5 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Charting My Cycle
When I started charting my cycle with fertility awareness based methods (FABM) nearly ten years ago, it was because my husband-to-be and I wanted a means of achieving or avoiding pregnancy that didn’t involve putting anything physical between us. Largely for religious reasons, we elected to learn natural family planning (NFP), specifically the sympto-thermal method.
Turns out, the signs I observe each day in relation to my fertility also reveal a whole lot about my overall health. It’s knowledge I wish I’d started to gather and take more seriously sooner than when I decided to pursue natural family planning. If I could go back in time and talk with my younger self about charting using a FABM, here’s what I’d say.
1. The phases of the cycle are just as, if not more important than cycle length.
A “normal” cycle typically lasts 28-35 days. But that doesn’t mean the phases within the cycle are all normal. When all I did was mark the start and end of my period on a calendar, everything looked fine. It took only two months of using Creighton for my instructor to recognize that my post-luteal phase—the period of time after ovulation and before the onset of menses—is considerably shorter than it should be. This is a sign that my body isn’t producing enough progesterone, which can—and did—make it difficult to maintain a pregnancy.
2. Hormonal imbalances can be identified and treated before something goes wrong.
Not enough progesterone can mean miscarriage, and that’s what happened with my second child. Progesterone is a hormone responsible for preparing lining of the uterus for implantation, should conception occur. In a normal cycle, a natural drop in progesterone signals the start of menses. In a pregnancy, a low level of progesterone can cause the body to clear out the uterus, despite conception. About four years after the miscarriage, I showed two charted cycles to my Creighton instructor, who recognized a too-short post-luteal phase. When I learned this was a likely cause for my miscarriage, I was heartbroken. Had I charted more diligently earlier on, I could have easily identified this deficiency. I may have avoided the miscarriage altogether simply by taking bioidentical (and affordable!) progesterone supplements at a certain point in my cycle.
3. Different methods may suit different stages of life.
I learned a lot about how my body works when we learned the sympto-thermal method, but taking my temperature within a regular window of time each morning wasn’t practical when I was nursing a baby and had an older child to care for. With young kids, I found my lifestyle was better suited to the Creighton Model, which relies on observations made during bathroom breaks throughout the day.
4. Understanding more than one method can increase your confidence in your chosen method.
Just as studying French and German helped me to better appreciate and use my native English language, being knowledgeable about multiple fertility awareness methods helps me to feel confident about the one I am currently using. Though they utilize observations of different biomarkers (e.g. basal body temperature, cervical mucus, hormones in urine, or a combination), all work on the same reality that there are certain days in a cycle in which a woman is capable of conceiving a child and other days when she is not. For example, you may be tracking your basal body temperature to identify the day you ovulate. If you have an understanding of cervical mucus as well, you can cross check one observation with the other.
For effectiveness, it’s important to stick to one particular method of charting as trained by an instructor, and I’ve done that; but along the way I was struck by the variety of signs that illustrate the amazing progress of reproductive cycles.
5. Fertility awareness is about much more than fertility.
All the systems of our bodies are connected. Our fertility can be influenced by stress, diet, sleeping patterns, exercise, and other health conditions. An irregularity in a chart may have implications beyond whether or not conception is possible. This is why I wish I’d started charting earlier in my life. I may have identified my hypothyroidism earlier on and been able to manage it differently.
I can’t go back in time, but you can be sure that I’ll be teaching my daughter how to chart her cycle before marriage is on the horizon. I’ll pass on the knowledge I have gained about how my body works so she can be aware of how hers does.
I know now that the information my chart offers is a gift my body is giving me, if only I pay attention.