Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Pill vs. The Chart

Long before Anthony and I ever became Catholic, we had what I like to think of as symptoms of Catholicism. I recall my first Catholic symptom started in early 2006--not a physical craving for the Eucharist or magnetic attractions to holy sites, but a strangely strong aversion to using birth control. Anthony and I had been married for two years and until then had never had any second thoughts about my being on the Pill. In our experience, it was one more thing to check off the pre-wedding to-do list: go to the doctor and get a birth control prescription. Duh. Why would we do anything else? So for two years I had faithfully noshed through those little pink compacts, the wheel-shaped dispenser spinning away the time like hands on a clock. But somehow at the dawn of 2006, we both began to do some thinking about those daily pills. Why was I taking them, after all? Why did we so badly want to prevent pregnancy that I would insert hormones into my body every day? As we considered it, we realized that there was no particular reason not to have a child. We made enough money. We were healthy. We had a place to live with a little extra space for a little extra person. We always knew we eventually wanted children. There seemed to be no logical answer to the question, "Why not now?"

In addition to the logical aspect, we had both begun to feel a personal spiritual conviction about the matter, which at the time seemed almost bizarre. We had never heard contraception denounced from the pulpit. In my four years at a Christian college, it had never once come up. And the Bible never mentions it--right? What could be wrong with it on a spiritual level? I mean, we didn't want to become like those cheerful idiots who, when asked how many children they want, say, "As many as God gives us!" What delusionoids! That's why God invented the Pill, dummy! ….Right? I mean, God is in control, but you can't leave everything in His control…right?

That was the question that stopped me cold. Control. Birth control. Control of my body through those little pills.

It was like I had made a commitment to God that went something like this: "Lord, take my life! I surrender all! Do with me what you will! It's all in Your hands! I'll follow you anywhere!" **

**(Subclause persuant to above declaration: reproductive rights are excepted and are sole property of the declaring party.)

Here was this (rather important) piece of my life that I had not truly submitted to God's will, God's control. So in March 2006 I stopped taking those little pills--and promptly got pregnant the very next month. I was thrilled, terrified--I was only 23. Would I be ready? A Christmas baby! I was due December 24th. We bought a cookie cake from the mall and had "Surprise, Grandma and Grandpa!" written on it in frosting to share the news with Anthony's parents. We drove to Texas for my friend's wedding and told everyone there our exciting headline. Three days later I miscarried. In the ER, the doctor told me that since I had just come off the Pill, my body wasn't ready to support a pregnancy. The Pill thins the uterine lining, she explained, so that it often isn't thick enough for the embryo to implant correctly. I have since had to reconcile with the fact that if I had not been on the Pill those two years, I probably would have delivered that child.

Fortunately, since that one miscarriage, fertility has never been a problem and we are now the parents of two children. And since that one miscarriage, that feeling of conviction about birth control has never gone away. Shortly after Gabriel was born, at my doctor's hounding, I tried the low-dose Pill even though I felt wrong about it. After one week of artificial hormones, I began having excruciating pain that turned out to be a melon-sized ovarian tumor, resulting in the surgical removal of my ovary. If personal conviction wasn't enough to set me firmly against hormonal birth control, I'd say mind-bending pain and emergency surgery did the trick.

So now that we would like to have a stretch of time until baby #3 (if indeed baby #3 ever comes along) and we still would like to have…ahem…marital relations, it turns out there's this handy dandy way the female body tells its owner when it's fertile and when it's not. No, your body doesn't come with a user's manual, but I like to think of its signs and signals as a monthly puzzle or treasure map. If you keep your eyes open and your mind attuned, you can pretty readily crack the code of your body's language. And by abstaining on the days you are fertile, you maintain respect for God's design of your body in a way that taking a pill to change your monthly hormones does not. This process is known as Natural Family Planning (NFP). So where I once relied upon The Pill, I now rely upon The Chart. I record my daily waking temperature, as well as other physical signs, on a chart that, upon first glance, would probably remind you of one of those multi-axis logic puzzles from elementary school. ("Jane is not wearing a red hat. Neither Fred nor Myrtle went to the birthday party.") Actually, this chart is a left-brainer's dream. By the end of the month, it's a work of art. If you have an analytical bone in your body--and I believe most women, deep down, qualify for Analyzers Anonymous--it's a small delight to craft this representation of what your body is telling you. And in the end, wouldn't you rather be keeping track of what your body is telling you about itself than pumping chemicals into it to tell it to do exactly what you want it to?

A few other notes: the Pill has side effects, no matter how your doctor or anyone else may minimize them. So even if you feel no personal conviction on the matter, usage puts you at risk for numerous problems such as breast, endometrial, uterine, cervical, and ovarian cancer, tumors (personal experience! not cool!), blood clots, high blood pressure, and a host of other super-fun health issues. Side effects of NFP? None--except maybe increased communication in your marriage and a better understanding of your body. One other thing to chew on: divorce rates for couples who practice NFP are between 2-4%. Divorce rates for those using the Pill? Roughly 60%.

There are so many other reasons I could state for not taking a spin on that little pink wheel. Here is a very informative website that lists several. I mostly just want to share my own story about getting from there to here in the hope that you, whoever you are, might open your mind to a new possibility. God put in you the ability to create life. Is there anything more powerful in the human experience? Fertility is a gift, and as someone has said before me, it's the only healthy function of our bodies we take pills to suppress.


  1. This was really very interesting...I can barely remember what my routine was...It seems so long ago now. I do know I miscarried our first baby at 12 weeks...and I don't recall using the pill after that. I think maybe we used condoms...I proceeded to have 2 more miscarriages one after every pregnancy after that. I totally get not wanting to put that crap in your body...So many unfortunate side a 43 year old woman, I am trying to balance myself naturally and it's not easy!
    That's my theological the most sincere sense...Aren’t you still exercising a certain amount of control over your reproduction if you know your cycle and choose to abstain from having intercourse during your fertile time? Or is that different? Asking humbly a non Catholic and as some one who made the decision with my husband to carry out a permanent form of birth control. No judgement...
    BTW...glad to see you are still blogging!

  2. *applauds!* *hoots & hollers* *grins and displays all manners of delight*

    LOVED this post. Written so well, thoughts expressed so, so well!

    "That was the question that stopped me cold. Control. Birth control. Control of my body through those little pills.

    It was like I had made a commitment to God that went something like this: "Lord, take my life! I surrender all! Do with me what you will! It's all in Your hands! I'll follow you anywhere!" **

    **(Subclause persuant to above declaration: reproductive rights are excepted and are sole property of the declaring party.)"

    You hit the christian woman nail right on the head. :)

  3. I always hated that it seems during most birth control commercials...the list of side effects is longer than the actual commercial...should be a big clue right there! Way to go! We used to use this method as well, works like a charm!

  4. When we were trying to get pregnant, I read up about charting temps, and they suggested keeping graph paper next to the bed. And my first thought was, "how archaic! If I did that, I'd use Excel!" :)
    I'm always curious when I see those stats as to whether they are controlling for other factors. Are there other factors besides NFP that those 2-4% of couples share that might contribute to a low divorce rate?

  5. Joy, to respond to your question about whether abstaining is another form of control, I would say the answer is yes and no. For me, the most important aspect of surrendering control of my body to God has been not interfering with my fertility via unnatural means--allowing my body to do what God created it to do, i.e. ovulate with the potential for giving life each month. In the Catholic view, sex was instituted by God for two purposes: unitive (love) and procreative (life) and every act of intercourse should be open to both. By using NFP, every time you have sex, you are not deliberately closing yourself to either of these purposes. Here's a site that explains it more eloquently than I could:

    Brittany, I would also be interested to see what else factors into the low divorce rates for NFP couples...I've only ever seen them reported just as they are. As for the graph paper/Excel, that touches on one other thing I wanted to mention--though it may sound like a complex process to track your body's signs every month, it only really requires some education up front. You read the book or take the class and then, once you know what you're doing, it's only takes about 3-5 minutes of your day.

  6. Awesome post. I've never taken hormonal birth control for similar reasons. I also really enjoyed your last post. I'd love to hear the story on how you became catholic (unless there's already a post on that that I missed).

  7. Try fertility friend online it reads your results!!

  8. Sarah, you have a gift. Evangelizing to the masses, and don't skimp on the good stuff. ;-)

    We use CCL's sympto-thermo method of NFP. My husband even got excited about the prospect of charting (he's an engineer and I'm a math geek). I think one of the reasons for the decreased divorce rate is 1) because of the need for increased communication between spouses and 2) the respect a woman feels her husband is giving her as a result. Sex becomes what it was meant for. Bonding and babies.

    I second the interest in hearing your conversion story if that's something you want to share. God bless!

  9. Kyle and I have been using NFP for 4 of the 6 years we've been married. We love it! I didn't know that you are a blogger! I'm excited.

  10. I agree with Dara! Well said, Sarah.