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

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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 and ending up in therapy like I did.

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.

This post was originally published on Offbeat Families in 2011. If you want more, check out our archive of trying to conceive posts over there. You can also follow Offbeat Families on Facebook for a guided tour of the site’s deep archives.

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

  1. This is a great post. I’ve been trying to find information about charting while nursing. I have yet to have my cycle return, so I can’t chart based on that. However, my husband and I have not been using any sort of birth control, and I’d like to know what’s going on with my body!

    Anybody have any tips or resources?

    • Look up the Marquette method and the ClearBlue monitor — I (and many of my friends) do not use artificial birth control for religious and philosophical reasons, and understanding one’s fertility postpartum/while nursing can be quite challenging. I haven’t personally used any method yet, as we have no reason to delay children, but I’ve looked into a bit, and these two are highly recommended postpartum. The monitor is a bit expensive, I believe, but very helpful.

      • I respectfully disagree. I had been on birth control pills for 8 years when I started getting treatment for a gynecological issue. Because it ended up being partly related to low estrogen, I stopped taking birth control. One of the things my doctor recommended was charting my cycle.
        I had NEVER charted my cycle before, and without my little pill pack telling me when to expect my period, it always felt like a surprise to me. And without having a regular cycle after birth control, I still charted daily for several months. Eventually it became clear what my cycle was, and that my hormone levels were returning to normal. But I would have been completely in the dark about seeing any change if I hadn’t been charting even when things weren’t working in a normal cycle.
        So I really recommend charting while without a regular cycle! I just used a computer spreadsheet and its graphing feature to chart my cycle, and I think such a simple & customizable method could be used for women without regular cycles.

        • I think there’s a difference between charting with an irregular cycle, and charting with no cycle. Breastfeeding women can sometimes go years without an ovulatory cycle, which is a long time to chart without seeing any sign of a pattern. If a woman’s cycle is anywhere between 10-60ish days, ESPECIALLY if it varies within that range by cycle, I would definitely recommend charting. But for me, at least, it just gets boring and frustrating to chart for more than a couple months without seeing any patterns.

    • You can certainly chart for practice in recognizing your body’s patterns and signs, but you’re not going to see anything particularly recognizable in terms of patterns. It’s up to you whether that’s worth it to you. It can certainly be useful just getting to know your body, what your baseline “dry” cervical mucus feels like, how your cervix moves around, what’s a normal range of temperatures for you that doesn’t include an ovulatory spike. But you probably won’t learn anything about what your body’s doing that you didn’t already know, i.e. that you’re not ovulating right now.

  2. This is so well timed for me. I am having my IUD removed on monday so we can start GOFing, which is what i will call it now πŸ™‚ I am scared that I will have a problem because a doctor told me something 15 years ago that still scares the bejeezus out of me and I have a whole HOST of issues around all of this. Like will I be gobsmacked by karma because I was adamantly childfree for forever until I fell in love with my husband and realized that it wasnt that I didnt want children, I just didn’t want children with the looserpants buttholes I was with before my amazing husband. I said for so long that I didn’t want kids, and now we are going to start trying so WFT am I in for. I am pretty type A so I’m all about the charting but I can get hung up on data and I KNOW me, I WOULD think that since I made a perfect chart that i therefore will have teh babiez right away, thanks for the reality check.

  3. Charting was the first time in my life I was able to predict when my period would start and be able to avoid ruining a pair of undies, either because I forgot I would get it or because I would wear all my “period panties” the week before (just in case) and it would arrive when they were all in the wash.

  4. I used an app called “Ovulation and Pregnancy Calendar” (developer is listed as Yi Ding) and got pregnant my first month of trying- I think knowing when my fertile days are definitely helped. It charts the length of your cycle and lets you know if you’re late, which is cool. You can even make little notes about when you GOF-ed, which can help pinpoint your date of conception. It worked for me, so I thought I’d pass it along πŸ™‚

  5. I’ve been charting for six months now (to prevent, not to get knocked up), and it’s pretty awesome. I can actually predict fairly closely when my period will start, despite not being on the pill or anything else of that sort. It’s great! And it’s fabulous to know when we can throw caution to the winds because we’re past the danger zone. I wanted to start charting decently before we wanted to get pregnant because I figure this way I’ll have a bunch of experience with it under my belt and will know what’s normal for my body. I’ve also really noticed just how much things can change from cycle to cycle, which is both fascinating and useful to (hopefully) help prevent me from thinking everything is a symptom when we do eventually start GOFing. πŸ˜‰

    • I *SO* wish I could have written this post from the “use charting to supplement your birth control” perspective because I was an obsessive birth control charter for 10 years and was convinced Fertility Awareness Method (FAM) was the best birth control method EVER because I’d never even had a close call…

      …and then I slowly realized that for me personally, the reason FAM was so “effective” for me was because I was infertile. :/ So now I feel like I can’t personally recommend it, because it wasn’t FAM that kept me from getting pregnant all those years.

      I’d love to hear more from NON-infertile folks who’ve practiced FAM as an effective birth control method, though! Chime in, charters!!

      • Just started in September for basically the same reasons as Cali. I’ve been on some sort of hormonal birth control for 15 years straight. Wanted to kind of make sure I knew what my body was going to do once I got off it with out the added stress of trying to make a person. In a year I’ll report back (that’s also when we plan to start GOFing). So maybe I can give the whole perspective at some point? One thing is for sure the whole “baby crack” situation is WAY stronger off the pill soooooo I may not be able to hold out until then.

      • I used FAM for prevention for several years, semi-effectively. And the “semi” was definitely user error, rather than method error. (Turns out both my husband and I are more on the super-fertile side than otherwise, which admittedly did come in handy when we decided to stop preventing. Out of town on ovulation day? Just have sex two days before! Ta da, baby. Sheesh.) That said, I found it was extremely emotionally difficult living with the idea that any mistake was ALL MY FAULT rather than a flaw in the birth control. I’d recommend to anyone considering FAM that either you really consider how you might handle the emotional repercussions of user error, and/or that you be willing and able to be VERY strict about the rules.

        I do really appreciate everything I learned about my body from using FAM. Starting hormonal birth control made me feel just slightly “off” in some very minor ways that I probably wouldn’t even have identified if I hadn’t been so in touch with what “normal” was for me. I love knowing the ways my cervix and temperature patterns and length of luteal period are unique to me. It feels like a really great baseline to have.

        • Wow, our experiences are quite similar. I also took great pleasure in the new knowledge I gained about myself, my cycles and my cervix (the day I found it was magical indeed), and also kept myself from getting pregnant for a few years. And then I also got pregnant through user error and have found that guilt of it being my fault really difficult to deal with.

          While I was using FAM, I rarely had perfect charts (due to a mixture of body peculiarities and a lifestyle not really suited to charting). I used FertilityFriend and constantly felt like a failure whenever FertilityFriend and I would disagree on my ovulation date, and especially so when FertilityFriend claimed I wasn’t ovulating at all. It led down a not so pretty path of getting angry at my body for not being ‘perfect’ (full disclosure: I was also struggling with disordered eating at the time, so my body and I weren’t great friends even when I got a chart that was ‘good enough’ for FertilityFriend) and eventually made me lazier and lazier with charting. (“If I can’t get a good chart even when I do everything right, what’s the point?” Head in the sand, much?)

          I only later clocked onto the fact that my laziness and above issues had essentially slipped into us practicing the ‘calendar method’ – using my average cycle length despite rather erratic cycles combined with a few temps and cervical mucous observations, just for kicks. It’s no wonder I got pregnant really.

          In addition to your suggestion of following the rules carefully, I would also suggest involving a partner in charting as much as possible. Set the alarm, make sure daily observations are getting recorded, look at and interpret the charts, etc. That way, the responsibility for user errors is shared, and the probability of it happening in the first place hopefully reduced! Also, don’t give yourself a hard time if you’re not producing great charts – and if they’re not great, think about another method of birth control. For years I refused to accept it, but I’m now firmly on the side of the fence where I believe that FAM doesn’t work for everyone. However, charting, even if not relying on it for birth control, I highly recommend.

          • I agree soooooooo much! I think the nature of your partner plays a huge role in how successful FAM will be for you. My husband is a full participant – he’s the one who sets the alarm and he’s the one who hands me the thermometer. He’s fully on board.

            However, I have an ex who would not have been on board, and I would have been highly, highly hesitant about doing FAM with him. It takes two to tango.

        • My parents successfully used FAM planning to have only 4 kids, at their preferred interval. When I was a kid going through sex ed classes, my parents were sure to include FAM planning when we would talk about it at home. I knew all about fertility and taking my temperature, and I was on board for this kind of birth control for my own use.
          The pressure of something getting messed up was one reason FAM planning wasn’t a good fit for me and my husband. Even with condoms, he would be panicked for days that I would magically turn up pregnant. So while I was confident in my body and my charting skills, it still takes two to tango.
          That’s partly why I eventually ended up getting the depo shot as my birth control of choice.

        • Personally, we waited to switch over to this method until we were at a point where we could handle the possibility of something going wrong (I don’t know if we would have been brave enough to go full FAM unless we were in a place where an “oops” wouldn’t be the end of the world, despite the fact that it’s incredibly effective as long as you follow all the rules). And we used condoms 100% of the time for the first couple of months until I felt like I had a good grasp on the whole thing and could see the patterns, which gave both of us an extra sense of security.

          But yeah, if someone was in the position of “I ABSOLUTELY cannot get pregnant right now,” I would probably suggest using condoms or an IUD and doing FAM as a “backup” so you know when to be extra careful, just for the piece of mind.

      • My husband and I are planning to try to conceive this summer, so I actually have no idea how my fertility is yet. But I have been really happy with it as a method of birth control. The pill made me feel all weird and cut off from myself, so I was sooooo happy when we started FAM and I could flush them all. I also have total peace of mind. The only time I got freaked out was when we bent the rules – but we learned our lesson from that and didn’t do it again. On the pill, even when I was taking it properly I always had this vague dread in my mind that it would fail and I would end up preggers.

      • I’ll chime in here as someone who has used FAM for four years, and is, as described by my doctor “freakishly fertile”. My guy and I decided to go the all natural route for health and philosophical reasons, and have successfully been able to plan our pregnancies. I actually can’t imagine being on the pill anymore, because not knowing when I’ve ovulated (like in FAM) would totally freak me out. I will say that trying to figure out what is going on with your cycles post-partum is a beast, and I highly recommend finding a method like Creighton or Marquette where you have access to instructors who can help decipher your charts. Happily, my cycles started back regularly at 4 months post-partum- I was never so happy to see a period in my life. I know lots of folks who get interested in FAM after having kiddos, and unfortunately, post-partum is probably the most difficult time to learn it! With that caveat though, doing FAM is probably one of the best decisions we’ve made for my health and our marriage and I have zero regrets! πŸ™‚

  6. Taking Charge of Your Fertility is an awesome book! It’s an “everything we wanted/needed to know about our bodies but never learned in sex ed or from a gyno” book.

  7. Also, I might be super rare, but I wanted to add not to freak out and become an emotional wreck if your temps are consistently all over the place. I temped off and on for over a year, and my temps were so erratic that it took me 2 months to figure out that I was already pregnant, and that I’d conceived during a cycle during which my temps seemed to indicate I’d never ovulated.

  8. I totally sympathize with the awfulness of having perfect charts and no pregnancy to show for it. But I do think there’s still a benefit, which is that you’ve ruled out some of the more common causes of infertility: are you having sex during ovulation, are you ovulating at all, do you have fertile cervical fluid, is your luteal period long enough. That’s half a dozen tests and at least a month or two of waiting you can skip right there, and get straight to the part where you can test for the things that charts don’t show.

    • Oh, charting is HUGELY beneficial for folks who end up dealing with infertility. My goal with this post wasn’t to say “Charting is pointless if it doesn’t work for you.” It was to say, “Here’s how you can chart without hopefully going off the emotional deep end like I did.”

      • Amen. Charting helped me find out even before we were trying to have kids that I had some weird hormonal issues (like hypo-thyroid and low progesterone), and since I saw a doctor who specialized in working with folks who do FAM, I was able to get treatment for my cray cray cycles before we were even ready to get pregnant, which made me feel sooo much better physically and emotionally.

  9. Pre-preggo-days, I found simply keeping track of when my period started on one of those phone apps to be super-useful. It was nice to know how long my cycles were, and when I could expect my period to come next, especially for purposes of traveling, which I was doing a lot for work. So, even if taking your temperature and veginal fluids seems a little intense for you, I can recommend simply keeping track of your periods with an app. It calculates your average cycle length over all the data, and then tells you when you’re likely to get your next period. I did it for years, so it was pretty accurate with all that data. It was really useful when I went in for my yearly GYN appointment, and then ultimately when I became pregnant, to have really accurate knowledge of when my last period was and how long my cycles were (I have longer than average cycles, which was useful in calculating a more accurate due date, even without specific knowledge of ovulation times).

  10. Taking Charge of Your Fertility was sucha fantastic book for me, I learned SO much about my body from reading it that I think it helped me be in the right place mentally for having an unmedicated birth and other various “crunchy” practices. It helped me be a lot more comfortable with my own body.

    Also, charting helped me know when I DID finally get pregnant, and having that much data helped me stay sane through my 18-cycle “why the hell can I not get knocked up?!” journey. I have a naturally short luteal phase and always spot for a couple days pre-period, so when I made it to 14 days past my temperature spike without any spotting, I knew that testing would probably NOT crush my hopes.

    Post-baby I got an IUD inserted, but I still track with an app on my phone and I can avoid the “uh-oh did the IUD fail am I knocked up now when it’s totally rotten timing?” crazies by simply fending off hubby’s advances for a few days when I’m most fertile because right now would be SO not a good time for another baby.

  11. I started charting when my husband and I were ttc. It was hugely helpful, and the cycle we did get pregnant I wouldn’t have realized on my own that I was ovulating because my cervical fluid didn’t have it’s usual ovulation consistency. Charting is also what clued me in to have my thyroid checked, since my pre-ovulation temps were so low (95s-97.1) and that’s how I found out I am hypothyroid. I’ll also second how awesome TCOYF is–that book should be mandatory reading for all women!

  12. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering if the reason you use this method affects your feelings towards it. I’ve noticed that the people who seem to feel the most frustration towards it are those who came to it to try to get pregnant but don’t. Whereas those who come to it for the purposes of birth control, even if they have trouble getting pregnant later, seem to still feel more positively about it.

    I’ve used this method for birth control for two years so I didn’t form the same mental association that CHARTING = CONCEIVING that someone who might be trying to conceive may form. Nor was I already dealing with frustration from not getting pregnant before learning the method. My feelings were along the lines of “THIS IS SUPER COOL AND I CAN FINALLY GET OFF THE PILL!” I can’t help but wonder if those factors played a role in my attitude towards it. It’s hard to say. I wish there was a way to do a study on it or something.

    • I just reread this and realized how totally smug I sounded! I meant it as a general observation and wondering how one’s reasons for using FAM might affect feelings towards it, but I didn’t mean to come off so “I KNOW ALL THE THINGS BEST.” Not my intention at all! My apologies. πŸ™

  13. I tried to chart for awhile, but between “sort of” PCOS (PCOS without the insuline resistance, I beliiiiieve? And also without most of they symptoms of PCOS, which leads me to believe that my doc just didn’t know what to tell me) and a terrible morning memory, it didn’t really work for me. My cycles are super irregular–anything from 45 days to 450 days–so I just kinda gave up on it.

    We’re currently at the “let’s just have sex often and hope it happens on its own and acknowledge that it probably won’t” stage, which will turn into the “let’s see a doctor and make this happen” stage after my partner and I get married next year. In the meantime, TCOYF is a great book for a wide range of fertility problems (and non-problems!). I’m just trying to get as healthy as I can on my own before we try any medical intervention, whether it leads to conception or not.

    • Yeah hi! You are me in January, 2012. My now husband and I were not-yet-engaged, but dieting with the idea of looking good at the wedding (please no comments about this; we both have several reasons). We were also lackadaisical about birth control because neither of us thought we’d be fertile. (Edited to add: the dieting is relevant because it was low carb, which diet apparently promotes fertility in PCOS, so my endocrinologist laughed at me for a good five minutes.)

      Yeah, and then I got pregnant in February, and we moved the wedding up to September (medical insurance ftw), so I was seven months pregnant on our wedding day. Custom dress time (natch), and rainbow theme daytime party, yay!

      If you don’t want to be preggo on the day, um, use the contraceptives anyway, because lightning can strike, especially for us “mild” PCOS’ers.

  14. I am a little unclear as to why those who are GOFing are not mentioning using LG Strips (I think that’s what they’re called)–the little test strips that you pee on and they tell you if you are ovulating. So much temperature taking and charting, why not just test for ovulation along with that? I never took my temp, I just tracked my periods with the My Calendar app, it tells you your fertile period, and specifies projected exact ovulation days. I just peed on the strips every day during my fertile period, and made sure to GOF every other day. The My Calendar app was dead on.

  15. Just started tracking since we recently decided (after yrs of “no babies, no babies” chants and birth control) to get on the baby train. I am trying to think of charting as a “sexy times” chart and focusing on connecting with my husband. Seeing the days marked “sex” as wins. Hoping this will prevent me from stressing if it takes us a while to get pregnant. Thanks for posting. It’s nice to be reminded pregnancy doesn’t always happen right away.

  16. I chart to avoid, but I am like Ariel… I always recommend it with the caveat that we haven’t tried, so we don’t know if the reason it works for us is because we are infertile or because it actually works for us! That said, I am connected to a lot of Catholics who practice it, and they have had plenty of success… all babies planned :-).
    I use the Fertility Friend app/website, but I agree with Ariel, what a old-looking website. Yuck! Whatever though, it seems to work the best and it pretty straightforward. Can’t complain about that!

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