Fertility Awareness: Why It Matters

[If you have a uterus (or if you even care about someone who has a uterus), then you may be interested in this post. It's something I stumbled upon a couple of years ago, and I cannot overstate how much it has changed my life and my outlook on my own body.

If, on the other hand, you possess no uterus, you don't really like talking about women's health, or you get 
squeamish while discussing the wonders of the female body, you have my permission to skip this post.

Just know that I am sending my hairy eyeball glare to you through the internet. It's that important.]

Let's talk about charting your menstrual cycle. I know, I know--it can be a taboo subject. Some women find it downright uncomfortable. But hang in there with me.

First of all, why bother tracking your cycle at all? Here are a just a few reasons:

  • When used perfectly, the Fertility Awareness Method can be up to 99.86% effective as a form of birth control.
  • Since it is non-hormonal, there are no scary side effects like there are with the pill, the patch, the IUD, or other types of hormonal birth control.
  • Fertility Awareness is virtually cost-free (all you need is a thermometer, a piece of paper, and a pen), whereas birth control can range in price from $100-$1000 a year. It is available to just about anyone, anywhere. (Talk about really providing free birth control!)

If that's not enough to keep you interested, I hope you keep reading anyway--because fertility awareness can have an enormous impact on your reproductive health.

I first heard of tracking your cycle from a book called Taking Charge of Your Fertility. I thought it sounded interesting--it was something I'd never heard of before.  I requested it from the library and had to wait about two months to actually get the book, since the waiting list was so long. Once I finally got it, I devoured all 428 pages front to back.

It absolutely changed my world.

I didn't think I was illiterate when it came to women's health and my body, but this book taught me things I had no idea even existed. Like the fact that your temperature changes predictably based on if you are pre- or post-ovulatory, and you can use this temperature shift to tell you when you ovulate. Or the fact that you can pinpoint a lot of symptoms by charting--things that affect conception, like a short luteal phase, miscarriages you may mistake for late periods, and non-ovulatory cycles where your body does not release an egg.

(If some of those terms don't make any sense to you, don't worry. I'll explain more about them later on. The main point is that it is possible to know a lot of really vital things about your own body without having to step foot in the gynecologist's office.)

Not only did the book teach me things I didn't know, it also dispelled a lot of old wives' tales and myths that I think most women still believe. Have you ever had a doctor (or someone else) tell you that women always ovulate on the 14th day of their cycle? Not true. Or that there is a risk of getting pregnant at any time during your cycle, not just during the fertile window? Also not true. Or, on the flip side, that you can only get pregnant on the day you ovulate? Again, not true.

It erased so many fears and concerns I had about the way my body worked. All those times I fretted and worried and wondered if I was pregnant at the wrong time, all because my period was a couple days late...only to find out I was worrying over nothing. I could have known all along. That is the power of fertility awareness.

And before you ask: no, it's not based on hokey weird pseudo-science, it's based on actual science and research.

I have been tracking my cycle (charting) for a over a year, and now I want to write a series of blog posts about how to get started. Today, I wanted to give you a brief overview of the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) and tell you why you might be interested in charting.

FAM is seen as a form of either birth control or birth achievement, depending on how you use it. It involves tracking three main signs (basal body temperaturecervical fluid, and cervical position) to help you track your cycle and fertile times.

Let's look at three examples and talk about why charting would matter in each scenario. We'll discuss women trying to concieve, women trying to avoid, and women who are trying to do neither.

Trying to Concieve

Trying to concieve is the most common reason for tracking your cycle, since doing so will help you pinpoint the times when you are most fertile. There are times in your cycle where it is impossible to get pregnant, as well as times where it is highly likely you will get pregnant. Charting your cycle will help you know (not just guess, or wonder, or hope) the best time to make babies.

In addition to that, it can be provide vital information if you are having trouble conceiving. If, like many women, you think you ovulate on day 14 but actually ovulate closer to day 18, you may miss your fertile window every single month, leading you to believe you are infertile when you may actually just be getting the timing wrong.  Some women have annovulatory cycles, or cycles where no egg is released--thus rendering it impossible in that cycle to concieve. Or they may have a short luteal phase, which doesn't give the egg time to properly implant.  Another rare option is that the woman actually is getting pregnant, but miscarries so early on that it is mistaken for a late period.

In any case, knowing why you are not able to get pregnant can provide peace of mind to you and, bigger still, vital information you can provide to your doctor to help pinpoint why you are having trouble conceiving.

One thing that is worth mentioning for people who are struggling to get pregnant: FAM is not promoted as a sure-fire cure all that will suddenly allow you to get pregnant. It can help couples who may be timing things wrong, and it can help you understand why you might be having trouble conceiving, but by no means am I saying that infertility wouldn't exist if only more women used FAM. Infertility is a real and incredibly difficult struggle, and using FAM may or may not help in certain cases of infertility.

Trying to Avoid Pregnancy

FAM can also be used as an effective form of birth control. How effective it is depends on how committed you are to charting, but most experts agree that it is on par with other forms of hormonal birth control like the pill.
So why would anyone bother charting instead of just popping a pill or wearing a patch every day? I can think of several reasons. For one, it's completely non-hormonal. I have nothing against hormonal birth control, and in fact many women need it to regulate otherwise painful periods. And, not being a doctor, I obviously have nothing more than anecdotal evidence about being on hormonal birth control, but it just doesn't sit well with me. Telling your body to suspend a major reproductive cycle seems very counterintuitive.  I would not be surprised if hormonal birth control makes it more difficult to conceive when you are ready to start trying. Using FAM, on the other hand, means that as soon as you flip the switch, you are good to go. No waiting for 6 months or longer for the hormones to be worked out of your system; you are 100% ready to go.

Again, there is very little research on whether or not hormonal birth control makes it harder to conceive when the time is right, but I can't tell you how many friends told me, "I never would have taken birth control if I knew I wouldn't get pregnant for months after taking it." They wish someone would have told them there was another way.

Three of these top four search results are contraceptives. Note: the Paragard is a non-hormonal IUD.

Another great reason to use FAM as birth control is that it's great practice to know what your cycles look like if you do want to use it to try and conceive. It can help you understand the rhythms in your cycle and pinpoint your most fertile days so that you can get right down to it when the time comes.

All Women

So let's say that you're not planning on having kids anytime soon (or are done with having kids), or you're not sexually active so you don't need it as birth control. Do you really need to chart?

YES. I think you still should.

(Let me qualify that: I strongly believe that every woman should at least know about the options of charting, as well as know in-depth information about their cycles and bodies in general. Some women would rather not chart, some women medically need birth control, and still others would just rather not have to worry about it, but if you can and you are able, I recommend it whole-heartedly. As long as you know the benefits of charting and you know enough about how your cycle works every month to make an informed decision on charting, that's good enough for me.)

Here's the great thing about charting, though: it doesn't matter if you're trying to avoid a pregnancy, trying to achieve pregnancy, are done having kids, or don't even have sex. If you have a uterus, then this applies to you. Tracking your cycle is an incredibly easy way to be in charge of and informed about a major part of your health.

One of the biggest things I gained from charting was a reverence for the way my body was designed to work. I felt empowered because I knew what my body was up to. No more wondering if you are normal. No more questioning out of the ordinary cervical fluid. No more hoping I wasn't pregnant (or hoping I was). No more guessing between a range of days when Aunt Flo was coming. I knew exactly what was going on in my body.

Not to mention, as I said earlier, charting can help you pinpoint symptoms of some major health issues that can happen regardless of your reproductive status. So yes--even if you've never had kids or you aren't sexually active, it can still be incredibly valuable to chart. 

I'll be posting a series of "how to" guides for charting in the upcoming weeks to help you get started, so keep an eye out for those. I'm really excited about sharing this with all of you.

In the meantime, this is really something I'd like to take seriously because I am very passionate about it. I've started a Twitter and Instagram account for helping women get started charting. I'll be sharing information on how to get started, as well as answering any questions that come my way. You can follow me on Twitter: @know_fertility or Instagram: @know_fertility .  I do love new followers!

One last thing: if you have any questions--and I mean ANY questions--relating to fertility, cycles, menstruation, etc, I would love to hear from you and help you get answers. Are you confused about the way FAM works? Have you been trying to get pregnant for a while and are wondering why? Do you have a question about your cycle? Any questions you have that you don't know the answer to, just ask! I already have friends texting me randomly to ask about their ovulation or why their temperature didn't jump at a certain time or what I think about their charts, so I might as well extend that to the whole internet!!!!!! 

(I will probably regret this later, but for now...whatevs.)

You can leave a comment below (anonymously if you wish), tweet at me, leave a comment on Instagram, or even email me at knowfertility at gmail dot com. 

Next post: details of exactly what happens during your cycle! (Spoiler alert: most of it will probably be new information.) Ready to read more? Click here!

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