Lorelei Savaryn shares how Natural Family Planning works, and how it has been a gift to her family life and marriage.
The topic of contraception has been very much in the spotlight lately, perhaps more than usual, and it seemed like a good time to share a bit more about how we navigate family planning in our marriage in the hopes that it will be helpful.
Please note that nothing in this article is meant as a substitute for official training in NFP methods. It is intended as an introduction and brief overview. If you're interested, please reach out to me or connect with one of the resources below to learn more.
Why I Won't Use Birth Control
To start, I utilized hormonal contraception, as some of us are prescribed to do for other things, long before I used it for contraceptive purposes, and long before I ever imagined I'd be Catholic. There are religious reasons that contributed to why we decided to stop using this form of contraception, but I'm going to steer clear of those here and focus on the other reasons why I stopped, which are plentiful as well.
You don't have to do more than a simple Google search to get a list of side-effects of hormonal contraception. The list is long. I had a lot of the side effects. It wasn't great.
I also started to question the concept of hormonal contraception in the first place. My fertility is a healthy, functioning part of my body, and I couldn't think of any other heathy, functioning parts of a person's body that we artificially and long-term suppress. We usually treat conditions in which our bodies are sick, or not functioning like they are supposed to. Why was I acting like my fertility was something that needed treatment, rather than something to be understood?
This is all not to mention my general discomfort in putting artificial hormones into my body on a consistent basis for years at a time. Or the fact that hormonal contraception puts the responsibility for not getting pregnant squarely on the woman's shoulders, which didn't feel equitable.
I kept questioning why there wasn't anything better out there: something that was, perhaps, respectful of my fertility, and let me understand my body so I could make effective decisions on when I did or did not want more children?
Turned out, there is something better out there. Fertility Awareness, or as it is also known, Natural Family Planning (NFP).
(I will immediately add the disclaimer that I am not going to be talking about an app that tracks your fertility. You can use an app if you want to help record your data, or you can do it on paper, but apps cannot tell you accurately when you are and are not fertile. More on what you can do to know that information below.)
A bit of background. My husband holds a PhD in biomedical science. I have a master's degree, and work as an author. I am of the opinion that fertility awareness is something that would benefit so many women, but is not discussed among family planning options nearly as much as it should be. It's also incredibly easy to do for most women. Once you learn it, it becomes part of your routine and doesn't take much time at all.
A bit of data. When used accurately, fertility awareness is statistically as effective as an IUD or perfect use of the pill. Sources at the bottom of this post.
Fertility Awareness teaches a woman to understand her body; this can help her achieve pregnancy or avoid it. Anecdotally, we have been utilizing Fertility Awareness since 2016, and have had 2 children intentionally and have avoided pregnancy the rest of the time with success.
How Does It Work?
We use a combination of Sympto-Thermal and Marquette methods for tracking my fertility. Here's a sample month, starting on day 10 of my cycle until the end.
3 Things To Note:
At the very bottom you can see the letters L, H, and P. I use the Clear Blue Fertility Monitor starting a few days into my cycle (the monitor prompts you on which day you need to begin to test). It reads L for low, when it does not detect estrogen. It reads H for high when estrogen is detected, and this lets me know that my body is preparing to ovulate and I'm potentially fertile. It reads P for peak when it detects luteinizing hormone, which means that ovulation is imminent. This is wildly helpful for family planning purposes whether or not you are hoping to get pregnant, for obvious reasons.
The information in the middle of the chart (The colored bars, circles, and so on) relate to cervical fluid changes and other related pieces. Cervical fluid changes in consistency leading up to ovulation, and you can see peak cervical fluid (the yellow bars) just before my monitor reads peak which is wonderful corroboration.
And finally, my favorite piece, are the lines and dots at the top, which track my BBT or basel body temperature. You can use an actual thermometer for this, or there are rings and wristbands you can use to digitally track this for you. Basically, your resting temp (after 3 to 4 hours of sleep), taken before you get up and move around, can help confirm if you've ovulated. In this sample chart, my temp is consistently below a certain point until just after peak. That rise lets me know that I've ovulated, and it is caused by an increase in progesterone after ovulation. I am past fertility on the evening of the 3rd day of the temp rise in this chart because the unfertilized egg is gone. If you are pregnant, this temp will actually stay high as you go, and can be an early way to know if you've conceived. If you are not, it will drop back down as progesterone drops and your period approaches. I can not only confirm ovulation via my BBT, but I can also know with a high level of certainty when my cycle is about to start, and I'm never caught off guard.
Fun fact: The amount of time between a new cycle starting and ovulation can vary greatly! It can be impacted by travel, sickness, interrupted sleep, stress, and other factors. With Fertility Awareness you never have to stress out if your period doesn't arrive on its usual schedule. You can know from the data that you ovulated late, and therefore it will be a longer cycle overall.
But the other part of that fact is your luteal phase—from ovulation to a new cycle starting—doesn't vary much. It's pretty consistent within a day or so, no matter what. If you have a really short luteal phase, it may be time to check with your doctor to make sure that your progesterone levels are normal.
If this is something that you are interested in learning more about, please feel free to message, comment, or email. Or check out the resources below for training. Paying attention to my body and recording this data is such a natural, small, easy part of my daily rhythm. I have pretty regular cycles, but Fertility Awareness can also be for those who have irregular cycles too. It can even be a tool to help you figure out what's going on in there instead of putting a band-aid on the problem.
Why Check out Fertility Awareness/NFP?
And now, a bit of my personal story. Since using Fertility Awareness, I feel like I know my body better, and that I am respecting how my body works, which is very empowering. There is nothing wrong with my body and my fertility, and changing from suppressing it to understanding it has been amazing.
This is a team effort. If you have a partner or a husband, they can get involved in many ways, from recording the data, to running the monitor each morning. It also increases communication between couples on a regular bases about their family planning goals, which is a beautiful, healthy thing.
I also have friends who, through Fertility Awareness, were able to identify hormonal issues that would have likely led to miscarriage if they were not addressed (often, low progesterone). They were able to get medical care and remedy those issues and not lose their children from a preventable cause.
Now that I'm here and have seen the benefits, I would never in a million years go back. I'm happy to answer specific questions too if you have them! Feel free to get in touch.
Book: Taking Charge of Your Fertility (Not a Catholic book. I skipped over the portions that dealt with areas that would be in conflict with my faith, but the overall book was very helpful.)
Effectiveness of methods:
Copyright 2022 Lorelei Savaryn
Images: Screenshot of NFP chart created by the author; all others Canva
About the Author
Lorelei Savaryn joyfully joined the Catholic Church in 2016 after many years as a Protestant. She lives outside Chicago with her husband, four children, and dog named Saint. She writes about her faith and family life on ThisCatholicFamily.com. She is also a children's author. Her debut novel, The Circus of Stolen Dreams, released in Sept 2020 from Penguin Random House/Philomel.