Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Choice, Fertility, and Menstrual Cycle Awareness

April 2nd, 2014 by Laura Wershler

Guest Post by Lisa Leger

Photos courtesy Lisa Leger

Posing while pregnant in my pro-choice T-shirt in 1993 was a political statement, one I made with a huge sassy grin on my face. When I recreated the pose recently on my daughter’s 21st birthday, I found it easy to reprise the grin. First take, in fact. My choice tee is well worn; it’s a house/jammy shirt that my daughter has seen me in her whole life. Little does she know that she’s had her nose wiped by a piece of Canadian history.

I bought the choice tee at a fundraiser in Toronto when the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics was helping Canadian abortion rights crusader Dr. Henry Morgentaler with legal expenses when he was forced to defend in court his practice of providing safe abortions in a free-standing clinic. At the time, abortion was legal in Canada, but only if approved by a Therapeutic Abortion Committee and performed in a hospital. I was 27 years old, fresh from university, and a legal abortion had allowed me to finish my degree unburdened by an unplanned pregnancy, but I supported fewer restrictions to access.

Like most twenty-somethings, I had a long history of contraceptive use. I’d tried the pill, an IUD, and even the rhythm method, a fuzzy grasp of which I probably had picked up in a public school health class. I had a rotten attitude about my fertility, saw it as a huge hassle, and had no interest whatsoever in becoming a mother. My social and political opinions about the right to reproductive choice were fully formed when I bought this T-shirt for the cause I so ardently supported.

I was 32 years old when I posed in it while pregnant. By then I’d been charting my menstrual cycles for enough years to have improved my attitude about fertility dramatically. I’d met Geraldine Matus in the late 80s and learned to use the Justisse Method for Fertility Awareness that she developed. It changed my life forever; not only did I gain body literacy, develop a healthy relationship with my cycling body, and break free from contraceptive drugs and devices forever, I also gained a cherished mentor in Geraldine, and a career path as a Justisse fertility awareness educator that has sustained and gratified me for the past 25 years.

I took that picture in my choice T-shirt in 1993 because, for me, it says “I’m choosing to be pregnant.” I grinned because it was my choice to have Clair; I wasn’t scared or forced or coerced into that pregnancy. It was entirely my free will to lend my body to the great task of having a child and I made that choice because of the healing that had gone on over the years of charting, coming into relationship with my body, and learning to appreciate the awesomeness of my pro-creative power. Now that my daughter is 21 years old, I think about the freedom and choices she has as a Canadian woman in 2014, and feel sadness for those who don’t have that choice. I reflect on what a shame it is that these battles over reproductive choice, human rights, access to birth control, stigma, and power seem never to be put to rest. On Clair’s birthday, I posed in my choice T-shirt for my family archives and for those who still do not have choice.

Lisa Leger is a Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioner (HRHP) and women’s health activist on Vancouver Island. She serves on the board of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.

An Uncharted Territory: Marriage Manual and Menstrual Sex

March 26th, 2014 by David Linton

A previous post, The Subject of Sneers or Jests: Menstrual Education in the Service of Racism, examined the confluence of eugenic notions that conflated the effects of environmental factors like clothing, alcohol, and masturbation with heredity and health as expressed in a 1913 sexual health manual sponsored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, What Every Young Woman Ought to Know. It is important to note that not every book about sexuality that emerged early in the century was as misguided and misinformed as that one.

Just 13 years later, in 1926, another guide to sex and marriage was published, Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique, by Th. H. Van de Velde, M.D., that went on to its 44th printing at Random House by 1963. Though not much is actually known about its reception or the uses its readers put it to, its longevity suggests both popularity and impact. And in tone and content it is remarkably different from the previously discussed volume from 1913. It suggests that the sexual/menstrual ecology was in flux (perhaps it always is) but also that the earlier work did not fully reflect the spirit of its times.

In those sections of the book dealing with anatomy and physiology the information is mostly sound and presented in a straightforward manner. However, Ideal Marriage also contains an ample amount of less than thorough information about lots of topics, not the least of which is just what constitutes an “ideal marriage!” Of special interest to readers of re:Cycling are the portions that set out to explain and describe the workings of the menstrual cycle.

Though there are a few caveats or cautionary asides such as, “I am fully aware that we are here in an uncharted territory, full of traps and pitfalls. . .”(106) and that it is “. . . peculiarly difficult to sift the possible kernel of fact from the fantastic sheaf of tradition and superstition. . . ,” (107) none-the-less the author proceeds to paint a picture of the effects of menstruation as worthy of a Hitchcock thriller. Just before and during menstrual bleeding women have, “a lesser degree of bodily endurance, activity and dexterity; a tendency to exhaustion and malaise,” (100); “Temper, hypersensitiviteness, caprice, resentment, rapid changes of mood, liability to take offense unnecessarily appear, in women who are otherwise very free from these manifestations.” (100) And, women must take special care about “resolutely mastering their tongues and tempers. . .” (100) Naturally, these unfortunate flare ups create a special challenge for men: “For the husband, there are two occasions . . . in which tact, sympathy and self-control are urgently needed if he is to be an expert in love and life. Namely, in the first days of married life, and in the first days of the monthly vital ebb. The second is much the harder test—because it perpetually recurs!—but surely not any less important than the first.” (101)

In addition to these disturbances of mood, there are other physical defects that appear: “nausea and inclination to vomit, bad breath, increase of intestinal gas. . . a tendency to varicose veins, cold feet . . the vocal apparatus is impaired . . . the voice becomes easily tired and changes its quality. . .an appreciable narrowing of the field of vision, and less acute differentiation of colors. . . facial pallor, a tendency to blush easily, and blue rings under the eyes. . .[in effect] she is partly an invalid.” (104-105) Whew! Yet there is a saving moment. After a lengthy catalog of miseries and flaws we learn that, “Fortunately no one woman has to endure all the sufferings and disabilities described above. . . .And, I repeat, that fortunately, there are quite a number of women who do not suffer any of these things.” (105)

Despite the bleak depictions of what many menstruating women are believed to experience and what their husbands must endure, the author then goes on to confront and mostly refute the most deeply rooted sexual taboo of all. A full chapter is devoted to a discussion of sexual intercourse during menstruation and pregnancy. Beginning with acknowledging and identifying the wide range of historical religious and cultural prohibitions and traditions, the chapter then proceeds to describe how some women and men are not only indifferent to the prohibitions but, in fact, find menstrual sex more exciting:

The Devil Made Her Menstruate

January 15th, 2014 by David Linton

In 1967, the same year as the previously discussed Diary of a Mad Housewife, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby was published and eventually climbed to Number Seven on the Best Seller list for that year. It then went on to become a successful feature film in 1968 directed by Roman Polanski and featuring John Cassavetes, Mia Farrow, and Ruth Gordon who received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Reading the book today through the lens of an SMCR perspective it is surprising to note how references to the menstrual cycle play an important role, and not simply because it is about getting pregnant and suspending ovulation for a while.

As in Diary of a Mad Housewife, the use of the negative menstrual euphemism, “the curse,” dominates the narrative. But in this case it takes on extra layers of meaning. In fact, it harkens back to the origins of the term with its association to the notion that menstrual and childbirth discomforts are God’s punishment for Eve’s bad behavior in Eden. The fact that the story is about Rosemary becoming Satan’s clueless handmaiden destined to conceive and bear his son, is a parody of the Christian story, including having the birth of the son of Satan take place on June 25, the opposite time of Christ’s birth.

The first indication, though it does not become clear until later, of a connection between menstruation and Satanic presence is embedded in a scene concerning the suicide of Theresa, the young homeless woman who the Devil’s disciples, Roman and Minnie Castevet, had taken in with the intention of making her the Devil’s breeder. She had jumped from a high floor to her death and by way of speculating as to the reason, Roman Castevet tells the police, “I knew this would happen . . . She got deeply depressed every three weeks or so.” It later becomes clear that she killed herself to escape the fate they had planned for her.

As the story proceeds, Rosemary’s monitoring of her cycle becomes an ongoing plot element. She deeply wants to become pregnant and dislikes contraceptives, in part a result of her Catholic upbringing, but also because “the pills gave her headaches” and “rubber gadgets were repulsive.” As a result Guy, her husband, “studied the calendar and avoided the ‘dangerous days.’” However, she sometimes manages to have sex with him, contrary to his wishes, on days of likely ovulation and is “disappointed and forlorn” when her period arrives.

Eventually, when the time is right, the members of the next door coven, which has by now recruited Guy into their cell by the evil manipulation of his acting career into successful roles (another actor who got a part Guy was up for is struck blind), arrange to drug her and perform a ritual in which she is impregnated by the Devil. Shortly, Guy, who witnessed the coupling and claims to be responsible for the scratches and pain she incurred from the Devil’s claws, notes that her period is late, a result of the carefully planned Satanic rape.

From then on the story concentrates on Rosemary’s painful pregnancy, the birth, her discovery of the nature of her child – his yellow eyes and sharp claws – and acceptance of her role as mother of a demon baby as maternal instincts kick in and replace her original repulsion.

The final effect is a nuanced recapitulation of an ancient set of fears and deep seated misogyny, that women are the agents of the Devil, that they are the source of evil in the world, and that menstrual pain is inextricably linked to their complicity with Satan’s wishes.

More striking though is the remarkable parallel between the two husbands in these novels which were published the same year and which both went to become Hollywood hits soon after. Possessed by narcissism and ambition, both men treat their wives as means of advancing their careers while the menstrual cycle becomes a trope to represent weakness and vulnerability.

Pregnant Body Flaunting

December 4th, 2012 by David Linton

There is no end to the variety of ways that men find to express their fascination  fear, discomfort, attraction, or repulsion when it comes to any aspect of the menstrual cycle.  Take, for instance, the bizarre annual event hosted by the DJ’s at a San Diego radio station known as Rock 105.3.

Billed as the Pregnant Bikini Pageant, it constitutes a crude parody of the Miss America show (which is by now pretty much a self-parody) in which pregnant women display themselves in scanty bikinis before a cat-calling, cheering audience.  After the women have all been introduced and interviewed briefly, the crowd selects one who is crowned “Missed Period of the Year.”  The promotional tag line for the event is, “Meet the Lovely Lactating Ladies of Rock 105.3.”

Just as it has long been required for women to hide any sign of their menstrual processes, they have also been historically required to hide signs of pregnancy as well.  However, this smarmy, leering event passes itself off as a celebration of women’s beauty “even” while pregnant, and the participating women appear to revel in the attention.  Is this the dark side of “progress?”

I’m sick of being special.

August 2nd, 2012 by Alexandra Jacoby

I’m sick of being special. I am.

I want to be ordinary.


What brought this on? ​

I was clicking through some of the July 28th Weekend Links (thank you, Liz!), and the article about birth control advice for women over 40 caught my eye, and while reading it, I became curious about the source quoted there, Jennifer McCullen, a physician at Ob/Gyn Women’s Centre of Lakewood Ranch. That led me to the Lakewood Ranch Medical Center, The Women’s Center:

“Caring for the special needs of women at every stage of life is the focus of The Women’s Center at Lakewood Ranch Medical Center. Separate from the main hospital. Private and with easily-accessible parking, the center’s experienced team of medical professionals coordinate care in areas of obstetrics and gynecology, labor and delivery and urology, with special attention to childbirth and breast care.”

 

Special needs just stopped me in my tracks.
​Really? 

As far as I know, human reproduction has been happening more or less the same way forever.

In whatever way the moments of conception and birth were reached, whatever the stories of the people involved, they did include a fertile woman’s body ready to hold, to carry, and to nourish through all its phases a zygote, embryo to a fetus, and to eventually deliver, a human baby.

So, why are body-experiences as relate to reproduction, or to the menstrual cycle, considered special situations like in the quote above describing The Women’s Center’s services, or “special” in another way — embarrassing, inappropriate to mention, to-be-hidden, as Fit Chick reminds us is more often than not the case, in her blog post, Breaking the Curse?

​Actually, today, I don’t care so much about the whys – but go ahead and add to the comments: because that could help us to understand ourselves, our collective story of how we got here, and that may help us to move beyond this space where our common body-experiences as potentially child-bearing, menstruating humans is treated as other​, rather than ordinary.

Deeply and widely quality-of-life​ affecting, ordinary.

And yet, managing our experiences, just talking about them….these are still special situations.

Special situations – at every stage of our lives?

​​I’m sick of being special.

I want to be ordinary.

 

The Eternal Feminine: Focused, Goal-Oriented, Practical, and Loving

April 30th, 2012 by Paula Derry

Visiting colleges became part of our repertoire of family trips back when my daughter was a senior in high school.   We visited many schools to get a sense of the range of possibilities that existed.   As was typical, Vassar offered a tour of the campus for groups of prospective students and their parents, led by tour-guides who were undergraduate students.  Vassar’s tour had one unique feature.  An original campus building, which dated to the post-civil war era, had an exceptionally wide hallway.  This, we were told, was because the all-woman student body needed to be able to walk back and forth repeatedly in the halls in their wide skirts, as part of a college program in physical fitness. Vassar, founded on the idea that the education of women should equal that of men, had a program of physical culture to offset criticisms that the school was endangering women’s health by educating them.

Sheila Rothman describes Vassar’s history in her book “Woman’s Proper Place,” published by Basic Books in 1978.  The common wisdom in the second half of the 19th century was that people have a limited amount of biological “vital energy.”  Rothman (p.24) quotes a contemporary physician:  ”Woman has a sum total of nervous force equivalent to a man’s” but the force is “distributed over a greater multiplicity of organs…The nervous force is therefore weakened in each organ…it is more sensitive, more liable to derangement.”  Menstruation and pregnancy were times of special danger, when the demands on her system were greater and the possibility of physical and mental disorder increased.  Menstruation was a time when women were irrational, even insane.  Caution, however, was always called for, as when intellectual activity or other exertion used up nervous energy.  Thus, when Vassar was founded, a program was put in place to overcome women’s predisposition to illness through a structured environment and programs of physical exercise.  Later, the Association of Collegiate Alumnae conducted a survey to provide research evidence as to whether female college graduates were normal.

Image by Thiophene_Guy // CC 2.0

Back in the Vassar of the present, our student tour guide wondered:  “How could anyone believe anything so silly?” It’s true that we no longer talk about a “vital force.”  Yet, broad generalizations about the nature of women and reproductive physiology continue to exist that have an air of plausibility, based today on a different scientific language, one of hormones, neurotransmitters, and other players.   Not very long ago, menopause was defined as an “estrogen deficiency disease” that had a uniquely powerful effect on health.  Heart disease was a disease of civilization for men and a disease of the ovaries for women.   The idea that the menstrual cycle destabilizes women’s minds, creating mood and intellectual changes, continues to exist.

One of my favorites is the idea that women are somehow receptive, loving, and self-denying because of their maternal role, which is somehow mediated by estrogen.  Thus menopause may be said to be a time that women regain the ability to focus more on themselves, liberated from a physiological preparedness for reproduction and its needs.   Pregnancy is a dreamy time when women are moody and unable to think clearly.

Sure, mothers are receptive, loving, self-denying, but they are also many other things.  I love being a mother.  My relationship with my daughter has been powerful, unique, and wonderful.  However, I know that a mother who is lost in a dreamy connectedness to her child or reflexively puts her child before herself can’t do everything she needs to do.   A mother is emotionally connected to her child but also must be an individual who perceives the child accurately, as a separate person, in terms of the child’s motivation and perspective, in order to provide both a sense of connection and the mirroring needed for a child’s emotional development.   Further, children misbehave, make mistakes, and must be taught all kinds of things; mothers must have clear-headed, pragmatic, problem-solving skills.

Waiting

October 28th, 2010 by Heather Dillaway

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the words we use when we’re talking about menstruation or reproductive experiences more generally. I’ve been noticing lately that we use the word “waiting” quite a bit. I have a friend who is “still waiting” for her menstrual cycle to be “normal” again after her second child, and several other friends who are either “waiting” to figure out whether they will get pregnant, “waiting” to be done with their pregnancies, or “waiting” before they can have their last and final kid. I just had my basement waterproofed and one of the basement repairmen told me that his wife had been “waiting” ten months to get a menstrual period and that they were worried about her (this is information he volunteered after I told him I studied women’s health). I started thinking more about how the menopausal women I interview always talk about “waiting” to figure out whether they are really “at menopause,” or “waiting” to figure out if this is really their last menstrual period. Or how so many girls/young women who are sexually active are “waiting” to get their periods so that they can be relieved to know they are not pregnant. Or how women with painful periods, endometriosis, or migraines are waiting until those days are over each month. What does all of this reproductive waiting (waiting for menstruation, waiting for menstruation to be over, waiting for pregnancy, waiting for birth, waiting for menopause) mean?

 

In all of these instances of reproductive waiting, waiting seems a negative connotation and that seems to stem from the fact that we do not feel in control or in charge of this reproductive time. When I think of the other situations in which I might use the word “waiting”, the same holds true. I tell my kids to “wait their turn” and they don’t like it. And none of us really like waiting in line. Fast food restaurants, frozen dinners, and ATM machines are all in existence because we don’t have time or don’t like to wait. Phrases that we use like “worth the wait” also connote negativity about waiting. So, I finally looked up the actual definition of waiting. Depending on which online dictionary you visit, definitions of “waiting” include: “pause, interval, or delay,” “the act of remaining inactive or stationary,” or “the act of remaining inactive in one place while expecting something.” While some of these definitions do not automatically lend themselves to negativity, waiting is defined mostly as a passive activity that we are forced to participate in, perhaps against our will.


All of this makes me think further about whether women really dislike the waiting or the time that comes with menstruation or other reproductive experiences, and whether women really feel out of control as they engage in their experiences. Is this just a word we use or are we really impatient about menstruation and reproduction? When I think about alternative words that are sometimes used, like “tracking,” other words seem much more agentic in that they put women back in control of their cycles and other reproductive experiences. So, is it just the word “waiting” that has the negative connotation or is that word signifying some larger impatience that we have about reproduction these days? I have a colleague who writes about the “inconveniences” of reproduction and how, in so many ways, we try to avoid the reproductive waiting or reproductive uncertainties we face. For instance, instead of waiting to see when a baby is born, we might plan a c-section so that we can know when we’ll get that baby. Or, now we’re told that if we’re “waiting” more than 6 months to get pregnant that we should probably start taking fertility drugs to shorten our wait or get rid of some of that uncertainty. Or now we can find out that we’re pregnant a couple weeks after conception instead of waiting to see whether we menstruate a few weeks later. We attempt to cut out some of those reproductive waits these days. Menstrual suppression is at least partially popular because then women won’t have to be surprised by their periods or wait to know what bad day their period might fall on.

‘Baby Brain’ Is a Myth

February 5th, 2010 by Elizabeth Kissling
Mama and baby elephant in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

Mama and baby elephant in Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya

When new moms are sometimes forgetful or spacey, it is often attributed to ‘baby brain’ or ‘mumnesia’ or some other clever appellation that reinforces the idea that pregnancy leads to memory loss. It’s another variation on the women-are-ruled-by-hormones meme. In my humble opinion, the sleep deprivation that often accompanies late pregnancy and life with a newborn is a far more likely cause of memory loss.

While the research team at the Centre for Mental Health Research of the Australian National University didn’t investigate my theory, their research found no evidence that pregnancy or motherhood affects women’s brain power.

Professor Christensen’s team recruited 1,241 women aged 20-24 in 1999 and 2003 and asked them to perform a series of tasks. The women were followed up at four-year intervals and asked to perform the same cognitive tests. A total of 77 women were pregnant at the follow-up assessments, 188 had become mothers and 542 remained childless. The researchers found no significant differences in cognitive change for those women who were pregnant or new mothers during the assessments and those who were not.

The researchers suggest that previous findings that appear to confirm the ‘baby brain’ phenomenon are likely due to biased sampling. Their study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, was the first time women had been recruited from the general population before pregnancy.

[Via Skepchick]

Study links reduced fertility to flame retardant exposure

February 4th, 2010 by Elizabeth Kissling

Exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants is widespread, with 97% of Americans having detectable levels. Yet there have been no published studies of their effects on human fertility – until now. A study to be published in the January 26 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives reports that four PBDE congeners  were correlated with longer times to  pregnancy.

While this finding is expected and unsurprising, it does seem surprising that researchers have found no correlations with the presence of PBDEs and menstrual irregularity.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.