The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning
Are you committed to natural family planning (NFP) but struggling to practice it? Are you frustrated with the charting or the periods of abstinence when trying to avoid pregnancy? Are you and your spouse agitated with the system or with each other? Do you feel guilty about your feelings and struggles? If so, Simcha Fisher’s The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning may help you and your spouse.
NFP advocates and brochures sometimes paint a rosy picture of natural family planning to prospective couples. They tout the marriage-building benefits of NFP, promise “the honeymoon effect” after periods of abstinence, and give the impression that practicing NFP is a first step towards a marriage full of joy and bliss. While these benefits are real and eventually attainable, in reality many couples also experience profound struggles with NFP as they learn and practice it. Not only can charting be difficult, but NFP presents other challenges, such as learning to express affection and intimacy during abstinence, communicating and understanding one’s spouse and his or her feelings about sexuality, and practicing marital chastity. Many couples keep these struggles to themselves, which can compound their situations, leaving them feeling alone and without solutions.
In The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, popular blogger, wife and mother Simcha Fisher throws a lifeline to married couples struggling with NFP, particularly Catholics. She lets couples know first and foremost that they are not alone, and she gives them permission to relax and even laugh at themselves as they work out the worthy task of learning the art of NFP in marriage. Thoroughly rooted in Catholic theology, Fisher’s book gives a profound, frank, and at times hilarious analysis of the challenges facing married people using NFP, as well as soul-soothing encouragement and advice. Ultimately, Fisher’s book may not make NFP any easier for readers, but the humor and sympathy she injects into the situation may give couples the boost that they need to walk this “narrow path” with renewed enthusiasm. (Note that the target audience for Fisher’s book is married couples using NFP to avoid pregnancy or space children, not couples using NFP to achieve pregnancy or couples struggling with infertility.)
Fisher’s book is divided into three main sections. The first she titles “NFP and Your Spiritual Life.” Fisher begins it by addressing the subject of “well-grounded reasons” (cf. Humanae Vitae) for utilizing NFP to avoid pregnancy, a source of debate amongst Catholics. While affirming the need to follow Church teaching on sexual ethics, she here reveals one of the main themes of her book: people need to stop judging each other in regards to NFP. No one can know another’s reasons for using it or not using it, no one can know God’s plan for another family, and no one can know another couple’s struggles by looking on from the outside. In Fisher’s words, “Only one Person knows what’s in another man’s heart and that person ain’t you or me” (23). She encourages couples to see NFP as an opportunity to dialogue with God and with each other about what His will is for their family. Different paths for different people can reach the same, fundamental goal: growing closer to God (31).
The second section is entitled “NFP and the Rest of the World.” In it, Fisher addresses the messiness and necessity of talking about NFP with others, whether it be talking about it in public, instilling good values in our children about sexuality, or talking to one’s doctor about NFP, which can make a woman feel “baffling, backward, diseased, and nuts” (66). Fisher again encourages her readers to be humble and gentle when dialoguing with others for, “the human heart is a strange and tangled jungle of motivations and desires. We keep things hidden even from ourselves, and only God knows who is guilty and who is only wounded” (56).
The final, and perhaps most powerful, section of the book is “NFP in the Trenches.” Here Fisher lays bare the difficulties many couples experience with NFP. Many couples struggle with times of abstinence whether because of the wife’s menstrual cycles (e.g., the signs of fertility are difficult to read) or because couples have different ideas about how to express intimacy during that time. Many couples struggle with practicing chastity in marriage due to past experiences and hurts, or the need to develop self-control. Often even loving couples misunderstand each other and begin to hurt each other. Men may experience guilt over healthy desires or women may feel resentment over what feels like the unequal burden of charting. Both may struggle to communicate these feelings. Fisher affirms that it is common to undergo challenges and to experience NFP as a cross. However, she also insists that it is very possible to work through these issues and to experience the deep and unexpected joy of the Resurrection. To reach this point, Fisher encourages couples to sympathize with each other and with other couples. She offers tips for spouses on how to help each other through the different phases of NFP and urges couples to communicate and pray together about NFP for “a better sex life comes from being more unified as a couple in general” (102).
With her book The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, Fisher helps fill a serious void in resources for NFP-using couples. Plenty of resources exist to address the physical dimensions of NFP: the science behind NFP, learning to observe and chart, and following the rules to avoid or achieve pregnancy. There are also many books and articles about the theological and secular arguments in favor of NFP and against contraception. However, there are very few resources available to help couples address the spiritual and emotional dimensions of NFP. Fisher does a good job covering many of the subjects of interest to a married couple grappling with these aspects of NFP in her short and easy-to-read book.
As with any book about a highly sensitive subject that impinges directly on a married couple’s life, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning has aspects that some may critique. In particular, some may wish that more positive experiences with NFP were included to balance the picture. Others may think Fisher should have devoted more attention to the husband’s perspective and involvement.
Some may also question the appropriateness of the humor Fisher uses to bring levity to this serious subject., Fisher addresses this head-on in her chapter “Is It OK to Laugh About Sex?” Here she argues that while it is never licit to be obscene or lewd, “(f)or the standard issue, mildly neurotic, moderately messed up, original-sin-damaged, salvation-seeking, temptation-fighting, humility-seeking, minimally humorous human being, laughing about sex is the sign of good emotional and spiritual health” (42-43). Here is an example of her humor from her light-hearted “Examination of Conscience for Those Using NFP”: “Have I deceived my husband into thinking he must drink castor oil or do humiliating pelvic exercises, knowing full well he’s never read the manual and doesn’t know any better?” (39). Some readers may not appreciate this humor; others may find it is just what they need.
Overall, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning is a good resource for married couples who want to work through the spiritual and emotional challenges of NFP. Because sexuality is naturally a private and sensitive issue, couples are often hesitant to talk about it and to reach out for help. While Fisher’s book is not meant to replace professional counseling or receiving guidance from a trained NFP provider, she offers valuable first steps to struggling couples trying to achieve the sought-after marriage-building benefits of NFP in an approachable format that can be used in the privacy of their homes.
About the reviewer
Caitlin Dwyer is a freelance writer and editor as well as an adjunct professor at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, KY. Caitlin holds a Masters in Theological Studies from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. She also teaches Natural Family Planning in her local area.
Disclaimer: Book reviews do not imply and are not to be used as official endorsement by the USCCB of the work or those associated with the work. Book reviews are solely intended as a resource regarding publications that might be of interest to For Your Marriage visitors.