This summer marks nine years since I first opened the pages of Toni Weschler's classic reference book Taking Charge of Your Fertility, and what I discovered in that book changed my life forever.
After I briefly mentioned in yesterday's links post that we've been free of hormonal birth control for nearly ten years, I got a few emails from people asking for a little follow-up information on how to get started with practicing natural family planning or what specific tools/resources we use to make it work for us. I figured if a few people were brave enough to ask, I could have the courage to open up our bedroom door (again) and share with you what I know and what has worked for us.
Before I even begin, however, let me throw out a few disclaimers:
1) I am not a medical professional in any sense of the word! Please do not take my words here as medical advice. I am just a practitioner of this approach; I am not an expert.
2) I do not have any medical conditions that would necessitate a pharmaceutical solution when it comes to my reproductive system. Which is to say, I do not have PCOS, endometriosis, or any kind of medical condition that would cause another pregnancy to be dangerous for myself or an unborn child. While my pregnancy with the twins was difficult, overall, I have boring, textbook pregnancies.
3) We do not practice Fertility Awareness Method because of religious convictions. I do not believe contraceptive use is morally wrong, and I have no problems believing the scientific research showing that current forms of hormonal birth control and copper IUDs do not cause abortions. We practice fertility awareness method because we like it, and we feel the decision was Spirit-led for our marriage. I'll share more about that in a moment!
How do I get started with natural family planning using the Fertility Awareness Method?
Before you even begin, have a conversation with your partner to see if he is open to this method of family planning. FAM necessitates at the very least an openness to alternatives to intercourse, if not abstinence. I just can't imagine how feasible it would be to effectively practice FAM without both partners being all in.
The very next thing you should do is check out a copy of Taking Charge of Your Fertility and start reading! Yes, at over 500 pages, it's an enormous undertaking, but I can also tell you that I didn't read it cover-to-cover. My oldest child was four months old when I read it, and I can promise you that I didn't have the time or energy to read the book in its entirety, but I found everything I needed to know in its pages.
I think you will discover, however, that once you start reading, you will be AMAZED at all that you didn't know about how fertility works! It's all quite fascinating, and it's an investment that every woman should make. I believe that with all my heart! And be sure to share what you are learning with your partner as well.
(Alternatively, you can read this information PDF from Sympto.org - I have not read it in its entirety so I can't provide a ringing endorsement, but it looks very thorough. I still have quite a bit of fondness for TCOYF.)
How do you chart?
We use the sympto-thermal method of FAM which means that (ideally) I keep track of both my basal body temperature (I've used this thermometer and though it's not fancy, it works for me!) and cervical mucus to determine my fertility window. I say ideally because after about six months or so, I figured out my fertility signs pretty easily. The only time I have charted BBT, CM, and cervical position (the 3rd sign of the fertility phase) with excruciating consistency was when we were planning to get pregnant with AJ. By the time we got pregnant with the twins, I knew my patterns and signs well enough to know when to say let's go!
There are a variety of tools you can use for charting, many of which are far superior to the paper and pencil charts I used nearly a decade ago.
When my cycle returned after the twins were born, I began using the Kindara app on my iPhone and I cannot say enough great things about it! (Sidenote: I am not affiliated with Kindara in anyway. I am just an enthusiastic app user!) Their website is as beautiful, intuitive, and user-friendly as the app, so I would invite you to click around over there and get to know them.
How do you practice FAM when you are breastfeeding and your cycle has not yet returned?
Ah, yes. The postpartum phase. I will not try to pretend that this isn't the hardest part of natural family planning for me! Yes, I have exclusively breastfed each of my four children to the six month mark, but I did not follow all seven standards for ecological breastfeeding (we used pacifiers and I did not nap with them). If you are devoted to ecological breastfeeding to avoid pregnancy in the postpartum time frame, you can read an overview of what that would like look here: Fertility Awareness in the Life of a Breastfeeding Mom.
Honestly, we are not great role models in this phase of life. After each of the girls' births, we were open enough to another pregnancy to be pretty relaxed about everything. Obviously, for us, that worked out okay.
After the twins, however, I was a complete nervous wreck. The demands of life with two infants, however, meant that for a long stretch of time, our sex life was, well, not the most active it has ever been in our marriage. When we did find our groove again, we weren't concerned to the point of using any kind of barrier, but I did watch for signs of the fertility window by monitoring my cervical mucus with hyper-awareness and noting a dip in breastmilk supply, a factor from my past postpartum seasons that I knew meant the return of my cycle.
(Note: when I say I used hyper-awareness, I'm telling you that I checked my cervical fluid almost every single day. I know that seems extreme, but I really did not want to get pregnant! And since it just takes a moment to check it, it was a more convenient for us than using any kind of barrier method. And yes, I could have charted my BBT during that time and that probably would have helped me not be a nervous wreck, but I didn't because twins.)
This article from The Garden of Fertility has some pointers to look for as you watch for the return of your cycle while breastfeeding. Most all of the research I've found suggests that the best course of action for couples hoping to continue practicing FAM through the postpartum season is to take a class with a qualified teacher.
How do I transition from The Pill to FAM?
I think the standard approach to this is to allow at least three to six months of careful charting to fully learn your own personal fertility signs. If you are using FAM to get pregnant, you can and should have sex in the fertility window phase in your first few cycles, but don't be discouraged if you don't get pregnant right away. Learning how your fertility works is an incredible and empowering process, but it doesn't always mean instant pregnancy.
If you are transitioning off hormone-based birth control into FAM and want to avoid pregnancy, I would suggest using the same three month guideline to learn your fertility signs. As you navigate your first one or two cycles, I think the wisest choice is to abstain from intercourse altogether. This is not to say you can't fool around altogether - just avoid intercourse!
In the following cycles, you might consider doubling up protection by using both a condom (or a female condom) and diaphragm. (Remember this life lesson from Ross and Rachel! Condoms are only 97% effective!)
This information on using fertility awareness to abstain from pregnancy really drills down into some specifics if you are looking for more direction on how to avoid pregnancy.
There is definitely a learning curve to FAM, but the great news is that once you get the hang of it, it becomes incredibly and wonderfully intuitive! You have many years ahead of you to enjoy this approach to family planning. It's tough in the beginning but very, very worth it.
How do you deal with abstaining from sex during your fertility window?
We are not big on barrier methods (no convictions about them, just lazy), but we certainly don't practice total abstinence during that phase either. We do avoid intercourse, but there are lots of other activities to enjoy during that time! In the same way that co-sleeping with our babies encouraged us to be creative about our sex life, practicing FAM also motivates us to explore alternatives to intercourse that leave us both feeling fulfilled.
Aside from religious convictions, WHY would anyone want to practice Fertility Awareness Method?
After reading what this looks like in our lives, you might be tempted to think UM OKAY NO THANKS.
As I've written about briefly before, I originally became interested in FAM because I do not like how being on hormonal birth control makes me feel. I did okay on it for six years before I got pregnant with Dacey, but just a few weeks on the mini-pill after she was born and I felt like I was losing my mind. Looking back, I wasn't doing all that great on birth control before she was born - it had just become normal for me.
Additionally, hormonal birth control zaps me of libido. I have often wondered if the classic stereotype of the sexually uninterested wife is actually an indicator of how many women have lost their libido because of hormonal birth control.
Fertility Awareness Method allows me to experience the fullness of sexual desire that I believe all women should be able to enjoy! For me, it's a return to the heady hormones of adolescence but without having to heed the STOP signs of that season of life. Within each cycle there is definitely a peak to that surge in desire, but even outside of the fertility window, things are pretty freaking good in the get your motor running department. For that reason alone, I cannot imagine going back to hormonal birth control.
And then there's also the added benefit that our fertility as a couple is a running conversation between the two of us. For me, I feel like there is an experience of true unity in the practice of natural family planning because there is no aspect of our sex life that isn't open for discussion, and we have these conversations often.
Finally, because we talk about it often, I think both of us are far more sensitive to the direction of the Holy Spirit in the matter of planning our family. There were a few months after my cycle returned after the twins when I was pretty insistent that one of us have a permanent procedure done. Kyle was hesitant and asked that we both just pray about what direction to take. After a few months of prayerful consideration, I discovered I didn't really feel complete peace about a permanent solution either.
That's not to say we're definitely planning for more children, but it really reminded me that we can trust God's work in our hearts to nudge us one way or the other when it comes to family planning.
In closing, I want to share what my friend and mentor Karen wrote on a post about natural family planning on the Facebook page today. It is filled with far greater spiritual insight than I could offer you:
NFP has worked great for us, except when it hasn't. But, it has also taught us lessons along the way, that each intimate act, even with the best of precautions, is itself an act of creation. And, that when we partake of that mystery, we need to ALWAYS be prepared for that act of creation to occur. The birth of the trust that God knows what He is doing, even when we wonder otherwise, has been an incredibly powerful part of both mine and my husband's spiritual journey. And, without the gift and discipline of NFP, we never would have gotten to grow and stretch our faith in that way.
That's a beautiful way to frame it, and it's a thought I'm going to hang on to for a while.
There are books, classes, seminars, trainings, and discussions that you can seek out for more exhaustive and/or technical information. All I know to offer to you is how it works for us and why we have chosen this practice for over nine years. You are welcome to share follow-up questions or responses in the comments. I can't promise that I have any answers, but perhaps someone else in the community will!