There has been, to my mind at least, a noticeable opening up in public discussion about periods, probably due to the fact that women are feeling increasingly empowered to speak up about it rather than put up and shut up. What astonished me recently was that there has been such a wide mix of views among women in the online debates about periods that I have looked at. And of course, where there is controversy and strongly held opinions, I feel the urge to wade in, especially on something that has such a huge impact on my life.
Although I am a grandmother and people might think that for me periods are a thing of the distant past or diminishing in their ability to cause distress and discomfort, the opposite is in fact true. And with other grandmothers leading such active and busy lives and still menstruating, it is clear the issue is as pertinent for us as it is for younger women. Perhaps more so, because, as I am learning, with age come more physical problems and less resilience.
Talking to other grans recently, I am discovering that while some have been through the menopause and have finally emerged feeling better than they had for years and with renewed vigour and energy, others are still battling their mood swings and hot flushes. Some, myself included, are bleeding more regularly, more profusely and more painfully than they ever had before.
Which is where reduced resilience comes in. After forty years of cramps, dizziness, nausea, fainting, the runs, vomiting, bleeding into clothes and sometimes mattresses and car seats, getting tampons stuck and flooding through pads, while also getting kids clothed, fed, to school, run into work, stand at a till for hours then collect from school, housework, bedtime and collapse, you’re – pardon the pun – bloody shattered. Every extra period you have feels as if you’re being cheated of enjoying life at long last. You feel physically and mentally drained.
Once a month, not only does life become emotionally as well as physically tough, but it has an impact on my relationships with my grandchildren. Some grans are relied on to childmind for their busy progeny, and mostly we do so with love and delight. But it is tough when you are standing outside school knowing your tampon and pad combination is about to leak, your womb is on fire, your head is pounding with the monthly hormone headache, but you have to be there, with a smile, to deal with the kids. Sometimes you’re snappy, and you can’t bear the thought of going to the park on the way home. They get upset, they think you’re a “moany Nanny” (my grandson’s words, not mine), you want to weep because you want so much to be their favourite person ever, but you’ve got to get to a loo before your trousers look like a nasty scene from A & E.
This is equally true for younger mothers, but they are younger, fitter, have had fewer periods than you, and are generally more resilient. Most women claim their periods have worsened as they reach their mid-forties when, for many, the school run is a thing of the past. Until you have grandchildren, that is.
I haven’t even mentioned brain fog yet, probably because I’m suffering at the moment and am writing under my own personal, thick pea-souper of a period fog. It’s weird, and everyone I’ve spoken to on the matter seems to experience their own personalised version of it. You make mistakes, you find it an effort to co-ordinate your lips to say the words you are thinking and then you realise that you are thinking in staccato sentences which you utter randomly and not necessarily conjoined by theme or subject. Anything you try to do takes longer, your tolerance levels are lowered and sometimes I think that in the workplace you are more of a liability than an asset.
This leads me to the nub of what I wanted to get at; the debate about whether there should be some kind of flexibility shown to women in order to accommodate their periods. When I first heard about a company called Coexist in UK introducing flexible working for women employees specifically for this reason, I punched the air and yelled: “about time!” and “why didn’t my generation come up with that?” Then I took a step back. There were some vociferous arguments levied by women against the idea. “This is a terrible idea”, they yelled, “we have fought so hard for equal rights in the workplace and this will make a mockery of that; we will be thought of as weak and employers will opt not to take women on”.
So I had to pause, because there could well be some mileage in this statement. The sad truth of the situation is that periods can be very debilitating and that male co-workers and bosses use this to scorn women and even to overlook women for promotion. There are treatments, but not all women respond well to these and not all women have access to treatments. Nor should women feel obliged to put their bodies through invasive treatments or hormone therapy and any risks that these might involve simply to be able to compete with men. There is also an issue in terms of so many women not realising that they don’t necessarily have to battle through excruciating pain every month just because tradition labels periods as normal: medical help can make things better. This is why talking openly about periods is so important for women.
The way I see it, rightly or wrongly, is that equality in the workplace is about employers, with the encouragement of the state, levelling the playing field for their employees. It is well-chronicled that happy, respected and valued employees increase productivity. This could mean installing hearing loops for hearing impaired employees or ramps for employees who use a wheelchair, and also arranging flexible working hours so that a woman who is bleeding heavily or suffering severe cramps can take a couple of hours off to let medication work or shower and change, and then make up that time throughout the rest of the month.
I understand that there might be some complex logistics to work out, especially in shift work and certain essential services. But something as simple as this would give working women the opportunity to work and shine, rather than battle through the monthly pain and discomfort with the risk that their work will be less consistent. Some women have no problems with periods. Great, they don’t need to take advantage of this. Some men have chronic health problems such as recurrent IBS that could be looked at in the same way by employers. Why not? It’s all about being valued and nurtured so that you can give of your best, whatever your gender, health or ability.
And while we consider showing compassion and flexibility in the workplace for women, we might also consider how the education system deals with teenage girls and their periods. It is one of those quirks of nature that your early periods can be terribly painful and cripple your academic career as much as your late periods can do the same towards the later stages of your career. As a mother of four girls, I am used to receiving calls to collect one or other of my progeny for bleeding into school skirts, throwing up in the waste paper bin or fainting in Maths (not just Maths; Physics and PE also seemed to attract period-induced fainting). Periods at their worst are not conducive to learning, and while many schools show compassion and understanding, the education system does not.
Many grandmothers are professional women at the peak of their careers, yet they struggle more than ever with their periods, which tend to worsen horribly as you get older in the lead up to the menopause, itself fraught with problems for career women. To be able to speak openly about their periods and to negotiate how best to deal with them with employers, without risking their careers is a huge step forward. It was, after all, us grans who broke so many of those glass ceilings. I hope the younger generation of women, who are so strong and so confident in their womanhood, have the courage to develop the debate and ensure women, from schoolgirls to CEOs can properly manage their lives and their periods without censure. It would enhance equality for both genders. It would be a good legacy to leave our grandchildren.