Note from Dustin: I’m excited to share today’s guest post on the Fertility Awareness Method (FAM). You may know that my wife and I practice Natural Family Planning (NFP). The two methods have a lot of similarities – the main difference is that NFP uses no contraception while FAM utilizes barrier methods during the fertile phase.
If that sounds like Chinese to you, then read on and learn a LOT of great info about your (or your wife’s) fertility cycle – I promise it will have a positive impact on your marriage!
In the fabled inter-species athletic competition, the tortoise moved along steadily and slowly while the hare sprinted in bursts. In the race for babies, the man is the tortoise and the woman is the hare. Male fertility is constant and steady, while women’s fertility is cyclical, expressed in ovulatory bursts.
Rather than competing, however, men and women can work together to understand how fertility works, and how to manage fertility for the benefit of their relationship, their health, and their spirituality. It is important to study and pray over use of contraception as an important aspect of stewardship in marriage.
The fertility awareness method (FAM) offers a natural, safe, and low-tech approach to fertility management. It gives people an opportunity to see the body as an amazing creation with which we may learn to cooperate in achieving or avoiding pregnancy. Even if a couple chooses a different method, an understanding of fertility is essential in making a well-informed choice.
First, it is necessary to understand human fertility. Like the tortoise who persisted through the race, male fertility is steady and ever-present. From puberty until old age, the testes produce 200 million sperm each day, and they are always on the move. Immature sperm swim through a 20-foot long series of thin tubes (the epididymis) like Olympic athletes, spending twelve days perfecting their swimming technique and attaining maturity. Ejaculations are dramatic and quick, but fertility is consistently and steadily at work inside the male body.
Fortunately, male fertility is only less than half of the pregnancy equation. It takes a sperm, an egg, and fertile cervical fluid to make a baby. Women are often blamed for unexpected pregnancies, but unlike men who are constantly fertile, women are only fertile 30% of the time. Like the hare that ran the race in sprints with plenty of rest stops, a woman’s body rests until the egg literally bursts out of the ovary, ready for fertilization. A woman is fertile for awhile (8-11 days per month), and then her reproductive system rests.
Unlike a man’s constant sperm production, a woman is born with all the eggs she will ever have. During each menstrual cycle, 10-15 eggs develop, and one beats out the others and wins the opportunity to ovulate. It may seem that menstruation is the most noticeable part of the female cycle, but to the body, ovulation is the main event. Reproductive hormones are low during menstruation, and reach a coordinated peak to achieve ovulation.
The body intensively prepares for ovulation, readying a woman’s body for pregnancy each month. Around 6-9 days after the beginning of menstruation, estrogen hormones make a woman increasingly fertile. Often her skin is clearer, hair shinier, body stronger, and sex drive enhanced. The cervix itself shifts in the body and becomes soft, wet, and open, an attractive gateway for sperm that must pass through the cervix, through the uterus, and into the fallopian tubes to find the egg. The cervix begins producing cervical fluid, which becomes increasingly plentiful, strong, and stretchy as fertility peaks. This fluid provides microscopic pathways for sperm to swim, and provides sugary nutrients that provide sustenance to the frantic swimmers. Sperm can live inside the cervix, nourished by this fluid, for up to 5 days awaiting ovulation. This means that a couple may have sex on Monday and conceive on Friday! The egg lives for only 12-24 hours, but the powerful cervical fluid extends the fertile time for days.
While the egg is maturing in the ovary, a protective follicle surrounds it. After ovulation, the follicle is left behind and soon begins producing progesterone, the hormone that is dominant in the second half of a woman’s cycle. Progesterone is a heat-inducing hormone that slightly raises a woman’s body temperature. If a woman becomes pregnant, the body maintains this progesterone rise, sustaining the newly-created life for several months until the endomentrium takes over this function. If a woman is not pregnant, progesterone drops and menstruation begins.
Humans persistently refuse to accommodate the body’s reproductive potential. Though a woman may ovulate 400 times during her fertile years, she may desire only a few children, or even none. Contraceptive methods offer a variety of body metaphors, as well as techniques for preventing pregnancy. Barrier methods, including condoms, cervical caps, and diaphragms, treat the cervix as a door. They function by blocking sperm from entering the door. Spermicides, often used with barrier methods, treat the sperm as enemy, killing them on contact. Hormonal methods treat fertility as a disease to be medicated away. Pills, injections, and implants medicate the body with synthetic hormones that abolish female fertility.
Like some diseases, fertility makes a come-back when treatment is stopped. Similarly, permanent methods terminate fertility by snipping or blocking the reproductive anatomy of either a man or woman, with slim possibility for reversal.
FAM treats fertility as a gift to be stewarded. It allows a couple to avoid or achieve pregnancy by making choices about intercourse based upon a woman’s fertility. A woman daily observes and charts her fertility symptoms and interprets them according to a set of rules. On days when she is fertile, she abstains or uses a barrier method to prevent pregnancy. On days when she is infertile, she may have sex without any contraception.
Male fertility makes pregnancy a constant possibility, but female fertility limits the fertile time to 8-11 days per month. Thus, contraception is totally unnecessary 2/3 of the time.
A woman using FAM observes her cervical fluid and temperature (some women use only cervical fluid). After menstruation, a woman’s vagina is usually “dry”, like the inside of your cheek, for a few days. Then, cervical fluid is produced and becomes increasingly plentiful, strong, and stretchy as fertility increases.
After ovulation, she becomes dry again. A woman watches this dry-wet-dry pattern by observing the cervical fluid present at the vaginal opening. She does this by wiping across the opening with a finger or tissue before using the bathroom. She charts her findings each day. If she also uses temperature as an indicator of fertility, she takes her temperature each morning and looks for a rise; the rise is sign that ovulation has occurred.
After she observes and records her fertility signs, she interprets them according to a set of rules. The rules explain how to detect the beginning and the end of fertility each cycle. The rules are called rules because they are not flexible. People may break the rules by not charting daily or having unprotected sex during their fertile time, but they cannot blame the method itself for a resulting pregnancy!
When people are taught properly and use the method consistently, the fertility awareness method yields effectiveness rates of 97-99%. This means that if 100 couples used fertility awareness correctly for one year, 1-3 of them would become pregnant. The fertility awareness method can be more effective than condoms, and nearly as effective as the pill.
People who use fertility awareness say it enhances their intimate communication, increases a woman’s self-knowledge, and helps both partners to be involved in preventing pregnancy. FAM helps Christians value the body as a good part of creation, and to recognize the integral wholeness of body, mind, and soul.
An additional benefit is that FAM offers a two-for-one deal. Like a reversible winter coat that offers contrasting fashion options, FAM may be used either to avoid pregnancy or to achieve it. It can easily be used “in reverse”, using the fertile indicators to time intercourse for pregnancy achievement. Though reproduction is a persistent bodily pursuit, many people find it to be elusive rather than insistent. For people who experience this heart-breaking disappointment, fertility awareness is often the first step toward exploring and resolving infertility.
The tortoise won the fabled race between himself and the hare. The foolish hare raced, rushed and lost. The wise tortoise proved that “slow and steady wins the race.”
In the race for pregnancy, the tortoise (male fertility that is steady) and the hare (female fertility that happens in bursts) don’t need to compete. By understanding each other’s bodies and cycles, husbands and wives can cooperate in this intimate part of life. They can thank God for sex by receiving sexuality and fertility as a gift, enjoying it with gratitude and happiness.
Jenell Paris is professor of anthropology at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She is author of Birth Control for Christians: Making Wise Choices (Baker 2003).