This is my story of how I came to love the most elusive form of birth control. Mistakes were made, lessons were learned, and I’ve ultimately become a smarter woman through all of it.
At a certain point in my life, I was exclusive with a partner who prefered to not use condoms. I did not want to use hormonal birth control but through some research I learned about a method of preventing (or achieving) pregnancy called Fertility Awareness. Unlike the Rhythm Method, Fertility Awareness was not a prediction of when you will ovulate based on your previous cycles, but rather was a method of tracking your body’s indicators to know precisely when, during each cycle, you were ovulating, and when, based on that, you’d begin menstruating. I read two books on the topic, Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler and The Garden of Fertility by Katie Singer. I was fascinated to learn about my biology in a way that I never had in my high school science and health classes. The changes in cervical mucus were explained (clearing up lifelong confusion about soiled underwear) , as well as the lifespan of sperm, eggs, and the variety of factors that could affect ovulation. The books made it clear that there were only one or two days when getting pregnant, with all other factors in place, was almost a guarantee, and only one or two days when preventing pregnancy was almost a guarantee.
To use the Fertility Awareness method, one must chart their waking basal body temperature as well as the changes in their cervical mucus. I loved how in touch I felt with my body when I charted. I did not love how my waking temperature was only reliable if I went to sleep and woke up at the same time every day. Other things that affect one’s waking temperature include travel and illness. I charted for around six months and then gave up. Most of the time I made my partner pull out anyhow, and my schedule was so inconsistent that it was nearly impossible to get a good read on my waking temperatures, and thereby get a good read on when I was ovulating, and when I would reach the infertile end of my cycle.
The books I read both warned about getting lazy – that in order to properly prevent or achieve pregnancy, one must be diligently charting both waking temperature and cervical mucus. And then I got lazy. It wasn’t that I was being risky all the time, but I knew that a day or two before menstruation begins that it was damn near impossible to get pregnant. I also knew from a lifetime of periods what it felt like to be getting my period within a day or two. I felt so confident that I was about to start menstruating that I encouraged my partner to not pull out.
I misread my body signals. When I didn’t get my period within the next week or so, I began to panic. I read about medical abortions, took a pregnancy test, found that I was pregnant, and marched right over to planned parenthood. I don’t want children, and this wasn’t a hard decision for me. A friend met me there, and as I talked to doctors at the clinic, they asked me about my methods of birth control and tried to encourage me to go on the pill. When I told them that I didn’t want to do anything hormonal, they told me about the copper IUD – Paragard. It sounded scary to me, but I took their information and met my friend in the waiting room. I told her about it with a flippant “never gonna do this” attitude and she responded that the IUD is actually just as effective as a vasectomy, and that the copper one lasts for 10 years.
My abortion consisted of two days of taking pills. The first day I took pills right in the office, which they told me ended my pregnancy. The next day I took pills to open my cervix to empty my uterus. I also took painkillers and a pill to prevent nausea. I spent most of that day sitting on my kitchen floor trying not to vomit. If I threw up, I’d have to start the whole process over. I spent the next month or so bleeding, not allowed to have any objects (fingers, tampons, penises, menstrual cups, etc) enter my vagina.
Wearing pads for a month was not fun. My abortion was not fun, but I do not regret it. I don’t want to ever do it again, but I’m glad I did it, and I still don’t want children.
My post-abortion IUD insertion was unpleasant, but I believe it was less painful because of the cervix-opening drugs I’d taken during my abortion. I got through the first two weeks of cramping with painkillers at work and wine at home. I had read that the Paragard would change my cycle, and it did. Instead of two to three days of heavy bleeding followed by a day or two of medium to light bleeding and a day or two of spotting, I now have a day or two of spotting, two or three days of heavy bleeding, followed by a day or two of spotting. I actually appreciate this change because my period never takes me by surprise anymore.
I’ve been told that the Paragard IUD can increase your cramping, but I never experienced much cramping and that has remained true for me with the Paragard. It’s certainly not a method for everyone. I’ve got friends who have the Paragard and love it, but I also have friends who have had theirs removed after experiencing a cycle here and there of intense pain and bleeding.
An article in TIME reports that most of the fear associated with IUDs today is leftover from a model in the seventies, the Dalkon Shield. The National Women’s Health Network reports that modern IUDs are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and are therefore much safer, a success of women’s health activists of the seventies.
Access to IUDs could still be improved. At the time I had insurance through my employer, and though the IUD insertion procedure was covered, the device itself was not. I had to pay $225 out of pocket for it, a cost that I did not expect, and could afford, but just barely.
IUDs are the birth control I’ve been hearing more and more whispers about in the time since I’ve had mine. If they work for your body, they are a really fantastic method, long-lasting with no daily or monthly requirement. The Paragard is nice because menstruating is a sign that it is doing its job, and more than a year later, the security I feel on this method is priceless.