I discovered the Billings method long before I was interested in birth control. I was 25, single, and working on a Ph.D in biology, and had been to the gynecologist a couple of times for checkups and to see if my irregular menstrual cycles were anything to worry about. My periods came about every 25-35 days, but since that was reasonably close to the typical one-month cycle and the bleeding itself followed a textbook pattern, the doctors said it was normal and that I had two choices: live with it, or go on the Pill to “regulate” my cycle. Since I wasn’t having sex, I wasn’t interested in a contraceptive, and I decided that the annoyance of always having to carry “supplies” wasn’t bad enough to justify the side effects of a birth control pill. So I lived with it. I lived with starting my period a week early while doing field work in the woods two hours’ drive from the nearest gas station, and with being a week late and wondering if this time there really was something wrong. It was aggravating, but it was normal.
I discovered cycle charting almost by accident. A women’s hygiene company sent out cycle charts to its customers along with a little blurb about how writing down what you see and feel each day could help you understand more about your body, and I decided to give it a shot. I did start seeing patterns, but I didn’t know what they meant. I posted a question online asking for more information, and somebody pointed me to a link describing different methods of NFP. The Billings method seemed like the most user-friendly and the most suited to my needs, so I picked up a used instruction book online and gave it a try. As it turned out, it was easy, and probably the single most useful thing I’ve ever learned about my body. Within two cycles, I could identify when I ovulated, and knew that no matter when that happened, my period would start 14-15 days later. Instead of ten days of uncertainty, it was two days.
I met my husband a year or two later, and when we decided to get married, we knew we wanted kids someday, but preferably not right away—we’d be moving to a new state two months after the wedding so I could start a new job, I wouldn’t qualify for maternity leave for the first year or two, and we’d be starting off in a tiny apartment with no room for a baby. So we talked about birth control options. Neither of us was raised to think that artificial contraception was wrong; we’d both been taught (and still believe) that making an effort to have only as many children as you are able to take care of, at times when you are best prepared to take care of them, is the responsible thing to do. We’d also been taught in school that the only reliable methods were the artificial ones. Still, we talked through the conventional options and none of them seemed right for us. Barrier methods had higher failure rates and, frankly, didn’t seem all that attractive or romantic an option. The side effects of hormonal methods were more than either of us were willing to put up with, especially since I have a family history of both stroke and breast cancer, and the hormones in the Pill (and its newer cousins, the patch, ring, and injections) increase a woman’s risk for both conditions. I had once lost a sibling (and could have lost my mother) when my mother became pregnant unexpectedly with an IUD in place and complications required surgery to remove the IUD and, unfortunately, terminate the pregnancy, so IUD’s just weren’t an option for me. I’d never pictured myself using “the rhythm method,” but I knew that the charting I’d been doing to track my uncooperative period had a family planning aspect, and it had worked so perfectly for me so far that I was willing to give it a shot. I looked up the statistics, found that it could be 99% effective for couples that were careful and determined to make it work, and convinced my fiancé to give it a try.
Fast-forward: we will be celebrating our third anniversary next month, and I am currently four months pregnant with our first child. We used the Billings method successfully to avoid conceiving for the first two years of our marriage, then did the math, bought a house, took the plunge and turned the rules around. Knowing my fertility signs helped us conceive, and helped me know I was pregnant nearly a week before my period was due and the test turned out positive. We are definitely a success story, and plan to continue using the method after our child is born.
I can’t say it’s been an entirely smooth ride or a bed of roses. Using a natural family planning method like Billings does require some abstinence, and fertility cycles don’t care whether you had a romantic weekend planned. Once you’re thoroughly familiar with and comfortable with the method, this is usually about three days during the heavy part of your period and about 8-10 days during the fertile part of the middle of your cycle, leaving you about one week after your period ends when you can have sex every other evening, and about two weeks at the end of your cycle when you can have sex absolutely any time you want, anywhere that’s legal, no need for special equipment or barriers between you. That part is great. However, if you’re still new to the method or you REALLY don’t want to get pregnant and you’re not quite certain about your observations, it’s best to skip the week between the end of your period and the beginning of the fertile phase, since that’s when most of the “mistakes” happen. Or, if you’re irregular like me, the first part of the cycle is where all the variability comes in and you might find yourself ovulating as early as 9 days after the start of your last period, in which case you’re fertile even before you finish bleeding that month. If that’s the case, you’ll be able to tell and you can still successfully avoid conception, but it means you might be saying “not tonight, honey” for three weeks in a row. That gets old fast.
On the plus side, having a week or more per month of enforced abstinence does prevent a couple from falling into a pattern of doing (or not doing) the same old thing all the time. When sex is off the table, you have to be creative about finding ways to show your love and be intimate, which can be good for your communication skills. And when you haven’t been able to make love for a while, it seems fresh and new when you’re finally free to enjoy it again. Knowing you’ve only got a short window encourages you to take advantage of opportunities to be intimate even when you’re tired or a good TV show is on, when you might otherwise say “Oh, there’s always tomorrow.” Carpe diem!