Each week, Ask Me About My Uterus shares an interview about menstruation. Menstrual Monday is a chance to read about what another woman’s menstrual life has been like — to discover and discuss the ways that we’re alike and different, to hear first-person accounts of when reproductive health suffers, when it thrives and learn about our bodies from one another.
This week we’re chatting with Liz Lazzara — a writer and mental health advocate. She’s a regular here on Medium, but also a regular writer at Ravishly, BlogHer, Bustle, Elite Daily, Huffington Post, The Liberty Project and many more.
What is your first memory of being female?
As long as I’ve been alive, I can remember identifying as female, though certainly not in a traditional way. I was never — and still am not — a fan of dresses or skirts. When I was child, I wore jeans and flannel button-downs over t-shirts with wolves on them. At the same time, I cut my feminine locks into a chic bob in third-grade, ever conscious of women’s fashion.
There was never a moment when I looked down at my vagina and realized that it wasn’t a penis, that there was a fundamental difference between my anatomy and that of the boys around me. I had no brothers, and there were no playground encounters that led me to that point of self-identification.
I was simply born female, raised female, and never questioned how I was gendered. I may have played with gender norms, especially in terms of dress, but never had a revelation about being a girl or a woman.
Sometimes, though, I wish I had.
Describe your sexual / menstrual education (ex. were you told that “cramps were normal” or things like, “you can’t swim if you’re on your period” — ?)
In the fifth grade, the boys and girls were separated to have the “sex talk.” We watched a video about our reproductive systems, and giggled over the idea of growing pubic hair on our vaginas, dubbing it “a forest in Virginia.”
We came back to class with knowledge of our bodies that may have been already known — I had certainly known a lot of it — but with a sense of camaraderie that hadn’t been there before.
We were a group of girls together, talking about our bodies together (maybe this was the first time I truly felt female…).
When we returned, the boys simply looked embarrassed, which, in retrospect, makes sense. We got to talk about being able to foster new life while they had to discuss wet dreams and erections.
In middle school, we revisited sex-ed, but with a definite focus on safe sex and abstinence. We weren’t told to save ourselves for marriage, but we were given electronic babies that cried off and on all day. To regain the “baby’s” silence, you had to put a key in its back and then determine its needs: a diaper change? a bottle feeding? a desire to be rocked?
I had mine for a long weekend because I wanted the extra credit, and made the mistake of bringing it to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. I was shushed by someone when it started to fuss during a film, and I felt such shame. I was only 13 years old.
Around the same time, I started to get a “street” education about sex.
The older kids at the bus stop used to sing a song that went there’s a place in France where the naked ladies dance…Every time I heard it, my stomach would turn. I was only 11. I was sheltered. I didn’t want to hear the eighth-graders talking about sex.
Then a male friend of mine told me and another girl that he had masturbated to us before. She took it as a compliment. I felt uncomfortable taking the Linkin Park CD he had given me as a Christmas present.
At the same time, rumors were circulating. There was a girl who, it had been said, got fingered. Not only that, but she made her boyfriend go to the bathroom to warm his hands under the faucet first. Another girl had supposedly given a blowjob.
I hadn’t received my first kiss yet, and wouldn’t for a few more years. What I learned was that these things happened, that they circulated around me, and that I wasn’t ready.
I was late to start menstruating. When my time came, most of my friends had gotten their periods and I was terribly jealous. Despite the plethora of first-person knowledge that surrounded me, though, the education I got in menstruation came mostly from my mother and the (outdated) Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.
I learned about the old-fashioned kinds of pads that attached with a belt, and understood the yearning to wear one, to say yes, I’m a woman now, but it didn’t happen for me until much later.
By then, my mother and I had talked about menstruation, had prepared for it with pads and tampons that were stashed under the sink until they were necessary. I knew the basics: that I would bleed for roughly 3–7 days, that the flow would be heavier at the beginning and lighter toward the end, that exercise would increase it, and that swimming could possibly staunch the flow temporarily.
The specifics of my period, though, were far different.
How old were you when you started menstruating? How did you feel about it?
I think I was 15 when my period first came, and I felt it was long overdue (later, I came to realize how much of an annoyance mine would be, and that a late start could potentially mean a shorter lifetime of periods, for which I was grateful).
My mother was going out that night, and so was I. Luckily, it started when I was still at home, but unluckily so was my mother. I wasn’t interested in having the “my baby girl’s all grown up!” tearful talk, so I surreptitiously put on a pad in the bathroom, waited until my mother left the house, and called her cell sometime later to break the news.
As expected, she did gush (no pun intended), but I was saved the in-person hugs and awkwardness that I had feared. With so many girls my age already having started their period, I didn’t want mine to be a big deal, so I treated it like it wasn’t.
But soon it became a very big deal.
Describe your menstrual experience (including premenstrual symptoms, ovulation symptoms, how many days you bleed, if you have “regular, predictable” periods or not, if you are taking birth control or have in the past and it has impacted your cycle, your experience with tampons/menstrual cups/pads, etc.)
I believe it’s correct to say that when you first start menstruating, it’s bound to be a bit unpredictable. Your body hasn’t quite gotten the hang of this whole “sexual maturity” thing yet, so you have to be prepared at all times, just in case your period decides to come in three weeks instead of four.
In my case, my body went haywire.
I had a heavy flow right from the start and the quantity of menstrual blood wouldn’t decline until the last day. I would wait four weeks for my period to come, bleed for a solid week (sometimes two), then get it again two weeks later.
I had to wear extra strength pads at all times, and was constantly worried about bleeding through my clothes, especially when I slept. I had to change pads multiple times a day, and even when I started using tampons, I still used pads to catch the overflow. It was a nightmare.
I was in the middle of a geometry test when I knew that my tampon was saturated and I was started to leak through onto my pad — majorly. I raised my hand and asked to go to the bathroom, but my teacher told me that breaks weren’t allowed during the test (presumably to prevent cheating). I have no idea what my face did in that moment, but I imagine it was something along the lines of I may burst into tears at any given moment if you don’t let me out of here, so he let me go. He was one of the girls’ sports coaches, after all, and was probably familiar with that look.
Not only had I used up my tampon, but I’d also used up my pad, and stained the crotch of my jeans. I spent the entire day praying no one would notice.
Later, I went to a sleepover at a hotel with the cast of a one-act play I had done, and got my period then. The only supplies available were light OB tampons.
#1: Light wasn’t going to cut it.
#2: I didn’t want to have to insert a tampon without an applicator.
But I did it anyway, knowing it was a necessary temporary solution.
I woke up the next morning, having gone through most of the stash of OBs, and my flow was heavier than ever. I snuck out of the Red Roof Inn to a convenience store across the street and grabbed the Extra Heavy tampons and some pads. But when I went to pay, I only had enough money for one or the other, so I stuck with the tampons.
I went home that afternoon and spent the rest of the day lying on the couch watching Halloween II, hating my uterus.
That’s when my mother took me to the gynecologist.
Apparently, what I was going through wasn’t the normal ebb and flow of an early period, but something else entirely. The unpredictability of my period was too inconvenient for everyday life, so I went on The Pill to regulate it.
Praise be to the gods I don’t believe in, it worked. I finally had a “normal” period that came on a schedule and didn’t ruin my clothes.
Later, when I started having sex, I became so paranoid about missing pills (I’m fairly forgetful when it comes to taking something at the same time every day) that I switched to the Mirena IUD.
Since then (again — blessed be!), I barely ever get a period. If I do, it’s more like spotting than anything, and it only lasts a day or two.
Best. Investment. Of. My. Life.
(And all credit due to Planned Parenthood, who inserted it for free because of their income-based payment plans).
How is your day to day life impacted by menstruation? Do you miss school/work/social activities? Do you feel the need to justify yourself by saying things like, “Oh, I’m just PMSing” etc?
Since I’m blessedly period free (for the most part), I don’t get cramps. I don’t feel fatigued. I don’t even feel plagued by PMS. What I worry about, actually, is not getting a period.
When you’re having sex, your period is the indicator of whether or not you’re pregnant. Of course there are other symptoms, like tender breasts, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, food cravings, and so on, but generally the one thing you look for (or hope not to find) is your period.
The Mirena IUD has a 99.9% efficacy rate, which means that one woman in 1000 will get pregnant while it’s inside her. That’s higher than the pill, condoms, and the majority of other birth control methods.
However, if I feel a bit of breast pain, or some unexplained nausea, or a few days of intense tiredness, I immediately run to the drug store and buy a pregnancy test. The last time, I was almost late for work because the WebMD symptom checker scared me half to death. (Never fear — my womb is clear.)
But if I were to get pregnant, the embryo would lodge itself inside my Fallopian tube instead of my uterus — what we call an “ectopic pregnancy” — and there would be no choice about what to do. I’d have to have surgery to terminate the pregnancy, or else risk my life. It’s something I never hope to have to go through, but unfortunately it’s a risk I take.
How has your sex life / dating life been impacted by menstruation?
I’m fortunate that menstruation has never gotten in the way of my sex life — except when I didn’t feel like having it.
I lost my virginity (and by “virginity,” I mean — in this context — first-time-penis-in-vagina intercourse; there are, of course, a billion other ways to have sex) in my first long-term relationship, which happened to be long-distance. If you only see each other once every few weeks, you’re not about to skip an opportunity just because the lining of one of your uteri is shedding. You put a towel down, and get over it.
My second long-term sex partner was an up-for-anything kind of guy, so as long as I was into it, he was too. He drew the line at eating me out during my period, but really, so did I. Some people get off on “earning their wings,” but I’ve never quite understood the practice. Oh well, to each their own.
By the time I’d found my third and fourth long-term partners, I had already found Mirena, so periods had basically ceased to be a problem. If ever some rust colored fluid ended up on my partner’s penis, he’d wipe it off casually, I’d check the sheets for damage, and apply a panty-liner later.
Obviously some men and women are not so open to the idea, but I feel like I got off (wow, I’m hitting it out of the ballpark with these puns) easy.
Have you ever been resentful of your period/uterus/womanhood? How do you cope with these feelings?
I haven’t been resentful of my period in a long while, mainly since I haven’t had a “proper period” in a long while. My resentment is mainly directed at my uterus and my gender.
I see women all around me getting engaged, married, and (inevitably) pregnant. Being a separated woman who has no intentions of conceiving a child is strange, to say the least. I feel that there are expectations of me to eventually become a mother in ways that there aren’t of men to eventually become fathers. Even my mother, who has known my lack of desire to have children, repeats consistently that her psychic told her that I would have two boys.
I don’t resent anyone else’s decision to become a mother, but I resent the implication that I should someday have to join their ranks.
It’s not a question of whether or not I would be a good mother or a bad one, whether I’ll change my mind or not (though I don’t believe I will). It’s a matter of the idea that, as a female, motherhood is a given.
I’ve also been the victim of catcalling, and even stalking, which is a strictly female issue. However, I don’t resent being a woman because of this maltreatment.
I used to be uncomfortable whenever someone shouted at me from a car, or slipped a lewd comment at me as they passed me by. But I became more comfortable with my anger at these men, my outrage at being treated like an object to be admired and commented on, and I began to holler back at them.
I told one man to shut the fuck up. I asked another who the fuck he thought he was talking to. I began, eventually, to own the strength in my femininity, even when my replies left me shaking with fear and rage.
I don’t resent being a woman — not at all. What I do resent is the way my womanhood is treated by society, and I’ll continue to resent that until society changes its mind.
Have you ever suspected you have, or been diagnosed with, any reproductive health condition such as: endometriosis, ovarian cysts, PMDD, fibroids, infertility, etc? If so, describe the process of being diagnosed, how long you had symptoms, what treatment was offered, etc.
Apart from my whack-a-doodle periods, I’ve never been diagnosed with any reproductive health issue — luckily.
Experiencing something like infertility can be emotionally painful. Fibroids, cysts, PMDD, and endometriosis are physically painful. I wouldn’t wish a reproductive issue on any woman.
In the interest of complete honesty (to the point of being completely un-PC), sometimes I wish that I had a fertility problem, if only so I’d never have to worry about pregnancy scares ever again. I’ve thought of getting a hysterectomy or my tubes tied before, but haven’t because doctors aren’t eager to grant such surgeries without a pressing health concern, and because I don’t want to put myself under the knife.
However, no such diagnosis has ever been bestowed on me, and I have no reason to expect one.
Tell me about your most recent period — how was it?
I actually can’t remember when my most recent period was, which is what I always tell my doctor when I go for my annual exam or a physical. My guess is that it was uneventful? Probably?
If you could go back in time and tell your younger self one thing about what to expect when she started menstruation, what would you say?
I would tell myself that getting your period isn’t a race — that once you get it, you’ll want desperately not to have it.
I would tell myself to talk more with my girlfriends about their periods, so I’d know that mine was abnormal and I could get on birth control sooner.
I would tell myself to talk to my partners more about my periods, so that I could move past moments of shame quicker and get to the part where no one really cared about whether I was menstruating or not.
I would mostly tell myself the facts as I know them:
Tampons are not scary, won’t hurt you, and are incredibly convenient.
If a guy freaks out about your period, he’s not worth your time.
If a girl freaks out about anyone’s period, she’s probably ill-educated. Don’t take it personally.
Periods are not gross, or weird, or strange. Literally half the planet has them. It’s okay to talk about yours.
And, most important, always care spare tampons and pads with you, because you never know when you’ll be able to help a girl in need.