Every woman who has a fertility cycle should understand it–in all of its gory, glorious details–regardless of her need for family planning. This is a truth that I stumbled upon out of necessity, and it changed my life dramatically.
I was not brought up with a healthy understanding of and confidence about my fertility cycle. At menarche, I said nothing to my mother and did my best to quietly cope with excessive toilet paper. I thought that women were looked down upon during their periods, so I always sought to conceal mine and never talked about it. I knew absolutely nothing about ovulation.
Then I went to one of those horrible feminist colleges.
I knew that I would not be able to successfully support the Church’s anti-contraception stance without knowing everything that I possibly could about how natural family planning (NFP) was supposed to work. And so I read.
The college’s otherwise good library had a grand total of one book related to fertility awareness, but interlibrary loan is a wonderful thing. Soon I had read almost 20 books ranging from those which talked about the challenges of practicing periodic abstinence with a lifestyle of one-night-stands, to those which preached co-sleeping as a part of NFP as if it were Catholic Church dogma.
Then Toni Weschler came to campus. She spoke passionately about the health benefits of fertility charting and displayed a long line of years worth of her charts, explaining the depth of personal health information contained in them. As Toni writes on her site:
It is unfortunate that the Fertility Awareness Method is even referred to as a method, because in reality, it should be seen as a fundamental life skill that all women should learn, just as they are now taught basic feminine hygiene. This is because the practical knowledge women glean from charting their cycles will aid them from puberty to menopause, and all life phases in between.
So, after months of reading, I finally started charting my fertility. I was determined to chart for the rest of my reproductive years and was amused to consider whether I might someday be a nun “using NFP.”
My first completed chart made me smile because I had read so many books and articles about how real women do not actually have perfect 28 day cycles. But my first chart was indeed “perfect” with clear indications of ovulation and gynecological health.
And then reality set in. Charting my fertility soon revealed significant health issues, issues which I did not know how to resolve. I gave up charting after a matter of months because I found it distressing to see such concrete evidence that something was wrong, yet not be able to fix the problem.
While I lost valuable health data by not charting, I did not lose the fertility awareness that I had gained. I no longer needed to take my temperature or carefully track my observations in order to know my fertility status. Once you really pay enough attention to your fertility cycle, you can simply be aware of your body’s signs, even without trying.
I would strongly recommend against a sexually active woman trying to seriously avoid pregnancy based simply on whether she happens to feel fertile. Yet, when I did return to charting again, I found that the more data I collected about my body, the more it simply documented clear evidence for what I now knew without any conscious effort.
Because of my experience, I believe that every woman should practice fertility awareness. The easiest way to do this is to learn a fertility system (NFP or FAM) and chart your fertility signs for at least a few months.
You may find that, having learned about your body, you no longer need to chart unless something goes wrong and you wish to resume charting in order to provide the clear information to a healthcare provider.
Alternately, you may find that the information is helpful for something as simple as being able to precisely predict future menstruation, or as complex as tracking the status of a previously diagnosed gynecological problem.
If you do happen to notice problems with your chart, then be proactive rather than giving up like I did! Find a healthcare practitioner who will at least agree to run the tests indicated by your chart, even if they do not actually take your fertility awareness seriously. Then talk to other women who share your particular health issue and find out how they have managed to treat it based on their fertility awareness.
Should you eventually choose to use periodic abstinence to avoid pregnancy, the longer your charting history, the better. Many couples struggle unnecessarily with NFP because they did not chart long enough prior to marriage to collect enough data (certain fertility “rules” require 12 cycles of information to implement, and you may sometimes find that your fertility cycle is actually longer than a calendar month). Additionally, women who become pregnant without having previously learned to carefully understand their fertility often find it significantly harder to track their fertility during the tricky postpartum period.
Some single young women who intend to use NFP after they are married hesitate to learn fertility awareness before they can do so with their future husbands. While I strongly believe that engaged couples should take an NFP class together (with the man doing the actual charting), it is not good for a woman to live in ignorance of her body until she finds a man to have sex with!
Furthermore, there is significant variation in the methods of NFP currently available, and they are not equally suited to every woman’s body, much less every marriage’s needs. By practicing fertility awareness, a woman can not only learn which fertility signs are easiest for her to chart, she can also easily see which method of NFP (each method has its own rules) will work best with her body to most precisely determine her time of fertility, thereby minimizing the abstinence required to avoid pregnancy. This means that she can then choose the best method of instruction for her and her future husband when they are ready to take an NFP class together.
Finally, by practicing fertility awareness, a woman may know long before marriage whether she is at risk for infertility and seek appropriate treatment without the added stress of having already waited for a year for pregnancy. And, even more importantly to me, fertility awareness enables a woman to note signs that she is at risk for miscarriage and take simple steps to avoid preventable heartbreak.
It is horribly sad that some Catholic women must endure the loss of a child during their first months of marriage simply because the couple chose not to learn NFP because they had no reason to avoid pregnancy. Even if you plan to never avoid pregnancy, you should plan to avoid preventable miscarriage! And fertility awareness is an amazing tool for noting common causes of miscarriage that can be easily fixed prior to seeking pregnancy.
Ultimately I believe that personal health is the primary reason a woman should learn fertility awareness, even if she does not need to keep charting once she has learned it. But for those women who do intend to use NFP for family planning, practicing fertility awareness long before they are married may prove to be an invaluable tool and save them from unnecessary heartache.
Coming soon: A post on easy ways to learn fertility awareness. You don’t actually need to take a class if you’re not (yet?) using it for family planning.