(Originally written for LiveWell Collective)
With all the cute planners, digital calendars, and fancy phone apps available, keeping track of your period is easier than ever. Whether you write little dots on your wall calendar or record it in your phone, many of us want to remember when our last period started.
But there is so much more knowledge to be gained than simply keeping track of when you bleed. I’m referring to the practice known as ‘cycle charting’. Have you ever heard of it? Cycle charting is simply observing and recording your body’s signs of fertility, which include cervical fluid, basal body temperature, vaginal sensation, and cervical position.
By doing this, you can create a visual chart mapping the various hormonal phases and events in your cycle, such as the pre-ovulatory estrogen build up, the tell-tale high progesterone phase that dominates the second half of your cycle, and of course, menstruation itself. Learning to chart is a fascinating process that often sets a woman on a journey of self-discovery.
Besides being simply interesting, cycle charting actually has practical applications as well. Here are my three favorites.
1. Cycle charting promotes body literacy.
Cycle charting will probably teach you more about your body than you ever knew before. For example, did you know that you can only get pregnant about 6 days each cycle? Did you know that your cycle can be divided into distinct phases? Or that your cervix changes shape and position throughout your cycle? Or that you don’t need to pee on a stick to know when you ovulate? Not only does charting give you a deeper understanding of how your body works physically, but it can also help you to discover how your cycle effects your relationships and emotional experiences on a day to day basis.
2. Cycle charting can be used to plan your family.
As I mentioned before, pregnancy is only possible during a short handful of days each cycle. Your fertile window is determined by hormonal and physiological conditions being just right for conception to occur, along with the timely presence of sperm and an egg. Your body has observable signs of fertility that allow you to accurately determine when the fertile window begins and ends. This knowledge can be used to practice natural family planning, or NFP. Not to be confused with the outdated Rhythm Method, which relies on counting days and knowledge of past cycles guess at the timing of the fertile window, NFP relies on real-time physical observations so you can identify the fertile window as soon as it starts, whether your periods come regularly or not. You can simply avoid intercourse during the fertile time, resulting in a 99.4% effective way to avoid pregnancy. This can mean freedom from the risks and side effects of the Pill and other forms of birth control. This is a game changer!
As you can imagine, this same skill set can be used to maximize your chances at conceiving. Not only does cycle charting allow you to accurately identify the best days for conception, but it also helps you asses if you have optimal fertility.
A simple description of natural family planning (NFP) is using knowledge of a woman's cyclical fertility to avoid or achieve pregnancy. The fertile window is determined by observing physical signs of fertility. Not terribly complicated, right? But what exactly are these fertility signs, and why can we trust them? Can a woman really tell if she's fertile simply by observing her body?
Fertility signs are physical biomarkers that reveal where a woman is in her menstrual cycle. Because the fertile window only occurs once per cycle, knowing when that window occurs is vital if a couple wishes to avoid pregnancy naturally (by abstaining during the fertile time), or if they are trying to conceive. Most fertility signs can be observed by the woman herself with no medical tests or specialized equipment. The signs commonly used in most methods of natural family planning are:
Why fertility signs are trustworthy
The reason that fertility signs can be relied upon to detect a woman's brief fertile window is this: fertility signs are direct reflections of hormonal activity. Since women's sex hormones fluctuate in a very particular manner throughout the stages of her cycle, her fertility signs will show exactly what her body is doing.
For example, a woman's basal body temperature will rise slightly in response to the hormone progesterone. Fertile quality cervical mucus is produced by the cervix according to a woman's estrogen levels. To a woman trained in fertility awareness, the presence of these signs is unmistakable and their timing tells the story of what her hormones are doing. Even though the moment of ovulation (the once-per-cycle release of an egg from an ovary) can't be detected without ultrasound, the hormonal events surrounding ovulation can be clearly observed through fertility signs. Because of this, a woman who uses NFP can confidently determine when her fertility begins and ends in any given cycle.
The implications of this are widespread. As previously mentioned, the ability to determine when she is and isn't fertile gives a woman incredible control and flexibility in her family planning. Pregnancy can be avoided with no pills, devices, or barriers. A couple can also optimally time lovemaking for achieving pregnancy.
But beyond family planning. learning to understand her fertility signs can help a woman to understand and monitor her health. Knowing her usual pattern of healthy cervical fluid will allow the woman to be the first to know if she has some kind of cervical or vaginal abnormality. Fertility charts, records of daily fertility signs, can reveal hormonal imbalances or other health issues. Learning fertility awareness can truly enable women to be active participants in their own healthcare.
Fertility signs are reliable, physical reflections of the day by day hormonal story of your cycle. Would you like to know more about how natural family planning works and why it's effective? Read some frequently asked questions or contact me!
As a natural family planning instructor and fertility educator, I'm not shy about praising the virtues of women's natural cycles. What I don't often discuss is those times in our lives where our normal, cyclical fertility may be suspended for a time. This could perhaps be from the use of artificial hormonal medication, from illness or over exercise, or for happier reasons such as pregnancy and breastfeeding. As much as a monthly cycle is the biological norm for women, these times without our periods can be a normal part of the feminine experience as well.
If you have experienced times of non-cycling, you may be familiar with the mixed emotions that accompany the return of your periods and fertility. Even a mature woman can feel like a teenage girl as she tries to get accustomed to having periods again. While this time can be unsettling, disorienting and distracting, it can also be exciting, rejuvenating, and grounding! Let's talk about some practical ways to gently reacquaint yourself with your period.
As your period returns, this can be an excellent time to evaluate your lifestyle and self-care routine. Are you happy with your old menstrual care products, or would you like to try something new? Are you consuming energy-giving, nourishing foods? Have you found a regular form of exercise that is fun and inspiring? Our period can act as our monthly health report. If it quickly becomes painful, too heavy or light, irregular, or difficult to manage, it might be a good time to assess what you can change about your lifestyle to support healthy periods and overall well-being.
This is also the perfect time to learn more about your cycle and practice fertility awareness. Remember, your cycle is everything that happens from the start of one period to the start of the next. The cycle is an intricate interplay of biological processes that affects us both physically and emotionally. Do you know about the different phases of the cycle and how they affect you? Do you know when your fertile window begins and ends? Do you know what your fertility signs are and how to chart them? There has never been a better time to learn than right now!
Finally, let this be a time of leaning in and engaging with others. Our feminine biology is something that connects us to other women. Remember puberty? Though it has its awkward moments, puberty is often a time when girls chat about their bodies and their feelings, share stories, and support each other in the reality of becoming women. I would love to see adults do this too! Whether we are living with regular cycles, no cycles, pregnancy, infertility, perimenopause, we can use our uniquely feminine experiences to draw us into deeper community and authentic relationships.
And if you have questions about the female cycle, or you want to know how to begin evaluating if you are living a cycle-supporting lifestyle, you came to the right place. I would love to hear from you! Email me at email@example.com, contact me through this form, or join the Wellspring NFP and More Facebook group.
Originally written for the Guiding Star Project.
Last night at quarter after nine in the evening, there was still light outside my window. As usual, summer has fully arrived almost without me realizing it! I don’t know about you, but this summer is a particularly busy season for my family. We’re juggling selling one house, buying another, moving, keeping up with growing little ones, new job responsibilities, traveling, weddings, graduation parties, and lots of time with family. Does this sound like your summer too? While this is all wonderful and exciting, it can also be rather draining. My husband and I are feeling a bit frazzled and distracted these days. Romance is often on the back burner, and it can be hard to stay connected. Thankfully, there are ways to work on staying in love! Here are some ideas for nurturing your relationship with your spouse this summer:
1. Small gestures have big impact
Between long hot work days, crowded family reunions and kids’ baseball games, it’s easy to lose track of each other and disconnect physically. If you’re hosting houseguests or traveling, you may not have much alone time for days or weeks at a time. In these moments, eye contact, holding hands, and stolen kisses serve as powerful reminders that you are there for each other and still interested. Never underestimate how grounding (and sexy!) a meaningful glance can be.
As a seasoned natural family planning (NFP) user, I must admit that at times I get sloppy. I know my body and my fertility signs very well, and I often know what I'm going to see on a given day of my cycle. Because of this, it's tempting to take shortcuts in my observational routine; that is, the way that I observe my body's signs of fertility. But having a solid observational routine is the fundamental skill that ensures effectiveness of natural family planning, so no matter how comfortable you are with the method, it's important to stay on top of this! Think about it; your observations are what sets NFP apart from the Rhythm Method. The Rhythm Method is a way of predicting your fertile window based on the length of your past cycles, but it does you no good if you have irregular cycles, are breastfeeding, perimenopause, or post-Pill. If you aren't diligently watching your body's symptoms of fertility, then your guesswork leaves you vulnerable to the occasional early or delayed ovulation. So how do you prevent this?
Here are the hallmarks of a good observation routine:
You are aware of your vaginal sensation throughout the day, and you are checking for cervical mucus on your toilet paper before and after each time you use the bathroom. This is key, as sometimes you'll only observe mucus once or twice a day, so it's easily missed if you aren't consistent! If you have trouble remembering, try creative ideas like leaving your chart in the bathroom or putting a bright sticker on your underwear! Eventually it becomes such a habit that you'll make your observations almost without thinking.
In honor of Menstrual Hygiene Day on May 28th, I've asked my dear friend Emily Burnett to share her heart behind bringing education, empowerment, and practical menstrual hygiene solutions to girls in need.
Before I moved overseas, I don't remember giving thought to how women in developing countries manage their menstrual cycles. Buying tampons and pads seemed like a basic necessity, a non-negotiable, never given a second thought. I hadn't the slightest idea that, for millions of women and girls around the world, sanitary products are often an unaffordable luxury or altogether inaccessible.
With my host family in Cote d'Ivoire
But at twenty-one years old, I moved from Wisconsin to Cote d’Ivoire and my worldview began to change. I joined an organization called Journey Corps and moved into a host family in a small Ivorian village. There were always at least twelve people under our roof: dad, mom, their three little boys, five teenage nieces, a couple of nephews, and me. The girls became my dearest companions and cultural guides. Over the course of eight months, they taught me the way of life for young, unmarried women in Cote d’Ivoire, a life so different from my own.
Before long I noticed that my sisters didn’t buy sanitary products. Pads were available at some of the little wood-framed shops, but my sisters couldn’t afford them. In fact very few women at all could afford them. So instead they used old cloths, mattress foam, leaves, or straw. These materials led to infections and were ineffective during times of heavy flow, so the girls sometimes skipped school a couple days each month. Their school also wasn’t equipped with clean, private facilities or running water, making it even more difficult for girls to go to class during their periods. Three of my sisters failed their final exams and did not advance to the next grade. Thankfully they had a supportive family who encouraged them to try again. But it was a continuous struggle to keep up with their coursework. After eight months with my host family, I had the chance to travel to a handful of other countries in West Africa, where I heard the same story again and again. It was humbling to acknowledge that my experience of managing menstruation, one that didn’t interrupt my normal life or cause serious health issues, was unimaginable for so many women and girls. I couldn’t ignore this reality.
Spring is in full swing here in the Midwest. I can hardly believe it's already April 22nd, Earth Day! First established in 1970, Earth Day was designed to promote awareness of environmental issues and to celebrate our precious natural resources. It is a day that reminds us of the importance of conservation, personal responsibility, and practicing sustainability. These are rather grand ideas, but it’s surprisingly easy to put some of these concepts into daily practice. Let’s look at the definition of that last word:
1. The ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed.
2. In environmental science. The quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.
Usually when we think of the word ‘sustainability,’ we think about recycling, reducing waste, and making more eco-friendly purchases. But have you ever considered whether your birth control is sustainable?
Most sexually active adults have pondered the issue of family planning at one point or another. Even those who are not sexually active sometimes turn to medications intended for pregnancy prevention for entirely different reasons. In modern Western culture, birth control is firmly mainstream. If you are using some form of birth control or are considering doing so, you may not have thought about the possible personal or ecological impact. I’d like to talk about some basic categories of sustainability in which to frame a discussion of family planning, as well as to share about the benefits of using a fertility awareness based method (FABM), also known as Natural Family Planning (NFP), instead of a less environmentally friendly choice
(Written for the Guiding Star Project)
Period positivity can be defined as the practice of accepting menstruation as a normal and healthy process. But what is it for, why be 'period positive'?
In some parts of the world, where girls are literally quitting school because of a lack of menstrual care products, or find themselves ostracized from daily life because of a cultural belief that menstruation is dirty, widespread period positivity could make headway against inequality, oppression, and lost opportunity. Its value is evident.
But what what about in more familiar settings? Mainstream Western culture's version of 'period shaming' is certainly much less devastating, but it still exists in the form of misinformation, embarrassment, and lack of access to quality care. This is pretty surprising considering that menstruation is a basic bodily function of half the population.
I am encouraged by the recent cry against the period taboo. Periods are being discussed in the media, and 2015 has even been dubbed 'The Year of the Period'. More and more women are rejecting cycle-suppressing drugs, practicing fertility awareness, discussing their bodies, and feeling more comfortable simply acknowledging their periods.
But to what end? Period positivity, of course, can result in a self-esteem boost for women. Girl power, right? When we learn about the intricacies of our cycles, we feel comfortable in our own skin, more self-aware, and more confident in our womanhood. As a fertility educator, I've certainly promoted these things. And while all of this is great, I think period positivity can have a deeper impact than simply self-empowerment.
Natural childbirth is fascinating to me. Even before getting married and starting a family, someone recommended that I watch the documentary The Business of Being Born. I found it very compelling, and it inspired to me to look at women's bodies (and my own) in a new way. Of course I'm so grateful for modern medicine and good doctors to intervene when things go wrong. But I loved the idea that women were designed to give birth and that healthy, low risk pregnancies and births are natural processes and not medical events. Ever since, I've been interested to read about natural childbirth, watch birth videos, and listen to stories of women who've experienced it. I was even blessed enough to experience unmedicated births myself, one of which was a peaceful home water birth.
What is it that some of us find so appealing about natural childbirth? Why do we put ourselves through the pain (and sometimes ridicule!) that comes along with choosing to have a baby with little to no medical intervention?
I recently asked a group of natural birth enthusiasts this question, and here are some of their responses:
"It's empowering to have faith in your body."
"I love feeling the contractions and letting my body do what it knows to do."
"I believe women are made for natural birth, perfectly designed to bring our babies into the world with no need to intervene (in most cases)."
" After a very traumatic first birth, I knew there was something better. I began reading and researching natural birth, and it blossomed into a passion for all women to experience the beauty of it."
"Having a natural birth seemed to be in line with my other life choices- to do things that promote health, confidence, joy, and a respect of nature and my own instinct."
The practice of natural family planning (NFP) has numerous benefits. It’s effective, safe, free of side effects, can be used to avoid or achieve pregnancy, works with irregular (or non-existent) cycles, and helps women to manage their own healthcare. When presented with the many reasons to use NFP, many wary women and couples have asked the question, “But is it hard?”
There isn’t a quick answer to this question. It really depends on how you look at it.
For example: what if I gave you a task that needed to be done every morning, every evening, and even after some meals, every day, for the rest of your life? What if this task required special tools and supplies that needed to be regularly replenished? Would this seem hard? Perhaps, but most of us do this cheerfully without a second thought. I’m talking about brushing your teeth!
When it’s important enough, and the benefits are so clear (as in the case of oral hygiene), adding something extra to your routine doesn’t seem like a big deal. Many people feel the same way about NFP. And surprisingly, once learned, NFP actually requires less time and effort than your average brushing and flossing routine. Practicing the SymptoPro method of NFP takes a typical women just minutes a day, and she can use the information gained in those brief minutes to accomplish so much!
If learning how to observe, identify and chart your fertility signs and applying the guidelines seems daunting, I highly recommend finding a certified instructor to train you. Working with a professional will give you piece of mind and eliminate a lot of the guesswork, and soon enough you'll feel like a pro yourself!
So the actual charting clearly isn’t so bad. But what about the abstinence?
Yes, practicing natural family planning to avoid pregnancy effectively does require a couple to abstain from intercourse during the fertile window of a woman’s cycle. Depending on her experience and her individual cycles, this usually means about 8-12 days per cycle. Certainly, abstinence can be tricky, but when approached with the right mindset, it can actually serve to strengthen a couple's relationship (and even spice things up in the bedroom!)
So in my mind, weighing the pros and cons, NFP isn’t hard at all. At some times it requires sacrifice in the form of delayed gratification, but it is more than worth it. NFP provides freedom, peace of mind, increased intimacy, matchless self-knowledge, and so much more. And it's a skill that actually becomes easier, and more enjoyable, with time and practice.
So what do you think are the hardest parts of natural family planning? What are some of the benefits?