by Kasey Stacey
After ten (more) months of ecological breastfeeding, my cycles have returned and all of a sudden, I notice myself feeling different than I have been since Walter’s birth. I feel better, rejuvenated, healthier, more myself. And I remember now how things changed about ten months after Brigid was born, when I climbed out from the dark hole I had been living in and started feeling much more human. A number of positive changes happened around that time, but I think the return of my fertility then is primarily responsible for bringing an end to my postpartum depression.
I’ve always been well attuned to my menstrual cycle and I’ve been reflecting lately on how the intricacies of my reproductive cycle impact me on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. There are a great many cultural taboos about menstruation and female reproduction, a lot of embarrassment and loathing directed toward “that time of the month,” a lot of euphemism (and dysphemism) used in place of honest conversation about the realities of being a woman. There is a lot of encouragement to suppress our bodies’ natural cycles, to beat our bodies into submission so that they don’t interrupt the way we prefer to go about our daily lives.
But this is Body Love Month here at Balanced Breastfeeding, so I am here to encourage a different view of the female body, an embracing of our menstrual cycles wherein we respect what the natural shifts and processes constantly occurring within us can tell us about who we are, how we feel, and how we interact with the world around us. It’s a well-known insult to write women off as being hormonal and complicated. Here’s the truth: Women are hormonal and complicated. The menstrual cycle is incredibly complex and my discussion of it is bare bones. There are a lot of other resources out there that explain this all better and more scientifically. My goal here is to encourage any woman reading this to explore and discover more about her beautiful, intricate, complicated self and to appreciate and love herself even when her hormones have her feeling more than a little cranky.
It must be noted as well that I am writing here of the unmedicated, uninhibited fertility cycle and that I am concerned with basic information that applies generally. Each woman’s cycle is very much her own, and only through learning general principles and applying them to her specific bodily patterns can a woman know her body deeply. There is a lot of variance of normal when it comes to fertility (and a whole host of different information that applies when dealing with concerns of reproductive disorders and suboptimal fertility).
I remember reading the Diary of Anne Frank in the early years of puberty and her thoughts about her burgeoning womanhood resonated. She writes, “I think that what’s happening to me is so wonderful, and I don’t just mean the changes taking place on the outside of my body, but also on the inside. I never discuss myself or any of these things with the others, which is why I have to talk about them to myself. Whenever I get my period (and that’s only been three times), I have the feeling that in spite of all the pain, discomfort and mess, I’m carrying around a sweet secret. So even though it’s a nuisance, in a certain way I’m always looking forward to the time when I’ll feel that secret inside me once again.” I mean, how perfect is that? Would that every woman could have the peace and confidence with her body that Anne Frank demonstrated.
I won’t try to convince you that menstruation isn’t at times inconvenient or messy. It’s annoying, and a little gross, especially when it catches you unprepared. Charting your cycles can help you know your period well and anticipate the process of managing it from beginning to end, but it’s still a period. Still, beginning even in adolescence, I’ve always felt that having a period is an honor and that the experience is almost sacred (a stark contrast to women who had referred to their menstrual cycles as “The Curse”). It always made me feel connected to all the women who had come before me—it was my inclusion in the timeless wonder that is womanhood.
Most women are familiar with their periods. They can tell you how long, on average, they bleed or how heavy or light a cycle is relative to their other cycles. Most women can compare notes about cramping or other menstrual discomforts. Our periods are the most obvious reminder that we have a reproductive cycle, so this seems the natural place to begin.
The Follicular Phase: Peace and Renewal
The menstrual cycle is divided into three phases; the first phase begins on the first day of a new period. This is Cycle Day 1, the start of the follicular phase of the cycle. Inside, our bodies are transitioning, sweeping away the previous ovulation and moving toward a new one. As menstruation begins, some women notice a feeling of release, a washing away of the emotional turmoil or stress that had been building interiorly. This emotional letting go, then, mirrors the physical shedding of blood. I invite you to consider menstruation as a period of calm and renewal and to reject the cultural discomfort associated with this quintessential experience of womanhood.
As menstruation ends, the follicular stage continues and we approach ovulation. This is where the menstrual cycle gets really interesting. Interiorly, our bodies undergo extraordinary changes, but we only notice signs of them if we are paying close attention. For maybe a week out of each month, you probably notice that it looks like someone cracked an egg in your underwear. It starts off just a small amount and increases day after day, until it abruptly dries up. You probably remain mostly dry until your next period. I’ve heard stories of women who think they’re getting an infection of some kind month after month, only to be dismissed by medical professionals with a shrug and a vague, “It’s normal.”
It is normal, of course. It’s cervical fluid, and it’s a primary marker of when in your cycle ovulation occurs. In anticipation of the ovary’s release of the egg, our bodies create cervical fluid (also referred to as cervical mucus) that is increasingly thin, slippery, and stretchy, appearing as egg whites during peak fertility.
Other physical changes are happening within and without as we transition out of the follicular phase. The changes in the cervix are especially cool. If you reach in each day, you can feel the changes day by day: Before ovulation, the cervix is high and firm; if you were to touch your cervix, you would have to reach further into your body and it would feel like the tip of your nose. By the time you ovulate, your cervix will be noticeably lower in your vaginal canal and it will feel more like your earlobe. What, you mean you’ve never touched your cervix before? Go ahead and give it a try. As the portal through which our children pass into this world, it is a fascinating part of a woman’s body. (True confession: I don’t particularly enjoy feeling my cervix. However, I think it’s an experience that every woman should have at least once.)
Ovulation: Vitality and Excitement
Ovulation is phase two of the menstrual cycle. It is the shortest phase, but it is the most exciting, as it is the part that all the rest of the cycle serves to support. As we draw nearer to ovulation, our hormone levels are shifting and our energy levels may increase and we may feel more productive. It is the point of my cycle when I feel most energetic and most capable of managing whatever life throws my way. Pity, then, that ovulation doesn’t last longer! (That’s a joke. Women are only fertile for a short time each cycle for a reason.)
A sharp drop in estrogen spurs ovulation, and once ovulation occurs, progesterone takes over. When people talk about a woman’s hormones being all over the place, they’re not wrong. The changes are real and they do impact our moods and our behavior. At ovulation, we see some of the more drastic hormonal shifts. These shifts may cause elevated moods and an increase in libido; after all, this is the fertile phase of the cycle. If you are trying to have a baby, now is the time to act. If you are trying not to have a baby, now is the time to spend the evening in a separate room of the house from your husband.
There are a lot of awesome things our bodies do at ovulation, but my favorite is Mittelschmerz. When the ovary releases the egg, we may notice an acute sign that ovulation is occurring. Some women experience a physical sensation, something like a cramping pain, on either the left or right side of their abdomens. This pain is called “Mittelschmerz,” or “middle pain,” because it occurs right in the middle of the cycle. Some women can tell whether the left or right ovary is ovulating during the current cycle by which side of the body Mittelschmerz is occurring.
The Luteal Phase: Moodiness and Anticipation
The rest of the cycle is referred to as the luteal phase. The luteal phase exists to establish a pregnancy should the egg released during ovulation have been fertilized. Progesterone levels rise and then, if no fertilized egg makes its way into the uterine lining, drop, and as progesterone levels reach their low, menstruation is triggered and the cycle begins again.
The luteal phase can seem like a low point in the cycle. It may feel like a time of anticipation, waiting perhaps with impatience or angst for the next stage. The uterine lining continues to build before it sloughs, but as estrogen levels remain lower and progesterone decreases after its surge, I think there can be a sense of emptiness or discontent, as though nothing much is happening. After the excitement of ovulation, energy levels may be lower and a feeling of malaise may present. So what do we do with this time? Awareness is key. This is a good point in the cycle to remind ourselves of the beautiful intricacies of our lives as women. We are simply in the ebb before the flow, and a refreshing new stage is on its way.
This brings me to a point I want to make about “PMS,” that old trope accusatorily bandied about as an explanation for why a woman may be having a mood. I find it a near-meaningless term. First, the prefixes “pre-“ and “post-“ have limited use when talking about something that occurs in a cycle. More importantly, it lacks an appreciation for the nuances of the reproductive cycle. While it is true that a woman may tend more toward moodiness in the days prior to a period, it is infantilizing to suggest that she has no control over her emotions by virtue of her womanhood.
Our emotional states are inherently tied to our physical well-being—of that there’s no doubt. For women, this is even more acutely the case because our physical state is constantly changing. This is why, I think, it is important to learn our cycles. When we are aware of what is happening within, we are empowered to take control of our emotions, to find a real and reasonable explanation for why we may be feeling one way or another, to acknowledge that the internal life of a woman is impacted by but is more than the sum of her reproductive parts, and to manage it all with aplomb that comes from knowing oneself deeply.