Pee on a stick


Dear Andrea:
We use a fertility monitor for birth control — my partner pees on a stick and inserts the stick in the monitor, and it tells her when she's fertile. This device is designed to tell you when you are likely to get pregnant — we are using it to abstain on the fertile days. This would seem to be more accurate than the rhythm method. Do you think this might be a valid (and less invasive) method of birth control?
Sticks Not Pills

Dear Stick:
Sure, of course it is. I wouldn't go so far as to say that they wouldn't sell such a thing if it weren't valid ("they" sell all kinds of stupid stuff), but there's good science to support fertility awareness, both as a contraceptive method and a conception aid. In truth, you don't even need the monitor, since a woman's body will tell her what it's up to if she knows how to listen. I can't say the manual version is really for everyone though. It requires both obsessive-compulsive tendencies and a high tolerance for low-level grossness, which is to say, it suited me perfectly, but your partner is under no obligation.
If you (the generic you, not the specific, biologically male you) want to do fertility awareness without a monitor, you will need a cheap digital thermometer and some paper or a spreadsheet program. There's a very slight, like a couple tenths of a degree slight, rise in temperature after a woman ovulates, best recorded first thing in the morning before she does anything else, like even sit up. Any given temperature reading is meaningless in itself, but over a few months a pattern tends to emerge. Some very nutty data queens get a kick out of making charts with multiple colored pencils; others enjoy downloading charting software to their PDAs. Normal people will just consider it another dull but necessary maintenance task, like flossing.
Perhaps the most meaningful, and certainly the ickiest, of the fertility awareness signs is the state of one's cervical mucus. Toni Weschler, the queen of fertility awareness methods, likes to tell the story of how she was unable to get herself booked on any of the wholesome morning talk shows and was completely flummoxed — the audiences are mostly women! Women are very interested in birth control, particularly free or cheap, totally safe, and quite reliable birth control. Then she tried telling the producers that she'd be talking about cervical fluid. Nobody wants to hear about mucus, particularly right after breakfast. Anyway, cervical fluid runs free and clear like a mountain stream (except ickier) when a woman is fertile and dries up and becomes inhospitable, if not downright rude, to sperm when she is not.
There are other signs and wonders to marvel at and to record obsessively with colored pencils. The Internet is full of detailed instructions, as is Weschler's widely read book, Taking Control of Your Fertility. I myself am a fan of obsessive charting combined with ovulation predictor kits, which are basically just the sticks without the little computer to read them out for you. The only real difference is that the monitor, when it determines that a woman is fertile, produces a wee hen's-egg-shaped icon, which always bothered me a little. If I'm finding nursing a bit disturbingly bovine, I found that picture just a little too ... chickeny. Now that I actually have kids, there are enough things around here that cluck and moo, thanks.

Dear Andrea:
I am in a long-distance relationship. Sometimes when I see my girlfriend, she's on her rag, and so we can't have sex. She suggested buying some medicine to control her rag or at least delay it. I don't know anything about pills: can they cause people to be unable to get pregnant? I know that she's getting the pills because sex is important to both of us, but I'm worried about her health. Is there a pill that you could suggest?
Pill or No Pill?

Dear Pill:
You know that "on her rag" is not the proper technical term, right?