It’s Not Just About Pregnancy, Pt. 1
I just can’t bring myself to believe that the only purpose of the menstrual cycle is pregnancy.
There. I said it.
I feel like this is a controversial opinion because the reverse is so often repeated or implied when we talk about the menstrual cycle or fertility. And it’s always rubbed me the wrong way. I saw it again in a book on the matter recently. It seemed to say: whether you like it or not your body has a menstrual cycle each month because all it wants is to get pregnant.
This is a good thing if that’s what you want now or soon and things seem to be going well. But I’d wager that it’s just a small number of people who fall into that category. More often, things are more complicated.
There are folks for whom pregnancy isn’t their goal, now or ever. Or it has been their goal and it hasn’t happened yet. Or it has happened and there was a loss. There are folks for whom they’d like it to be their goal but that seems unimaginable due to circumstances: ongoing pain, illness, relationships, money, career. And then there are the folks for whom no set goal yet feels right.
For the people who fall into these categories, I worry that tossing around the line “all your body wants is to get pregnant” will make the menstrual cycle seem like a waste. An annoyance. A joke. A curse. I worry it might disconnect people from their bodies, which is never good. There’s already so much pain and stigma when it comes to being a woman and/or being LGBTQAI+.1 I think whenever we can we need to try to make sure the cycle isn’t another source of hurt or confusion.
Also, it just never rung true for me. That’s it? That’s the whole purpose? Four decades or more doing this…for what? Something seemed to be missing.
So what is pregnancy really? Making a person. From basically nothing.
The goal of the menstrual cycle is the ultimate creative act: making a human being. The goal of the menstrual cycle is creation.
Building a human is about the most mind-boggling, “from scratch” thing anybody can do. It’s how we humans are still here on this planet: because of bodies with uteruses. Our bodies are the ones that are, for some reason, able to perpetuate the species, so that’s what they like to be prepared for.
If you’re prepared for that—that massive act of creation—think of what else you’re prepared for and capable of.
With that in mind, I want to propose another way of looking at it all. What I’ve found is that creativity, choice and careful discernment are all inherent in the menstrual cycle. I see it woven into our biology.
To start with, our method of procreation is pretty unusual within the animal kingdom. Very few animals ovulate the way we do. It’s just us, “Old World” monkeys (baboons, macaques), some bats, elephant shrews, and the spiny mouse who experience spontaneous ovulation, or spontaneous decidualization.2 That is, “spontaneous” because it requires no cues from outside sources and “decidualization,” as in the particular process of cellular change in the uterus that makes the endometrial lining.3 Most other mammals either ovulate in response to sex and/or their bodies begin to prepare the uterus only when there is an embryo present to tell it to do so.
But for us, regardless of whether we’re getting busy, our bodies mature the follicles and release an egg. Regardless of there being an embryo present, our bodies make the uterus plush and comfy. They just do it. They choose to.
And yet, because I believe in the wisdom of the body, I think the body doesn’t really think pregnancy is going to happen every month.
Why? The window is narrow. The body is careful. Even if the sex being had is unprotected, the chances of getting pregnant each month are 15%-25% for most people.4 The egg hangs around only briefly and pregnancy is possible for five out of seven days each cycle. Pregnancy isn’t possible every single day.
The body makes many mindful choices, and for good reason. This is a resource intense process (we’ll get to that in a minute.) Also, human embryos have a high rate of chromosomal abnormalities.5 With spontaneous decidualization, the body can discern the state of the embryo that implants and decide whether to continue the process. The number of full term pregnancies is reduced compared to other mammals, but the rate of our reproductive success increases.6
However, even if an embryo doesn’t implant, things are still things being made by your body. Each time you ovulate, your body makes a temporary gland. An organ! Spontaneously! Personally, I find that amazing.
After the egg bursts out of the ovary during ovulation, there’s a bit of a wound left over in the follicle. In that space, the corpus luteum (“little yellow body”) begins to grow. Your body makes a temporary endocrine structure that is 2-5cm long. That’s roughly the width of two or three green peas! The corpus luteum then secrets progesterone, which signals decidualization. The endometrial lining grows. If the egg isn’t fertilized the corpus luteum decays to become the corpus albicans (“little white body”), a mass of scar tissue. The ovary then heals that follicle and begins again.
This process takes a lot. During the latter part of the cycle, the luteal phase, when the body is forming the corpus luteum, the base metabolic rate increases. That is, more nutrients are required to get the job done. (And this is to say nothing of the resources required for growing a human.)
I think this is why it’s so critical that menstruating people are well nourished in all the ways we can be nourished. When we’re not, the body makes it known that something isn’t right. We see ovulation go wonky, periods go missing, PMS increase, energy levels decrease, moods go haywire. When someone is charting, we can see it in their charts too. This why the cycle can be used as a vital sign. The body wants to have what it needs to meet its potential and when it doesn’t have that it speaks up.
The modern world doesn’t make this easy though, does it? But again, we have wise bodies. That’s why I think there’s more to the cycle and fertility than pregnancy. Ideally, we experience a menstrual cycle—this process of creation—regularly. What do they call it when you do something regularly? Practice. And we’re not just practicing to make babies. We can be practicing nurturing ourselves, because that is a skill. We can be practicing the essential natural cycle of creation, flourishing, and decay, because that is coded into us. Is there a greater lesson?
Your body is the product of two million years of adaption and evolution. The body knows what its capable of and the potential that’s there. And it makes choices—if it’s safe to ovulate, if an embryo is robust. I think it knows that you too will make choices.
A cyclical body is a creative body. Pregnancy is not the only way to create, to gestate. The pattern and potential are available for whatever it is we choose to make: art, poetry, song, businesses, gardens, inventions, relationships, life. Whatever you decide to do, take good care. Make the resources available. Your body is on a mission to create.
Honestly, I was surprised to find how much I had to say on this. So I think there will be at least one more part. Because things go awry, don’t they? And maybe they’re going awry more than they used to? I’ll explore that next time (March 8th). Until then, I’d love to know what this brought up for you in the comments.
I slipped in my inner autumn this past week and that transition... What a strange thing it is. I find ovulation isn’t always a purely feel good, warm, lovely, sexy time. Maybe that happens for some people. I’ve never found a phase of my cycle to be that one note though. And I don’t feel a crash from ovulation into the luteal phase, or from inner summer into inner autumn. I feel something like the first day going into fall when you seem to suddenly need to put a sweater on over the tank top you’ve been wearing all summer. I can’t say it’s positive or negative, because while the tank top was light and my limbs did move more freely, the air was bit hot and sticky before. Now, the sweater is cozy. However, the air has a chill in it, and now my limbs move differently with knit all around them. See what I’m saying? It’s subtle but it’s there.
All of this is easier with my fertility awareness chart to guide me. If I feel an inward pull, a prick of irritation, I know why. I can see that my temperature has shifted—the corpus luteum is working its magic.
Resources and links for and about cyclical living.
I have to begin by acknowledging the devastating situation in Syria and Turkey and the fact that it was difficult to access menstrual products in these countries before the earthquakes. (Here’s an article from 2022 and 2016.) Period poverty increases in times of emergency.
Which is why it’s so bizarre and yet appropriate, really, to see period poverty and menstrual products acknowledged in a bit of pop culture. Tampons and a menstrual cup made appearances in a recent episode of The Last of Us—which, if you don’t know, is basically a show about the end of the world. Sadly, the way menstrual products are treated in the show isn’t fiction for many people worldwide.
On a very different note, Spain approved monthly menstrual leave. It’s not the first country to do so but it is the first country in Europe.
Functional and integrative health practitioner Erin Holt had a podcast episode about post hormonal birth control syndrome. A note: the host and guest agree that they aren’t anti-hormonal birth control, but they do clearly feel persuaded by the evidence of how much it changes in the body.
How do you feel about smart menstrual cups? Because apparently that’s happening.
TIME had an article about fertility testing. And while it’s something I think we should be talking about more so that we know our options, as usual fertility awareness was unfortunately left out. I think this is real oversight as good charting can provide a wealth of data without any invasive testing.
If you’re concerned about the recent Thinx period undies debacle and you know how to sew, it turns out you can make your own period undies. Here are two resources to show you how: Moontide Period Pants and tutorial from Spoonflower.
Also I nearly missed this: February is apparently National Condom Month! Because, of course it is. So if you’re celebrating, happy Condom Month!
A reflection prompt
Settle in a minute. Maybe take a few deep breaths and fully fill your lungs with fresh air. Release your breath out into the world. Can you clear your head a little?
Ok. Now, think about this as freely as you just took those breaths:
What do you want to create right now?
If it feels right, feel free to share in the comments.
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I’m seeing some mentions around the alt fertility wellness space about rare, magical, “spontaneous ovulation” happening via the moon cycle. Some of the evidence used to back this up is that the term “spontaneous ovulation” exists within the medical literature. And it does, because that’s what humans do. Spontaneous ovulation isn’t something that happens mystically, to some people sometimes, causing otherworldly conceptions. It’s an everyday occurrence (though no less magical, I’d argue). Also, if you’re talking about a secondary ovulation window being caused by the moon cycle then that is an entirely different concept and that’s called induced ovulation.