In the U.S., sex ed (if you get any kind of sex ed at all) focuses mostly on abstinence and, if you’re lucky, how to put a condom on a banana. In high school biology class you might get an overview of what happens when you menstruate. If you pay attention, you might be able to connect these two points of education to figure something out about your fertility and your chances of getting pregnant.
However, most of us go into adulthood with very little understanding of how our bodies work. This knowledge gap cultivates fear and shame and keeps that menstrual taboo going. As time passes, pharmaceutical companies get to fill the gap with advertising, marketing, and medications. Myths are passed from generation to generation—mother to daughter—and they become powerful in their repetition. Such myths prevent us from making informed decisions about our fertility and reproductive health.
Fertility myth: You can get pregnant at any point in your cycle
Fertility fact: Women are only able to get pregnant during six days per menstrual cycle. This six day window includes the 1–2 days your ovum or egg will survive (fraternal twins come from your body releasing two eggs in a 24 hour timeframe) plus the five days maximum that sperm can survive in the female body. So while you may have grown up worrying about hot tub pregnancies and viewing your body as a ticking time bomb, it’s actually much harder to get pregnant from any one sexual encounter than it is to get an STD. There are days of your cycle in which you cannot get pregnant (a built-in birth control, if you like).
Fertility myth: You don’t need to have a period
Fertility fact: You may have come to believe periods are unnecessary or even bad for your health. Why? Well this myth comes down to one man—a Dr. Coutinho—who merged his desire to profit off the birth control implant with the prevalent menstrual taboo to write a book that made this claim. In this book, he argues that because women in the Paleolithic era probably did not experience as many periods as modern day women, modern day women are not supposed to have that many periods either and should suppress them with birth control.
Of course, we can only speculate on the lives of Paleolithic women as they existed pre-science and pre-society, however they also died in their 40s, as a rule. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recently recommended we view periods as “the fifth vital sign” of health for women. Periods are part of a full hormonal cycle that includes health-boosting ovulation, and evolution (also a science) has determined we continue to have periods into the 21st century. There’s something particularly sexist about gas-lighting half the population about their bodies, especially as periods determine the ongoing existence of humanity itself!
Fertility myth: Birth control regulates your period
Fertility fact: There are many myths surrounding birth control, but the one that is repeated the most often must be that birth control “regulates” your cycle. The majority of hormonal birth control methods work by suppressing your body’s own production of hormones and replacing those hormones with its synthetic versions. So, you are not experiencing any kind of cycle when on birth control. The bleeding you experience during your break week of sugar pills is a withdrawal bleed and not physiologically the same as actual menstruation. This means when you go off hormonal birth control, you may have to wait for your real periods to return and for your body to produce enough hormones to support ovulation.
Fertility myth: Fertility is only important if you want a baby
Fertility fact: Being fertile is about much more than being able to have a baby. Even if you never want to have a child, being fertile has many health benefits that can improve your overall quality of life. Ovulating regularly (most cycles) means your body is happy and healthy. We’ve been designed so that ovulation will not happen if we’re under a lot of stress, nutritionally deficient, or sick. This is because your body knows when it’s a bad time to conceive a baby. If you’re not ovulating there’s an underlying hormonal imbalance issue or you have had a month of not taking good care of yourself with food choices, sleep, and self care. Ovulation boosts both your physical and mental health—without ovulation you’ll experience more premenstrual symptoms across the spectrum and short and long term health issues.
Fertility myth: If you’ve been having unprotected sex and not gotten pregnant, you’re probably infertile
Fertility fact: Many women are advised when trying to get pregnant that they will ovulate in the middle of their cycle (or day 14 exactly) and to just have sex twice a week to conceive. As just mentioned, women can only get pregnant on 6 days per cycle; that’s a relatively brief window in which you need to have unprotected PIV (penis-in-vagina) sex to get pregnant—and one that can be easily missed in many long term couple’s sex schedules.
Plus, the older you are, the closer you need to time that sex to your ovulation to increase your chances of conception. In your 30s, especially after 35, it’s a good idea to time sex just one or two days prior to your predicted ovulation. This is also a good idea considering, as mentioned, sperm lives a maximum of 5 days in the female body, but most sperm won’t live even that long due to the environmental, dietary, and lifestyle factors that impact male fertility. Getting to know your cycle intimately can be very helpful to conceiving and it’s never a good idea to rely on averages or assumptions.