When I was 23 or 24 years old and single, I went to a new gynecologist for an annual exam. She asked me the standard questions to get my history, and when she asked about my sexual activity I told her I was abstinent. She said, "Good for you. There is too much out there to catch."
Cleanliness was only the secondary reason for my abstinence.
The hierarchy was:
1) My deeply-held belief in the sacred nature of sexual union, and the fact that I did not yet have a husband;
2) My unwillingness to catch something that might stick around forever and/or compromise my future fertility; and
3) My unwillingness to bring a baby into the world without the proven benefit of a married mother and father.
We went on with the appointment and discussed some issues I had, specifically that my cycles were irregular and extremely painful. She didn't seem to be overly concerned, but she ordered some blood work and sent me to a radiology center to have a pelvic ultrasound. My results, it was reported, were normal.
In the following year or so, I met my now-husband and we got engaged. At my next appointment with the same gynecologist, again for an annual exam, I answered the sexual activity question in the same manner, and then later she noticed my engagement ring. She congratulated me and then said, "When you're married, what do you intend to do about birth control?" I said, "We're not using birth control, but instead we're going to learn NFP. We're practicing Catholics."
And she laughed.
She laughed in my face and said, "With your irregular cycles, that is not going to work for you."
Then she saw my stony face. She shrugged and told me she'd see me six weeks or so after the wedding to confirm my pregnancy. As if it were a threat.
I went home and Googled "pro-life ob/gyn Northern Virginia" and found out that Tepeyac Family Center, one of the largest pro-life practices in the country, was less than five miles from my fiancé's condo, which we would be sharing after our wedding. Even though I had just had an annual exam, I made an appointment.
The receptionist told me, "We are a pro-life practice and do not prescribe birth control, nor do we perform sterilizations." I said, "That's why I called."
I had lost all confidence in my old gynecologist. When she laughed in the face of my deeply-held religious convictions, I realized she wasn't to be trusted about anything else, either. I had my doubts about the results of my tests the previous year and wanted them to be run again.
Lo and behold, when the blood tests were run again, this time by a doctor who cared about the actual mechanisms by which fertility functions, the results were clear: I had polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). As I had suspected, my irregularity and pain were not normal, but were symptoms of an underlying pathology. The original gynecologist, in her astounding ignorance about the actual mechanisms at work in her chosen specialty, had seen the same severely out-of-whack hormone numbers and decided they were irrelevant.
The non-birth-control-pill medication protocol for PCOS turned out to be effective enough at sloooooowly bringing my hormones back in line without flipping the switch on my fertility to OFF; unfortunately I couldn't tolerate the medicine and had to stop taking it.
Soon enough I was married. My new husband and I learned the Creighton Method of NFP with the help of a retired OB/Gyn (the simpler Sympto-Thermal method is less effective when pathology exists). I took waaaaay too many negative pregnancy tests when my charts were unclear -- or more likely: my charts were clear but I didn't want to believe it. I endured all the delightful side-effects from fertility medications, especially as the doses were slowly increased to levels that made the pharmacist do a double-take. Between the Creighton lessons, the wasted pregnancy tests and the fertility medication my insurance refused to cover, it cost us a small fortune, all told.
I cried to my mother about the injustice of growing up in a large, endlessly and effortlessly fertile family and not being able to conceive, when I had been so careful to avoid compromising myself. I cried whenever I so much as thought about abortion -- what a personal insult it was to know women were throwing away something I wanted so badly! I tried to smile and make jokes when everyone I had ever known in high school and college, who knew about my commitment to my virginity, asked me constantly whether I was pregnant yet.
After three years or so, still not pregnant, I insisted on laparoscopic surgery to investigate the possibility that I also had endometriosis. On December 1, 2011, I had the surgery, which did indeed reveal (and remediate) endometriosis. I kept using Clomid. And in February 2012, I discovered I was at long last pregnant.
It never would have happened without NFP.
Without NFP, I would probably have wasted years on the Pill, convinced that I didn't want to be pregnant yet anyway. Without all that meticulous, excruciating charting, I never would have discovered that I was borderline anovulatory. I would not have been able to point to charted proof that the Clomid was working and I was now regularly ovulating but still not conceiving, thus sending me on the search for a further answer. I would not have been able to get pregnant almost immediately once the barrier of endometriosis was removed because my charts told me exactly what to do.
Most people writing about NFP awareness are writing about how it helped them space their pregnancies, or how they don't use it to space pregnancies but like knowing that they could, or how they support it but hate it personally. Everyone writing about NFP awareness mentions how good it was for their marriage.
Those aren't my experiences.
Infertility is a huge burden and it can be extremely hard on a marriage. The senses of inadequacy and helplessness, the depression that accompanies the arrival of every period, the feeling that sex has lost all fun and spontaneity: these things are real and they are heavy. Because our marriage was basically born into the crucible of infertility, we never had the chance to consider the benefit of using natural methods to space pregnancies.
This is the cross that God gave my husband and I to bear. We struggled to remind ourselves that faith in God includes having faith in His timing. We got a baby when He said it was time; we had to learn patience and forbearance and selflessness. I'm still learning to have patience and forbearance and be selfless.
But here's the reality of the situation: whether you feel burdened by your fertility because you have eight kids under the age of 11, or whether you are suffering because you just want a baby, natural family planning is a gift. Doctors who care about how your body is actually working or not working are a gift. My children are a gift.
And thanks be to God for those gifts.