The way you think of fertility awareness and the way I think of fertility awareness might be different. You may not be aware of this, but in order to use fertility awareness you’re going to have to go through a certain level of deprogramming. I know that just like I was, you were taught that your cycles are supposed to be 28 days long, you’re supposed to ovulate on day 14, and you can get pregnant on any day of your cycle. Am I right?
Once you discover fertility awareness something amazing happens. You learn that pretty much everything you were taught about your menstrual cycle was basically a lie. Because of this, it will take some time and effort on your part to shed the old beliefs you had about your cycle and embrace all of the new and empowering information that is being presented to you now.
You may think you’re using fertility awareness, but you might actually be using the rhythm method without really knowing it. The rhythm method involves calculating the average length of your previous cycles and using that information to predict when you’ll ovulate in your next cycle, but the thing is…you can’t actually predict ovulation.
Ovulation will happen when it happens, and it doesn’t happen on the same day each cycle. There are a number of factors that affect ovulation in your cycle such as stress, illness, and travel to name a few. I have yet to have a client who hasn’t experienced some degree of variation in her cycles because of stress or travel.
You might think that it doesn’t really matter if you’re trying to conceive, but it can be just as problematic whether you’re trying to conceive or not. If you are basing your sexual activity on a certain “date” that you think ovulation will happen on, you’re likely sabotaging your success whether you’re trying to achieve pregnancy or avoid it.
I want you to be aware of the signs that you might actually be using the rhythm method and not fertility awareness. If that is what you’re doing I promise you that at some point you’ll have an “oopsie,” so here goes, the 3 things that will prevent fertility awareness from working for you:
1. You use an app that predicts your fertile window
I’ll just be honest and say that this is one of my biggest pet peeves. When an app is telling you what days you’re fertile on, that is the rhythm method. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Your app is calculating your fertile window based on an average it has derived from your previous cycles. If you’re new to fertility awareness charting what you might not know is that your cycle can vary drastically for more reasons than you’ve probably ever considered. The most glaring reason is if you’ve recently come off the pill. You can bank on the fact that your cycles won’t be “regular,” and you won’t have your period “every 28 days” during the first 6 months to a year or more after coming off the pill.
There are a number of issues with having an app predict your fertile window. The biggest issue in my opinion is that when you have days you think “should be fertile” you are no longer looking at your observations objectively. You’re comparing what’s happening (or not happening) in your cycle to what you’ve decided “should be happening.” You’re no longer paying attention to and accepting what is actually happening in your cycle each day and deciding whether or not you’re fertile based on what you actually saw. When you come from this perspective you are more likely to fill in the blanks when your fertile signs don’t unfold the way you were expecting them to.
Instead of paying attention to the most reliable sign of all (the cervical mucus coming out (or not coming out) your vagina today) you’re looking at your phone for answers. The predictor setting encourages you to look outside yourself instead of truly gaining an understanding and appreciation for what your body is actually doing.
Another issue that is extremely important to consider is that you may be modifying your behaviour based on what the app is telling you. You may stop having sex after your fertile window (as outlined in your app) when you’re trying to conceive regardless of your mucus patterns. You may not really pay attention to your temperature shift if it happens “before it’s supposed to”, or you may misread or disregard erratic temperature patterns because “I always ovulate at this time in my cycle.” The minute you stop relying on the signs your body is sending to you and base your opinions and actions on the predictions of your period tracker app, you’re using the rhythm method, not fertility awareness.
2. You know what day you usually ovulate on
If you “know what day you usually ovulate on” then you’ve completely missed the point of fertility awareness. You can’t predict ovulation. There is no way to predict with 100% accuracy exactly which day you’ll ovulate on in your cycle. The most interesting part of that statement is that using the fertility awareness method in no way requires you to do so. I have no idea what “day I ovulate on” in my cycle and I’ve been charting my cycles successfully for the past 15 years. The reason why I don’t know is because it doesn’t matter. What matters is my ability to identify which days in my cycle are fertile based on my mucus patterns and which days are not.
The problem with “knowing what day you usually ovulate on” is that you’re more likely to base your behaviour on what you think is “supposed to happen” instead of what really is happening. I’ve seen this in action in a number of ways. I’ve seen charts where I notice that a woman who is actively trying to conceive will stop having sex on a certain day of her cycle even though she continues to have cervical mucus for several days afterwards. When I ask about it she’ll say something like “well I thought I ovulated because I never ovulate past day 16.” I’ve also seen charts where I’ll notice a woman having unprotected sex on a potentially fertile day, to which she’ll say that she always ovulates by now in her cycle despite the complete absence of the fertile signs confirming that ovulation actually took place.
What I can say after 15 years of charting is that no matter what your cycles typically look like, no matter who you are, and no matter how “regular” your cycles have been over the past however many years, you too can ovulate past day 16, day 21, or even day 91 (if you’re breastfeeding postpartum for instance).
If you get in the habit of expecting ovulation to happen on a specific day all that does is mess with your chances of conception, or on the flip side, get you pregnant if you’re trying to avoid pregnancy.
You could have a “double peak” where you notice a cervical mucus pattern that looks like what you’d expect to see before you ovulate, except you don’t ovulate. It’s called a double peak because several days afterwards you’ll see mucus when your body is gearing up for ovulation again. If you’re measuring your basal body temperature, you’ll notice that your temperatures look off because you haven’t actually ovulated yet. But if you “know you ovulated” because “you always ovulate around day 15” then you might be inclined to disregard your temperatures instead of paying attention to what is really going on in your body. Then wouldn’t ya know several days of peak mucus show up again and boom you ovulate late in your cycle. If this has happened to you before trust me, you’re not alone.
3. You know exactly what day of your cycle your period is “supposed to” start on
As soon as you “know what day of your cycle your period is supposed to start on” you start saying things like “my period was late this month” and “I was so surprised that my period came 4 days early this month.” One of the coolest things about the fertility awareness method is that even though you can’t predict when you’ll ovulate in advance, you can predict when your period will arrive based on the number of days you typically have between the day you ovulate and the first day of your period. This is called your luteal phase.
The issue with “knowing” stuff like this based on some sort of date specific cycle awareness is that your expectation of what you think you’re going to see causes you to pay less attention and give less weight to the fertile signs you actually see.
What is the best way to know what the weather is like outside? Is it to turn on the news and check the forecast? Or just go outside and see if it’s raining?
It isn’t easy switching out of the rhythm method mentality. It’s hard to let go of the desire to control your cycles. One of the biggest draws of learning fertility awareness is to develop a deeper understanding of your body and establishing a deeper connection with this deeply feminine part of yourself. What happens though is that many women interpret this “deeper understanding” to mean that you’ll be able to predict when you ovulate, and your cycles will be super regular and follow a predictable pattern.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This is the rhythm method in action. This is why people will say “fertility awareness won’t work for you unless you have regular cycles,” because even to this day, very few people realize what fertility awareness actually is.
How do you know if you’re doing it right in the fertility awareness department?
Here are a few key things to watch for. If you do these things as you record and interpret your observations then you’ve got it!
- You know that you can’t predict when you’ll ovulate in advance. You’re actually alright with that because you know that you don’t have to be able to predict ovulation ahead of time in order to use fertility awareness effectively.
- You know that the exact day you ovulate on isn’t important in order to optimize your chances of conception. You know that your cervical mucus observations are the most important thing to pay attention to. You know when you have mucus, and you have sex on those days.
- When your signs don’t match up (i.e. your temperatures and your mucus pattern) you understand that your cycle can be affected by stress, travel, or illness (among other things), you assume you’re fertile and wait a few days until you are able to interpret your fertile signs confidently.
- You know that your period is never actually “late” but from time to time your ovulation may be delayed. You understand that when this happens your period is actually “on time” not “late.”
- You decide each day if you are fertile or not based on your observations.
- You do not assume that your current cycle will be anything like your previous cycle.
- You can tell the difference between a dry day and a mucus day, and you are 100% confident in knowing which days are fertile and which days aren’t. There is no grey area for you each day is either “fertile” or “not fertile.”
- You time sex based primarily on your cervical mucus observations whether you are trying to conceive or trying to avoid pregnancy.
- You are confident in using your preovulatory dry days for unprotected sex if you are trying to avoid pregnancy.
Now I want to hear from you. Did any of these statements make you feel uncomfortable? How confident are you in interpreting your cervical mucus observations? Do you think you might be using the “rhythm method” after reading this blog post? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Sometimes I get a day or so long patch of ewcm in the 2 weeks before my period, but from temping that I’m fairly confident I have already ovulated based on temps that are consistently high as opposed to the 1st phase when they were under 98 degrees. Is this a “secondary estrogen surge” in the luteal phase and if so, why does this occur?
Fertility Friday says
Hi Kate. This is not an easy question to answer without looking at your charts. When are you seeing the mucus? How can you be sure you ovulated? Is this mucus observation different to what you typically see in your fertile window? There are several things I’d want to look into before jumping to any conclusions…
Great post! Particularly in a time with so many period tracking apps and devices that claim to predict ovulation and menstruation. Today I learned about yet another gimmicky fertility tool. It’s an activity tracker just like the Fitbit only specifically designed for women and makes a point to highlight the importance of understanding your cycle. It’s called the Bellabeat Leaf and it contains an “innovative ovulation calculator” along with a period reminder that reminds you to “take your pills and tells you when to expect your period”. So frustrating. I hope women truly seeking to gain knowledge about their cycles aren’t tempted by the sleek marketing.
In regard to apps, I’m not very regular so all those apps never accurately predict my cycle. What I’m really looking for is an app or spreadsheet or something that helps me track the symptoms of my cycle and the dates I have experienced them after the fact, rather than predicting when I should see them. Does anyone have any suggestions for this? Honestly we use condoms correctly as contraception so tracking fertility is just an extra step, and I’m definitely not trying to conceive. I mostly just want to track cycle symptoms because I have some other medical issues that can impact my cycle, so tracking my regularity or lack thereof is a just a part of managing these other conditions. I’d love suggestions.
Fertility Friday says
My suggestion is to learn to chart your cycles with fertility awareness. With fertility awareness you don’t predict anything, instead you learn to understand what’s happening in your cycles and know on a day-to-day basis if you are fertile or not. To gain confidence using fertility awareness for birth control (so you don’t have to rely exclusively on condoms) you’ll want to work with a trained fertility awareness educator. 🙂
There is something called fertility friend, where you chart the symptoms of FAM on your phone. I turned off the predictor part of it but this way I don’t have to worry about taking my chart if I go somewhere else for a few nights. I decide based on my chart in my phone whether or not I’ve ovulated.
I like it.
Hi, received a recent diagnosis of PCOS. Is fertility charting any different now? Are there any key things to change/ look for? Thanks
Fertility Friday says
Have you had a chance to listen to my PCOS specific podcast episodes? You’ll find a wealth of information: http://fertilityfriday.com/pcos/
This relies on the assumption that you ever see fertile CM.
I just don’t. I get hardly any mucus at ANY time of the month. In fact the most I get is about 4-5 days after my period occasionally. Based on tempting I ovulate much much later in the month (variable of course but never, in 3 years, in line with CM). I just assume I could be fertile from the start of my cycle until my temps have been high for 3 days. Because “paying attention to my body” in terms of CM is a recipe for disaster.
Now the fact that I am dry as a bone around ovulation might explain the trouble conceiving…
Fertility Friday says
Hi Sarah, I see this sometimes in the women I work with. There is usually a reason for the limited observations, or you may be missing your mucus observations if you’re not checking frequently enough.
After reading this, I know FAM will be perfect for me. Because I can never predict my period, yet alone ovulation. (LOL). I started trying to learn about FAM for that reason because I heard some people say they could predict their period After they confirmed ovulation. So far it has not been quite working for me, because weirdly enough, when I tried to chart the last few months my luteal phase has varied in length from 7 days to 13 days. I did observe my temperature drop back down really early in the cycle with a 7 day luteal phase, but I had thought for sure my luteal phase was supposed to be longer. And then now this cycle I’m on day 34 with no sign of my period coming even though the last 4 period cycles were in the 23 to 26 day range. Not sure what I’m doing wrong or if my body is just messed up.
My partner has been told by a health instructor that penetrative intercourse during menses can be harmful to your hormones… and should not be engaged in. have you ever heard of this?
Fertility Friday says
That is a myth. I’d ask to see the hard evidence of that claim!
I’m curious to know what you think about Ovusense? They’ve been running a TON of ads lately talking about how they are 99% effective in confirming ovulation. I want to be like, so what?
Fertility Friday says
Hi Natalie! I think that women should learn the method fully first! I don’t think it’s a good idea to completely rely on a device for birth control even if it is boasting 99% effectiveness. I want women to be successful in using the method, and the best way to do that is to combine the use of devices with sound knowledge of the method itself!