I try to be as open as possible with my daughters about both the physical and emotional symptoms of menstruation.
Growing up, I knew nothing about menstruation or the various devices available to manage your menstrual cycle. I never saw a tampon or sanitary napkin or even heard of these terms before I needed to use them. I went to a Catholic school and I remember a movie with a woman giving very quick and quiet birth and being split into a class with only girls so that we wouldn’t be “embarrassed” to ask questions but by then I had been having my period for 3 years. The adult graphic novel, “Kid Gloves” by Lucy Knisley is a beautiful story about reproduction and one woman’s journey to motherhood, and she also has a great section on sex education and the lack of it in her life that resonated with me.
Now that I am a mother of daughters, I don’t hide my pads and tampons. If my girls see an old blood stain, I explain that it is from my period. My youngest calls my pads, “Mommy diapers” and she thinks this is hilarious. My girls ask me if having my period hurts and I tell them the truth, that sometimes it does hurt, but not much. Mostly, having my period reminds me that I can grow more children when I am ready and that is really amazing.
But how do I explain to my daughters the emotional toll my period takes on me? Since I gave birth to my first daughter, I have begun to get severely depressed right before my period begins. It is as if my body is forcing me to mourn the child I won’t have that month.
Usually the day before my menstruation starts, I feel overwhelmed by these dark feelings that seem like they will never stop, and then, mercifully I start to bleed and the feelings seem to leave me with the blood. I am usually able to remind myself that my dark feelings are a part of my emotional symptoms of menstruation and that they are temporary, but as the sadness deepens, my ability to check in with myself gets harder.
I have only recently opened up to my husband about my feelings. Partly to let him know that my lethargy and frustration are not caused by him, but also so that he can be watchful in case these symptoms last too long.
It wasn’t until a friend of mine shared on Facebook about her diagnosis of Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder, which causes extreme PMS symptoms that I told my husband that I wasn’t just sick, but that I might need more help. I messaged my friend immediately to say thank you. I don’t know that we share this diagnosis but she inspired me to feel less alone. It is amazing how depression tricks you into feeling that you are the only one in the fight and there is no one around to help you.
On the flip side, after my period I am full of vim and vigor. I want to attend all the exercise classes, meet all my friends for drinks, make new from-scratch meals every night, do all the hikes, work on every kid’s craft, take on all the challenges at work, and have all the sex. I have to remind myself during this phase too that my energy is not bottomless. I try to pick 2 or 3 things to focus on and leave the rest till the next month.
As a little girl, I was taught that my privates and anything having to do with them, including menstruation was private too. I think my parents and their generation hoped that if girls hid this part of themselves that they would be safer. But it felt like there was a thin line between private and disgusting, and I don’t want my daughters to feel they need to hide their tampons in their sleeves or that they should hide their feelings even from me and their doctor.
It is a common trope in many female comedian’s acts, like this great bit from Michelle Wolf, that females are just expected to continue functioning while we bleed. We are expected to pretend nothing is different even when we feel uncomfortable, tired, and preoccupied.
What about when your uncomfortableness turns to intense pain but your doctors ignore your complaints because of “Eve’s curse?”
What do you do when you feel so lethargic you are ashamed of yourself but your feelings are compounding so the more tired you are, the more ashamed, and the more ashamed, the less willing you are to fight to get up and shower and exercise and do the things that might give you a reprieve.
What happens when your preoccupation with making sure you aren’t bleeding on your clothes or furniture turns to disgust and you become fixated on anything that will help you feel some distance from your own body?
I can’t stand to think that my daughters, who are so lively, beautiful, and precious to me might feel any of these things.
So I don’t hide my sadness. I make sure they know that it is not because of them and that it will end. I tell them that for me, taking it easy and not feeling ashamed to do so helps me feel better. I will tell them to eat the ice cream and the steak; not only is it ok but encouraged. Mostly, I will tell them that they don’t have to keep their emotional or physical pain private, that safety and privacy are not the same things.