My Year of Ovulating

by Sarah McEachern

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1. Last year was the first in three that I was fertile. This year, I will remain fertile. My skin is a little less clear, but everything else is almost exactly the same. The biggest change is that I no longer carry a pack of birth control pills everywhere. Being fertile is not that much different from temporary, voluntary infertility. It feels odd that there isn’t a marked difference between the two states of being. It should feel like another world. But it doesn’t.

My years on birth control left me voluntarily in a state of un-ovulating for three years. At the time, this felt like control over my body, the ability to push it off course from its natural state of being. I was the dom, and my body was a sub whom I made become an un-ovulating entity. Now that I’m fertile again, I see this all differently. There is less of a power dynamic between me and my uterus, my womb, my ovaries, my fallopian tubes. Instead, they’re up to their own things, me to mine, and we’re nodding at each other in agreement as we go about our days.

When I was in a state of non-ovulating, I felt like my uterus was an empty vessel I neglected to fill. I avoided its reason for existing, told it no, we’re not doing that right now. I got off on feeling like this. On feeling in complete control of my body. When a uterus is not pregnant, it folds on itself, suctioning together and taking up as little space as possible. There is no open space inside the body when not pregnant, when un-ovulating. It’s not in a state of disuse, yearning to be productive. I know this now. My womb fits into itself within me, just behind my pelvis.


2. I didn’t start taking birth control as a contraceptive. In my late teens, I started throwing up the week before I got my period. During one of my periods, my tongue broke out in small, tiny painful blisters called lie bumps. They disappeared as soon as my period ended. The next period, twice as many came back. At the time, the state paid my tuition for a gifted program to go to college early, and I went to a religious college where Republican representatives would speak in the chapel. Annoyed with having to leave class to throw up, I went to health services since it was free and easier than driving to the doctor. The small office was in the basement of the academic building, where all the professors had offices. I only waited a little bit before the nurse had me come back, pulling a curtain to give us some privacy. It didn’t take long for the nurse to tell me that I was probably experiencing nausea because of irregular hormones. The best course of action would be to regulate my hormones with birth control.

“It won’t really impact the behavior policy,” the nurse told me, “since you won’t be using it as a contraceptive.”

What she meant was that I wouldn’t get kicked out of school for taking birth control if I didn’t have sex while taking it. You could easily get kicked out for what the school deemed immoral behavior, like being openly gay, having premarital sex, or drinking alcohol.

Before my thoughts could even connect to form something to say, she told me, “Don’t worry. We won’t have to do a pelvic.”

It was clear I was supposed to be afraid of the exam. This was the expectation, just like I was assumed to not be having sex, to be apprehensive about birth control, and embarrassed to discuss my uterus-induced medical issues with her. She talked to me like she was waiting for my shame to become tangible in the small room, palpable in the air.

I had morning sickness, although mine was caused by a hormonal imbalance, not pregnancy. I wasn’t asked if my hormone-induced nausea could have been caused by a pregnancy, even though the symptoms overlapped. The possibility was totally omitted. If I was having premarital sex, this would be grounds for expulsion. I was seventeen and terrified to lose the scholarship that paid for me to attend college while in high school. Instead, I went to an herb shop, where the herbalist explained that according to traditional Chinese medicine, it wasn’t my uterus causing the trouble, but my spleen, where my qi was probably stuck. I nodded along, and bought a bottle of the pills for eleven dollars. I took the small and perfectly round green pills for six weeks. I stopped puking.

This was my first brush with the possibility of altering my fertility, and I turned it down not because I wanted to be fertile, but because I was scared it could get me expelled. I felt like I was in chaos, wildly careening out of control. My body was out of line, and I would be too if I took birth control pills to get it back on track.


3. When I talk about my womb, I’m talking more about the idea of it than the actual organ. I’ve never had the chance to look at my uterus, to feel it, to see with my own eyes into the darkness of my body where it lives. I don’t know what color my uterus is the same way I have never touched one of my own bones. Unless, I guess, you count your teeth as bones. I don’t.

I enjoy writing and talking about my uterus in the same way people change their hair or get tattoos—all of which could be interpreted as a gendered performance. Mostly, I’m thinking more about getting closer to my body. Feeling more connected, especially when my mind seems to fly above my body, when I feel removed from the reality I’m in because of the mania of anxiety, the downs of depression, or my rapidly shifting mind trying to entertain me when I’m bored at work.

I’m still working to put names to myself using the words developed by men, within a framework of medicine that is and was organized to control a uterus to produce heirs, to push midwives out of the delivery room, to fill it with men with forceps. The speculum was invented by a surgeon who performed experimental surgery on enslaved Black women without anesthesia. The majority of people who have uteri I talk to who have relied on birth control pills for years don’t know how they work. Most everyone I know says vagina when they mean vulva. Perhaps, many couldn’t even tell you the difference. Sometimes, I still revert to the incorrect term so that I can be understood correctly. I would rather be wrong than misunderstood.

My uterus enables so many to assume my likes and dislikes: what I like to wear, what I want to do with my life, how I feel about having children, how I think, and what I think about. It’s a small pink glob the size of a pear that everyone, perhaps me most of all, is projecting on. My uterus doesn’t have thoughts, just a schedule. At the end of the day, it’s only an organ that cares about no one and nothing. I’ve spent years trying to get my uterus to shut up so I can feel independent of it, to prove our disconnection, but the reality is, I want to love my uterus. I want my body, all of its parts, to interact with me. I want to bond with my body. I want my body to fully be a part of who I am, even if we don’t always get along.


4. I started taking birth control when I lived in Paris for a year. I went to an English-speaking gynecologist, run by a Canadian, whose office was in view of the Eiffel Tower. The prescription made me bleed between periods, so I went back to get a stronger one. The gynecologist implied I was irresponsible for not getting my HPV shots. My parents had deemed them obsolete, since they really only were meant for the sexually promiscuous. I’d later find out that having four sexual partners put you at risk. I got them two years later, when I’d moved to New York City after graduating college, all three at the Planned Parenthood in the Bowery.

My first prescription birth control was a rectangle with an inner small white border. There were only twenty-one pills, all of which were active. There were no sugar pills (nor iron pills, in the newer packs) like in American packs. Instead of taking pills that didn’t do anything to keep up a routine, you were meant to simply not take anything for a week between packs. The days of the week were in French: lundi, mardi, mercredi, jeudi, vendredi, samedi, dimanche.

When I started, I felt responsible for being able to remember to take a pill every day at the same time. More than living in a foreign country and going through adult tasks while speaking another language: opening a bank account, getting a cell phone plan, going to the doctor’s office, finding my way home after the métro closed. Taking birth control every day made me feel like I placebo-ed from girl to woman. I remember wishing my birth control came in little compacts like they were first produced in the fifties. For years, I loved taking them. I was in control, and I was doing a great job. The panic attacks I had suffered that entire year, that I started going to therapy for, suddenly disappeared. The small pills seemed to distribute my anxiety into a daily, uniform amount, making it easier to anticipate and manage.

I took the pills for twenty-one days of every month for the next three years until I stopped in January of last year. I’ve had the same prescription for three years, but because of insurance and different doctors, I’ve taken four different brands of the same combination birth control pills. The last ones were made up of twenty-one small pink pills, which looked like SweeTarts, and seven active pills, green, which looked like Gobstoppers. I felt childish taking them.

The only other time I was fertile was the three-week period my birth control got lost in the mail, and then as soon as I got it, I was on antibiotics, making my birth control void. I found my fertility akin to a burden. I stopped having sex the way that I wanted to. I wanted to be again in a state of un-ovulating. It was an annoyance to let my body do what it wanted to.

Now that I’m willfully fertile, it feels like a private mystery is unfolding inside of my body. I stopped taking the pills because I wanted to anticipate its moves instead of control them. I’d like us both, my body and myself, to find mutual respect for each other’s lives.


5. My vigilance in going to the gynecologist every year is actually because I just like to talk about my uterus, which feels socially acceptable with a doctor who specializes in it. If I could discuss my uterus over coffee with my friends on a biweekly basis, I’d be content, but I can’t seem to find other people with an interest in doing so. I could discuss my broken foot or my resume, but somehow the womb is off limits. The fact I can bleed so often and so much without dying is fascinating, and no one wants to talk about it as often as it happens.

When I was young and first started menstruating, if getting your period was brought up at a sleepover, everyone took turns complaining. What they hated the most: the cramps, the mess, the discomfort, the smell, the pain of pubic hair caught in the sticky wings of a pad. I agreed with a few of these and let everyone know. But I loved, and still love, getting my period. Yes, the first day is nasty, and I’ll get a terrible headache the second because of the drop in estrogen. But I love the secrecy of it, the duplicity of my womb keeping its own schedule no matter what else I have going on. My body’s built-in reminder that I need to calm down and pay attention to myself.

In some puberty book I read as a young girl, there was a Q&A section where it asked, Can anyone know when I am having my period? The answer was Not unless you tell them. I always think of this passage when watching female athletes at the Olympics. I’d love it if red dots showed up next to their names, if they volunteered this information while we’re all watching their bodies perform while being critiqued and assessed for the masses. I’d love in the after interviews if they discussed what they were using to catch the blood, how it made them stronger or tired them out. What it felt like to break a record while bleeding, to be the best and be bleeding, their bodies going through their own rituals while the national anthem played. That’s what I really want to know. In reality, the copious amounts of exercise Olympic competitors go through while rigorously training means the majority have athletic amenorrhea, the lack of a menstrual period due to intense activity.


6. After my year of fertility, I went back to the gynecologist. She seemed less impressed than I had imagined she would be with a year of my careful documentation of my uterus. I’d kept notes: the dates of twelve periods, the intermittent cramps that must have been mittelschmerz when I was ovulating, the skin on my back becoming terribly itchy when my body made progesterone, the small lie bumps on my tongue I had gotten twice on the second day of my period, how I knew I would wake up two mornings in a row panicking around the time my body ovulated, which days during my period I would be nauseous.

I told her that even though I had been keenly observing my ovulating for a year, I had yet to find a truly consistent cycle. The number of days between periods fluctuated wildly month to month. In December, I found myself in a long cycle, long enough that I was concerned. Based on my weight and irregular cycle, she told me I had polycystic ovary syndrome. She also referred to this as “a garbage can diagnosis,” since no one really knew what it meant, why it happened, and the diagnosis was based on vague grounds. There was no discussion of a follow-up pelvic ultrasound to see if I had cysts on my ovaries. She told me the criteria that I fit was irregular periods and being thin.

“Unless you want to get pregnant,” she told me, “I wouldn’t really worry about it. It shouldn’t affect you too much until you start trying to conceive, since it could make that difficult.”

At my age, the complication I should worry about, according to her, was that if I was having unsafe sex, I could end up pregnant without knowing for a long time. I would have a hard time predicting when I was ovulating and when I could expect to menstruate. I told her that I knew when I ovulated because I would wake up panicking for three days in a row, pure terror that dissipated when my window of fertility opened, when an egg dropped from my ovary into my fallopian tube. I told her that I started going to therapy again right when I stopped taking birth control for this very reason, because I was scared of my estrogen-fueled panic attacks coming back. My gynecologist suggested prescribing Prozac, which I could take as needed during these days, perhaps even during my entire luteal phase—between ovulating and menstruating. Taking it might cause me to feel electric shocks in my brain, but this was perhaps preferable to panic.

“I make a habit of paying really close attention to my body,” I said. I returned to my data collection: my list of symptoms caused by the hormones my body made. The sharp drops in estrogen I felt after I ovulated, the way it made my skin on my back break out or become intolerably itchy. She nodded, noting that the estrogen in my body was probably elevated because of my body’s laggy making of progesterone, a part of the PCOS diagnosis.

“In this weather, I’d suggest Gold Bond for itchy skin,” she told me, as if the possibility of a drugstore lotion had never crossed my mind. “I wouldn’t worry about the PCOS until you want to use your uterus.”

My uterus, functioning within the correct time limits monthly or not, ceased to be in her mind if not being used in its most basic form. This woman who I had graciously just allowed to look directly into my body was uninterested in it. It was just me and my uterus at the end of the day who had to work things out between us. There was no room for a third in our relationship.


7. I didn’t take the Prozac prescription, and instead I went to an herb shop to ask for their recommendation. I was again doing what I did when I was seventeen, but I felt in charge. I could take the Prozac if I wanted, or I could take another drug like Metformin for the PCOS. I could even start taking birth control again, enter a state of un-ovulating. I opted for an herb called chasteberry, which encourages my pituitary gland to produce progesterone. It’s recommended mostly for fertility, which in a way, was what I needed, even though it wasn’t a baby I was after. Ten days of taking it twice daily bumped my cycle from a worrying fifty-six days to a healthy twenty-six days. I now get my period every twenty-five or twenty-six days like clockwork, and I only take chasteberry once a week. Soon, I’ll be able to cut it out entirely, relying only on my body to keep track of time.

I don’t know what this means about the potential of having PCOS, which I’m not ready to totally rule out, but I also suspect that it was difficult to bounce back from the synthetic hormones of birth control, that my body was simply slow in making its own hormones at the correct levels. This would explain the twin issue of too high estrogen, since they aren’t able to cancel each other out like they’re meant to. Why was my body lazy to find its own rhythm again when I was ready to listen to it? Absolutely no clue.

I feel at times that three years of un-ovulating caused this, but then again, there were my weeks of nausea in high school. The intense panic attacks that almost entirely evaporated when I started taking birth control. The nausea came back during my return to ovulation, and more than once I’ve left the subway during my morning commute to dry heave. Once I even watched a former lover transfer trains in front of me, thankfully not noticing me hunched over a trash can on the platform. The birth control might have masked, or partially resolved, a larger issue my body was creating in itself. Only after I stopped, it fully came to the surface and caught my attention.

I’ve fallen into a black hole on the internet with regards to my diagnosis, my potential infertility, the reasons that my body is not making enough progesterone. It could be the unexplained blurry background to PCOS, which, like my gynecologist alluded to, is a vague diagnosis given to people too thin or overweight when they voice any concern about their uterus—intense cramps, mood swings, irregular cycles. I don’t have other symptoms for it.

I could try other things. I started taking Omega-3s in the form of expensive krill oil. This is a possibility, that my body needs a reserve of “good fat” to make progesterone. I could try seed cycling—eating certain seeds at different times of my cycle to stimulate the correct hormone production, regulate everything. I could start going to hot yoga five days a week again. Then again, there’s always acupuncture, which can allegedly stimulate and regulate all these things as well. I went once after seeing my gynecologist, asking the acupuncturist to help me get in touch with my womb. With needles in my hands and face, I lay still while I pictured my uterus inside my body. Doing all of these things, I know the placebo might possibly be stronger than anything else, and ironically, I could arrive at the same desired result.

I’ve moved closer to a healthier cycle now than I have in the last six months. I’ve been cured or misdiagnosed; I’ve been patient enough with my body. I can go back to therapy if the panicking is too much to deal with, to push through with deep breaths learned from yoga. I can access birth control at any time, and I never have to fear being expelled for taking it. I can eat more fish, less dairy, more leafy greens, or take more supplements, use the money allocated in my health insurance plan, and then reassess when I next go to the doctor, when she told me to come back and talk about it again. I could also go to another doctor who might be more into my menstruation memoirs that I keep scribbling in the margins of my planner.

This isn’t the bonding experience I wanted with my uterus. It doesn’t feel comforting anymore to fall into the rhythm of my body, to be reminded that it’s not my mind that’s in charge of the rest of me. I feel less control now than ever before. I’m not sure what’s going on, and its impacts feel more real, more life-altering than they had the potential to be before. It’s likely I may never truly understand the reason behind my imbalanced hormones, my irregular cycles, even if they become like clockwork. It may not be for me to know, just like I may never be able to gaze upon my uterus itself.


8. I’d like to be pregnant as an experiment, then give birth, but not to a baby. I wouldn’t want to share my theoretical pregnancy with anyone, let alone a fetus. I’d want to go through the whole process to grow alongside my body, no need for anyone else to be involved. Just me and my uterus. Our own bonding experience, both of us transformed. But I’ve come to realize, during my year of ovulating, devoted to my uterus’s whims and trying to decode each one, that my uterus doesn’t necessarily care about me, even if I care about it. As an organ, it probably does not feel feelings.

Still, I long to know what my body is up to independently of me, within me. Everything I’ve read online to find out about what my uterus has been up to has been on trying-to-conceive blogs. I haven’t found any information curated for those simply fascinated with understanding their bodies. I’m getting closer to knowing exactly the day that I’m most fertile. I strut down the sidewalks feeling powerful when this happens, proud like I was when I broke a bone as a child and it magically healed itself.

No one knows what’s happening besides me and my body. What we’re up to as a fearsome twosome. The potential and power within my fallopian tube is a secret only I know. No one else can know by looking at me, only know if I tell them about it. Next month I’ll try to figure out which ovary is up to bat—right or left.