I Want You Inside Me, I: What Periods are For
This is the first in an undetermined number of vignettes about what it’s like to be a woman. I’m calling them I Want You Inside Me. Some of them will be taken from my life. Some of them will be taken from those of others. There will be feelings. There will be curse words. There will also be blood–particularly in this one. You might not like it, and that’s cool—I like you anyway.
I arrive at the office at 8:28 a.m., spent and spandex-clad, from the gym. Every step I take is encumbered by the indignant, shrieking weight of the unborn children who, even now, are pooling in the silicone cup rammed against my cervix. If it sounds dramatic, that’s because it is, and it has been happening every twenty seven days for over half of my life. Pushups, breakups, baking cakes, asking for raises — most things, even the unpleasant and awkward ones, get easier with repetition. This one, however, is different. Every time it’s new, and every time, it’s agony.
“And why must it always be so painful?” asks my colleague, Laura. Post-workout sweat growing tacky across my clavicle, I ponder this.
Physiologically, I get it: pieces of my uterine wall, presumably furious at being denied the fertilized egg they deserve, are tearing themselves away from my insides like little tongues of wallpaper clawed raw by a mad dog. To put it mildly, the pain makes sense.
Evolutionarily, on the other hand, I don’t know how to answer Laura’s question. Why couldn’t periods be a little less ghastly? We have, after all, evolved to do other uncomfortable things comfortably. It can’t have been a cakewalk for our ancestors to spend 16-hour days shambling around the world newly erect on two knobby-kneed legs. But today, unless you’re born with some sort of deformity, being upright is pretty all right most of the time unless you stub your toe. I think we can call this a triumph of evolution.
And yet millions of years post primordial soup, here is womankind, still curled into fetal and playing big spoon to our heating pads. Why must it always be so painful? And why must we always pretend like it’s not?
This deeply unravishing post-workout time is a funny, dirty moment to note that, all morning, I’ve been on the stairmaster reading and thinking about femininity — also about culture’s expectations of women and, significantly, our expectations of ourselves. Example: it is not yet 9 a.m. and I have already packed myself a healthy lunch, worked out, caught up on my reading, lifted weights, and arrived at work five minutes ahead of schedule. On my walk here from the gym I’ve voice-noted myself an outline of a story I hope to write when I get home. Next I will shower, array myself in the outfit I packed the night before (hopefully I remembered a bra and socks) and slap on a coat of makeup that, if I do it right, will cast the illusion that I got more than six hours’ sleep. Between now and writing time is a nine-hour workday slotted with meetings and social transactions during which I will need to exert all of my will to be moderately pleasant and pretend like everything’s fine. Because that is what society expects.
Let us review:
- Pieces of my body are shucking themselves from other, larger pieces of my body in unsubtle pro-life protest
- I will lose a couple of shot glasses full of blood per day, for roughly the next five days — also known as the remainder of this work week. That is a lot of blood. That is a lot of work.
- I have a persistent headache with the personality of a Slayer song
- And I am also expected to act like everything is fine
Maybe that is why it hurts.
Despite all of this thinking, only seconds have actually passed between Laura asking Why must it always be so painful? and now.
“Well, I guess that pain is an important tool,” I say.
“Oh?” says Laura, arching a brow and swiveling in her desk chair to face me.
“I mean, what do you do when you see someone you love in pain?” I ask, though I do not need Laura to answer to know. Laura is the kind of woman I’d aspire to be if I thought I had the willpower to be better than I am (spoilers: I don’t). If Laura saw someone she loved in pain, she would stop the world to bend near and, in her honey-coated contralto, coo gentle queries until she alighted upon the right way to help.
“You stop and you do whatever they need to make it better,” I say.
What do you do when you see someone you love in pain? You stop and you do whatever they need to make it better.
Laura smiles and nods slowly. I have that dawning feeling of odd and wary camaraderie that one does when she realizes that she and her interlocutor are arriving at the same conclusion at the same time and neither one of them is sure that she likes it. Here is what we have realized together: we would do this for someone we love, but we do not regularly do this sort of thing for ourselves.
Women put up with a lot. I was reminded of that today when reading this article. Twenty men in a clinical trial tried a contraceptive drug that made them uncomfortable, whereupon they bellowed an imperious (and rightful!) “Take it back! And don’t bring me any more of this bullshit science until it feels like being massaged by a thousand sexually-experienced-but-demure-concubines with fingertips made of gold!”
Meanwhile, my sestra and I have been mainlining this stuff into our bodies for decades. Then we stop for a bit and bear children. Maybe we don’t ever stop and, instead, we get careers, and we make those our progeny. We make pancakes. We write novels, get promotions, do weird drag shows in our off time, and write poems or songs. We get advanced degrees in hopes of making more than 78 cents to a man’s dollar. We write and release entire pop albums. We start food blogs. We open galleries and learn new languages and write software and climb mountains. We learn 5 languages, travel to Africa and then become reference librarians in the biology department at some university in the midwest. We do burlesque for a little while until we realize our ankles hurt and we actually weren’t born with a “sinuous” setting and maybe that’s actually fine. We get PhDs and influence educational policy. We shut up and smile so that we can succeed and live up to what the world expects of us. So that we can live up to what we expect of us.
Here’s what I think: pain is a tool to make us pay attention.
Periods have a purpose past the body’s natural custom of cleaning out the shop of all outdated merchandise. Perhaps the pain is a superintelligence of the female form: a reminder to stop and listen to our bodies, because they really do know best. I think that periods, as much as they are biological functions, are a persistent, monthly reminder that we get only one piece of hardware with which to process this life, and we’ve got to perform the occasional defrag and some loving maintenance.
A period is a kind of primeval permission slip to take a moment and wrap ourselves in comfortable clothing (elastic waistbands only) and, if not ponder the sacred feminine, at least watch something we like on Netflix and give it a fucking rest for today.
It’s 8:33 a.m. I am shivering and thinking about the shower I need and all of the life I’ve lived in the three hours before setting foot in this office. I am thinking about the work that’s on my list today and how I’ll make it good and how I’ll make nice, in spite of the coup my reproductive organs are currently staging. It’s all relatively daunting and I’m still in pain, but talking with Laura helped.
“Periods are reminders to take care of ourselves,” I say.
“And to take care of each other,” Laura replies. “Feel better, honey.”
As punctuation, she actually blows me a kiss. I blow her one in return and head for the shower.
The show must go on. But today, I will go home a little early, I will cook myself something nice, and I will do what I have to do to make it better.
Maybe pain is a feature, not a bug.