My Friend’s in Town, or Going with the FLOW, period.

Last week, Rebecca of The Book Lady’s Blog gave a glowing review to Elissa Stein and Susan Kim’s Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation, a book that’s intrigued me since I first heard about it a few months ago. The review led to a discussion that Rebecca would like to keep flowing (pun intended!):

“(T)he conversations that followed both in the comments section of my post and on Twitter were fun and informative. And I think they were evidence that people really do want to talk about supposedly taboo topics.  Breaking away, stepping out, and talking about something society tells you you’re not supposed to talk about can be empowering and exciting…I have three copies of the book to give away, and you’re gonna have to work for ‘em, people! (But it will be fun, I swear.) All you need to do is keep talking about periods.”

If my few male readers, or more reserved female ones, would like to skip this post, I understand, although I promise it’s not too graphic and hope it won’t squick anyone out.
This isn’t a subject I’ve cared to discuss very much, to be honest. I’m fine reading about it – my comfort level with writing is always higher than it is with oral communication (and so I became a blogger – go figure!), but I’m just not in the habit of talking about it. I dodged “the talk” with my mother, despite her clear openness to it. When my first period arrived, I was 11 years old, and I knew enough about what was going on that I wasn’t too scared by it…but I wasn’t happy to see it either,  and I didn’t tell her; she discovered it through the laundry. Periods and everything associated with them weren’t a huge topic of conversation among my friends in Catholic high school, either, aside from the rumors – you couldn’t get pregnant during your period, you couldn’t go swimming, and using tampons would mean you wouldn’t be a virgin. (Incorrect but not impossible; incorrect unless you were using pads; just plain incorrect.) And as I entered my college years and adulthood, I just didn’t have the circle of women friends that would have fostered more talk about “women stuff.” I married at 19, was the mother of a son at 20, moved back and forth across the country twice before I was 30, and I just seemed to spend most of my time around guys. Periods are not their favorite thing to talk about, so there was one more reason for me not to do so.
I did eventually learn to be happy to get my period, though, once I was in a relationship with my first boyfriend – the one I married at 19 and had a son with at 20. My boyfriend and I were not Catholic enough to wait to have sex until we go married, but we were Catholic enough not to use “artificial” – also known as “effective” – birth control; I kept track of my cycles on my calendar and let him know when it it was “safe” or “not safe.” (This was in the pre-AIDS early 1980’s, and we were each other’s first partners, so pregancy was really the only thing we were concerned with avoiding.) Getting my period came to mean we were “safe” for another month…until we weren’t. For the record, this particular method of birth control works best when a woman’s cycle is very regular – and mine never really was. We’re probably lucky our method was successful for as long as it was.
After that experience, and six weeks after giving birth, I went on the Pill. I stayed on it for 18 years, and probably missed taking it less than ten times in that entire stretch. I loved the fact that at last, I was on a regular cycle, but was rather dismayed that after several years, my periods became shorter and lighter. I trusted the Pill’s effectiveness, but I’d been caught once by an unplanned pregnancy and had NO wish to have it happen again; I only wanted one child, and even though he arrived sooner than I might have intended, that didn’t change my mind about being done once I had him. I’d come to rely on my period as the sign that everything was working according to plan. Even though I understood that it was normal for periods to change after an extended time on the Pill, I didn’t like it, and changed formulations several times just to jump-start my periods again.
I went off the Pill eight years ago; after my divorce, I really didn’t need it for its intended purpose. I was pleasantly surprised to find that even without it, my cycle seemed to become fairly regular on its own. And even though I had no need to worry about pregnancy, I was still relieved and happy whenever my period arrived; once again, all was well. There are other health concerns with taking the Pill once a woman is over 40, so when I started a relationship with my second husband, I was pleased to learn that I wouldn’t need to; after his second child (with his first wife) was born, he’d had a vasectomy, so we were definitely on the same page about not wanting more kids. Even with the knowledge that we’re “protected,” getting my period every month is still reassuring.

But I’m not sure how much longer I’ll have that reassurance. I’ll be 46 this month, and my periods are becoming less predictable. The time between them can vary between three and six weeks; sometimes they’ll be very light, and sometimes they’ll go on for five or six days although the shedding and bleeding may only be heavy for one or two. Eventually, I know they’ll go away and not come back at all, but I have no way of knowing when that will happen, so I can’t really plan for it. And it’s weird, considering how unwelcome the onset of menstruation was so many years ago, but my feelings about its approaching end are very mixed – in some respects, I think I’ll actually miss it. Some of us euphemistically refer to our periods as our “friend” – “my friend’s in town” – and oddly enough, I think mine really has become one.

She was just here, by the way; she should be back some time early next month, unless she isn’t.

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