For NFP week, I sat down with Johnna Wilford, a health, wellbeing, and FEMM/SymptoPro coach in Kentucky, to ask her a few questions about NFP. We also talked about curly hair and her favorite hormone. I hope you enjoy the interview!
Abby Jorgensen (AJ): So, Johnna, tell me about yourself!
Johnna Wilford (JW): That’s a very big ask! But I guess I would say I am a Catholic convert. I converted soon before my husband and I got engaged, but I had been thinking about it since we’d been dating. I currently live in Kentucky, but I’ve lived in Los Angeles and I’m originally from Alabama. I would say I’m a Catholic feminist as well.
The biggest thing for me that used to hold me back from Catholicism was its viewpoint on contraception, because I felt like that was very anti-woman. And then as I learned more about it, and about natural family planning, I realized that was more pro-woman. So I got very passionate about that.
I had been passionate about women’s health well before that. I have a master’s degree in anthropology – specifically biocultural medical anthropology. My thesis was on the stress response of Southern women with tattoos. There had been a lot of studies on tattoos in general, but it was usually just in a general “like, oh, United States as a whole” kind of way. And I had always just been in Alabama, but then when I went somewhere – I think it was like Bloomington, Indiana, which probably still isn’t that much more liberal than where I was –, they definitely had a lot more women who had visible tattoos. All of mine had been hidden. So I thought, well, there needs to be studies about different geographic areas where visible tattoos are more acceptable and how that would affect a woman’s stress response. So that thesis was technically on women’s health.
AJ: That’s fascinating!
JW: It was interesting; my theory was that women who had visible tattoos would be more stressed, because it’s not as acceptable in the South to have tattoos, especially as a woman. But it turned out that women with visible tattoos were the ones who had less of a stress response. And there are a lot of variables about why that would be, but I postulated that it was because they had support people around them that were okay with tattoos. And so they were more okay with having tattoos be visible.
AJ: That makes total sense.
JW: Oh, yeah. The first theory made sense. And then when I actually got the results, I was like, “Oh, that makes sense too.”
AJ: That’s awesome. So you mentioned you switched your view on contraception sort of around the same time as you switched your view on NFP? I’m really curious how you first heard about NFP and what sort of role that played in your switch on contraception.
JW: During my graduate studies, I remember doing a lot of research (I think I even gave a talk as a TA) on women’s reproductive systems. And I had done a contraceptive course, just to learn about all the different types of contraceptives. So I myself probably knew more about the types of contraceptives out there then most people, but in that online course, they of course mentioned fertility awareness methods very quickly and in a “these aren’t very effective” way.
Then there was actually a book I read as well that talked about natural family planning, a secular feminists’ book. In the same chapter she talked about natural family planning and having an abortion. But in it, she mentioned – and this is what I remember from it, what I took away from it – she mentioned getting off the pill and getting off of any sort of hormonal contraceptive, just to cleanse the body. And I was like, “Well, that sounds good. And I’m not having sex right now. So I guess I’ll just go ahead and get off of it!” And at that time, eventually I did start seeing stuff in my underwear. And I remember googling, “what is this in your underwear?!” I still didn’t really know about NFP at that point because the author didn’t explain a lot about it. And I did eventually go back on contraceptives.
I didn’t do more research until I was looking into Catholicism. I actually had a friend who was Catholic, and I knew that she most likely was using NFP. And she had a kid, but it had been like a year after she got married before she had the kid. So I thought, “Okay, clearly, she avoided pregnancy for that long!” So I asked what she did. And she mentioned that she was using symptothermal, but that there are different methods and that she had started with Billings, and she didn’t like it too much, but I could look up all the different kinds. I had been looking at NFP and why the church was preferred that, and I still had never really felt satisfied until I asked, actually asked, someone else and got her opinion. And she didn’t even tell me like, “Yeah, we believe this because of this.” It was just, “Well, this is what I use. And it’s practical. It’s effective.”
And that was, I don’t know, that was the Pandora’s box, I guess! After talking to my friend about it, I did a lot of research on it. As I was finding about all the different methods and learning about it, it was sort of like a flipped switch. I was thinking, “Oh, this can be effective! I remember when I was off the pill there was stuff in my underwear. So yeah, this could work.” And then as I actually did it, of course, there was a little fear in the beginning. But as I charted more and got more charts and got more data, I was like, “Oh, this is fantastic!”
I think I like to mention that book about feminism because it was like a seed planted. And when a seed is planted, you never know when it’s gonna sprout.
AJ: Yeah, or where it’s gonna come from too. It’s really cool that a secular book is the thing that initially introduced you to NFP. So, then, where did you go from learning about these different options to becoming an instructor in these different options?
JW: Okay, yeah, this is a frustrating thing for me that I still see. I wasn’t getting engaged to my husband. And the only symptothermal method in my diocese that I found was Couple to Couple League, which is fine, but you have to be engaged. So I did actually fudge a little. Because I knew that my husband and I would eventually get engaged! So, when they ask you, like, when the wedding is, and stuff, I think I just put a random date! And I learned that way.
Afterwards, when we were married and I wanted to be an instructor, I knew there was no way in hell that my husband was actually going to be an instructor with me, which is another problem with Couple to Couple League – you have to do it as a couple. And so I started researching. I went to the USCCB website, looked at their NFP page, and saw that SymptoPro was another option. And it looked like I could do that without my husband. So I asked about that one, and I got certified in that one.
AJ: What’s something that surprised you as you were learning about NFP, or something that has surprised you as you continue to study up on NFP as an instructor?
JW: Well, I would just say the fact that it’s so not well-received by the medical community, or really, even most people, I guess. It’s the misunderstanding around it. Sometimes people say, “Oh, yeah, I track my cycle.” And then you find out that they’re just counting their period days and their period or something. But that’s not really tracking your cycle. Or, if you say fertility awareness, they may not know exactly what it is. Or they might not realize that fertility awareness doesn’t have just to do with wanting to have a baby. I think that is the biggest surprise for most people. If they see the phrase fertility awareness, they’re like, “Oh, well, I’m not trying to have a baby right now.” But fertility awareness is so much more. I mean, just how much you can glean about your hormones, not about your fertility, but just reproductive health, just from charting is mind blowing!
AJ: That makes a lot of sense. So if somebody’s reading this and just found out, from your answer, that fertility awareness doesn’t just mean trying to have a baby, or that hormones are involved, or any of this, what is the first resource that you would want to point them to?
JW: This was the book my friend actually recommended to me. I know, it’s not always the best, but it is usually the first thing people read: Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler. And my friend even said, “You should start with that.” And now I know it’s also a very complicated method. It’s more complicated than it needs to be. And people try to self-teach, which is never good, from that book. There are just a lot of problems with it. But, it’s a good way to start. I like to say, “You can start there, but please do not let this be the last thing that you use
AJ: It’s a starting point, a way to get information, that kind of thing?
JW: Yeah. And that is a secular book. So with Catholics, I add a caveat: just know that it’s not Catholic. So there are going to be things that are not necessarily in line with Catholic teaching in that book.
AJ: That makes a lot of sense. Okay, thank you.
I have some questions about the other things that you do that have to do with hormones, maybe not NFP quite so much. But one of the things that I’ve really liked getting to know about you, and getting to hear your perspective on, is how women think about their bodies. I did a little bit of research, and I found out that two years ago, you wrote an article for Verily magazine about the lessons you’ve learned from being a curly girl, which I thought was awesome. I love how you highlighted what your hair has meant for you at different points in your life. So since that article was from August 2019, I was curious what your curly hair means to you now.
JW: Oh, it’s longer now, so I feel like I have to do even more to take care of it. Right now, I actually have been experimenting with different things I need to do. So it’s always, it’s a continuous journey. I used to not wrap it at night, because I take my shower at night. And so it’s pretty curly. But then when I slept on it, it would still be dry, but it would be flat because I slept on it. So now I have to wrap it at night. There’s just a lot of stuff I’ve had to learn, still. I guess I would say it’s actually kind of annoying to have to sleep with it at night. But I do enjoy waking up with nice curls. So it’s almost like the same as NFP: it’s not very enjoyable. But if I want the results that I want, then I just have to deal with that.
AJ: I like that a lot. That’s a great analogy.
My next question is: what is your favorite hormone?
JW: Oh, man.
The first thing that came to my mind was LH (luteinizing hormone). And I would say that’s because it’s what makes ovulation happen. But it also requires estrogen, so it’s almost the middle of a relay race. So you need to have enough support before ovulation to have a big enough LH rise, but then LH is what really makes ovulation happen. So I just like that it’s kind of in the middle. And then it makes happen what cycles are for: ovulation!
AJ: Hmm. That makes sense. Okay, so the hard worker that needs the right environment to act?
JW: Yes. That’s a good way of putting it.
My last question is, where can people find you if they want to learn more about you and what you do?
JW: Yeah, so Instagram is probably the best place. I also have a website with more information about my classes and courses. But most of my learning topics, or other things like that, I try to do over Instagram.
AJ: Perfect! Thank you so much, Johnna, for your time!