Every day at 12:45 PM, the alarm on my phone rings and I pop a birth control pill into my mouth. Whether I’m at home alone on a Saturday, out at lunch with my in-laws, or at a professional training, I pull my birth control pills out of their discreet protective sleeve and take my pill. I am 24 years old, married, and a commuter student at my doctoral program and I am not ready to become pregnant.
To Hide or Not Hide?
When I first got my pills and was trying to decide what time of day to take them (because you have to take them at the same time every day for them to be most effective), I had to make a big choice: would I or would I not hide my medication from the people around me?
The only way to be absolutely sure that I wouldn’t have to take them in public would be if I took them early in the morning or late at night when I was certain to be home. But what if I slept in one day or went to bed early? What about when I traveled to another time zone? And how would I make sure I always had food around to take them with to prevent nausea?
I decided that the easiest time of day to take them would be at lunch when I was sure to be awake and have food near me. When I started taking my pills, I had one class that ended at 12:30 and another that began at 1:00, so I picked 12:45 for my daily alarm. And I decided that I would take them no matter what, even if I was in public.
But was that OK? What would people think if they saw me? Would it be seen as inappropriate, too personal, or sexual? Concerns about social acceptability are especially high among women of color, for whom contraception can have a wide variety of cultural meanings.
In my social context, what stuck out for me was that I had never seen anyone taking their birth control pills in public. If everyone else was hiding them, shouldn’t I?
But I decided that I wanted to not be pregnant much more than I wanted to avoid social stigma. I didn’t want to miss a pill, and I didn’t want to get sick. I chose that I would take them at lunch, no matter who else was around.
A Pill or Not a Pill?
You may be thinking to yourself (even if you are trying not to judge me!), why on earth didn’t I just use a more discreet method of birth control if I was so concerned about this? Didn’t I research my options?
I can’t begin to tell you how much I researched my options. I’m a 5 on the Enneagram, which means that thinking and planning are where I go for comfort, so you can bet I was digging into the scientific literature on contraception.
When I got married, I was on the copper IUD at first. I wanted to do things more ‘naturally’ and I was worried about the side effects of hormonal contraception. I hung in there for eight months with the copper IUD, and they were the most continuously painful months of my life. I cramped before, during, and after my period, and I took at least 3 Motrin a day on half the days of the month. Eventually, I figured out that the side effects weren’t going to go away and that I couldn’t live like this anymore. I had to find a new method of birth control.
The pill was a natural next option to try, but I was still concerned about it since I knew that hormones are powerful. I knew people whose periods got worse, whose hair fell out, and who got blood clots. I worried too about the less life-changing side effects, like mood swings, spotting, or lower libido. I researched hormones, dosages, and phases, trying to find the birth control pill that would be easiest on my body. Ultimately, I let my OB-GYN make the final recommendation for me.
And, friends, I love being on the pill!
I have no side effects. My periods are lighter, shorter, and less painful. I could never have expected this. I love it!
To Set It and Forget It?
In addition to giving up secrecy, the other thing I gave up when I switched from the copper IUD to the pill was that my method of contraception was no longer ‘set it and forget it.’ That is, I had to remember to use my contraception every day, otherwise, it wouldn’t work.
This was very frightening for me. I felt that if I missed a dose and got pregnant, it would be my fault for being irresponsible. I imagined having to explain to people, my friends and family, and professors, that I hadn’t been careful enough with my contraception and had to drop out of school because of it.
Switching to the pill made me constantly worry about this. Every month, when my period drew near, I counted on my fingers and planned what I would do if I was pregnant, specifically, how and whether I would finish my degree. This was the first month when I could breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that if I got pregnant at this moment, I wouldn’t give birth until after finishing the last finals of my coursework.
The emotional and physical labor of contraception falls heavily on people who can get pregnant. We not only have more numerous and more effective options compared to people who can impregnate, but we are also blamed socially for our negligence if we do become pregnant.
Although I couldn’t change the current state of the science of birth control, or the immediate reactions of the people around me, I could give myself more agency and so reduce the anxiety that I felt. Rather than letting society’s judgment dictate the efficacy of my birth control, I chose to take my pills however I needed to in order to grant me peace of mind and give myself more control over this inherently unpredictable part of life.
To Each Their Own
If there’s anything I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that nobody should override your decisions about birth control and nobody can tell you how your own body is going to react to a given method of contraception. Our bodies and circumstances are all unique, and no one should ever shame another person for their choices around contraception or family planning.
Contraception is important for so many people, but it hasn’t always been used as a positive force for good, and it should never be leveraged as a force of control over others. Women of color in the U.S. have been sterilized against their wills and have been experimented on for the development of hormonal birth control. It is crucial that we respect one another’s bodily autonomy, both in medicine and in everyday practice.
We can empower previously exploited and shamed populations by removing the stigma of birth control through the simple act of unashamedly sharing our contraception stories with each other, and then allowing each other to make our own decisions.
I wish I had known when to give up on my copper IUD. I wish I had known that those sugar pills really do help you remember to take your pill every day. I wish I had heard people talk more about how to know you’re on a method of contraception you love, rather than just hearing the horror stories.
I’m very grateful for the freedom that contraception provides me. It lets me pursue my career while living in another state with my husband who is also pursuing his career.
I take my birth control pills in public because doing so is most liberating for me. In this daily practice, I am reminded that my body is mine and that the choices I make are worthy of respect.
Haley Gabrielle is a Ph.D. student in Religion, with a focus on the New Testament at Emory University. She earned her Master of Arts in Religion, concentrating in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, at Yale Divinity School in 2018. Haley is a non-denominational charismatic Christian who currently attends a United Methodist church.