A few days ago, I started my period. This was insignificant in the big picture of my life—I’m 48 (!) and have been getting my period (roughly) every 28 days for 34 years—but significant to the coming week: my periods tend to be long and heavy and accompanied by debilitating migraines.
My period is one way that I mark time (as in, “Damnit, again?!”), so when my monthly visitor returned (uninvited) in the midst of a global crisis, it somehow felt unfair. At a time when almost everything else has been canceled,* periods persist?!
Yesterday morning (day three), I listened to a podcast while preparing (read: popping migraine meds and fortifying my menstrual cup with period underwear) to teach my class. The episode topic was disability justice, and the entire discussion was instructive. But as the conversation was wrapping up, one of the guests said something that grabbed my attention. For context, this was her full comment.
“And one of the things that it makes me think about … is the reality that we’re all in bodies. You know, it’s not like we’re just abstract thinkers that are somehow leaving our existences outside the door. All of us are always in our bodies, engaging with each other. And all bodies are valuable, and all bodies have needs and strengths and desires. And oftentimes, it’s expected that our needs get kind of left at the door somehow, which is impossible. And all of us have a variety of needs.”Patty Berne on Irresistible podcast, “Organizing in a Pandemic: Disability Justice Wisdom“
What I heard was this: We are all (all of us, not just those society defines as disabled) bodies with needs. We cannot separate ourselves from our bodies’ needs.
Soon after absorbing this wisdom, I logged in to Zoom and managed my 90 minute class—including the logistics of connecting a guest speaker—while bleeding heavily and fighting a headache.
This was hardly remarkable. Some variation of that scenario has been my reality (and, likely, the reality of untold numbers of people who menstruate) through hundreds of periods. But for the first time, I saw it differently. I realized that I was ignoring my body and its pressing needs in order to get stuff done.
Throughout my life, I have ignored (or hidden) my body’s needs again and again. Some examples:
- Struggling through school and work in an achy, sleep-deprived fog in the early years of my period, when excruciating cramps kept me awake all night
- Ruining numerous pairs of pants when I taught high school, because–period or not–I couldn’t find time to use the bathroom between classes
- Commuting 15 miles (two buses plus lots of walking) to work and working full days during my first pregnancy, despite being exhausted and nauseous every moment of every day
- Busing to Mercer Island on weekday evenings for Regional Transit Task Force meetings when my youngest was still a newborn, struggling to participate in the three-hour discussions while my breasts filled with milk and my arms ached for my baby
- Lying under my desk in the shared workspace at the nonprofit I worked for, hoping my migraine would subside before my next appointment (usually a donor I was supposed to ask for money) arrived
I realize now that I have always carried shame about my body’s inconvenient needs, especially when those needs were related to menstruation or reproduction. It never occurred to me that I was actually pretty freaking amazing to manage work and life despite significant physical discomfort and logistical challenges. It certainly never occurred to me that it was OK to miss school or work for my period, or to cancel a meeting because of morning sickness or a migraine.
When my youngest was a week old, my spouse returned to work. I was fortunate to be able to stay home with the baby while I continued with regular life: writing my column, caring for our two-year old, and managing the household.
One day, when I was out and about with my newborn strapped to my chest and my toddler in a stroller, I ran into an elder friend who had raised her children in her home country of Eritrea. My friend told me that in her culture, when a woman has a baby, mother and baby “go to bed,” as she put it, for some months.** The mother’s extended community handles everything, and her only jobs are to rest and feed and nurture her new baby.
I remember aching with longing as she described this way of being, wishing for all the world that I could take my exhausted, sleep-deprived self “to bed” with my baby.
There are so many reasons this wouldn’t happen in the U.S. (one being that few of us have an extended community that would—or could—support us in that way), but one of the most important is capitalism. Our culture doesn’t value wellness, or bonding, or rest, because those things aren’t profitable. And because we live in a patriarchal society, we don’t value work that is traditionally performed by women.
I wish I could nurture my previous selves, tell them it’s OK to rest, that there’s nothing shameful about having a body with needs, that you don’t have to push, to deny, to “keep up” with everyone who seems to be managing it all better than you.***
Since I can’t do that, I will do my best to nurture my current self and to change the culture I’m a part of. I will rest when I am tired or sick. I will honor the rhythms of my body. I will remind myself and my children that there is nothing shameful about needing care, or medication, or accommodation, or extra time. And there is nothing abnormal or embarrassing about having a body that bleeds every month.
I will focus on others’ humanity instead of their output. I will encourage students and colleagues and community partners to listen to their bodies instead of sacrificing them to the religion of “productivity.” I will stand in the gap when I am able, trusting that others will do the same for me when I am not.
May all of us embody the care, peace, and rest that this moment demands.
* And speaking of … One day soon, I’ll write about how much I’m missing the bus in this new reality, but I’m not ready yet.
** I don’t remember anymore how long she said this period of time was. I think it was three months, but it could have been one.
*** Except you sort of do, if you want to pay your freaking rent. But whatever.