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