How to track your cycles and chart your fertility without going super insane

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Repeat after me: you are not your chart.
For folks who go the family planning route to conception (as compared to the “happy accident” route), tracking your menstrual cycle can be super, insanely useful. By using techniques like taking your temperature and observing your cervical mucus, you can start to get a pretty clear picture of when you’re ovulating, and and how to perfectly time your GOFing (“Goal-Oriented Fucking,” as I once saw it jokingly referred to).

So we all agree: Charting is a super, insanely useful way to get really amazingly in touch with your body and your cycles. But if you’re not careful, charting can drive you super insane. When you put a lot of time into something — taking your temperature every single morning, finger-banging yourself to check your own fluids, carefully entering data into a web tool, analyzing your intercourse — if it doesn’t immediately pay off, it can be emotionally and intellectually devastating.

I had moments of sobbing over my charts, feeling like a straight-A student who’d somehow failed at the science fair. “BUT LOOK AT MY CHART,” I sniffled to myself. “It’s perfect!” (It was indeed perfect, but my fallopian tubes were not… something charting was NEVER going to show me).

Based on what I learned during my 44 months of charting (…I KNOW), here’s a little guidance on how to chart without going super insane.

Be well-read

The charting bible is Taking Charge of Your Fertility: The Definitive Guide to Natural Birth Control and Pregnancy Achievement. This book is not only amazing for learning about how to chart to make babies, but also beyond valuable when it comes to preventing them. Buy it. Read it. Know it. Love it. Even though I’m now done with both baby-making AND birth control (thanks, broken fallopian tubes), I keep this book close at hand for friends.

Use technology

There are a bazillon ovulation tracking online tools you can use, and a billion more phone apps. Back in the day, I used an insanely ugly but functional tool called Fertility Friend. I don’t think I’d recommend it (seriously, it’s like the website that time forgot — shit looks like it was last redesigned in 1999! but I DO recommend finding one. Google “fertility charting website,” “fertility phone app,” and “fertility software” to find a ton of options. Try a few and see what feels right.

Shift your goal

Rather than focusing on the goal of MUST MAKE BABY (where each month you don’t get pregnant feels like a failure), try seeing the process of charting as a way to learn more about your body and its amazing biology. Viewed this way, every month that you chart is a success, regardless of whether a baby comes out of it. Even if you want to get pessimistic about it, and worry that you might be having fertility issues; cycle charts are super valuable when seeking treatment of any kind (western, eastern, or holistic). Your goal is learning about your body.

Don’t get trapped in the lines

Related to goal-shifting, it’s also important not to get so caught up in the dots and lines on a chart that you forget that our bodies are imperfect shifting sacs of fluid. You may have outliers on your chart. You may have mornings when you don’t chart at all. If your temperature is .01 degree off from what you expect, it’s ok. Try to keep perspective (and yes, it can be really, REALLY hard).

You are not your chart

Fertility and conception is somewhat out of your control. Charting your cycles is awesome and well-timed sex can certainly help you get pregnant, but the quality of your chart is NOT the quality of you. If you didn’t get pregnant this month, it likely had nothing to do with how well you charted. Charting may not help you get pregnant. It doesn’t mean you failed.

As someone who had 44 near-perfect charts, read all the right books, used all the right tools, took my temperature every single morning for years, and STILL couldn’t get pregnant, I worry when I see folks talk about how they read this book, used this tool, took this class, charted that cycle, etc, whatever, AND MAGICALLY GOT PREGNANT IN ONE MONTH! Some people get pregnant quickly, whether or not they read or chart or learn or prepare… just as some people who “do all the right things” might not ever be able to get pregnant.

Knowledge is power… but not happiness

This is how charting drives you crazy: it lulls you into a false sense of power. “HA,” you can sometimes tell yourself. “I charted the FUCK out of this month and have amazing color-coded graphs and numbers to prove my amazing reproductive powers!” And yet, there you are again with blood on your underwear and distinctly not pregnant. Yes, you have your chart… but no, you do not have the keys to the universe.

I don’t want to sound like I’m bagging on charting: I still track my menstrual cycles, because I like having a sense of what’s going on with my hormones and moods. I like feeling like I know my body in that way. But I had to learn the hard way that knowledge may be powerful, but it still doesn’t give you complete control over conception. In many ways, it’s just somewhat out of our hands.

Comments on How to track your cycles and chart your fertility without going super insane

  1. YES YES YES. I’m so with you. I’ve had so many perfect looking charts and then wham! period or negative pregnancy test. It really does feel like failing a final exam or something after working your ass off. Since we’re on month 15 here and I don’t want to go completely nuts I just take a month off sometimes. I allow myself to say F this I am not tracking all this shit this month. I allow myself to be frustrated. Since I have put all this time in tracking I have a pretty good idea of what time in my cycle I’m likely to ovulate even if I don’t track temps, cervical mucus, or use an ovulation predictor kit. Get some purposeful “business time” in as Flight of the Concords say AND I don’t go insane. Everyone wins.

  2. so timely! i just started charting, after going off the pill a couple months ago, and it’s all whacked out. =) my reading on the whole situation is that after years on the pill, it’ll take a while to normalize again, and that’s fine. still, it’s kind of hard not to freak out when the temperatures are telling me “yay! you’re pregnant!” and the pee sticks are saying “no, you’re not!” and the goop is going “yup, definitely ovulated that day after unprotected sex” and the period is being all coy and elusive, “neener neener, not telling!” =)

  3. Love this post! TCoYF changed my life and helped me conceive both my kids, but I’m actually more stoked that it put me in tune with the way my body works, which will be useful forever. I’ve turned so many friends on to charting–and also encouraged a few to back off when it seemed more stressful than useful.

  4. This. All of this.

    For me, charting was a gift and a curse all at the same time. At first it was fun, but six or seven months in it really started to get to me. I learned a lot and cried a lot as I charted the months away.

    Ariel, I think it is totally freaking amazing that you kept at it for so long. You should get many, many gold stars!

  5. I didn’t actively use charting to conceive, although because I was charting, my partner and I both knew when I was ovulating.

    I’ve used it much more for baby *prevention,* and I think that made the whole concept less stressful. It also added some (more) fun to our sex life — most of the time we could have unprotected sex, but the rest of the time we broke out the condoms. Somehow that “to use latex or not to use latex” aspect was really hot. (Using the past tense here, because I’m still breastfeeding, and there’s not much point in charting right now.)

  6. I read Taking Charge of your Fertility when I was about 30, I was amazed how little I knew about how my body worked. Charting was just too crazy making for me though, I gave up after about 6 months. I used a Clearblue Fertility monitor for a while and much preferred that, it really seemed to confirm what my body was telling me through signs like cervical fluid, mid cycle pain etc whereas with charting the temperatures and my observations and the ovulation predictor tests all seemed to be giving me conflicting messages. Now I just keep an eye on my cervical fluid and general ‘feel’ of things (and blood tests have since confirmed that I am ovulating pretty much when I thought). Mind you after nearly 2 years and no sign of a baby I might not be the best person to listen to for conception advice! I really don’t think I could have made it this long trying though with the added stress that charting caused for me. I do love how much more ‘in tune’ with my body I feel now just from taking the effort to really notice what its doing and the little patterns I have noticed in my cycle that I never saw before (I never used to think I got PMT, I was so kidding myself!) and I think that knowledge and awareness has really helped my confidence in myself as we head down the route of tests and possible medical interventions.

  7. I have been super leary of charting since we miscarried last year and have since decided to begin again. I don’t want to be distracted but every month the same moment of truth arrives and I just think “Well try try again!” Perhaps I will try this instead! Thanks!

    • I had a miscarriage last summer, and I was devastated. It took for EVER to get back to a “normal” cycle, and even then I was not back to my perfect 28 day cycle. Something I discovered when charting. I was more like 31 days. After charting it took 2 months to get it right, and get knocked up.

      I would totally recommend charting to make sure that your cycle has not changed due to the hormones, and other things that get altered during pregnancy post miscarriage.

      We want to have at least 2 kids, and close together, so as soon as the doctor gives me the go ahead I will be back to charting away for baby number 2.

    • The absolute worst thing about charting after my miscarriage was that my phone app (OvuView) kept telling me at day 50 without a period (I was waiting for my first post-miscarriage period) that I must be pregnant! It would pop up to tell me this every. single morning. when I added in my temp, because the app didn’t have a “miscarriage” feature and would only let me mark my miscarriage as a period. So my chart thought a period was late, and I was like no you m-f-er, stop making me feel sad! My web-based chart on didn’t do this, though, so if you’re in the market and don’t want to be reminded of miscarriage every morning…’s charts don’t do that.

  8. I have PCOS, so at first charting was a monotonous activity–same temperature, same cervix, same everything–or so I thought! After awhile, I started to recognize when my body was trying to ovulate. That itself was a gift!

    Now that my cycles are back on track, I am still grateful to have the data I collected during my months of charting… but nothing beats the feeling of seeing that temperature rise every month!

    My favorite iPhone app is FemCal. All the others were too difficult to export from, which is important to me so I can share info with my naturopath. I tried FertilityFriend too–same experience with the clunkiness, but it is free!

    Best of luck to all you mamas-to-be (or not to be!) out there 🙂

    • Every time I read comments in posts like this, I scroll through looking for other PCOS folks – I always feel so isolated, despite how prevalent it is.

      How did you get your cycles back on track? I’ve been having regular periods for a couple of years after having lost some weight, and now I’m inexplicably 5 days late. 3 preg tests have confirmed that I am not, in fact, knocked up, and I could really use some tips on getting back on track! Mostly because I can’t really start charting if I don’t know when the beginning of my cycle is. I’m starting to worry that I’m going back into a phase of not having periods again, which is super stressful.

      Ugh. I hate it so, so much.

        • Sorry, it was really early my time when I posted that – I should have said that I know advice from someone who doesn’t directly know what they’re talking about can be super annoying, but I’ve honestly been astounded by how good an effect the herbs taken by my friend has had on her cycles. She was having a period every two weeks (so bleeding a full 50% of the time) and now they’re back to normal. BUT she wasn’t trying to get pregnant (and I don’t know if you are either) so I have no idea if herbalists can help with that, I just know that that worked for her.

      • I’m the exact same way whenever I see PCOS-What? Where are you people!? Tell me everything!

        I’m in much the same boat where I had regular cycles for years then suddenly I had a cyst bomb drop on everything and now it’s a mostly invisible but still active cycle. For a while I was SUPER crazy hormonal, weight and cycles everywhere. A naturopath really helped me figure some shit out, but I also tried the western medicine route with Metformin (too many side effects for me, but I would recommend it to anyone with severe blood sugar-level issues.)

        To be honest, diet is what did it for me. Really really really purposeful eating. Yes, it sucks and you freaking hate to uproot your routine and start switching up that incredible casserole that you can just whip out any time you need it, but seriously. A concious PCOS meal plan can do wonders.

        You are far from alone.

        • Thank you so much for your comment! I’m glad to hear your cycles evened out with diet. I’m considering going back to my gynecologist to ask to go back on Metformin. I have such a hard time with sugar cravings. Diet has worked for me in the past, but it’s such a miserable experience. Sounds like a I just need to suck it up.

  9. I used charting for birth control for five years (seriously) and then was one of the lucky few who got knocked up on the first try. If there’s anything I learned, it’s that bodies aren’t textbook. Yeah, sure, I had some textbook cycles, but… well, for instance, “Taking Charge of Your Fertility” says luteal periods never differ by more than a day or two. Uh… yeah, no, I had outliers at 10 days and at 14. They were almost always 12 days, but still. Outliers. Don’t freak out if your body doesn’t do exactly what the textbook says.

    Honestly I would suggest not using charting to help you conceive until you’ve used it for at least a cycle or two. It was super confusing for me at the beginning to figure out when I ovulated, and I can only imagine how much more difficult it would have been with the stress of trying to conceive on top of that. Get to know your body some.

    I really do love charting. I’m two months pregnant and still charting, to tell the truth… it’s a great way to keep track of pregnancy symptoms, plus it’s so cool to see my waking temperature a full degree higher every morning than it usually is!

    • I know I am super late to the party here, but fertility friend keeps freaking me out – I dont have “outliers” in my luteal phase length, because I dont really have a steady base length! Mine range from 7-14 days, which is a pain in the rear end because I cant really use OV as a sign of roughly when AF will arrive…

  10. At the recommendation of many, I picked up Taking Charge of Your Fertility. Turned out to be a waste of money, for me. I found her tone incredibly condescending, like she assumed that all women were stupid, all women must think their vaginas are dirty, dirty things (wtf?), and all men are (of course) horrible and insensitive and too stupid to understand. And I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know.

    Just my experience of course, since so many ladies swear by it! But for those who don’t find it a magical life changing read, there’s nothing wrong with that. 🙂

    Another thing that really helped me was taking a break from charting for a few cycles. Stepping back when I found myself getting too crazy. It was nice to just follow the natural rhythm of my body and find the fertility signs with the temps and cervical mucus and all that other stuff. I’m back to charting for a few months again, and still in the “my charts are perfect and there’s no reason I shouldn’t get pregnant” camp.

  11. I charted the first 6 months or so that we were trying to conceive, and it nearly drove me over the edge. I had to take a serious break from it. Now, it’s been a year and a half since we started trying for baby and I really need to get back into it as we are starting that whole “why no baby?” fun stuff with the doctor.

    I highly recommend charting for all women. It’s so important to learn about your cycles! My one piece of advice, especially for the neurotics out there (like me!), is to start charting before trying to conceive (if that is your plan). Maybe it will help eliminate some of the crazies if it’s already a part of your routine, and not only associated with baby-makin’?

  12. Hormonal birth control is not an option for me, as it made me sicker than I was when I was pregnant and it killed my libido. A few months ago I started antidepressants to help with pre-menstrual dysphoric symptoms and general craziness associated with trying to finish my masters. I was really worried about the side affects, lots of people have decreased sex drive and ability to orgasm on ant-depressants. So, I started charting so we could have some condom- free sex a few times a month, because condoms suck. The increased awareness of my body has really helped fight both the anxiety, PMDD, and the sexual side affects of the meds. It has actually brought us closer together, its fun to teach him about my girl parts

  13. Thank you so much! This post was just what I needed today. This is my first month off of BCP, but I am charting because I hope to be able to conceive sooner rather than later. It is incredibly frustrating! As an A student/overachiever/Type A type, I am getting annoyed at my body already – and, seriously, I need to chill the f out. It’s only day 17 and I may not ovulate this month (or the next few). So this post was exactly the deep breath I needed.

    • same here. 1.5 mos off BCP (been on some form of hormonal birth control since age 17; i’m now 33) and ALSO the type A/overachiever. not surprisingly, i’m already annoyed at my lack of conception despite knowing i’m being ridiculous.

  14. Taking Charge of Your Fertility is an awesome book and it’s been great to get to know my cycles so I can be more aware of what’s going on and more understanding about moods I’m going through.

  15. now, fertility cycle tracking isn’t something of interest to me at the moment (I love my birth control pill)
    I just wanted to say how much I LOVE Ariels writing style in this article
    – take 1 serious issue that’s not spoken about all that much
    – insert “finger banging” and “yet, there you are again with blood on your underwear” style writing
    – and there you have an article that anyone can feel way more comfortable talking about

    well done Ariel

  16. So, I JUST STARTED charting this week for shits and giggles, and there’s a beautiful iphone app called Lily (website: whimsicallily), which I like way more than that website from the last millennia.

    • I just started with Lily and, I must say, I absolutely LOVE it! Not only is the app absolutely gorgeous (black, gray and hot pink! fun!) but it’s dark so it doesn’t jar me awake and it collects a LOT of information (or just enough, depending on your preferences). You can also export your charts to email so you can take them with you to the doctor. I highly recommend this app — totally worth the $6 or $7 I paid for it. Oh, and if you have any issues with the app, their customer service is STELLAR! I had a question about what thermometer to use so I sent them an email and I had an answer in literally less than 5 minutes (and they are very friendly and knowledgeable, too!).

  17. This article came at the perfect time! I’m on my last pack of pills and I’m going to start charting so we’ll be ready to start trying in October!

  18. I never really understood charting for trying to make a baby unless you dont plan on having sex much anyway. When we decided to make a baby we jsut pretty much had sex every day during the fertile week, and other times during the month as well.;) It seems like it is a better tool for trying NOT to get pregnant so you know when to avoid sex.

    • Some people are not fertile during “fertile week” – if your cycles are long, you’re probably not fertile around day 14. Also if there is any possibility of low sperm count, you increase your chances of conception with less sex but timed just right. If you have any trouble getting pregnant, the information you receive in charting: confirmation whether or not you are actually ovulating, how long your luteal phase is, all become really important when talking to doctors.

      • That makes sense. I used it for a while and I thought it was helpful and interesting to know more about my cycle and how it was affected by stress etc. Also, I didn’t mean to seem dismissive, it’s just hard to imagine scenarios that I haven’t experienced, unless it’s explained. LIke the low sperm count thing. I assume that it must make sense for people to use it, I just am so nosy and want to understand how and why and who and what and when….I have a friend who is struggling with fertility, and although she is usually open to questions, asking about their actual sex life is awkward and probably rude. So I’m kind of left feeling curious, but I don’t want to intrude.

    • Charting is indeed excellent for birth control, but I’d encourage you not to be dismissive of the paths other people follow in their own conception processes. Charting for baby-making makes a lot of sense for certain people in certain kinds of situations.

    • I think you’re also making an assumption that everyone has a “fertile week”? Basically everything RC said – people have different length of cycles and luteal phases, some people aren’t ovulating at all, etc etc.

  19. Wow…relevant timing (or maybe there are just more ladies exactly in my section of the reproductive boat reading this blog than I thought there were!). I’m in month three of charting, month one of trying for a baby. Reading “Taking Charge of Your Fertility” was a real eye-opener: I knew NOTHING about how my lady-parts work. I teach middle school, and am seriously considering talking with our school nurse about some more in-depth curriculum for our girls, not to push charting as a preventative method but just so they can feel as empowered as I do by the knowledge of what the hell is going on down there at any given time.
    I am feeling some stress, though, since (as a teacher) I have a really narrow window of “convenient” times to give birth. I don’t think that knowing exactly when an egg drops, and knowing to go at it voraciously at such a time, is helping with the stress any, but at least I can feel informed and involved! We’re still in convenient range, and I’m three days past my period, according to the Droid app “OvuView” (which I like very much, and recommend highly)…so here’s hoping!

    • “I am feeling some stress, though, since (as a teacher) I have a really narrow window of ‘convenient’ times to give birth.”

      As a student, me too, me too!

  20. Wow – perfect timing. I had my IUD removed in February, expecting to get pregnant right away, because I got pregnant once (same partner) with an IUD, which is highly unlikely and the doctors basically told me that when we did start trying, we’d probably be able to have a child right away. Fast forward 2 years later and we’re still trying and hoping, it might be time to get a little bit more proactive and start charting. It’d probably have all sorts of useful side-benefits in terms of helping me predict and avoid migraines etc. I’ve been nervous about starting because once I get crazy about information gathering, I become a bit crazy/obsessive/insane and right now, I don’t want to put any more pressure on my body than I already am. Maybe I’ll pick up the book and just see where it all goes.

    On a slightly different topic, I’ve asked this in the past, but is there a way for the links to go to amazon in your country? I can’t get free shipping if I go through, but I can with .ca so I need to go to, and I think you lose credit for your link resulting in my purchase when that happens!

    • Just a note about avoiding migraines – I was also an IUD user & took it out in feb as well. I hadn’t had a period in over 2 years and once they kicked back in I started getting terrible headaches and mood swings. I read somewhere that evening primrose supplements not only help premenstrual headaches but also give you better CM (mucus, gross). I’m heading into my next cycle (or not, who knows) so far no headaches!

  21. I am recently post partum and starting to look at birth control options. I don’t really want and IUD and consistently using condoms seems unrealistic. I’m totally going to check this book out. Charting sounds like a really good option! Can’t wait to learn more about it!

    • Hi, there. Recently postpartum here, too. Babychild was a (happy) surprise after charting my dates to avoid pregnancy for almost two years. I was fanatical about charting, but external environmental factors can alter your cycle just enough to throw your calculations off. Just sayin’. 🙂

  22. So I’ve always had a wildly irregular period (months without a period, bleeding for over ten days, whatever seemed fun) and after much poking and ultrasounding and blood testing, the doctors shrugged their shoulders and put me on birth control. That’s fine for now, but I’m curious about charting for us irregular-for-no-apparent-reason girls. Does it make sense to try?

    • Perhaps charting would show you a pattern after all? Maybe you have one ovary that takes its time dropping an egg, so every other month your cycle for that side is different. Honestly, I think it would be worth charting, if for no other reason than to see if you have a pattern to show your doctor.

    • It would make sense to me. Maybe you’re not ovulating at all, maybe you’re ovulating at different times, maybe there are some patterns where different foods or the amount of light in the room where you sleep change when you ovulate.

      I know for me, one of the most valuable things about charting was when I had an extra long cycle, I would almost always know that it was because I ovulated late, and not stress about it. The other benefit for irregular cycles is that if you do ovulate, you’ll be able to better predict when your period will come. Fewer issues with white pants, right? 🙂

    • I agree with what the other commenters said, but I’m also curious about the doctors who “shrugged their shoulders.” I had similarly irregular periods, which it turned out was due to a hormonal/metabolic condition. I had to push for them to do the blood tests that would confirm a diagnosis.

      Obviously, if you’re happy with the birth control route, more power to ya. But it might be worth the effort to know what’s happening so that if you do come to a place where you want to think about getting pregnant, you’re prepared. Also, hormonal conditions can sometimes be linked to other non-fun situations like diabetes and/or elevated risks for cancer. I know I sounds all fear-monger-y, and I hope I’m not freaking you the fuck out too too much. But I really feel that women deserve to know what’s going on with their bodies so that we can make the best possible decisions for our lives.

    • the charts still look like MS-DOS though…. i did not use the site for a couple of months because it was so damn ugly. my thought was “if they can even pay a web designer to smarten this place up, why should i pay these fools for VIP?”. anyway, i finally started using because i wasn’t getting pregnant as quickly as i had hoped to and it proved to be a very useful tool even though it was butt-ugly. the redesign is not the best, but hopefully they’ll turn off fewer women since it does look more appropriate for this century.

  23. Wow! And for some reason I thought I was the only one charting. Thank you Ariel for this post. Also agree with the above comment, I have been using Fertility Friend for a few months now and it is working great for me. They even send you short lesson emails so you know what you are doing.

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