pregnancy

'I've spoken to over 300 women about their pregnancies. There's a common theme in their fertility stories.'

This week, the Queensland government announced that period products would be available to all students in state schools. It’s a welcome gesture considering the rising cost of living, but it’s also a powerful conversation starter about the menstrual cycle.

I’ve interviewed over 300 women about their pregnancy and birth experiences on my podcast, Australian Birth Stories. 

The conversation always starts with their fertility journey and there’s a common theme in many stories. 

Countless women start menstruating in their teens with a basic understanding that they’ll bleed every 28 days, they then commence hormonal contraception in their twenties and when it’s time to start a family, they start thinking about their menstrual cycle for the first time in their life and realise they know very little.

Watch: If your period was a person. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia.

For those of us that grew up in the nineties, period talk was relatively taboo. Sex ed classes involved the demonstration of a pad and a tampon and a few flyaway comments on feminine hygiene. 

Of course, it was all hush-hush and period talk never did make the cut for dinner table conversation. 

I’ve got three young boys now and while I won’t be preparing them for their first period, I have every intention of teaching them about my cycle (although I’m pretty sure they can already tell when I’m premenstrual).

I do this by telling them when I’ve got my period and reminding them that I’m making a choice to go a little slower and rest. It’s not a big deal because I’m intent on normalising it. And perhaps that’s what we need to do in schools - normalise period talk and have a good, long discussion about the phases of the menstrual cycle. 

Granted, there have been significant public leaps forward in the past few years; period products are no longer advertised with blue liquid to demonstrate absorbency, the major supermarkets have changed "feminine hygiene" signage to "period products" and with the arrival of period underwear has come a sigh of relief for those of us who bleed and don’t want to contribute a bin’s worth of plastic to the environment every month.

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But bleeding is just one part of the story and as so many of my podcast guests have divulged; we need to be taught about all the other phases of our cycles so we better understand our fertility, our energy levels, and the way we interact with the world.

Imagine if this education began in school? Girls and people with periods would grow up with an understanding of the phases of their cycle and enter adulthood with an innate sense of empowerment and an unwavering self-awareness. 

Because when you understand your cycle, you really do get to know yourself on a whole new level. 

The four phases.

Getting to know your menstrual cycle is one of the most empowering things you can do for your self-awareness. It can also help you on your fertility journey, whether you're avoiding or attempting conception. 

There are two overarching phases in your menstrual cycle:

  • The follicular phase begins on day one (the first day of bleeding). Even though you’re menstruating, your follicles (eggs) are starting to mature within your ovaries. 

  • The luteal phase begins once the egg has been released from the ovary and when your ovary creates a temporary gland to replace the released egg. It’s this gland that produces the hormone progesterone, which can make you feel your very best. It gradually declines over the following weeks and your next period arrives once your progesterone and oestrogen levels have finished dropping.

Then, much like the seasons of the year, there are four seasons in each cycle, each with their own characteristics:

Menstruation: Your hormones flatline during this stage of your cycle so you feel flat, you crave comfort, and your body is letting go and needs rest so you can be energetic and productive in the ovulatory phase of your cycle. Think of menstruation as your winter. 

Pre-ovulation: Your oestrogen levels rise and you emerge from the dreamy, restful menstruation phase with a renewed sense of energy and motivation. It’s your spring, time to throw open the metaphorical windows!

Post-ovulation: Oestrogen and testosterone are swirling around your body and once the egg is released, you receive a big hit of progesterone. You’ll be positively glowing, you’ll want to do all the things, you’re feeling playful and abundant. This is summer. 

Pre-menstruation: Your hormones are quickly receding, you’re starting to feel weary, and there’s a need for you to retreat from the world and be a little more quiet. This is autumn, where you need to take care of yourself.

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Your fertile window.

Ovulation typically occurs in the middle of your cycle and it’s often signalled by a subtle (or not so subtle if you have endometriosis or you’re nearing peri-menopause) ache in the abdomen (the German word for this stage is mittelschmerz which translates to "middle pain"). 

The days around ovulation indicate your fertile window, which is typically three to five days long. There are a few ways to know when you’re ovulating and the biggest sign is in your underwear. 

Cervical fluid, vaginal discharge and vaginal mucous are all terms to describe the fluid that you’ll sometimes see on your underwear or when you wipe after urinating. 

In the days after menstruation, you’ll feel quite dry but as you journey towards ovulation, where your follicles are maturing and you produce more oestrogen, your cervix makes more fluid and you’ll notice it as slippery and stretchy like egg whites - the ideal consistency to carry sperm (without it the sperm would get exhausted and never make the long journey to the egg in the fallopian tube). 

Sperm can actually live for five days in this fluid, anticipating ovulation and the release of the egg that they’re racing to reach. 

Let’s share this knowledge.

See, it’s not complicated, but it’s most definitely fascinating! 

This isn’t only up to our teachers, either. If you’ve got a tween child who is on the cusp of menstruating, start talking about the seasons of her cycle. 

You’ll be giving her a thorough understanding of her body, which will be the foundation for lifelong self-awareness (and she’ll be so thankful when it comes time for her to start her own family, if she chooses to). 

Sophie Walker has a Masters in Public Health, is a mum to three boys, and is the founder and host of Australian Birth Stories podcast that has over eight million downloads and is endorsed by the Australian College of Midwives. She also has a range of education resources available, including her online birth preparation course, The Birth Class. Every week on the podcast she shares an interview with a woman who steps into her most vulnerable space to detail all the precious details of her pregnancy, birth and postpartum experience. Each story is unique, hence the podcast is an amazing education resource for pregnant women, their birth support partners and professionals working in perinatal health.

Feature Image: Getty.

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