Nowadays women have more contraceptive choices than ever before. Condoms, diaphragms, pills, IUD’s, injections – how’s a girl to choose? But in the midst of all of this technology many of us are dissatisfied.
Both men and women complain of the desensitizing effect of condoms, and many find diaphragms and the creams that go with them to be messy mood-killers. Women using hormonal methods such as the pill or depo-provera often suffer from headaches, weight gain, irregular bleeding and diminished sexual appetite (perhaps a factor in their effectiveness?).
Many of us are not even aware that there is a safe, natural and effective form of birth control that just about any woman can learn to use. And I’m not talking about abstinence. I’m talking about fertility awareness, a system through which a woman learns to observe and record her body’s fertility signs to determine when conception is possible. Most people associate “natural birth control” with the rhythm method that many of our mothers used – and therefore dismiss it as ineffective and outdated. But modern fertility awareness, when thoroughly understood and used correctly, is as effective as many other popular methods (about 98%).
Fertility awareness is based on the fact that a woman is potentially fertile for a limited number of days each cycle – for several days prior to ovulation, and one or two days thereafter. Further, her body provides clear signs (courtesy of the changing levels of estrogen, progesterone, and several other hormones), as to when this fertile phase is occurring. Because she is using her body’s “symptoms” to estimate when ovulation occurs, the length of a woman’s cycle is not a factor, nor is whether that length is regular from one cycle to the next. The three primary fertility signs are as follows:
- Changes in cervical fluid. This is the “discharge” that you see on your underwear and on the toilet tissue when you use the bathroom. This usually follows a progression from dry or sticky-quality fluid immediately following menstruation, to a copious fluid the consistency of raw egg white in the days leading up to ovulation. After ovulation, the sticky or nonpresent fluid returns.
- Changes in waking body temperature. This is measured by daily temperature-taking with a digital basal thermometer (available at Beyond Fertility Shop). Temperatures typically are lower in the first (preovulatory) part of the cycle, and then shift up noticeably after ovulation.
- Changes in cervical position. This can be felt with your finger. Around the time of ovulation, the cervix tends to be higher in the vagina, softer in consistency, and larger at the opening. For the rest of the cycle, it is usually lower, firmer and more closed.
These signs are observed daily and recorded on charts so that patterns can be recognized. By learning to observe and interpret these fertility signs as they change throughout her cycle, a woman can identify the several days each cycle that she is fertile, and time intercourse accordingly, depending on whether her goal is to avoid or to achieve pregnancy. During the woman’s fertile phase, couples who wish to avoid pregnancy can either abstain entirely, use barrier methods, or be otherwise “sexually creative.”
When used correctly fertility awareness is a highly effective method of birth control that doesn’t involve hormones, pills, or injections. But clearly it is not for everyone. It requires a certain commitment of time and thought that some would find not worth the effort. It requires personal responsibility – although a deeper understanding of the method allows for a few “shortcuts,” it simply cannot be practiced half-heartedly. A lot of people, at least initially, are uncomfortable with the “hands-on” nature of this method. It also offers no protection against sexually transmitted diseases. That being said, a knowledge of fertility awareness can be extremely valuable even when it is not used for the purposes of contraception.
For example, fertility awareness is a very helpful tool for couples who are trying to conceive. Charting fertility signs can obviously help a couple time intercourse for maximum chances of conception. In addition, a deeper understanding of a woman’s individual cyclical patterns (as can be gained from charting) can help her and her doctor identify certain problems and get the most out of fertility tests and treatments. Fertility awareness experts contend that some women are subjected to procedures that are inappropriate or unnecessary (not to mention costly) because of a lack of understanding of the principles of fertility awareness.
For me, the biggest advantage to practicing fertility awareness has been the intimate knowledge I’ve gained about my cycle and about my body. In addition to learning when I am potentially fertile, I’ve been able to identify physical and emotional patterns that I now recognize to be cyclical. I’ve found that mood, energy, and creativity tend to be highest right around the time of ovulation. That’s when I tend to wake up easily, get things done around the house, and find time and inspiration to write. In the days leading up to my period, I’m often lucky to even get the kids dressed and fed. An added bonus is knowing when sex is “safe” or not gives my husband and I a sense of mutual responsibility in family planning. Perhaps most important, I feel as if I’m working with my body instead of against it.
In posting this article, my goal was not to provide comprehensive information necessary to practice fertility awareness- that would go far beyond the scope of a single article. Rather, I hope to have provided enough information to pique your interest and encourage you to pursue further study if you think this method might be for you. There is a wealth of information on the web, and I have provided some links below. But to really learn it, you will need to either buy a book or take a class. The book I’ve used is Toni Weschler’s Taking Charge of Your Fertility, which contains detailed information about both birth control and pregnancy achievement. Many other books are available (try searching your local bookstore or amazon.com). You can inquire about classes at health clinics, Planned Parenthood, and possibly your local diocese. This is because natural family planning, which uses the same principles as fertility awareness but requires abstinence during the fertile phase, is the only method of birth control accepted by the Roman Catholic church. The links below are a good place to start. For more information try doing a web search on “fertility awareness” or “natural family planning.”