What I didn't learn in school: My decadelong search for the perfect birthcontrol
Editor's note: Due the very personal nature of this story, we have kept the author's identity anonymous at her request.
Back in seventh grade sex ed, my teacher emphasized over and over in her Texas drawl that the rhythm method is not viable birth control. If we were too embarrassed to buy condoms from the little old lady at the drugstore, she said, then we were too immature to be having sex. If we didn’t get birth control pills, sponges, diaphragms, IUDs, female condoms, spermicidal gel, or any of the numerous other methods she taught us about, then we had no business having sex.
But definitely no rhythm method. The rhythm method, for those who don’t remember, is an attempt to avoid pregnancy by guessing when you’re fertile and when you’re not by counting a certain number of days out from your last period. The problem with the method, as my teacher reminded us frequently, is that not every woman’s cycle follows the same pattern, and that our cycles can change from month to month.
For a decade after I started having sex, I took her advice. I used uncomfortable, desensitizing, drying condoms. I took birth control pills that made my breasts sore, made me anxious and depressed, made me gain weight, made me feel indefinably weird and uncomfortable. I tried the ring, an IUD, the patch. I researched endlessly and compared pros and cons. There were all too many cons.
For me, the benefits of fertility awareness methods are well worth the trouble. I know which days I need to be especially careful and which are fairly safe. I save a lot of money on birth control.
Then, one day, I started to read about the Billings Method of fertility awareness. I had always scoffed at fertility awareness methods, the stuff large Catholic families are made of, the stuff my sex ed teacher had warned against. So I was shocked to read that the Billings Method, when used perfectly, is up to 99.5 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. More than birth control pills. More than tubal ligations.
I was fascinated.
The Billings Method involves paying attention to signs in your body that you are or are not fertile at each point in your cycle — not to what a calendar says. Fertile signs? Don’t have sex if you don’t want to get pregnant. No fertile signs? Have sex! Other fertility awareness methods operate similarly, each with slightly different rules and using different methods of determining fertility.
It was like a rhythm method based on real science — one that actually worked!
I read all there was to read, learned more about my cycle than sex ed had ever taught. I thought I’d had good sex education in school, but I realized now how little most women know about their own fertility. The method made sense: Women release an egg (or eggs) only once a month. That egg can only live for up to a day, and sperm can only live for up to five days. Abstain or use a condom for roughly one week a month, and the two never meet. It’s a simple idea, though of course in practice there’s much, much more to it. (See below for resources.)
I began to chart my fertility, using condoms during my fertile days and not the rest of the time. The first time my boyfriend and I didn’t use protection, we were both terrified. I thought about taking emergency contraception. For the first couple of months, I had nightmares about pregnancy, would wake up tossing and turning and worrying. But gradually, we’ve begun to trust the method more and more. And I couldn’t be happier with it.
The benefits of learning about my fertility have extended far beyond avoiding pregnancy: I have a whole new understanding of my body.
Fertility awareness methods are not for everyone. They require careful daily charting of your fertile signs. They require listening to your body and erring on the side of caution, never on the side of getting swept up in the moment, never on the side of oh-what-the-hell-it’ll-probably-be-fine. They require getting more familiar with your body than most women are, more familiar than many want to be. They require having a consistent, monogamous partner.
And I can understand why schools are hesitant to teach fertility awareness. Used properly, it’s amazing, but used inconsistently, it’s just unprotected sex. And we all know what that leads to. Yet after beginning to research the topic, it was clear to me that fertility awareness should not be reserved only for the deeply religious and deeply hippie (though my boyfriend does claim that I have “hippie tendencies.”) At a time when contraception is so in the spotlight, and for as many women as I know who hate hormonal contraception, it’s shocking to me how few women know that this is even an option.
For me, the benefits of fertility awareness methods are well worth the trouble. I know which days I need to be especially careful and which are fairly safe. I save a lot of money on birth control. And best of all, I don’t have to deal with the side effects of hormones.
But the benefits of learning about my fertility have extended far beyond avoiding pregnancy: I have a whole new understanding of my body. I feel more in touch with myself and know what to expect in my body and mind at various points in my cycle. And that’s something my seventh grade sex ed teacher never could’ve predicted.
If you’re interested in trying a fertility awareness method, be sure to do thorough research before starting — attempt this haphazardly and you’re very likely to get pregnant. For the basics of fertility awareness, read about the Billings Method here, and get recommendations for accredited teachers. For a comprehensive understanding, read “Taking Charge of Your Fertility” by Toni Weschler, MPH, a highly regarded and highly recommended book on the topic.