Using glue sticks, lotions and lubricants, a community of women in Edmonton is proving there’s more to the menstrual cycle than what was discussed in junior high health classes.
Nestled around a table of eight women, Chloe Skerlak stretches a stream of lubricant between her index finger and thumb. Similar to the colour, consistency and sensation of personal lubricant, “peak cervical mucous” (that is, cervical mucous observed near ovulation when a woman is most likely to get pregnant) is clear, stretchy and, well, lubricative, she explains. She uses other substances, like glue sticks and lotion, to demonstrate the regular changes in cervical mucous that occur at different times of the menstrual cycle.
Skerlak is currently studying to become a Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioner (HRHP) at Justisse Healthworks for Women, an Edmonton-based fertility clinic and college. She’s co-facilitating the Fertility Awareness Charting Circle of Edmonton (FACC) as part of her practicum. The FACC meets on the first Monday of every month at Remedy Café on 109 Street, and offers a supportive space for high-quality, affordable fertility-awareness education.
The Justisse Method of fertility awareness was founded by Dr Geraldine Matus in Edmonton in the ’80s, as a secular, sex-positive movement that specifically acknowledges gender and sexual diversity. The method tracks three fertile signs—basal body temperature, cervical mucous and cervical position—in order to better understand all stages of the menstrual cycle, from first menstruation through to menopause. By paying attention to these signs, women can accurately determine on which days they are fertile (and on which days they are not) to achieve or avoid pregnancy. It can also be used to accurately predict the onset of your next period.
Fertility awareness can be used as a highly effective method of natural birth control by abstaining from intercourse or using alternative barrier methods on fertile days. A 2007 study published in the Human Reproduction Journal reports that with accurate use, fertility awareness is 99.6 percent effective as a method to avoid pregnancy—a rate that rivals the effectiveness of the birth control pill, but without the pill’s negative side effects like intermenstrual spotting, weight gain, mood changes and nausea.
Fertility awareness isn’t just for people who identify as women, either.
“We’re talking about anybody with a menstrual cycle who can benefit from this,” says Rose Yewchuk, an Edmonton-based HRHP who has been supporting FACC since it began in 2005.
Fertility awareness is often mistakenly assumed to be the same as the rhythm or calendar method, which uses past menstrual cycle patterns to predict future fertility.
“Fertility awareness relies on daily observations of fertile signs,” Yewchuk says. She explains that when used to avoid pregnancy, the rhythm method is significantly less effective than fertility awareness, as stress, illness and travel can cause month-to-month variations in menstrual cycle patterns.
Information on fertility awareness is becoming more available through informal Facebook groups, online forums and mobile apps that track menstrual cycle patterns. But the quality of information isn’t always the best.
“A lot of apps that are out there are actually rhythm-method-based apps,” Yewchuk says. “If it doesn’t have you inputting fertile signs on a day-to-day basis, it’s the rhythm method.”
Other than a thermometer, toilet paper and an initial consultation with a trained HRHP, the costs to accurately learn and practice fertility awareness are minimal. In addition to monthly charting circles, the FACC is spreading the word through introductory
Fertility awareness is also an effective tool for understanding overall health and diagnosing hormonal imbalances—information that’s available through regular follow-ups at monthly charting circles as well as separate individual consultations.
“There’s sort of a movement underway to have the menstrual cycle recognized as the fifth vital sign of women’s health,” Yewchuk says. She explains that as it’s connected to and influenced by many factors, the menstrual cycle is an indicator of the health of other areas of the body.
By encouraging participants to check their cervical mucous daily, FACC is also encouraging women to talk openly about and appreciate their menstrual health.
“It’s inevitable,” Skerlak says. “As soon as you start charting, you form a positive relationship with your body.”
Fertility Awareness Charting Circle
Remedy Café, 8631-109 Street
6:30 pm, first Monday of the month