Fertility awareness is a process that enables you to understand when you are and aren’t fertile in order to achieve or avoid pregnancy or to simply help you better understand your gynecological health. Although I loathe the idea that a “normal” cycle is 28 days long (the variations are so endless that most women don’t have 28-day cycles), I’m going to use a 28-day cycle not under the influence of birth control as an example. Your fertility will act differently (or be inactive) depending on what kind of birth control you’re using, so we need to start with an average, uninterrupted cycle and build from there.
Whether or not you choose to practice fertility awareness as a form of birth control or pregnancy achievement, it’s pretty cool understanding how ovulation and fertility work. As someone who cannot tolerate hormonal birth control and has a fairly predictable cycle, I found understanding my fertility to be both empowering, as a way of understanding my body, and efficient as a form of birth control for about five years now. Additionally, I found it to be an intimacy-enhancing practice with my partner since it requires a high degree of communication, patience, and vigilance. Research supports my personal experience, showing that couples practicing Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) have increased self esteem and intimacy with their partner.
Once a month you ovulate. Most women will ovulate midway though their cycle. In a 28-day cycle that would be day 14, but keep in mind that is only an average. Your body produces all sorts of cool hormones that make your little ole’ ovary shoot out and egg ready for fertilization. That egg makes it’s way though your fallopian tube to your uterus, where it either embeds in the lining of uterus if it’s been fertilized and becomes a fetus, or disintegrates and initiates menses if it’s not been fertilized. This precious egg is viable for a maximum of 12-24 hours after leaving the ovary, meaning that there is really only one day a month you can get pregnant. By the time the egg reaches your uterus it’s no good anymore, meaning that fertilization must take place in the fallopian tube. “But, Ms. Vagina Science,” you might say, “that’s not a very long time!” That’s true! It’s certainly not. All those accidental pregnancies? Bad timing, my friend. You’ve probably heard sperm can live in your reproductive tract for three to five days (someone once asked if sperm can live for up to a week in your body. No. No, they cannot), but that’s only half true. Sperm can live in your reproductive tract as long as the environment is ideal. An ideal environment is of fertile cervical mucus and a higher pH.
Your body is not a clock. It’s a body, all flesh and blood and influenced by hormones, feelings, experiences, diet, etc. You will not ovulate the same day of every cycle. Here’s how it works — there are basically two parts of your cycle, the follicular phase and the luteal phase, with ovulation being the dividing line. When you ovulate is totally variable, meaning that the follicular phase has lots of variability in how many days it lasts. The luteal phase, on the other hand, is far more fixed. There will be a finite number of days (12-16) between ovulation and menstruation. If you have a late period, it means that you ovulated later, not that you’re “stressed out.” The idea that stress can influence menses is false. Stress can, however, delay ovulation, making for a late period. Got it?
The Big Three Signs of Fertility
Your mucus will change over the course of your cycle, moving from blood at the beginning, to dry after your period, to paste like, to increasingly fertile leading up to ovulation and then blood once again. How many fertile mucus days you have is entirely variable and individual, but will range between one and five days. When you are fertile, you will produce an egg white-like mucus with a lower acidity than your non-fertile mucus. This both nourishes sperm, allowing them to thrive, as well as provides a means of transport to the egg. Sperm can move more efficiently though fertile mucus towards the egg. Often, women will mistake super fertile mucus for a vaginal infection. Before you head to the doctor to diagnose a possible infection, look at the calendar. You might just be fertile! You can tell how fertile your mucus is by how stretchy it is. Take the mucus between two fingers and pull your fingers apart. The further it stretches without breaking, the more fertile it is.
*A note on checking your mucus — You need to check it the same way every day. You can insert your fingers all the way inside your vagina and check the mucus on the cervix or simply check the mucus at the opening of your vagina, but pick one and do it every day.
Basal Body Temperature
After you ovulate, there will be a thermal shift in your basal body temperature. This is a sign that you have already ovulated. It looks something like this:
If you were to chart this, you would need to take your temperature every morning before getting out of bed with a basal body thermometer. In the above chart, she ovulated on day 20. Notice the rise in temperature. Although handy for finding out if you’ve already ovulated, this does not predict ovulation and is therefore not a reliable form of birth control when not used in conjunction with observation of the other signs of fertility.
Your cervix will change position throughout your cycle. To fully understand cervical positioning you will need to check your cervix every day to get a feel for what’s normal for you. Generally, here’s how it works-
- During your period: The cervix is low, hard, and partially open. It will feel like the tip of your nose.
- After your period: Each day the cervix will move higher and higher and will become softer.
- During Ovulation: The cervix will be at it’s highest, softest and most open position and if you can reach it, will feel like your lips. It may seem like it’s disappeared because it’s too high for you to reach. There’s a handy little acronym for this phase, SHOW: Soft, High, Open and Wet.
- After Ovulation: The cervix will begin to move back down and will become increasingly lower, closed, and firmer leading up to you period and will once again feel like the tip of your nose.
Other Signs of Fertility
Other than the big three signs, there will be other clues that you’re about to ovulate and/or that you are fertile. Estrogen is at it’s peak when you are fertile, meaning that you may find that you’re more aroused, your breasts may be larger and/or more sensitive, your skin may feel softer and look more “glowy,” and the quality of your voice may change.
Practicing FAM as Birth Control
I cannot stress enough that when you are beginning to understand your fertility you must observe these signs Every. Single. Day. Once you are skilled, you may be able to forgo observing one of these signs (I stopped charting my body temp after 6 months of practice), but not in the beginning. Here’s what you will need to get started:
- Buy Taking Charge of Your Fertility
- Buy A basal body thermometer
- Charts for tracking your temperature (can be found in the book)
- Clean hands for checking your cervix and mucous
- A barrier method for when you are fertile
- Patience and commitment
FAM is not the rhythm method. FAM is active observation of your body’s signs of fertility every month, which is why it is more effective than the rhythm method as a form of birth control when used correctly. The effectiveness of FAM is similar to the effectiveness of condoms to prevent pregnancy when used properly, meaning consistent, vigilant observation of your fertility. You will need to abstain from sex and/or use a barrier method for about eight days of your cycle, five days before ovulation and three days after. When you are learning how to use FAM, I suggest just going ahead and using a barrier method every time you have sex, just in case. Once you become familiar with how your fertility works, you will know when it’s time to wrap it up. I have my partner use a condom once I observe the first sign of fertility, and ask him to continue using condoms until my cervix is low and hard and I don’t have any more fertile mucous.
Practicing FAM to Get Pregnant
Observe your big three signs, and have lots of sex before you ovulate. Remember how I said that your egg is only good for a maximum of 24 hours, and that once it’s reached the uterus, it’s no good anymore? That means sex needs to timed well to get pregnant. The sperm need to be in the fallopian tube before you ovulate for best results. Really concentrate on your mucous and cervical position for pregnancy achievement, since basal body temperature tells you that you’ve already ovulated, and not that you’re about to ovulate. If you are not getting pregnant, you can have sex every other day to make sure that your partner has plenty of sperm for your egg.
Fertility Awareness and Your Partner
As I’ve mentioned before, this is a team effort. Your partner will need to be okay with using barrier methods if your partner has a penis and/or can get your pregnant. Additionally, your partner can participate by helping you check your cervical position and mucous. I have my partner check for me all the time, and he’s well educated on what fertile mucous looks like. It’s pretty cool. A former partner of mine, who I was with for four years and with whom I practiced FAM, became so educated and in tune with my cycle that he knew what day of my cycle it was off the top of his head and could sense when I was fertile by the way I smelled and how my skin felt. Now that’s some pretty powerful magic.
Fertility Awareness as Birth Control — Things to Consider
First and foremost, FAM should only be practiced in a loving, trusting and stable relationship with consensual sex. FAM requires both partners to participate, so you need to be able to rely on your partner, if your partner is a male who can get you pregnant. I have not practiced this with partners I have been casual with and I’m going to advise you right now to do the same thing. Although this is a fairly reliable method when used correctly, you really must consider that you could become pregnant. Go there in your mind and if that possibility is totally out of the question, this may not be the right method for you. Additionally, you need to use either a barrier method or abstinence when you are ovulating. Is that right for you? Can you commit to that? What about sexually transmitted infections? Have both you and your partner been tested? Although FAM is much easier practiced when you have a consistent cycle, it can be practiced with not-so-regular cycles and postpartum. There are chapters in the book I listed above that can advise you on those special circumstances.
I will easily concede that FAM as a method of birth control is not for everyone. But, for those of us with an interest in it, it can be a really powerful expression of self love and appreciation. This is a very complicated subject that requires lots of research and practice to know if it’s right for you.
As usual, please send all your vaginal queries to email@example.com