“Did you know that you can get pregnant even when you’re on your period?” A friend asked me this one afternoon as we sat chatting in her college dorm room nearly a decade ago. I raised my eyebrows and shook my head, silently. I guess I must have blushed a little bit, too. As someone who had previously offered a halfhearted (and poorly educated) defense of natural fertility awareness methods in response to the commonplace “But they be crazy!” accusations, my friend’s question was more than a little pointed.
The truth is, as someone who had chosen to abstain from sex until marriage, I didn’t have a whole lot of practical experience with any form of birth control. Sure, I had taken the Pill for a year or so, but that was to try and clear up some troublesome acne, rather than to avoid pregnancy. My doctor had been pretty eager to prescribe me the Pill, and hadn't mentioned any potential negative side-effects. As an overly skinny teenager praying for boobs, I had liked what the Pill had done for my figure (it tends to result in some weight gain), but not what it had done for my moods. It was only afterwards that I read about the Pill's link with depression.
So, after this experience, I liked the idea that there was an alternative to pumping yourself with hormones for the entirety of your sexually active adult life. And on a more philosophical level, I admired the attitude that your cycles aren’t a disease to be treated and controlled but something that an intentional adult can understand and work alongside.
As any true FABMs (Fertility Awareness Based Methods) loyalist knows, you don’t have to be sexually active to reap the benefits of charting your cycle. Apart from using this knowledge of your body as a method of family planning, charting your cycle can also help you keep an eye on your overall health.
When I eventually did start charting during my engagement, I discovered that any sign of stress or illness would throw my usually regular-as-clockwork cycles completely out-of-whack. In retrospect, I only wish I had started charting earlier. As a single woman, a combination of laziness and the misplaced idea that the main point of fertility awareness was to avoid or achieve pregnancy had been two major factors that held me back.
But if I’m being completely honest, there was something else involved in my general lack of motivation toward educating myself about fertility awareness. I wasn’t sure I really believed in it all. That is, I was sympathetic to the theory behind FABMs, and I wanted that theory to be true, but I was suspicious.
If your cycle could be charted so effectively, how come we weren’t taught about this in biology class? If you could really pinpoint the day that you ovulated so accurately, why wasn’t this common knowledge, and why did it seem like fertility awareness advocates were so universally mocked—or ignored—by mainstream culture and healthcare professionals?
And so, for most of my life as a young adult I was generally silent whenever people brought up the issue of hormonal contraception and fertility awareness, and if I ever did speak up it was somewhat halfhearted. I married a man who was more proactively interested in using FABMs than any other form of family planning, and that spurred me on to educate myself properly.
In the months following my wedding day, several rather unreassuring things happened: First, medical professionals automatically doubted the validity of the method; various doctors and dentists told me that they would need me to check the “could be pregnant” box on forms, just to be safe, since I wasn’t using birth control. Next, I found out that several of my friends had placed bets on how quickly I’d get pregnant after the wedding.
Now, my husband and I were actually pretty open to the idea of having our first child soon after getting married, so I don’t really blame them. As I hadn’t told them this, though, it felt less like a funny or supportive gesture and more like a vote of no confidence in my chosen method of family planning. My doubts about the efficacy of fertility awareness methods lingered, and I was curious to see whether there was, in fact, any truth in these “hippy” theories.
Unfortunately for my faith in FABMs, it turned out that the lady who had trained us in fertility awareness during marriage prep had missed a crucial piece of information. Four months after our wedding, I got pregnant, and one of my friends won their bet. I was happy to be pregnant, but my faith in FABMs was pretty much dashed. I wasn’t necessarily going to admit this to anyone, but yeah, this seemed like evidence that they were as hokey and unreliable as everyone had been telling me.
It wasn’t until I met with a very down-to-earth, kind doctor who also happened to be a leading international expert in Fertility Awareness, that my belief in FABMs was restored—or rather, that I started to properly appreciate and trust this way of understanding my body. She helped me to identify the errors in the method I had been taught and convinced me to keep charting my cycles after having my baby.
If things had gone as planned, my husband and I would have liked to have had another child by now, but unforeseen difficult circumstances have meant that we’ve had to delay the growth of our family for now. I’ve been successfully using FABMs to avoid getting pregnant for over three years now, and can say that it is possible to understand your cycle, even through periods of illness and intense stress. What’s more, I’ve found it’s not just possible, it’s also incredibly empowering.
Yes, it’s far easier to pop a pill or have an injection and be done with it; and yes, fertility awareness requires a lot of careful research, practice, and intentionality. But at the end of the day, it’s not rocket science—anyone can understand it with the right training. This is, despite what some people will imply, scientifically accurate information. And as I have found, the knowledge that you can understand and trust your body is life-changing.
Back in that college dorm room almost a decade ago, I looked like a rather sorry excuse for a fertility awareness advocate. But these days, I’m quite aware why you could get pregnant while you’re on your period, and I’d relish the opportunity to explain it.
Photo Credit: Ashley Crawford Photography