Seven years ago, I found myself in a place of great upheaval. I was in the middle of a profound religious conversion and found myself in a no-man’s land, adrift from my old belief system, yet not fully integrated into my new one.
Around that time that I came across a small blog by this woman named Simcha. She was a brilliant, hilarious writer on par with the famous names of the secular world…yet she was religious, describing herself as a Hebrew Catholic since she comes from a family of Jewish coverts to Catholicism. Reading her blog never failed to brighten my day (usually by making me laugh until I gasped for air), and her writing transformed my view of everything from motherhood to what it means to have faith.
About once a week I would think, “This woman’s blog needs to be much, much bigger!” and “When is she going to write a book?!” Seven years later, I got my wish. She’s now a well known blogger and finally published her first book, The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, which was an instant bestseller in its category on Amazon. The book is a breath of fresh air on the subject, since Simcha manages to uphold the beauty of this sacrifice-based method of child spacing while also being completely — and hilariously — real about the challenges that come with it.
I wanted to interview her about the book, but I thought it would be more fun to do it from my perspective waaaay back when I first discovered her writing. At the time I wasn’t sure what I thought about the issue of contraception and family planning. I was on the brink of converting to Catholicism, and I knew they had some crazy beliefs in that department (here’s a summary for those of you who aren’t familiar with said craziness). I was conflicted about it and would have loved to have been able to hear her thoughts on the issue.
So we’re going to go back to 2006, throw me-from-seven-year-ago into a time machine, bring her back to the present, and have her ask Simcha a few questions about the topics in her new book:
JEN FROM 2006:
So you wrote a book about Natural Family Planning. All those Catholic blogs I read are always talking about it too. What is it?
NFP is Natural Family Planning, and it can be used to achieve or avoid pregnancy. A woman learns to understand her body’s natural signs of fertility and infertility, and she and her husband decide whether or not to have sex on those days.
JEN FROM 2006:
Mmm. That sounds like a hassle. Also, you admit in your book that practicing NFP has sometimes been a struggle for you and your husband. Why not make it easy on yourselves and use contraception?
It’s funny, lots of people are willing to go out of their way to buy organic, untainted food, and to prepare it lovingly and well. To have a fit and healthy body, they are willing to push themselves way beyond what is easy and comfortable. They are proud of the effort it takes, because that they understand they’re doing something important. And yet somehow when sex is involved, the message is: what, are you crazy? Why go to all that trouble, when there’s a quicker, easier way?
How we love, how we make love, are a thousand times more significant than how many carbs we consume or what kind of workout clothes we buy. So yes, it makes sense to take some extra trouble over our sex lives!
I also challenge the idea that contraception makes life easy. I don’t know any married couple whose entire love life is a carefree romp, with bliss and peace and satisfaction around every corner. I do know women who put up with miserable physical and psychological side effects from their contraception, because they think they have no choice. I know couples who have given up on the idea that sex is profound and meaningful. That is tragic.
I would rather deal honestly with the trials and joys of fertility. My life may not be easy, but it’s thrilling, it’s meaningful, and it asks my husband to think constantly about what is best for me and our kids. Our life is not easy, but it is beautiful.
JEN FROM 2006:
Okay. Maybe I could be convinced that there are some benefits to this way of family planning, and everyone says that it can be very effective. But the problem is that, unlike with contraception, it requires me to be competent. I guess I could become an NFP pro if I had a crazy-serious reason to avoid pregnancy, but as it as, I’m sure that at some point my laziness and lack of attention to detail would catch up with me and I’d end up with an unexpected pregnancy — and that thought scares the heck out of me. What would you say to that?
I’d say, “Join the club, sister.” And guess what? Now I have a baby. Imagine that! A married couple, having a baby together! Stop the presses! What ever shall we do?
But seriously, it feels very bad not to be in control. I know that feeling. But I also know that complete control is an illusion. People have unexpected pregnancies all the time, even when they’re doubling or tripling up on contraception. What NFP challenges us to do is to think, “What are we really doing here? Why is it called ‘making love,’ anyway? What is love? What is marriage for?” If we treat our bodies like boinking machines, it’s pretty easy to avoid these questions. And that would be a horrible shame.
We won’t ever be able to save ourselves entirely from suffering and confusion, because life is just like that sometimes. But we may be able to shield ourselves from some profound joys.
JEN FROM 2006:
That sounds lovely…in theory. But I’m already calculating when I’ll be done having kids so that I can get back to my real life. As soon as the youngest is in school I have big plans for the important things I want to do. How can you plan your life if you live with the specter of a surprise pregnancy?
I think the key is to stop thinking about children as if they’re some kind of unnatural, foreign intruder in your marred life, like a bug on a wedding cake. While it’s true that we are called to do all sorts of important, interesting things in our adult, married lives, it’s also true that having babies is a good thing, a positive thing, a beautiful thing. Life with children IS “real life,” to the max!
I don’t mean to diminish the concerns that people have when they’re planning their lives. It really is hard to get certain things done while you’re raising kids! And there is nothing wrong with looking forward to peace and quiet, and sleep, when it’s in short supply at present. But what a trap it is to let yourself think of your own children as some kind of temporary, inconvenient episode to be endured. Children will enrich your life immeasurably, and will change your life and your marriage forever for the better…if you let them.
JEN FROM 2006:
When you look back on the 16 years that you’ve been married, what is the one thing you’ve learned about that whole arena of intimacy and having babies that you wish you’d known when you were first married?
Patience. I wish I had known how important patience is, and how meaningless outside appearances are.
There is an awful lot of outside pressure to get things right the first time. From the secular world, “getting things right” may look like having a super duper body, and fireworks in the bedroom every night, and maybe having one or two perfectly timed children who nicely complement your career. From the religious world, “getting things right” may look like being visibly joyful all the time, and having a respectful, decorous flock of children who just lurve to pray and volunteer and do their chores. Either way, you’re supposed to be a catalogue-ready example of that lifestyle within six weeks, and hold that pose indefinitely. And this is nuts. Dangerously nuts.
Whenever people write to me for advice, the one thing I always include is a reminder to be patient — with themselves, and with each other. Human nature changes so slowly, cell by cell by cell. We may have epiphanies and breakthroughs, but thing that really matters most is making those slow, slow improvements. My husband reminds me of this all the time: Let’s just take care of what we can take care of today. This is true when you’re getting to know each other, or building a life together, or raising kids, or nurturing a sexual relationship, or building a relationship with God. Be patient!
. . .
If you haven’t bought Simcha’s book yet, do it. You’ll love it. It’s available as an ebook, and Our Sunday Visitor just announced that they’re putting it out in print and you can pre-order it now. The book is written for Catholics who are currently using NFP, but it’s so accessible and funny that I think that anyone who’s interested in this issue — whether you’re currently using NFP or not, whether you’re Catholic or not — will find it to be a delightful read.
Thanks for a great interview, Simcha!