Wriiter Joe Donatelli describes the Pre-Cana experience

pre-canaI’ll admit I was skeptical of Pre-Cana, as I am of any program that claims it can prepare you and your wife for the rest of your lives together in just eight hours, counting lunch break.

Turns out I learned a lot about marriage there—possibly too much.

Pre-Cana, for you non-Catholics, is a course that readies Catholic couples for marriage. Ours was run by a married couple whom I’ll call Alice and Bob.

Alice and Bob have reached the point in their marriage when back-and-forth teasing and eye-rolling are perfectly acceptable because at least it’s still communication. They seemed quite nice, a little weary, but genuinely enthusiastic. My wife and I were among the 100 or so people who gathered with Alice and Bob in a school gymnasium for a Saturday filled with prayer, dialogue, Doritos and—most importantly—workbooks.

Workbooks are a major part of the Catholic faith, on par with the church and the cross when you’re younger. My wife and I both attended Catholic schools and we learned to write our feelings about Jesus, faith, hope and love as well as color all of these things in crayon in workbooks. It was in a workbook, for instance, that I learned that nuns don’t like it when you add drawings of drowning dinosaurs next to Noah’s Ark.

Our Pre-Cana participant workbook was called “Picture of Love” and the cover image was a reflection, in a gold chalice, of a large groom with a 1980s New Jersey haircut kissing his small bride.

I stared at this thing all day.

I like to think his name is Tony and her name is Denise and they met at a sports bar where she was a waitress and he was a Giants fan. She served him nachos during the Eagles game and they discovered they both have cousins who work for the city. Sparks flew.

Tomorrow they leave for their honeymoon in the Poconos.

They’ll have two sons, one of whom will follow his old man into the plumbing business. The other one will become a dancer, a point of shame for Tony, until he sees his son on So You Think You Can Dance, is moved by the beauty of his movements, bursts into tears and calls his son immediately to tell him he loves him.

I can tell from the workbook cover that it’s not going to be easy for Tony and Denise, especially after Tony’s brother makes a pass at her on New Year’s Eve five years later, but they’re going to be all right.

The workbook also contained some helpful tips and exercises.

Our Pre-Cana experience began with introductory remarks by Alice and Bob, followed by 20 minutes of stream-of-consciousness rambling by a priest whose sole purpose, best as I could tell, was to prepare us for the fact that married life is so boring it will make you fall asleep in your chair. The gist of the priest’s speech, and I hope this is not too detailed for you, was that marriage is an institution.

Alice and Bob took control after that and segued into what was clearly their favorite topic—cervical mucus.

Alice and Bob are big believers in natural family planning, which helps achieve what they call “child spacing.” Child spacing is the amount of time a woman spends between pregnancies.

Opinions vary on optimal child spacing. Some of your more pro-pregnancy religions like to give a woman up to 10 minutes between pregnancies. Experts say optimal child spacing is dependent on the parents’ lifestyle, which is why Jen and I have agreed to either have two children over the course of 55 years or three children in six months.

Alice and Bob explained to us that there are two methods of natural family planning; they are “ovulation” and “symptom-thermal,” which U.N. inspectors say the Iranians are eight months away from achieving.

Couples, we were told, can be taught to observe and record and interpret a woman’s “unique signs of fertility” as ovulation approaches. One way is by measuring the woman’s “mucus signs of fertility,” which is not a thing I knew existed before Pre-Cana.

From how they explained it, testing of mucus signs of fertility would be a major part of our marriage.

Our average night was shaping up to go something like this: we would greet each other at the door after work with a warm embrace, verbally communicate how our day went, use positive language techniques to talk about money and budgeting issues, eat a healthy dinner together, drop the wife’s panties to get a handle on the mucus signs of fertility situation and then watch TV and fall asleep.

Alice and Bob passed out pamphlets that explained mucus signs of fertility with the same fervor with which Thomas Paine wrote of freedom.

I learned that cervical mucus (please don’t ask me exactly where or how this is tested) indicates when ovulation is coming. A couple that wants to space children intentionally pays attention to intercourse as it relates to ovulation.

“Natural family planning works,” Alice said, as she wrapped up her natural family planning presentation, clearly building to her big finish. “Bob and I use natural family planning. We have 11 wonderful children!”

This is no lie. In a room filled with 100 people, maybe 15 clapped.

“Wait, does it work?” Jen whispered to me.

You could have heard cervical mucus drop.

Joe Donatelli is a journalist in Los Angeles and the author of “Full Griswold: Stories from a Honeymoon in Italy.” Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.


Author: Joe Donatelli

Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles. He publishes The Humor Columnist.

  • Scott Heasley

    Joe, Great column. A female co-worker just asked me what was so funny. I think I’ll be flagged for sexual harassment if I pass along a link, but good stuff nonetheless. Take it easy, Scott

  • Thanks, Scott. Someday I will write something coworkers can share with each other. Someday.

  • Well done, Joe. Now that I don’t have to limit my response to 140 characters, I’ll let you know I learned all about cervical mucus at my Catholic high school as part of a religion class. The priest who taught it actually had an “expert” come in, a strange, fifty-something Scandinavian woman who looked like a blonde weeble with coke bottle glasses. She spoke with an accent, one in which “mucus” sounded like “moo-kose” and she would mime taking the woman’s vaginal mucus–once it was out of the vagina, get your mind out of the gutter–in between the fingers and pulling it apart. Its elasticity would determine whether or not the woman was ovulating. I believe if the mucus breaks apart before you’ve pulled your fingers apart more than a couple inches, then she’s not ovulating. But it might have been the other way around. I can’t remember. And that might be why ex-NBA’er Shawn Kemp and I are neck and neck in the siring kids game.

  • @Pat. Ha. Awesome. Big difference between you and Kemp, though. At some point, he stopped.

  • Nancy Garver

    Great article. What you don’t know is there is an alternative to Pre-Cana. Paul and I took that instead. We had to take a “quiz” in seperate rooms to determine if we were compatible. After answering true or false questions such as “I see or hear animals and people other people do not see or hear” and “I have a constant cough and unstoppable diahreah” Paul and I were deemed compatible. Because, I mean, who else is going to marry two people who see random animals while coughing nonstop and shitting our brains out? As Maryann always said “There is a lid for every pot.” And Maryann taught pre-cana. Please tell me Maryann and Dave are not “Bob” and “Alice” from the story. For God’s sake.

  • @Nancy — I knew you would approve of this piece. Jen and I took that test, too. We were rated compatible, but this is probably because Jen is the nicest person in the world and I answered C on every question.

  • Pingback: My Pre-Cana experience | Joe Donatelli()

  • Very funny column, Joe. My wife and I went to Pre-Cana, but it was so long ago that cervical mucus hadn’t been invented yet.

  • @Jerry – Ha.

  • Johntuttle

    It is a f**king joke.

  • mc

    You have a wonderful sence of humor, but it would have been a beautiful thing to read about a catholic that actualy educated himself on the topic of NFP before making fun of it and indirectly incourage others to do the same about the teachings of our catholic faith. Reaserch leading up to the creation of NFP methods have been taking place since about 1867 and it’s sad that people like you can discredit all of the research and knowledge about human fertility in just a few short paragraphs.

  • Hi mc – Thanks for writing. If it’s the best method, my wise-ass words will discredit nothing. The truth and the best methods always win out, in spite of what writers like me say. Regarding making fun of the teachings of the Catholic faith, I did no such thing. I simply stated my reactions to this couple’s preferred method of contraception. I think the Catholic Church does a lot of good, but also I think it needs to modernize or it risks looking outdated, out-of-touch and silly. I appreciate the compliment.

  • mc

    Good has to be chosen over bad in order for it to win out. Just because something is new, or modernized it doesn’t mean its better. Modern forms of contraception have been to blame for child deformations and abnormalities and as far as I know forms of NFP have not done that yet.  NFP is based on knowledge of own fertility and  the aplication of that knowledge, and there is not much to be updated on the human body. With all NFP things aside, I came across your site, read a few things and they are very funny, the subjest that we were on just happens to be something I feel strongly about.

  • Thanks again, mc, for the compliments and the civility of your criticism. I hope everyone who reads this post reads your comments as well.

  • mc

    thanks, I enjoy your column, and will defenitely continue reading it.

  • Chris Hixson

    Joe, I read your article and respect your view on Pre-Cana. Everyone is entitled to their opinions of NFP and yours is common. My wife and I practice NFP and just like anything else it’s all about understanding, approach and discipline. We have been successful at naturally postponing pregnancy through the practice of NFP. Our course was about 6 months long and we’ve been using it for about 7 months now. Just like anything else including NFP the story is anyone can do it, nothings impossible and it just takes understanding, discipline and practice. Michael Jordan is human and he wasn’t always Michael Jordan if you get my drift. People have to embrace the positive rewards of NFP and put everything they have into it. If they don’t then it is what it is, you get out of it what you put into it.
    We went through Pre-Cana and our NFP speaker also had about 5 kids and at first everyone was quiet, questioning the NFP process. Only she explained that she wasn’t using NFP as a way not to have kids but as a way to properly space them out. About two years is what God and doctors on this Earth will tell you are the proper resting and recovery period for woman in between children. I understand MC’s ^^^ reaction above but do think it was a little harsh as I understand you weren’t being offensive.  
    My grievance with you is over the comment above where you stated “I simply stated my reactions to this couple’s preferred method of contraception.” Contra is Latin for “against” Ception meaning “life” and the Catholic Church does not promote or support ANY type or forms of CONTRA-ception. You can research these prepositions meanings in Latin with Google to ensure accuracy. NFP is not a CONTRA-ceptive. NFP is a faith based disciplined approach to CON-ception, which the Catholic Church strongly supports. CONCEPTION means For Life or Pro Life which the Catholic Church supports highly. NFP is in no way a CONTRA-ceptive but an approach to CONCEPTION. I hope you appreciate my correction and emphasis on this detail, you know what they say “the devil is in the details.”
    As for the church being more modern, they already heard your request and became modernized 50 years ago as of this past Sunday October 14th. This was of course the Vatican II’s 50th birthday. The Vatican II which I am sure you are familiar with came to birth because it understood that the world we live in is ever changing and in order to stay effective we need to revamp certain aspects of the Church. For example most of the Masses were said in Latin and no one had any idea what was being said, that changed and now you can hear Mass in all Languages across the world and it’s effective and consistent in every language. Vatican II modernized the Church as much as they needed to without breaking the traditions of Jesus Christ who handed down the keys of the Church to Peter. Jesus Christ and his bride the Church will never look out-dated, out of touch or silly and I’m sure He Himself is telling you that through me.

  • Thank you for the thoughtful and informative response, Chris. I should have chosen my words, regarding contraception, more carefully. I am glad this particular method works for you. As for the church needing to modernize — last week at mass, I looked around, and the average age in the room was 55? 60? And that’s not unusual. More change is needed, and quickly, or the church will wither. All the best to you, Chris.

  • Chrishixson14

    That’s wonderful that you are still attending Mass. I will pray for you during Rosary and my daily prayers. I look forward to keeping up with your posts.

    Recently at Mass this past Sunday my Priest quoted Pope Benedict, as our Holy Father said it best “If you are a Conservative Catholic or a Liberal Catholic leave the politics out of the Church, there’s only room for FAITHFUL Catholics inside the Church.” These are political terms, conservative and liberal. They should not be causing a great divide in our spiritually faithful people.

    Even with this issue and your thoughts of the Church needing more change to survive, well God covered all His bases when He created the Heavens and the Earth…

    “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.”

    Matthew 16:18

  • Mtcarmelrd

    Thanks, Mr. Donatelli for the column. Most everyone I know is either Baptist or Confused so I didn’t know what pre cana meant & I’m sure it is important. But I can appreciate finding humor in serious things. I hope pre cana doesn’t strip all participants of their sense of humor.

  • I did pre-cana a year-and-a-half ago, and the biggest takeaway from it — and I hope people who administer pre-cana and receive it read this — is good communication skills. If I ran  a pre-cana session, that is what I would focus on. How to talk to your spouse when you’re emotional. When your spouse is emotional. When you are both having a bad day. When you don’t feel like talking. When your spouse does not feel like talking. How to avoid hurting each other’s feelings — that’s huge. Communication skills are where the value is in pre-marriage counseling, and I’d encourage more of that and less of everything else.

  • emma

    The thing is that nfp is the only form of contraception which theoretically could cause problems in future children. Condom / hormonal method fails, woman gets pregnant as normal. Nfp carries an increased risk that when it does fail, either side of the period of abstinence the egg has been hanging around in there by the time it is fertilised for quite a while, and potentially could be a bit damaged.obviously this would only effect a tiny proportion of pregnancies. Lots of good arguments out there regarding nfp, but I’m afraid that isn’t one of them.

  • karlschneider

    The most astonishing thing in the world is that here in the 21st century there are still braindead humans who embrace religion and/or beliefs in imaginary deities.