You Can Read Your Body
This is a tool for greater autonomy, wellness, and joy
When I say “fertility awareness” what’s the first thing you think of?
Maybe you’ve heard all about it, but I think there’s a good chance you might not know what it means, or you might think you do.
I find that fertility is an oddly loaded word. Put it next to the somewhat hippy or woo-sounding “awareness” and in some cases you’ve got a recipe for confusion. It doesn’t help that sometimes this method is also called “natural family planning” or “natural birth control.” (I won’t be using either of those terms here, for reason I’ll get into another time.) People have long held preconceived notions about fertility awareness, but the internet sadly really has a knack for ramping up the spread of misinformation. There’s a lot of questionable content about fertility awareness and menstrual cycles being posted on social media right now, which isn’t helping anyone.
For me, fertility awareness or the fertility awareness method (FA or FAM) is the lens through which I can learn about my menstrual cycle and my way into practicing cyclical living. It’s a tool, a daily practice, a way to keep track of my health, a means of effective contraception and something that brings me a lot of joy.
This essay will cover what fertility awareness is, how it works, who it’s for, and why it’s important.
Everything I’m about to say I say as someone who practices the method, not as a formally trained or certified educator (yet!). This is not a course in FAM. Treat this like an hors d’oeuvres. I’m going to be talking about fertility awareness from my perspective and training.There are multiple styles and schools of thought. If learning FAM is something that interests you, I highly recommend finding an educator. There are lots of great training programs out there.
What is fertility awareness?
First things first: fertility awareness is grounded in your own personal biology. It isn’t some strange hippy thing. It isn’t just intuition. It’s a skill you can cultivate; not an app, and not something you can learn in a day. In the same way you’ve had to learn to understand other signs your body provides you—an gurgling stomach, an ache of pleasure, or that first tinge of a cold coming on—you can learn to interpret signs concerning your cycle.
Simply put: FA is a method for cultivating awareness about your own body, and can be used for contraception, conception and/or improved health outcomes.
Every day of the cycle is different and you go through several distinct phases. In some of these phases you’re fertile (you could get pregnant) and in some there isn’t anything to keep sperm alive—making you temporarily infertile. When you learn how to read the signs your body is giving you right now, you can determine which days are which. Pregnancy is usually only possible five to seven days out of every cycle. This matters regardless of what your goals are: conception, contraception or neither of the above.
Like any life skill, FA takes time to become comfortable with and requires some small habit shifts, but it isn’t a huge daily commitment or a burden.
How does FAM work?
When using FAM, you can track three signs: basal body temperature (BBT), cervical mucus/fluid and cervical position. This information is entered into a chart, either on paper or in an app. (The app is for storing data only; not interpreting or predicting.) Day by day, you build a picture of your cycle. When you have a history of several cycles’ worth, you can begin to see your own body’s patterns, because every person is unique. (The whole “twenty-eight days” thing is a scam.) Armed with your own data and knowledge, you can make more informed decisions about your sexual activity, medical treatments, and the state of your wellbeing in general.
Here are the three fertile signs:
Basal Body Temperature:
This is your base metabolic rate. It’s also called your “waking temperature” but it’s mainly important to take it after several consecutive hours of sleep. Movement, eating or drinking changes the BBT. So you have to take it before you get up, have sex, take a drink, or have a bite to eat. Personally, when my alarm goes off I roll over and put my thermometer in my mouth before I do anything else.
You need a basal body thermometer to take this and they can be picked up at a pharmacy or grocery store for less than $20. There are also fancier ones that store data and wearables that will take your temp for you (I’m told newer Apple Watches and FitBits do this).
BBT tells us about hormone levels within the body and it is a retrospective, not predictive, sign. It tells us what has happened, not what’s about to happen. From menstruation to ovulation, BBT will remain low then shift higher once ovulation has occurred. It will remained elevated until menstruation or it will stay elevated throughout the entirety of a pregnancy.
Cervical Mucus or Fluid
I know, I know. The term “mucus” conjures up maybe less than pleasant feelings. But this one is kind of magical once you get the hang of it. And it’s critical for having real time data on whether or not it’s safe to have unprotected sex.
Your cervix—the doorway between your vagina and the uterus—creates different textures and quantities of mucus depending on where you are in your cycle. There are two types: fertile and non-fertile. Some days there is also no mucus; these are “dry” days. Fertile mucus can keep sperm alive for up to five days and has pressurized channels that suck the sperm up into the Fallopian tubes (yes, really!). Non-fertile mucus does the opposite: it traps sperm and lets them die. So if you aren’t seeking to become pregnant, you abstain or use a barrier method on the days you’re fertile.
You can become aware of cervical mucus in multiple ways. You do not have to put your finger into your vagina and, honestly, you shouldn’t for this method to work well. Some people become ultra aware of the sensations at their vulva and that’s enough for them. Some people prefer a method where you wipe the general area, see how that feels and then take a look at your toilet paper for any visible mucus. (Sometimes, particularly in young folks, there’s a lot of visible mucus. From age thirty-ish onward, it may be less noticeable.) Inserting your fingers into your vagina to fish around for cervical mucus isn’t recommended because then you’re stimulating that area, which will make it potentially release other secretions, making it difficult to tell what’s what.
During menstruation, cervical mucus is obscured. After that there’s often a day or two of “dryness,” or a lack of fertile cervical mucus. As the body nears ovulation, more cervical mucus appears and finally turns to very sticky, stretchy, clear, egg-white looking mucus. From there, the mucus may fade to being wet again for a few days until it’s once again “dry” for the remainder of the cycle.
This one is optional. Your cervix changes texture and position depending on where you are in your cycle. After you’ve checked for cervical mucus, you can insert a finger into your vagina and check out what your cervix is doing. It may be high, low, soft or hard, open or closed. The difference can be quite noticeable.
All of this data gets put into a chart, which then becomes something we can read and interpret. Here’s one of mine:
A chart can give you a window into things like: when you ovulated, if you’re pregnant, when your next period may arrive, how stress and illness are affecting your health, potential hormones imbalances like PCOS/AAE, signs you might have thyroid dysfunction, and much more. In fact, the menstrual cycle is being called a potential fifth vital sign.
Who is FAM for?
FAM can be practiced by anyone with a menstrual cycle. You can begin observing and recording fertile signs at any time. If you want to use FA for contraception, it’s advised that you chart three full cycles before you begin using the method for birth control.
But is it for everyone? No. If you’re currently on hormonal birth control (the pill, injection, IUD, etc) and not experiencing ovulation, then FA isn’t for you right now. The synthetic hormones in these methods often stop your body from ovulating, so the three fertile signs above won’t be accurate. However, it could help you re-regulate should you come off hormonal birth control in the future. It may also not be a good option when you need to protect against STIs and STDs.
Why is FAM important?
How much time do you have?
The simplest way to put it is body autonomy. With FA, you have a window into the inner workings of your body and you build your data set; no blood test or other intrusive diagnostic needed.
It can also be a very low cost method of effective contraception that doesn’t require hormones or a doctor’s appointment. Charting with FA can help you identify ovulation for conception, and tell you when you’re pregnant without a pregnancy test. It can also be used to better time infertility treatments. FA can also be applied to periomenopause and helping navigate the hormonal swings of that time. That’s to say nothing of the ways it can help you simply yet profoundly care for yourself, mentally, emotionally and physically. We’ll get to that soon.
FA brings you in close contact with the truth of your body. That is my favorite part.
Coming up I’ll give you a peek into what my days are like as someone who practices FAM, addressing FAM haters, and why I think understanding our menstrual cycle is critical in these wild times.
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I am self taught in the sympothermal method. I also completed herbalist and FA educator Clara Bailey’s six week program, Moon School. I’m currently learning more about the Billing’s Method. I’ve been dipping my toes in FA since March 2016. Since October 2021, I’d say I finally put my whole foot in the water, as it were. And in 2022 I’ve been fully swimming in it.
Sources I referenced for this essay are Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler and The Fifth Vital Sign by Lisa Hendrickson-Jack.
See this article from the NIH.