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What's charting? It's a person taking and keeping notes about their menstrual and fertility cycles. Those notes may be as little information as what days you get your period, may have more information, like what kind of flow you had and what discharges you experienced that month, or have just about anything and everything you can think of that does or may have something to do with your fertility cycle: your basal temperatures (a vaginal temp you take daily with a thermometer made for that purpose), your libido, your sleep patterns, the whole works. What information you include depends on what you want to observe, and what your needs in charting are.
When you hear about people charting their periods or overall fertility cycles, it's usually either about trying to conceive or using natural family planning (NFP or FAM) as a primary method of birth control. Many of you are not trying to conceive, and for younger people, NFP isn't a sound sole or primary method for you either because your cycles are still all over the place or because you're also using condoms to help prevent sexually transmitted infections.
But charting your cycles doesn't have to be about natural family planning. Even if you're not trying to become pregnant, or aren't looking to use charting as a primary method of birth control, there are a bunch of reasons charting can be a big benefit to you.
Because there's nothing innately mysterious about a body, and the last person it should be a mystery to is the person whose body it is.
This stuff we hear about how "mysterious" or "unfathomable" women's bodies or reproductive cycles or reproductive systems with a uterus are is mostly a bunch of hooey (and it's not just men to blame for that: some women milk that feminist mystery stuff, too). Honestly, sometimes I think people say that to try and make us think we can't possibly figure out our own bodies with our own widdle brains, and to try and keep us in the dark to serve their own agendas: it's happened historically before, after all. Our reproductive systems are complex, sure, but much of them isn't a mystery unless we simply choose not to get to know them or don't know how to interpret our observations.
When you start to observe and document the patterns of your cycles it's not so mysterious as to why you have thinner discharge at some times and thicker discharge at other times. It's no longer such a headscratcher to see that in the last week of your cycle, you might have some appetite changes, feel bloated or have a tougher time managing stress. It's a lot easier to understand how pregnancy happens. And the next time someone throws some dumbass snark your way by asking if you're so moody because you're on your period, you can snap back that, as a point of fact, you are not, but the fact that you ovulated a couple days ago -- that and the buzzkill that is their company -- might be a culprit.
Because if you're inclined to worry a lot about pregnancy, it can help you ditch your panic.
Many young people who post at Scarleteen expect periods to come on the same date each month, and freak out when the period that came on the 10th last month hasn't come on the 10th of this one. But because each month doesn't have the same number of days in it, a period that comes on the same date each month would actually be an irregular period, not a regular one. To best know when to expect our periods -- when they are at least somewhat regular -- we count the number of days from cycle to cycle, rather than just paying attention to the date. But even then, we might have some variation sometimes, so if, over time, we've also charted things like changes in mood, changes in discharges and changes in temperatures, even if the dates aren't exactly when we expect, we'll have a pretty good idea of if and when periods will be likely to arrive.
Lately we've also seen young people terrified because (pardon me for a minute: shame on you TLC) they're still worried about pregnancy even when periods have ARRIVED. This is another way charting can be helpful. Yes, every now and then some pregnant people will have decidual bleeding they mistake for a period, and will not know they are pregnant until later in the pregnancy. Decidual bleeding -- which is the exception, rather than the rule, anyway -- isn't likely to come with all the symptoms of a period, and also doesn't often tend to come at exactly the same time a period would though. As well, nor will some things that typically happen when you aren't pregnant be taking place, like seeing fertile cervical mucus or like having basal temperature peaks and drops. You can observe all of those things through charting.
Because even if you don't use or want to use NFP as a primary method, knowing your own fertility can be a great backup method for other non-hormonal methods of contraception.
Natural family planing can be a very effective method of birth control for those who can use it properly, and for those who do have regular cycles. In perfect use -- daily charting and NO intercourse during fertile periods -- it's 96% effective. In typical use, however, that drops to 80%. Failure is usually do to either not charting every day or not charting properly, interpreting the data from charting incorrectly, or from not abstaining from sex during fertile times. Some people aren't going to be able to use NFP correctly no matter how hard they try if they don't have regular cycles, can't chart every day, or have partners who just won't cooperate with not having intercourse during fertile times.
While a lot of people aren't the best candidates for NFP as a sole method, it can be a fantastic secondary method for those using barrier methods like condoms or cervical barriers or for those who use withdrawal. For instance, even with only typical, rather than perfect, condoms plus FAM/NFP can offer you 97% effectiveness: that's more effective than the pill used by itself in typical use.
Even if you're not perfectly regular every month, there will likely be some periods of time where you are regular, and can get a pretty good idea of when you are most likely to be fertile, and least likely to be fertile. If you know that, you can choose to only have sex at all, with your other method of birth control, during times when you're probably least likely to become pregnant. And using NFP as a backup has no side effects, no health risks, is totally free (save the $10-$20 for a basal thermometer) and doesn't interrupt sex in any way.
Because it can be part of a daily ritual to honor, care for and acknowledge a huge part of your body and mind.
Fine, I'm a big hippie. And yes, I know some of you bristle when I say things like this, suggesting I'm saying you should howl at the moon (though you should at least try it once, and it doesn't have to have anything to do with periods) and fertilize your garden with menstrual blood (which is a fine fertilizer, by the way, but I digress). That acknowledged, I personally do think that having small, daily rituals to acknowledge and check in with the rhythms of our body, our body parts and our sexual health are positive and empowering. In the work that I do, I encounter a lot of people, especially women, who are very uncomfortable with their own bodies, who see genitals as fine for sharing in sex, but not fine for their owners to engage with, or who feel like their sexual partners are the experts on, or the primary observers of, their bodies, rather than themselves. I just can't get on board with that and see any of that as the good stuff. Don't get me wrong, it's great when partners are also attentive and observant about your body, but I want you to be the person who knows your body best, and is most in tune with it. I also want you to feel comfortable in your own skin, and with all the parts of your body.
I also think it's important for a healthy self-image and a healthy sexuality to remember that our genitals are not just about sex and aren't just there for other people. We walk around with them all the time and they've been part of who we are since before we were born. Whether or not we have sex -- with partners, with ourselves -- whether or not we procreate, whether or not we have any problems, there our reproductive systems are, including our vaginas, doing their own thing all the time, ever-active and engaged with the rest of our bodies. It's tougher to feel ashamed about your genitals when you pay real attention to them every day. I know a lot of you look into the mirror regularly as a ritual, or have a zit-checking ritual, so why not add one that acknowledges this part of who you are?
Sometimes we also want to do things that would be easiest to do, or more pleasant, when we aren't menstruating or are prepared to menstruate. Knowing when to expect our periods helps us know that bringing a menstrual cup or pads when we're out in the middle of nowhere camping is mighty helpful, for example. Having a pretty good idea of when periods are going to arrive can help us better harmonize our lives with our bodies.
Because if at some point you want to become pregnant, being an ace with charting is going to make that a lot easier.
Given the age of most who come to Scarleteen, few of you will have a hard time becoming pregnant. There seems to be a sort of Murphy's Law that often those who want to become pregnant the least, or who are the least prepared for pregnancy, seem to wind up pregnant the most easily. As well, many of you don't want to become pregnant right now, some never do.
But later on in life -- and for some of you, now -- you may want to become pregnant. Some of you also may find you have issues with fertility, now or later. If you want to become pregnant at closest to the time that works best for you, or are having troubles becoming pregnant, charting will be your first step. And if you already know how, you won't have to wait on your own learning curve and a few months of new charting.
Because it can be great information to have for your healthcare provider.
If you're having issues or problems with menstruation, like painful cramps or heavy bleeding, having charts to show your doctor can help them figure out what the issue is much more quickly than they often can without those records. If you have concerns about your fertility, all a healthcare provider may need to do is look at your charts to determine if there's cause for that concern. Being an expert on your own cycle can also help you to feel more assertive when talking to doctors about any issues you might be having with them.
Because it can be a way to find out that your pill really IS working.
If you are using a hormonal method of birth control, you can't chart your natural fertility cycle because that method is suppressing and altering that cycle. However, we'll often hear from users of hormonal methods having a tough time believing that those methods are really working, so if you're in that boat you certainly could chart for a bit to discover that your charting looks very different from a chart of someone not using those methods. You might even just want to do it out of burning curiosity.
Toni Weschler's Ovusoft site has a huge archive of sample charts you can look at to see what charts look like for a wide variety of women: http://www.ovusoft.com/ourtcoyf/gallery/
For instance, this one is an example chart of a person charting their first month after using the birth control pill for 12 years. Compare that with this one, the chart of someone not in that situation who did conceive in the month the chart is from. See how different they are, even though that first person is no longer taking the pill?
Because it's cool, and you can really geek out on it.
Can we ever have enough things to get our geek on with? I think we all know the answer is no.
So, want to start charting? My favorite simple online tool for charting periods lately is this one: http://monthlyinfo.com. It's not as handy if you want to do mucus and temps, as it won't calculate those, but you can add notes to each day if you want to, and those notes can include temps and mucus, or whatever else you'd like. It's a simple, fun interface and you can even set it to send you a nice, friendly reminder your period is coming a few days in advance.
Here are a few more online options:
Know that some online tools without entries for cervical mucus observations or basal temperatures will make predictions about when you ovulate. Be aware that those kinds of predictions may not be accurate, and are usually based more on averages than your own unique cycle. So, if you're using charting as a primary or secondary form of contraception, those won't be great choices. If you want online tools to use for that, or in your own paper charting, be sure to choose those which also require cervical mucus and basal temps.
If you want to chart on paper, here are a couple good blank charts:
We have a great piece by Kate Storm on FAM and the specifics of charting on site here: Get With the Flow: All About FAM. It also includes a printable version of the charting calendar from S.E.X. Happy charting!