There can be something deeply reassuring about having a monthly cycle. Each time it comes along I have a sense that all is well in my body – and if ever it falters due to ill health, travel, or stress I am disquieted. For all that my period might sometimes be inconvenient, uncomfortable, or emotionally unsettling, I miss it when it fails to come.
My mother prepared me well for my first bleed, but it was not until I wanted to learn how to avoid becoming pregnant naturally, that I really began to understand the monthly changes that were happening in my body. There was something very special about going to an older woman to be taught about my cycle in order to master the rhythm method. An on-going relationship developed where she passed on all kinds of gems for managing the mood swings, food cravings, and cramps as well as the fertile periods.
I would like to share some of what I learned, which I now also pass onto the girls in my ‘Girls Journeying Together’™ groups.
First the logistics – where does it all happen?
Make a triangle with your index fingers and thumbs and place your index fingers at the point where your legs meet your body. That’s where your uterus is, about the size of your fist. Leading into the top of the uterus on either side are two fallopian tubes connecting to the ovaries where the eggs are stored. The ovaries are about the size of almonds and the eggs are mere pin pricks.
Fantastic fact: baby girls are born with all their eggs, all 1 million of them, so you started life inside your grandmother!
Now the hormones
At puberty the pituitary gland at the base of the brain starts up a communication with the sex organs using chemical messengers, namely the hormones oestrogen and progesterone.
Here’s how it goes:
- Brain to ovary using oestrogen: “Time to grow an egg.”
- Ovary begins to grow about twenty eggs, stimulated by the oestrogen.
- Ovary to uterus using progesterone: “Time to grow some lining.”
- Uterus prepares 1cm thick lining of blood, tissue and mucus, a healthy place for the egg to grow, just in case it is fertilised.
- Ovary to brain: “Egg has grown, uterus is ready.”
- Brain to ovary: “Release the egg!”
- Ovary releases the ripest egg, the rest are absorbed, and the egg begins it’s journey down the fallopian tube.
- This whole part is called ovulation and takes 11-21 days.
- The next bit takes around 14 days.
Fantastic fact: in our lifetime we’ll release between 400-500 eggs; all the others are absorbed into the body.
- The egg has 2-3 days traveling down the fallopian tube and then in the uterus waiting to be fertilised by a sperm.
- 2-3 days before the egg is released and 2-3 days afterwards is our fertile period when you can become pregnant if you have sex.
- If the egg is fertilised it embeds into the lining of the uterus and begins to grow.
- If the egg is not fertilised it is absorbed into the uterus lining and after about two weeks the lining breaks away and comes out of the uterus through the cervix and through the opening in the vagina – and that’s your period.
- Your monthly cycle goes from the first day of one period to the first day of your next period and is usually around 25 and 35 days long.
- Some women are really regular and for others the length on their cycle varies.
Fantastic fact: we bleed only about two to three tablespoons of blood each month, the rest is lining shed from the uterus, which still only amounts to about a third of a cup (maximum one cup) dribbling out over 3 to 8 days.
Some girls can’t wait to start menstruating, others are less keen. It is perfectly normal to feel nervous and to have worries. Every girl needs an older woman who can answer her questions and concerns – her mother, aunt, godmother, grandmother, older sister, neighbour, friend’s mother, mother’s friend, youth leader, teacher, school nurse or counsellor. There are some great internet sites and books written to help here too. It would be great if you could share below any that you have found useful.
Fantastic fact: the average age for starting to menstruate is 13 years, but it can be as early as 8 years and as late as 18 years and still be normal.
A girl’s first blood is a very important event as it heralds her ability to conceive and bear a child – a key step along her journey towards womanhood. See if you can find some way to acknowledge this.