For National NFP Week, I’m excited to share with you an interview I got to do with Christina Valenzuela, owner and founder of Pearl and Thistle and Boston Cross Check instructor. I hope you enjoy it!
Abby: So, Christina, to start off, I’d love for you to give a little intro for yourself – who you are, what you do, that kind of thing.
Christina: Sure, yeah! I run a business called Pearl and Thistle, where I offer lifelong body literacy for Catholic families and parishes. There’s even a lot to unpack in that one little one liner. I’ve been a natural family planning instructor since 2013, with the Boston Cross Check method. I’ve been a user of that method since 2012, after my second baby was born. And I’ve worked for many years in parishes and campus ministry settings. And it wasn’t until, I think, 2018 that I decided to branch out on my own and start this new endeavor. I’m married, and I have four wonderful children who are away from the house right now to allow me to do this little interview. We live right now outside of Boston, and have lived here since we got married back in 2009.
Abby: Thank you. So you just alluded to this, and this was one of the questions I wanted to ask you – you talk on your website about how, back in 2012, 2013 when you started using the method, you had a negative encounter, an awful encounter, with a medical provider postpartum, and that really became part of your story about becoming an NFP instructor. It’s really easy for those negative experiences turn us away, but in your case it drew you in. I’d love to hear a little bit more about how that experience drew you in instead of turning you away.
Christina: Yeah, that’s interesting that you ask that question, because you never think about the counterfactuals of your life, like “When I could have made a different decision,” right? So this is an interesting opportunity to take a step back and think about that. The context of this experience was postpartum with baby number one: I was newly married (we had gotten pregnant pretty quickly into our marriage). And I went in for my six week checkup. And the nurse practitioner started grilling me about which birth control method I was going to use. And it got a little ugly, when I tried to just politely tell her that I wasn’t interested in the hormonal options but I would love her help trying to find somebody who could help me postpartum, because I wasn’t sure what I was doing.
That’s when it got a little crazy. And it got to the point where she was trying to shove condoms in my diaper bag. And she actually told me that when I got pregnant in a few months, not to come back and see her because she wouldn’t take me as a patient. So that was the context of me going home crying on the subway.
But I think that was just the first of many experiences that lined up over the next few years that convinced me that we have a long way to go in Natural Family Planning support. I expected a little bit of pushback from a secular doctor. But I was surprised at the degree of pushback she gave me, I was surprised by the degree of hostility and sort of condemnation I felt from her. And then when I tried to go to the Catholic Church to get the support that I couldn’t get from my medical provider, I found that it was just too hard to find an instructor; nobody knew what the methods were. Nobody knew where the resources were. I really felt alone.
So that really was kind of the first instance where I started just opening my eyes to what a great sort of lack we have in support for Natural Family Planning. And if we’re not going to get it from our doctors, the Church needs to step up.
Over the next couple years, that’s kind of what galvanized me to get trained and to say, “You know what, I can be a part of this solution. I can see the problem. I can see what needs to be done. I can do a small part.”
Abby: That’s beautiful. I think a lot of Catholics find themselves in that sort of conundrum, where neither medical providers nor the Church are offering resources about NFP. What percentage of your clients would you say are Catholic versus non Catholic?
Christina: Oh, I would say easily 95% of my clients are Catholic, I think just because our program, Boston Cross Check, started as a diocesan method. So I think we’re, we’re kind of known as a Catholic space.
Abby: Got it. Now, one of the things I really love about your approach was in that one-liner that you had earlier, not just a baby-making tool, but a tool for lots of types of family planning, lots of types of health monitoring, things like that. How did you come to emphasize clients who aren’t trying to have babies in your business?
Christina: Yeah, it was actually through Theology of the Body. So I discovered Theology of the Body in college, and it was this big, eye-opening experience for me. And one of the things that I have really, really been intrigued by is this concept of the language of the body – how our body actually communicates something as an image of God, as an icon of the living God, like, we actually communicate things through our physical being.
It’s usually talked about in the context of one particular act – sexual intercourse –, but it can be applied to everything we do with our bodies. And so when I first heard a secular NFP-user use the term “body literacy” for what she learned from charting, I was like, “Oh!” It was like a light just went off in my head! I said, “That’s it! Because we’re learning to read this one particular aspect of the language of the body.” And I just really clung on to that.
That’s what ignited a whole new series of thoughts in my head about, “Well, if it’s about being body literate, and reading the language of our body, then this is for every woman, right?” Because every woman has a body.
And the concept of literacy itself, is an educational term, right? So you think about how literacy happens in stages – it happens over a long amount of time. What I like to say is, we don’t teach our kindergarteners how to read Shakespeare; we build literacy by learning the alphabet, and then learning how certain sound combinations go together. And we can apply that sort of progressive learning model to our body literacy as well, to make it more palatable and to make it more accessible to our girls as they grow.
Abby: Yeah, I love that. And then you are working also with people who aren’t trying to have babies but are not girls anymore – the “Shakespeare level” of NFP, if you will.
Christina: Yes, absolutely. Yeah, I have worked with a few religious sisters. I have a budding friendship with one at one in particular. We’ve had an ongoing dialogue about how this is so needed in the Catholic sphere, to equip women to understand their bodies in and of themselves. Yeah, I could get geeky and talk about original solitude here too, but to appreciate our bodies in and of themselves as part of being God’s image! Like yes, in communion with men, it makes another certain sort of sense, but alone, we also make sense. It’s not that we’re completely unintelligible apart from men.
Abby: Oh, I love that. And if you want to get geeky and go into original solitude, please do, because I’m down for that.
Christina: Are you? Okay! So that’s the other concept of Theology of the Body that I think I’ve really thought a lot about. Original solitude is that experience that primed Adam to be able to recognize the goodness of Eve in original unity. He has to be in the Garden, by himself, and to come to an awareness that he’s by himself and that he’s different. He has to appreciate how different he is from the other animals in order to recognize how much like him Eve is. And so kind of taking a step back from the Garden, we can think about original solitude as any experience of ourselves in primary relationship with God that primes us to better recognize the Other and our communion with the Other.
And so, for women, we think a lot about original unity with our cycles, right? That it’s designed to help us have babies and to express the Trinity and the Holy Family. And we have beautiful theology about that. But, like, where is the discussion of the original solitude of our cycles? This thing that, yes, is ordered towards procreation, but doesn’t always fulfill that, right? It has so many other functions to keep us healthy! And to make us who we are! How do we think and talk about that? So that, in the case of a religious sister who doesn’t experience original unity with a man in marriage, or any woman who doesn’t get married, or any woman who is unable to have children, – what do we give them to think about in terms of the goodness of the way that their body functions?
Abby: And I assume that applies to couples who are trying to avoid pregnancy too, right? –
Christina: Absolutely. Yeah.
Abby: – that there is goodness and your body doing what it was designed to do, regardless of the procreative result, right. I love that. I think that is a beautiful, holistic view to take. I really appreciate that.
Christina: Well, I imagine with your work, too, as a doula, you see this concept that there is just inherent goodness in our body doing what it was designed to do. That we have lost? Have we lost that? Or did we just, do we always have to seek it at every point?
Abby: I don’t know. Maybe both?
Christina: Right? And that we have to intentionally embrace that. As Catholics.
Abby: That’s beautiful. I really, really appreciate that. And I’m glad you got geeky!
Okay, next set of questions. You have a lot of experience as an NFP instructor. And so based on that, I have a couple of questions for you about NFP and being an NFP instructor. The first one is, what’s the most surprising thing a client ever asked you? And what do you want all of us to know about the answer?
Christina: The most surprising thing a client ever asked me was just a delightful conversation we had. We were going through the section when we talk about how women’s cycles work, and how sex and reproduction work, right? And the man – the fiance – goes, “Wait, hang on, I have to ask. Are you telling me that you can get pregnant on a day when you don’t have sex?”
We were talking about how women’s bodies store sperm for a certain amount of time. So if you have sex, and then three days later, you ovulate, you can get pregnant, right? So I said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying.” And he goes “SHUT UP.” He’s like, “They don’t portray it in the movies that way!”
I was like, “No, they don’t!” So we had we had a wonderful conversation about how we could do much better at educating young people about how sex actually works. But it was surprising because it was kind of funny, and just because it was a delightful discovery that this couple made – well, he in particular made…I think his fiancee was like, “No, honey, I already knew that.” But, I love that question. And I think about it a lot, because it just shows how we failed in some very basic education.
This is low hanging fruit, like, this is easy stuff to correct. And what a difference we can make in the lives of people if we correct some of this easy stuff before tackling all the hard things.
Abby: Definitely. So let’s say that somebody who’s reading this interview right now, is like, “Oh, gosh, I had no idea that that was a thing!” – which I don’t think either of us are blaming anyone for. That’s something all of us had to learn at some point., and it’s not something that we usually get taught in high school biology or something, or even in sex ed. I’m curious if there’s like a resource that you like to point people toward if they’re looking for, basically, good sex ed.
Christina: So honestly, I love the book, What’s Going On in My Body? by Elisabeth Raith-Paula. She is a German physician, and she created The Cycle Show. And she has a book that is geared for teenage girls to explain what’s going on in their bodies, right? But she goes through the process of what happens in the menstrual cycle, what’s the role of cervical fluid, and how does it function in reproduction. I think it is so clear and so well done. It would be a great resource for any adult to pick up and learn a lot from.
Abby: Nice, that’s really helpful. Thanks.
My next question about being an NFP instructor is: what do you want NFP week to be about this year?
Christina: So, for everyone who feels called to ministry around NFP, I want NFP week to be about seizing it as an opportunity to launch something for long-term support. Like, that’s what I wish NFP week was! You know that phrase, “Live every week like it’s Shark Week,” right? Live every week like it’s NFP week! Don’t put all of your eggs in this one little basket in the summertime when no one is around. [Abby’s side note: I really enjoyed this pun.] We’re getting eclipsed by the Worldwide Day of Grandparents! We need to see NFP week as the time when a lot of parishes get sort of a programmatic reset over the summer and can start thinking intentionally about what we want to do this entire year to support families in their primary vocation. And that means getting them the resources that they need to live this aspect of Christian life.
So I would love to see NFP conversations shift from, “What’s the special programming you’re doing for NFP week?” to, “How are you using NFP week to kickstart your other programs or resources or offerings throughout the year?”
Christina: Some parishes do NFP ministry, and it’s wonderful. In other parishes, it’s basically left to like the one person (whom I would call the NFP ambassador) to do everything. And sometimes it’s just individuals who are like, “You know what, my parish is not going to actually allow me to host any programs or do a bulletin announcement. So I myself, as the Church, I’m going to go out and make this a mission.” Church is not confined to the definition of a building within a parish – Church is the living breathing members. We can all do this.
Abby: Yeah. I do want to say that we have very different levels of resources and very different levels of knowledge and things, right? So maybe somebody’s reading this like, “Oh, gosh, like, I thought there was only the one method!” or “I just took the class from my diocese, and that was all, and then I never heard about anything since! Wow, Christina is telling me I could do something about this!” What’s the first step that somebody who cares about NFP but isn’t a parish, isn’t an instructor, that kind of thing – what’s the first step that somebody like that can take?
Christina: So I want to be careful, and I don’t want to sound like I am telling everybody that they need to be jumping into this ministerial space. You know, sometimes if you have a heart for NFP ministry, sometimes what God is calling you to do is literally just walk with your friend who’s learning, right? And that is huge. That’s an incredible gift. So I don’t want people feeling like they have to jump in and do programs and get things in the bulletin; that may not be your function in the body of Christ. And that’s okay. So there’s that.
If somebody is really feeling called, like, “I want to do something, and maybe I don’t want to become an instructor, but I just want to learn more,” I am launching my repackaged NFP Ambassador training program. Part one of the program is a self-paced, pre-recorded video course, a certification training program that you can go through and I will teach you about the different methods and the biomarkers and how NFP works. And I walk you through some discernment and planning exercises, so that you can think about where God may be calling you to use this desire in your local community. That’s part one. And then if you want to go on and do part two, it’s a small group, basically mentorship and strategy planning course where we get together with other trained NFP ambassadors, and we really hone into your plan and do some networking and support together.
Abby: That’s fantastic. I didn’t even know that you were reworking that program. And then in terms of other exciting things that are happening, you made an announcement recently that I’m very excited about. If you would like to share that again now, you are VERY welcome to do so!
Christina: Thank you, yes, I have officially signed a contract with Our Sunday Visitor to produce a book that is geared towards women, helping them understand how their cycles are part of the way that they image God, and how learning to embrace and understand our cycles can actually improve the way that we relate to God, the way that we understand ourselves, and the way that we relate to other people. So I’m really excited about this project and can’t wait to get started!
Abby: I’m really excited for you! And I’m really excited for all of us who get to read it; that allow will be fantastic. So if somebody wants to find out more about the cool things that you’re doing – like books and NFP ambassador programs and things like that –, where should they go?
Abby: Awesome. Okay, then I have two last questions for you. The first one – very important to me – : what is your favorite hormone?
Christina:I love this question. But I don’t know. I think my favorite hormone is oxytocin.
Abby: Okay, respectable choice, tell me why.
Christina: Oxytocin is the bonding hormone and oxytocin is the hormone that’s released during sexual arousal, right? It connects you to your partner. It’s also the hormone that’s released when you’re breastfeeding, and you’re bonding with your baby. Oxytocin, I think is… okay, this is really weird to say, but oxytocin is almost kind of like the Holy Spirit working in hormones – connecting us all together and creating this web of communion between people.
It’s a fascinating hormone. I wish I knew more about it because I know way more about the ovarian and pituitary hormones in the menstrual cycle than I do about oxytocin. But there you go.
Abby: That’s beautiful! I’ve been around conversations about oxytocin for a very long time (because oxytocin plays such an important role in labor) but I’ve never heard that analogy to the Holy Spirit. That’s a very Catholic birth workers, Catholic body literacy kind of conversation. And I really love that…that’s gonna give me a lot of food for thought and prayer in the next couple of weeks. Thank you for that.
Christina: You’re welcome! Thank you for asking me the question, because I never would have articulated that otherwise.
Abby: My last question for you is: is there another question that you wish I had asked you?
Christina: That’s an excellent question. Let me think for two seconds.
Oh, yes, I want to talk about a caveat. Because I do this work with NFP and with cycles and things, a lot of people assume that I have a really easy cycle, and that it’s very easy for me to see the goodness in my cycle. And it’s actually very much the opposite.
Now I have kind of come to a happy space with my cycles, but my entire life of cycles and reproductive life is a basket case. I had horrible, crippling cramps, and nausea, and migraines all throughout high school, to the point where I passed out multiple times in the school hallway. I threw up in trash cans during passing periods. I almost didn’t meet my husband, because I had my period. (That’s a whole other story.) And then with pregnancy, I have hyperemesis; so pregnancy is not fun, somewhat life-threatening.
I’m thinking about all of these things very much from a space of understanding the women who really struggle with them. Like, if you have a really horrible relationship with your cycle and have a hard time seeing the goodness of your cycle and your body, especially as it relates to reproductive function, I am with you and I understand that. And when I’m writing my book, and when I’m creating these programs, I want to be very sensitive to that.
I just want people to know that you can think about the goodness of your body, even when it’s hard. And that’s where I’m coming from. So I don’t want people to think that my work is trying to sugarcoat something that is a legitimate area of trial and suffering. I want to put that forward.
Abby: Yeah. Thank you. I really appreciate that. That’s really important for people to hear us, especially on NFP week, where it’s so often just couples wandering happily through grassy plains and… [Abby’s note: I laughed and thought better of continuing this sentence, so I stopped it here]. I appreciate that.
Thank you for your time, Christina, I am so grateful!
Christina: Thank you!