I’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.