6 women reveal what it’s really like to use the fertility awareness method for birth control
The birth control pill revolutionized fertility freedom in the 1960s and beyond. Now, there are even more hormonal contraceptives on the market, such as the patch, the implant, and the shot. However, many women have decided to forgo hormones and manage their fertility naturally. In fact, according to a 2013 CDC study, about 18% of women have used “periodic abstinence,” also known as the “rhythm method,” at some point in their sexual lives. Today, the fertility awareness method (FAM) is gaining more and more popularity.
FAM is the practice of tracking your fertility to either encourage or avoid pregnancy, and it’s a notably old-school practice — after all, it’s kind of like an updated version of the “rhythm method” — but there have been plenty of modern advances that assist in tracking your body.
And while you may doubt that fertility awareness as contraception would work, many women who use it swear by it.
Before considering fertility awareness as a viable option to avoid pregnancy, there are some crucial things to understand about this form of family planning. As Quartz recently reported, there are fertility apps that are attempting to be marketed as a form of contraception in the U.S. But tracking fertility isn’t a foolproof way to avoid pregnancy. There’s always the risk of human error when it comes to tracking, and when you’re fertile, you’ll need to abstain from sex or use another form of contraception, like a condom.
As Planned Parenthood outlines, there are different natural family planning methods of tracking ovulation that fall under the FAM umbrella. There’s the temperature method, the cervical mucus method, and the calendar method. When you combine all three methods, it’s the most effective way to practice FAM, and it’s called the symptothermal method. But Planned Parenthood notes:
"FAMs are about 76-88% effective: that means 12-24 out of 100 couples who use FAMs will get pregnant each year, depending on which method(s) are used."
The better you are at tracking, the more effective this natural family planning will be.
But still, Planned Parenthood warns that even if you follow these methods perfectly, you could still get pregnant when practicing fertility awareness.
HelloGiggles decided to speak with some women who use fertility awareness for contraception to get their perspective. Most of the women were passionate about the method and said they’d never go back to hormone-based contraception again. But many also noted how important it is to have an understanding partner while practicing FAM.
So if you have considered going off hormonal birth control or are just curious about this method, here is what six women had to tell us about using fertility awareness to prevent pregnancy:
*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Never looked back
“I didn’t use anything to track my fertility, ever. I once tried the pill for about a week when I was 15, I cried on cue an hour after I took it every day of that week, so I quit and never looked back. I personally never found downsides to the rhythm method, BUT it worked for us. I knew my cycle at that point. It was 29-30 days, I knew I wouldn’t be ovulating, I’d never had a pregnancy scare, and if I got pregnant, this man who became my husband was my person for life (we’d been friends for so long). I would also stress that communication was key, and we knew where we were at with consequences if we got pregnant and had agreed prior to discontinuing using condoms.
My husband and I used the rhythm method as our primary method of birth control for most of our relationship with great success. The ‘rhythm’ we used was he’d only ejaculate in my vagina the last day of my period and for 48 hours (approximately) after. I kept track, he’d ask if it was okay to, and I’d let him know. The rest of the time, he’d pull out. We did that pretty consistently for about seven years before our first pregnancy. My cycle is extremely regular/reliable.
We only had one surprise pregnancy, which we lost early on, but we had started getting careless by that point. We now have two beautiful girls and he’s had a vasectomy.”
— Charlotte, Canada, 32
Pregnancy wouldn’t have been an issue
“Once I discovered FAM, my partner and I made the decision to give it a try. We both knew we wanted kids, and though at the beginning of our relationship it wouldn’t have been ideal, we would have welcomed a pregnancy all the same. So for us, a failure of the method wouldn’t have been [the] worst-case scenario.
Turns out, the method worked 100% for us. No scares, no slip-ups, no ‘my period is one day late, could I be pregnant?’ During my fertile window, we chose to use condoms or withdrawal, or abstain entirely and do other fun things. During my infertile phases, it was great to go barrier-free, because we both enjoy the physical intimacy and sensation. It was awesome to be able to know we could go without condoms and not worry about pregnancy.
And I felt amazing using the method because it gave me insight into my overall health. I could tell when my body might be fighting an infection, even if I felt overall okay, because my temperatures would indicate it on my chart. I could tell if I was dehydrated because my cervical mucus would indicate it. I could tell if stress was delaying my ovulation because the lack of a shift in temperatures would indicate it. It’s like having a daily printout report of your body’s health every single day. Who wouldn’t want that?
With the pill, there was never any need to know what was going on in my body, because I just assumed the pill was taking care of it. It was like cutting off an entire line of communication with my very self.”
— Andrea, Virginia, 31
Fertility awareness is empowering
“Initially while learning the method, my husband and I used FAM to abstain from pregnancy using the withdrawal method and condoms during my fertile phase. Once we decided to conceive, I felt SO in tune with my body and cycle. We were pregnant within three months of trying to conceive and are now expecting our first baby.
A lot of women find using the OvaGraph helpful, especially while learning the method. As a tech-savvy millennial, I tracked my basal body temperature using a thermometer for the first few months before purchasing the Wink [an oral fertility thermometer built to sync with the fertility-charting app Kindara]. It has Bluetooth capabilities and made it easy to temp in the morning and have my information automatically imported into their app, Kindara.
The only downside to FAM as I see it is the learning curve. It takes time to learn the method, which is why I encourage anyone interested in it to check out the many Facebook groups with thousands of women ready to help. Taking Charge of Your Fertility is an incredible resource — even if you are just thinking about it, I encourage it as a read for all women. I learned SO much about the female body. Women should feel empowered about their bodies and their capabilities — the fertility awareness method has allowed me that.”
— Shelby, Kansas, 30
Wishes she tried it sooner
“I did a lot of online research to make sure I understood the rhythm [method] before I started it. I also had to sell my partner on it and wanted to make sure he was equally confident. My conclusion, based on the research, is that we understand so much more about women’s cycles and reproduction now than we did 50 or 60 years ago. I don’t use an app, but just by using rhythm, I am aware of changes in my body due to my cycle. This is helpful for the rhythm method because our calendars change and our cycles shift a day here and there.
I love it and wish I did this sooner. It’s also a good litmus test to see how understanding and reasonable your partner is. It definitely does take some thoughtfulness on both parts. The only downside, if you can call it that, is that it forces me to be more self-aware about my body and cycle. I get pimples when I start [my] period, which never happened on the pill, but my period is actually lighter, and once I got used to having a couple cramps those seemed to go away as well. All the symptoms I had been avoiding were really things I was capable of riding out as an adult and just never tried because I had been on hormonal [birth control] for 80% of my post-puberty life.”
— Juliana, California, 30
Female bodies are awesome
“When I was 25, I decided I was tired of taking birth control. I was in a stable relationship, so I found cycle beads (the rhythm method). I thought, ‘Oh my cycles have always been regular and 28 days so I must be super standard so this should work fine.’ About 9 months later I found out I was pregnant. Which was fine, ultimately, but was a bit of a shock.
After the birth of my son, I used LAM [lactational amenorrhea method] (for exclusively nursing mothers) for the first six months with no signs of return of fertility. I continued using a barrier method until my cycle returned at 14 months postpartum. I had one cycle that was regular that I charted using the symptothermal method and found that I ovulated a week later than the standard 14 days. I assume this is why the rhythm method failed in the first place. FAM, for me, was easier when we were 100% okay having an oops baby. I haven’t practiced it in a time when I was 100% a zero on the intention scale. It also requires communication and trust with your partner(s). It’s really a way that requires a lot of personal responsibility.”
— Erin, New Mexico, 33
The benefits of FAM outweigh the negatives
“I decided to start using FAM because I had a bad experience with birth control. I suffered weight gain, depression, mood swings, and physical pain from hormonal birth control. In addition, I wanted to have a few cycles off birth control before trying to get pregnant so I could let my body get back to normal. I avoided pregnancy using FAM for three cycles. For those three cycles, we used withdrawal during my fertile window.
Using FAM, I was able to get pregnant on the first try. Unfortunately, that pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, but by using FAM I was able to detect that I had ovulated about three weeks after my miscarriage.
The only downside I have found to FAM is that we have to use withdrawal when I am fertile and trying to avoid pregnancy. For me, the benefits of not using hormonal birth control outweigh that one downside.”
— Katie, Colorado, 24
It’s obvious from the six women we interviewed that FAM is the answer for them. Yet, it should be noted these women were all in committed relationships and, as with the pill and other hormonal contraceptives, natural family-planning methods won’t protect you from sexually transmitted diseases.
So if you have multiple sexual partners or 100% don’t want to get pregnant, FAM might not be the best choice for you. But if you have had bad experiences with hormonal birth control or think fertility tracking would fit into your lifestyle, know you’re far from alone and that there’s a community of women ready to support you if you want to go natural with your contraception.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.