The Hidden Wisdom of Fertility Awareness
Several months ago, I heard about a practice developed in the 1980s called the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM), a natural form of birth control that a study in the journal Human Reproduction Today found to be 99.4 to 99.6 percent effective. I became inspired by the possibility of becoming fluent with my natural cycles and rhythms and gaining enough confidence in my self-awareness to say good-bye to artificial barrier methods and pills. I was also intrigued when I heard that this method increases intimacy between partners, by attuning women more deeply to their body’s wisdom and healing gifts. So I decided to attend a weekend FAM workshop called Womb Wisdom: Understanding Cycles of Fertility, taught by Sarah Bly, a fertility expert and midwife who has been teaching workshops for seven years (graceofthemoon.com).
Much to my surprise, the workshop included both women and men in almost equal number, and all of us were on the edge of our seats as Bly began to explain how to track which times of the month are safe to have unprotected intercourse without the fear of unwanted pregnancy. Of course, that’s what we all wanted to know first, but what we learned is that this answer is different for every woman and every cycle. And that’s actually the beauty of the practice. FAM is not about getting the right prescription or being fitted for a diaphragm. Instead, it is about gaining the tools to pay close attention to one’s own body, which is in an ongoing cycle of change. I was surprised to realize how little I knew about my anatomy and my cycles, but the feeling seemed common.
Our Cycles Ourselves
Bly explained that throughout a natural menstrual cycle, hormonal fluctuation can alter a woman’s facial appearance, body odor, waist-to-hip ratio, vocal pitch, mood, habits of dress, and even language. When ovulating, these changes make women more attractive to men because they indicate fertility; in fact, one scientific study I read about later found that strippers have their peak earnings on the days when they are ovulating. These cycles also affect what type of men a woman finds attractive (women tend to be attracted to high testosterone macho types while ovulating and more nurturing men during the rest of the cycle). In short, a woman’s cycles affect how she thinks, how she feels, and how she behaves. Bly explained that our natural cycles are the full expression of ourselves. When a woman takes a birth control pill, which tricks the body into thinking its already pregnant, she is making a bigger change than she may imagine. Beyond obvious side effects like headaches, irritability, and bloating, Bly says, “The birth control pill emotionally flatlines a woman in a way that supports her ability to participate in the workforce, but does not support the ecstatic or transcendent qualities of masculine and feminine union.”
Reclaiming My Wholeness
The two full days of information shared during the workshop was designed to teach us to become intimate with cycles and ourselves as much as how to pay close attention to these changes and to confidently know when we are fertile and when we are not. Bly also stressed that knowledge is not the same thing as experience. Bly recommended emphatically that we chart our cycles thoroughly for at least three months before starting to rely on FAM as a primary method of birth control — and to use that time to create support from our partner, teacher, or women’s group. (She also stressed that FAM offers no protection from STDs and is intended for monogamous relationships.) One of the students mentioned that intentional communities, such as Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Missouri, have a fertility awareness charting board in a community room, where the women of the community can all track their cycles together. Hearing Bly’s personal experiences and teachings about female sexuality, fertility, and anatomy told with ease and grace, it felt like I was reclaiming a piece of my wholeness.
The two main books that Bly and many FAM practitioners consider as the bibles of fertility awareness are The Garden of Fertility by Katie Singer (gardenoffertility.com) and Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschle (tcoyf.com). The books and workshops teach how to follow and chart three primary signs of fertility: cervical fluid, basal body temperature, and cervical changes.
Three Markers for Fertility
Cervical Fluid. We learned about the broad range of types and consistencies of cervical fluids that a woman may experience each month, ranging from extremely fertile fluid, which has the appearance and texture of a raw egg white, to the scant and pasty fluid that may be present on infertile days. Bly explained in detail how the pattern of cervical fluids may vary greatly from woman to woman and from month to month. Cervical fluid patterns can be a great indicator of hormonal imbalances, which can be a valuable call to action for dietary and lifestyle changes.
Temperature. The second primary sign of fertility is daily checking of basal body temperature, first thing upon waking in the morning. Body temperature rises after ovulation and remains high for the rest of the cycle. For example, I’ve noticed that my temperature tends to be about 97.6° before I ovulate and approximately 98.2° after ovulation. It is possible for a woman to release two eggs in one cycle, but if that does happen, both eggs will be released within a 24-hour period. An unfertilized egg can only live for a maximum of 24 hours.
Cervical Changes. A final and optional fertility indicator is touching and checking the cervix, in order to note the cervical changes that occur throughout the month. Around the time of ovulation, a woman’s cervix will become soft, will shift to a higher position in the vaginal canal, and will have a noticeably larger opening at what is called the cervical os, through which sperm may travel.
With the help of charts and thorough discussion, Bly illustrated the four phases of a women’s monthly cycle: the menses phase, the “early dry days,” the fertile phase, and the luteal phase. We then went over samples of women’s charts to learn about possible variations in the quality and length of a woman’s cycle.
Through speaking with several women from many walks of life who have studied FAM, I discovered that fertility awareness has been a gateway to many different experiences and awakenings. The benefits they listed include accessing their body wisdom and intuition, deepening transformational sacred union in partnerships, healing emotional trauma that has been stored in the womb, feeling more in touch with their bodies and in tune with the cycles of nature, and — when the time is right — conscious conception. The predominant sentiment from everyone with whom I spoke was an overall sense of empowerment and gratitude. The most commonly asked question: Why was I never taught any of this stuff before?
3 Reasons to be Wary of The Pill
In 1995, Swiss biological researcher Claus Wedekind published the results of what is now known as the Sweaty T-shirt Experiment. He asked women to sniff T-shirts that men had worn for a few days without perfumes, soaps, or showers. Wedekind found that “most of the women were attracted to the scent of men whose major histocompatibility complex (MHC) differed from their own. Children born of parents with different immunities are likely to benefit from a broader, more robust immune response themselves.” Women taking birth control pills, however, don’t seem to show the same responsiveness to these male scent cues. “Women who were using birth control pills chose men’s T-shirts randomly or, even worse, showed a preference for men with similar immunity to their own.” Subsequent research reported in Scientific American has not only confirmed these findings but suggests that the pill “may disrupt an instinctive mechanism that brings together people with complementary genes and immune systems. Going on or off the pill during a relationship, therefore, may tempt a woman away from her man.”
Professor Jayashri Kulkarni, from the School of Psychology at Australia’s Monash University, found that “women using the pill had an average depression rating scale score of 17.6, compared to 9.8 in the non-user group. The women involved in the study were aged over 18, not pregnant or lactating, had no clinical history of depression, and had not been on anti-depressant medication in the previous 12 months.” Subsequent research conducted by aphroditewomenshealth.com found that “57 percent of respondents reported mood swings, and 69 percent felt anxious and depressed after taking hormonal contraceptives. Over 50 percent of respondents who were taking anti-depressant medication were doing so to treat depression that occurred after beginning hormonal contraceptives.”
A 2011 study from Indiana University found that women using the pill and other hormonal methods reported feeling generally less sexy than those using non-hormonal protection. They had fewer orgasms, less frequent sex, and found it more difficult to get aroused. A similar study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that women on the pill reported higher rates of “problems with orgasm, desire, satisfaction, lubrication, pain, and arousal,” compared with women who were using no contraception or non-hormonal contraception.