There’s a point in Tamora Pierce’s Alanna: The First Adventure when the heroine, Alanna, gets her period for the first time. She rushes to the only healing woman she trusts. Eleni sees Alanna’s frustration with her developing body and says, “You’re not used to your body doing things you haven’t asked of it, are you?” I didn’t understand that when I first read it, but now I do.
My body has no respect for anything but itself. It doesn’t care that I have a job now, that I have somewhere to be, or that I might inconvenience others.
My period started yesterday, very slowly. It didn’t get in the way, though I was a bit paranoid. I relaxed once I was home, and, though I saw how heavy it was–a single pad filled in the course of the evening–I didn’t anticipate trouble in the night. First days are often very light, and something about being horizontal means that not much leaks out.
More the fool me. The second and third day have become, over the last six months to a year, very heavy indeed. I didn’t wake to a disaster, thank god, but there was some spillage, and a full pad. I hastily checked for damage, and determined that my sheets were ok, though the pajama bottoms… do I care? Do I care?
There is a point at which one stops caring. It’s too much to keep caring about it, too much to worry about and plan for and clean up. When one reaches this point, it can go one of thee ways.
The first is abdication. “Screw you guys, I’m going home.” Drop everything, throw your hands up, walk away. It’s just too much. I can’t deal with this anymore. I officially resign my position in the course of daily life, I’m going to go curl up with a book, some bad TV, ice cream, something greasy, chocolate. Comfort foods. Wallowing, defiant.
The second is a good, long wail. A hard, wracking sob. Sometimes the only cure is to give in to those treacherous hormones and just have at. Shout, scream, beat the pillows. These tears are motivated by melancholy, sure, but mainly it is anger. Anger that this is happening, anger that I cannot stop it, anger that I did not anticipate better. They are a howling call for help. Mother, please, I cannot do this anymore! lease, please take over my life for me!
The worst is when neither of these happens. The worst is resignation. I already feel deadly tired–on top of everything else, I’m exhausted, too–and all I want is to crawl back into bed, regardless of feminine protections, and sleep it off. Like a fever or a hangover or a cold, the best way to get through it is to disengage.
So, I toss the laundry in the sink. I get dressed, brush my hair, calculate what sacrifices I will have to make in my routine before my ride pitches up. I’ve slept through the time I usually use to eat breakfast. I don’t want to eat, don’t want to do any of this, but I haven’t any choice. Somehow, miraculously, I am put together and ready to walk out the door only minutes late (and anyway, she’s early).
The ride to work is pleasant, normal. You’d never know.
Then I get to work and realize that, despite a super absorbent tampon, I may be leaking onto my pad. It never ends.
But I have a job to do. I can’t abdicate. I can’t break down and cry on the floor like a preschooler. It isn’t like college, when I could curl up on a couch in the lounge and sleep through as many classes as I needed to.
I also can’t tell anyone why I feel like shit, why I look totally wan and zonked, why I need to run to the bathroom every two hours (maybe more?). It’s not workplace talk. I barely know these people, I’m just the temp. One does not discuss intimate bodily functions with temporary superiors, not if one wants to be asked back.
It shouldn’t be this way. There are women way worse off than I, who literally have to take to their beds for several days every month. Migraines, cramps, mood swings–these words do not convey just how hellish life can be. You may think you know this, but unless you’re in that tiny minority of extreme suffering, you can’t. I am not, or, not on a regualr basis. But the little dose I’ve had makes me certain that, should it ever become a pattern, I’m heading right to the gyn.
What if I were immobilized each month? How would I ever hold down a job? I could easily turn this complaint into an dictment of the American health system and work culture. Here, we must work, work, work, nonstop, or be chucked in favor of someone who appreciates having a job. A job is a privilege, not a right.
I could also rail against a work culture developed by men, that is hostile toward female interlopers. Men didn’t think women were capable of holding down jobs for this very reason. We’re weak, we swoon, we can’t take the pressure. Finally, grudgingly, they said, “Ok, girls, you can join the steno pool. But we better not catch you slacking off. You’ve gotta work just as hard as any fella.”
That attitude still exists in places, and its legacy continues. Maternity leave is a source of resentment. In America, you earn two weeks vacation after a probationary period. After ten years, you’ll be lucky to have three weeks, maybe a month. In Europe, they start with six. If I were a menstrually-besieged woman in Europe, I could afford to dip into my vacation time once in a while. In America, never. Even adding personal days and sick days, it isn’t nearly enough. And the days off wouldn’t be a vacation, so I’d burn out.
Even if I could take the time off, then everyone would know. The whole office, maybe people in other offices. “Can’t call D today, it’s the Nth of the month, she’s home with her monthlies.” It shouldn’t be embarrassing. But, since middle school, it’s been clear that no one should know. Your friends know if you tell them, girl friends. The rest, never.
So here I am, skiving off and delaying the start of my work day so I can get all this off my chest. I don’t know how much good I’ll be today. Clearly I’m not fit to be in the work world, not as strong as a man, who isn’t plagued by hormonal fluctuations (unless they’ve done an even better job of hiding it).
This happens. It’s normal. I’m not saying that every woman should be given lavishly special treatment. But it should be understood when something goes wrong, it shouldn’t be shameful. It shouldn’t be something one hides, or resigns oneself to, for fear of losing a job.
“Hi, boss, look, I’m going to be a bit late today. I woke up and my sheets are a total mess.”
“No problem, try to make it in for the ten o’clock call.”
I need to check my pad.
[Ed: Corrected quote, spelling.]