Disclaimer: I’m about to talk about periods. My very original and hilarious title might’ve given it away. If this is not something you wish to read about, look away now. However, if you really don’t wish to read about periods, please take a long hard look in the mirror and blow a raspberry at yourself. Because periods are a fact of life for half of the humans on the planet and I shouldn’t have to disclaimer before talking about them.
Well, I’m off to a good start. That was going to be a nice disclaimer but then halfway through I realised that actually I’m day 27 and I don’t give a shit about being nice, really. I mean I do because I’m not a total monster, but right now my brain-to-mouth (brain-to-keyboard?) filter and patience are at zero. I wonder how many people know what it means to be on day 27 of an average 28 day cycle – apart from the cliched, volatile and irrational pre-period person that the media portrays?
If I messaged about being day 27 to one of my numerous WhatsApp group chats (oh my god HOW are there so many group chats?!) my friends would mostly know exactly what that means. They’d avoid asking me questions, and if they saw me they’d ply me with chocolate and wrap me in blankets, and leave me alone to hormone in peace for at least two days. (Yes I’m making hormone into a verb. Fight me.)
But how common is this kind of knowledge and support, and why does it matter that we understand our cycle behaviours to be more than just a cliched Jekyll or Hyde-esq caricature? How do we break past that ‘time of the month’ stigma to fully embrace what it means to menstruate?
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I have been battling with my brain for as long as I’ve been feeling the impact of my reproductive system. I started my period later than the average person, and when I did finally begin they were erratic, irregular, and highly frustrating. The only consistent was the inevitable foul mood which arrived without fail a week before I bled. Not much has changed in twenty years, except for my attitude towards it all, and that is kinda the point of this post.
None of what I experience is unique; far from it. Periods are the perennial butt of jokes. PMS is the butt of even more jokes. Being accused of having your ‘monthly visitor’ if you display so much as a hint of irritation, dominance, or short-tempered-ness is an experience common to all who bleed. That’s what makes it so hard to navigate. It’s entrenched in our society. I’m not saying anything groundbreaking here but it breaks my heart that it even has to be said.
Listen. Please, please listen. There is NO shame in the moods and feelings which accompany each stage of our cycle. But that’s a hard thing to realise and even more difficult to accept. Growing up I was never taught about what it really means to bleed, and more importantly I was never taught that a monthly menstrual cycle is something you need to learn and understand and honour. No-one told me that hormonal changes throughout your cycle do result in different moods and temperaments, but that by no means are my thoughts and feelings and opinions in any way less valid than another human’s just because I produced them while bleeding.
Fuck me, if anything the contributions that a bleeding person makes to the world are probably more valuable because they managed to do them while dealing with said hormones, plus cramps and other symptoms and the inconvenience of the blood itself. And that is no mean feat.
I wish someone had told me this when I first started bleeding. As a teenager I made a weird, sad connection in my brain between the low moods and energy slump I felt pre-bleed and the blood itself, and associated the whole thing with so much negativity. Shame was a big part of my cycle for many years. If something like Red School had existed when I was a teenager; if conversations were more open; if someone thought to explain what was happening… I wouldn’t have spent so many years dreading my period. Ok, I’ll never enjoy the cramps. However, I wouldn’t have felt the pressure to keep functioning ‘as normal’ when my body was clearly telling me everything I needed to know, if only I could be brave enough to listen. But listening isn’t easy when you don’t even know what you’re meant to be listening to.
I first started tracking my cycles after a miscarriage 13 years ago when I realised I knew next to nothing about my reproductive system – thank you, strange Catholic sex education, aka: sex doesn’t exist, you only lose a teaspoon of blood each cycle, and you definitely don’t need to know what a tampon is – and once I started paying attention I learned so much so quickly. As I’ve grown I’ve amassed more knowledge – mostly from the wonderful women I am lucky enough to call friends – and now charting my cycle is something I do without second thought. But there’s a difference between charting and knowing what it means to cycle and bleed.
I’ve spent today (day 27, don’t you dare forget) in a pretty foul, low energy mood. Generally speaking I’m an easily agitated twit, but this close to bleeding is not the time to cross my path. Due to work deadlines I’ve had lots of brain-ing to do and very little energy with which to perform said brain-ing. As a result it’s taken me far longer than usual to complete my to-do list.
Five years ago I didn’t understand the connection between my brain and my uterus and would’ve just chalked today up to another hormone-y, irrational mood. I tracked my cycle but I didn’t really know what that meant, other than when to expect blood. I would’ve felt as though I was failing on a day like today; that the work which seemed easy and manageable two weeks ago (hello, ovulation, you productive little bastard) was actually too much for me, and that this was proof of my ineptitude.
But today, in light of the knowledge shared with me by others, I knew what I was working with. Knowing where I am in my cycle eases my passage through this world and eases the pressure I put on myself to perform. And that’s what makes all the difference – going with the flow (pun unintended but I’m leaving it because I can) rather than against it.
So today I did the things I needed to do, but I did them more slowly. I listened to my body and I respected its needs. I know I won’t have much energy for the next 24-48 hours, but that doesn’t mean I’m rendered useless. I just need to allocate my resources accordingly.
In a week it won’t be like this. In two weeks I’ll be a hive of productivity. In a month it will be like this again, but knowing that makes it easier to deal with. I am learning to welcome each stage of my cycle as I see the value in the different sides of me it brings to the fore.
There is no shame in my cycle and I feel sad that it took me so long to realise. Each generation teaches what it can to the next, to the best of its abilities. I just wish someone had told me to pay attention to my cycle for more than just needing to carry sanitary products in my bag ‘just in case’. I’m feeling grateful that I get to teach my daughter how important it is to listen to her body and follow its cues, and to never feel ashamed. To understand what it means to own each part of her at each stage of her cycle.
What’s that they say about change starting at home? Well, that feels particularly apt for changing the conversation around periods. I talk to my children about why I take my temperature every morning, about why I exercise less at certain times of the month, what the basket of things is for in the bathroom, why I’m tearful and productive and sensitive at different times, and why I bleed. Normalising this stuff is so important. I never want my daughter to feel she has to hide period products like I did; towels and tampons shamefully stuffed up sleeves on the way to the toilet because GOD FORBID another human knew I was doing the very human activity of bleeding.
Vitally, I also want my son to understand that it is also his job to know about menstruation, and to support the people in his life as they navigate their cycles – and to speak out against those who may stigmatise periods or perpetuate negative stereotypes.
It’s time to end the shame. I don’t know quite how that happens, but I know it has to start somewhere. Talk to your friends. Talk with your children. Share your experiences. Seek out information that helps you make sense of the world as it relates to your uterus. Social media is full of flaws but it can also be a treasure trove of opportunities for connecting with other humans and making sense of the world. I love seeing people talking about their cycles and making it normal, and reclaiming what it means to bleed.
My voice feels tiny but I’m going to add it to the other ones I hear, and hope that one day we will collectively drown out the ‘she must be on her period’ cliches. We will show you what it means to bleed. I am bleeding, hear me roar. Well, maybe technically there’ll be no roaring from me for a few more days. But when I’ve got some more energy I will be roaring again. And that, my friends, is the whole bloody (high five for another unintentional pun) point.