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Josie Learns About the Mucus Cycle

“Mum,” Josie said one day when they were alone. “How am I going to know
when I’m about to have a period?”

Her mum smiled at the unexpected question. “You won’t know first time
round,” she replied, “but don’t worry. First time round you’re more likely to get a small
amount of brown staining in your knickers. I remember when that happened to me and I
thought ‘What’s this? This isn’t blood!’ In fact it’s dried blood. Once your periods get
underway, the discharge becomes fresh and red. Even then it’s a discharge rather than a
sudden whoosh – it’s not like when you go to the toilet.”

“It must be a bit embarrassing, though, if you suddenly get blood appearing
when you don’t expect it!” Josie exclaimed.

“Well, it certainly helps to be tuned in to what is going on,” her mum replied.
“Periods when they first start can be a bit irregular but once they get going they
establish a pattern which you’ll quickly learn to recognise. That helps to get you
prepared so you aren’t caught unawares. If you mark off on a calendar when each period
begins, you’ll know when to expect the next.

“But even if your periods are not in a regular pattern,” she added, “the body has
some give-away signs, if you know how to look out for them. I don’t think I told you
about the mucus last time, did I?”

“Mucus, like when you have a cold?” Josie asked.

“I obviously didn’t. Yes, it is a bit like when you have a cold, but it comes as a
discharge from the vagina, like the period. And it happens around the time of ovulation.
You remember what ovulation is, don’t you?”

“It’s when the egg’s released,” answered Josie promptly.

“And can you also remember which hormone builds up in the blood before

Josie wrinkled her nose and thought. “Oestrogen?” she asked.

“Well done. Yes, the build up of oestrogen in the blood tells the brain that the
egg is ready, and the brain then triggers ovulation. But the oestrogen has two other
functions as well. The first is in the uterus and the second in the cervix. Can you find
those diagrams I drew last time?”

1 © Louise Kirk 2009

Josie ran upstairs and
brought them down.

“Here you are, Mum,” she

said, sitting expectantly beside

“I told you that, when your

period’s over, the lining of the
womb begins to build up again.
That’s how it forms a new nest
ready for a new potential baby.
Now here’s
ere’s the diagram of the
whole uterus,, with the ovaries, the
Figure 1: Female reproductive organs tubes, the uterus, the cervix and
the vagina.

“And here’s the cross-section

cross of the endometrium,, or lining of the uterus. Can
you remember why the egg cycle is drawn across the top?” she asked.

“Because the follicle produces first the oestrogen and then the progesterone!”
said Josie,, looking pleased with herself.

“You’re right!”
said her mum. “So
’ll remember that
the construction of the
nest happens under the
influence of the
hormone oestrogen.
There’s still oestrogen
about after ovulation,
and the nest goes on
being built up, but the
Figure 2: Cross section of endometrium, or lining of uterus, showing main hormone becomes
monthly cycle ...”

“Progesterone,” said Josie.

“And that’s given off by the collapsing follicle. OK. Now progesterone
stimulates the glands in the uterus lining so that they produce the fluids which will
nurture the tiny baby should it arrive. That’s how it gets the nutrition to live and grow.

2 © Louise Kirk 2009

You can see all sorts of lovely liquids there, just ready to feed the baby, until suddenly,
whoosh! The follicle disintegrates, the progesterone levels in the blood drop
dramatically, and the lining of the womb begins to be shed. There’s the period all over

“It’s very interesting, Mummy,” Josie said, craning over the drawing. “But you
were going to tell me about mucus. Does that come from all those glands?”

“A good question, but actually it doesn’t. It comes from the cervix. Can you tell
me what the cervix is?”

“I know you said you

have to look after it,” replied
Josie, thinking hard. “You said
it was something like the
gateway of the uterus.”

“It is. You can see it

here in the diagram. It’s
actually part of the uterus and
joins the uterus to the top of the
vagina. It’s a bit like a tube and
measures about 1 ½ inches
long. It’s made of lots of
expandable material because
when a baby is born it has to
Figure 3: Cervix and its mucus stretch from being only about
an inch in diameter to being
wide enough to let the baby out.

“Can you see all those wiggly folds?” she went on. “They’re called crypts and
inside the crypts there are hundreds of glands which produce the mucus I was talking
about. They don’t only produce one kind of mucus – there are lots of different kinds.
The scientists are still discovering quite how many and what it all does. Anyway, I’m
going to keep it very simple and talk about the two basic types.”

She continued drawing round her diagram.

“Most of the time the cervix produces mucus which looks like this.” She pointed
to her right-hand diagram. “Can you see that it is made up of blocks designed to keep
things out? That protects the uterus from germs, and it also prevents any of the man’s
sperm reaching the uterus and the tubes.”

3 © Louise Kirk 2009

“Oh,” said Josie. “Does that mean that most of the time you can’t have a baby?”

“Well, the time of possible conception, when the man’s sperm and the woman’s
egg can join to become a new cell, is much shorter than that. You should be able to
work it out from what I told you last time.”

Josie thought hard.

“I’ll give you a clue,” her mum ventured. “How long does the egg live in the
tube after ovulation if it hasn’t been fertilised?”

“Umm, 24 hours?” Josie asked.

“Well done. Up to 24 hours and usually nearer 12. So that means that the actual
moment of conception, when the man’s sperm and the woman’s egg join together, can
only take place within 12-24 hours each month. But nature has extended the period of
time when an act of intercourse can lead to conception by something else. What else do
you think it could be?”

Alice looked really puzzled at this. “Can’t think!” she said after a bit.

“If you want to make sure that you catch a bus, and you only know roughly
when it will arrive, what do you do?” her mother asked.

Alice shrugged and said, “Arrive early and hang around, I suppose.”

“If sperm arrive early, that’s exactly what they do. They hang around and wait
for the egg. But they’re only able to do that round about the time that the bus is
expected, i.e. that the precious egg is
released. Normally, the sperm die pretty
quickly in the vagina, but round the time
of ovulation they can live for several days.
The reason they can do that is because of
this other kind of mucus.”

Josie looked again at the second

diagram. “Wow, Mum. It’s completely
different! Isn’t nature clever? And does
Figure 4: Picture of fertile cervical mucus under the sperm travel up all those channels?”
“Yes, it does. So the mucus acts
like a biological valve, open round the time of ovulation and closed at other times.
When oestrogen levels are high it opens, and when they are low it closes.”

4 © Louise Kirk 2009

“Mum, if you can only start a baby for such a short time each month, why does
everybody talk about using contraception?” Josie asked.

Her mum met Josie’s inquiring look. “There are various reasons, but I suspect
the main one is that most people don’t realise how clearly the body works and how easy
it is to read its language. Your dad and I only discovered about it recently and we were
so impressed with what we’d learnt that we made it our business to discover as much as
we could. Now, we want you – and your brother and sister – to know and respect the
full beauty of your bodies from the beginning.”

Josie’s mum paused and smiled. “Your generation is much luckier than mine
was. You see, a lot of the science has only been discovered quite recently, and even then
it hasn’t been widely taught.”

She looked down again at the diagrams in front of her. “When you’re older I’ll
teach you how to read all your fertility. But for today it’s enough to remember that there
are two main types of mucus. One nourishes and helps the sperm along, and the other
blocks it. There’s another big difference. The barrier mucus stays where it is in the
cervix. You won’t be aware that it’s there. But the stringy mucus – the mucus which
looks after the sperm – drips down through the vagina and is clearly visible on the
outside of the body. It appears as a sticky discharge, a bit like white of egg. Sometimes
it’s like a gluey white lump. You’ll come to recognise it. When I was young, nobody
ever told me about it. I remember seeing it and thinking there must be something wrong
with me! I thought I must have tape worms (I didn’t know what they were either)!
When you see it, you’ll know it’s a pretty good clue that you can expect a period in
about a fortnight’s time – you’ll get to know your own pattern.”

Josie looked up at her mum and gave her a big hug. “Thanks, Mum,” she said.
“You know, you’re the best mum in all the world!”

Diagrams with amended captions taken from Reproductive Anatomy and Physiology for the Natural Family Planning
Practitioner, Thomas W. Hilgers, m.d. (Creighton University), 1981 with kind permission of the author.

5 © Louise Kirk 2009