Figuring Out Fertility, especially postpartum
I am not an expert.
I am NOT an expert.
I am not a medical professional, nor highly skilled in the female reproductive cycle, nor a trained natural family planning educator.
I’m simply a woman who wanted to know how her body worked, and never really knew, honestly, until we did our marriage prep and had to take a natural family planning course. I have always had a very regular cycle. We’ve been blessed to easily conceive and I haven’t yet suffered any miscarriages or losses.
A number of you have asked me about how I have figured out postpartum fertility and what NFP’s all about in general. Remember, this is not medical advice, and at this point in my life I fall into the textbook fertility column, so for my many friends who have irregular or extra lengthy cycles, experience multiple miscarriages, or are blessed with quick fertility (meaning babies come more quickly than expected, or being aware and charting and following their bodies’ signs has not worked as they thought it would to avoid a pregnancy), my take on it isn’t going to apply.
We view babies as a gift! If I had been blessed with baby after baby, that would have been awesome. We’ve had our reasons to abstain and use a scientific method to have a little more space between them, but not for lack of appreciating the gift that is a new life growing within!
Here are a few answers to your questions:
1) What is your family planning method?
We use NFP (plus night nursing for me has meant it takes over a year to get my cycle back anyway). Natural Family Planning (“NFP”) or Fertility Awareness Method (“FAM”) are pretty similar ways of gauging what your hormonal cycle is as a woman, aka, when are you fertile, when are you not, when will you menstruate, etc. FAM users use barrier methods (non-hormonal birth control) and NFP uses abstinence while predicted fertility is taking place. Both focus on non-hormonal cycles and greater awareness and empowerment of women to know their bodies.
Before kids, we studied the sympto-thermal NFP method which involved taking your temp orally every day at the same time, checking your mucus, as well as your cervix. Pretty sure I had no idea what my cervix was until I actually birthed a baby out of it, but I digress.
2) How do you know when you’re fertile postpartum?
The sympto-thermal method worked fine enough for us, but after our first babe, my doctor told me off-handedly that the temperature wasn’t going to be a good indicator of fertility anymore as I was nursing–and that the postpartum period could generally wonk it up.
Oh. Well. So ?? I called the nurse hotline five months postpartum and said with great intrepidation, I’m bleeding vaginally!!! So am I dying? To which they said, “Uh, pretty sure that’s your period coming back.” Oh.
As it turned out, for me, so long as I’m night nursing (like deeply middle of the night) and co-sleeping, I don’t get my period back. My firstborn night weaned at 3 months (hence the period’s return) while the second and third night weaned after a year. For a number of my friends that’s not the case and they can co-sleep and night nurse and still get pregnant. Note, I’m not an expert.
Breastfeeding has an effect on your hormonal levels as well, so often my friends who are nursing and on hormonal birth control report a decrease in their milk supply.
We then switched to a pseudo Creighton method, which is solely mucus based. I say pseudo because we never actually took a course or had an instructor. We read a lot online and I was constantly gauging my mucus. It kinda drove me crazy.
After this third baby, we finally landed on the Marquette method which involves observing what’s going on with your mucus while also using a monitor to measure your hormone levels. So you pee on a stick every morning and slide it into a little handheld monitor that tells you what’s up. It “trends” upward as you approach your peek day so you can make a decision about having sex as you get closer and closer to the day your body produces the very most mucus (it’s pretty hard to miss this day for most of us!).
Remember, you ovulate before you bleed postpartum. And sperm can live up to five days. So there’s this window of fertility that can be hard to discern. The pee-on-a-stick method has helped us discern and be more aware of what my body’s doing.
3) How about abstinence?
Abstinence is hard. Not only because biologically we’re made to be intimate as our hormones trend toward fertility (propagation of the species et al.) but because sex is such a key way to communicate love toward each other. And when it’s not on the table if you’re choosing to pause on making babies for whatever reasons, that can mean a lack of connection, shorter tempers, more misunderstandings.
It also means when you’re not abstaining that sex is really appreciated! It’s like YAY! As with anything in life, lack of on-demand availability means you really appreciate it and can feel more purposeful when you do have that intimate time together.
Most frequently I get asked, Doesn’t NFP mean you don’t get to have sex for like weeks and weeks??
Day 1 is the first day of your bleeding, and usually around day 14 is your peak day. The marquette users I asked who are choosing to abstain will resume normal activities a day or two after peak. If you bleed for 5-6 days, that takes you to day 6, let’s say. Maybe you’re intimate when you have your period, maybe you’re not. If you’re not, you have about 14-15 days of abstinence. Or if you are, you have about 8-9 days off. Out of 28-30 days.
Do non-abstaining folks have sex 30-31 days a month? Probably not. A week or two off (though it is continual so that might differ) is probably well within the norm of most couple’s sexual activities.
4) Why is this empowering?
I was a grown woman who didn’t really know how her cycle worked! I mean, come on. Health classes should teach this stuff. Sex ed is about way more than STDs and STIs, right? Shouldn’t today’s young women know what mucus is, and when they’re fertile, and make their sexual decisions based from a place of knowledge?
I saw this article about how being on hormonal birth control from teenage years onward can really mess with your body. Not to mention all the side effects. It seems like the kind of thing that doesn’t liberate us. It seems like we are kept in the dark about how our bodies work and told to take pharmaceuticals that have the potential to really screw up our bodies and our long-term fertility.
It’s empowering because I learned so much about how my body works. And I can teach that to my kids, especially my daughters, but also my sons. Respect for your body starts with knowing how it functions on a very basic level. I have lots of single girlfriends (who aren’t sexually active) who have studied it simply for self-knowledge and I think that’s pretty empowering, and pretty beautiful.