We usually hear how the time of perimenopause (that is, the stage before full-on menopause) is confusing and unpredictable for women, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We also often think of fertility awareness and charting as a way to avoid pregnancy, but it’s much more than that. This is an article about how the latter can help manage the former.
In both my personal experience with Fertility Awareness-Based Methods (FABM) and my professional journey researching and writing about them, I’ve come to feel empowered by my knowledge and passionate about clueing in others to what we now know about women’s health. So I was disappointed when I read a recent article suggesting that perimenopause (that is, the stage before full-on menopause) was something womankind should all be dreading and have no hope of making sense of.
Not long ago, I was having a conversation with a friend who had just read a book on Fertility Awareness-Based Methods (FABMs). She was amazed at what she was learning about how her body worked and frankly kind of upset about how little she’d known before she found the book. We commiserated and found ourselves shaking our heads. Why hadn’t anyone told us about hormones, ovulation, and the various phases of our cycles before we needed to use this information?
So to bring greater clarity to the topic of perimenopause, I asked a couple of FABM instructors for their take, and I learned that, with an understanding of one’s observable biomarkers and how to interpret them, this transitional stage is nothing to fear.
FABMs Are Effective at All Stages of Your Reproductive Years
To start, Lisa Lomneth, Fertility Care Practitioner Intern (FCPI), says that FABMs can be wonderful for women entering perimenopause because “they work with people in all areas of fertility. . . . I would highly encourage someone to start charting if they are experiencing it.”
Elizabeth Mason, instructor of the Billings Ovulation Method, agrees, sharing that women, “absolutely can learn this method at any point in their reproductive journey. Once you’re taught how to chart,” she says, “you can start observing and charting right away and with the help of an instructor learn to read and interpret your chart.”
Expect a Change in the Pattern
Mason explains there are a few typical patterns of changing fertility. In some cases, menstrual periods stop without warning and simply don’t start again. Technically speaking, this is menopause, defined as twelve consecutive months with no period. But not every woman experiences such a stark transition. The intermediate stage is the infamous “perimenopause” that can be tricky to decipher.
Generally, Mason says, the decline of fertility happens gradually, as the functions of the ovary and cervix change. At this point, most available eggs have matured and left the ovaries, but the lining of the uterus may continue to build up and break away. Cycles can become extremely irregular: they may be as short as 17 days, or as long as 6 months. Menstruation could start and stop. A woman may continue to have periods for months or years, even though she’s not fertile.
The continued activity of the endometrium means it’s possible to have a period, even in the absence of ovulation. It’s also possible to ovulate without any fertile mucus. “Cycles get off-kilter during perimenopause due to changing hormone levels,” says Mason. “Tracking temperature changes and possibly using an ovulation predictor kit would be the best way to track ovulation. It may not be obvious, which can be frustrating.”
Shift Your Mindset
According to Mason, charting during perimenopause necessitates a shift in mindset: rather than looking for fertility, now you’re learning to recognize infertility. One should not be concerned if the pattern of a fertile cycle isn’t there anymore. The reproductive organs don’t necessarily follow a linear decline in functionality. It’s possible to stop producing fertile mucus, but still have ovulation and menses. While ovulation happens less frequently, there is a greater chance of bleeding between periods.
But even if a woman is still ovulating, it’s important to remember that fertile mucus remains essential for sperm to maintain its fertilizing potential. In layman’s terms, even if you’re ovulating, if you’re not experiencing fertile mucus, the sperm can’t get to the egg. With the absence of fertile mucus, a woman is infertile.
A trained fertility awareness instructor can help a woman to learn to recognize the characteristics of her own pattern of infertility and to interpret a period of potential fertility, should fertile mucus return. There is no guarantee of a particular pattern in perimenopause, Mason says, but recognizing your own individual pattern can add to a woman’s sense of security about achieving or avoiding pregnancy.
Perimenopause Doesn’t Have to Be Dismal
Fertility Awareness-Based Methods may not be able to predict what your body is going to do next, but they can help you understand what’s happening right now. In all stages of your reproductive journey, interpreting the signs your body offers can help you to find some peace with where you are, and may help to identify and manage other health conditions, like Type 1 diabetes.
Our bodies are complicated, but not indecipherable. Whether a woman starts charting at 15, 25, or 35 years of age, she can learn to recognize her own unique patterns, and use that knowledge to live her best life.