" for precisely the reason stated in this quote combined with the fact that I know we both are not totally closed to having another child, we just have grave enough reasons at this time that we prayerfully believe that we are doing the right thing by avoiding pregnancy at this time.
I'm not sure what we will decide in the near future. We will still have several concerns about having another, and also we both would enjoy another baby. My wife is now over 40 so there are questions and concerns we haven't considered much in the past. Knowing that the end of our fertility as a couple is in sight brings a little urgency to the circumstances.