You can buy greetings cards now to celebrate a girl’s first period: it’s a nice idea, although I’ve yet to meet anyone who’s ever actually bought one. It’s certainly a step in the right direction from when I had my menarche at the grand old age of 11, and the only motherly advice I received was: “here’s a sanitary pad – ask your sister what to do with it. Oh, and there’s no need to mention this to your dad or your brother.” I just know I’m not the only one to have put that first pad in the wrong way round, and to have spent the whole of the first day in eye-watering agony as the few pubic hairs I’d managed to grow “down there” attached themselves to the sticky strip and were slowly tweaked out every time I tried to move. “Well this is great” I remember thinking: “And I always thought women walked funny because of their clip-cloppy shoes. Now I know.”

Despite vowing that I would be a lot more open about menstruation with my own three daughters, I still never got as far as celebrating their first periods. I sat them down and gave them “the talk” years before they ever had anything to worry about; I bought them books about girls and puberty just in case I’d missed anything out, and more importantly I demonstrated to them how to use a sanitary pad safely, so they wouldn’t end up accidentally giving themselves a full Brazilian wax. But I still never managed to summon up a “Congratulations, you’re a woman now” when the big day finally arrived. Instead, as each one came to me and told me in hushed tones that she’d “started,” I hugged her and said: “I’m sorry, it’s really horrible, and now you’re going to have to put up with it for years.”

Not the most motivational or uplifting thing to say I know. But then there’s nothing nice about periods, so why lie to them about it?

To say I’m conflicted about the whole menstruation issue would be an understatement. As a feminist I have no hesitation in arguing that it’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about, that the whole taboo surrounding women and their monthly bleeding is a complete nonsense, and that it’s about time we all started talking more openly about these things. But on the other hand I just really really hate having to have periods. It doesn’t matter how many books I read about the “goddess within”, or how many times I hear about the wonders of women’s connection with the moon and its tides; I don’t care if my menstrual cycle corresponds with nature’s rhythms or whatever the latest new-age gobbledegook on it is. I still don’t see it as a blessing or a gift that I have to put up with this icky inconvenience every month for the next goodness-knows how many more years, because it’s not a gift, for me it’s a curse.

I’m 43 years old, I’ve had four children, one abortion and I’ve been sterilised: hence I bleed a lot. I have to admit I hadn’t realised quite how heavily until a few months ago when I was able to work out almost to the last drop my total blood loss for a month, even though my best friend had been trying to tell me for ages that it wasn’t normal for a woman to have to organise her life around her periods. I was surprised to learn from her that most other women don’t spend hours calculating where they’ll be when their next period is due, or mulling over whether it’s a good idea to agree to attend a meeting that could go on for hours, and that would probably necessitate an overnight stay somewhere. But then I’ve had to take my menstrual cycle into account for years when making these kinds of decisions, especially when I know that the overnight stay will coincide with the night when my period is likely to be at its heaviest, and when no amount of sanitary protection is going to save the bedding from ruin. I’m fairly sure there’s more than one hotel-room attendant out there who, when cleaning up my vacated suite has pulled back the bedcovers in fear and trepidation, wondering where on earth I could have hidden the horse’s head.

Recently, after decades of using a combination of tampons and sanitary pads and being made to feel guilty by the eco-warriors about the impact my menses were having on the environment, I was finally persuaded to try a Mooncup, “the healthy and environmentally friendly alternative to tampons.” For those in the dark about this latest weapon in the fight to reduce the amount of household waste we Brits chuck into our overflowing landfill sites every year, the Mooncup is a reusable menstrual cup made from soft silicone rubber. You insert it into your vagina, and if all goes to plan it seals itself in, collects your menstrual fluid, “without leakage” according to the website, and all you have to do is pull it out by the stem that you’ve trimmed to fit beforehand, and rinse it out every now and then.

So uninhibited am I about my periods I even boasted about what I was doing on my Facebook profile: “Cath Elliott is test-driving a Mooncup.” I declared proudly to the handful of people who are vaguely interested in me: interested enough to wonder what I’m up to from time to time and who have thus added me as their “friend” that is, but probably not enough to want to find out in quite such intimate detail. Carol emailed me almost immediately saying: “I admire your bravery. It is things like that that mean I am so happy to have had a hysterectomy. A moon cup will only be a thing of academic interest rather than something to put into practice. Thank God!”

And it was downhill all the way from there.

Extracts from my diary entries for the week give a clue to the trial I put myself through for the sake of improving my environmental credentials:

“Within minutes I felt like I needed to pee again – it felt as though there was something pressing against my bladder.”

“Disaster struck and in the evening, after leaving it in for 3 hours, I sprang a leak.”

“I’m worried about how I’m going to cope overnight. I’ve settled for the Mooncup, 3 sanitary pads, and a bath towel underneath me.”

“I had trouble getting it out a couple of times today. It seems to have got itself too far up; I think I might have scratched myself internally poking about for it with my fingernails.”

“I can’t imagine how I would deal with this in a public toilet. When I do manage to get it out, my fingers are covered in blood and the Mooncup is both covered in and full of blood. I look like I’ve been working in an abattoir!”

Until finally, the unadulterated joy of:

“Hooray, the Mooncup was empty this morning, I’m on the home straight!”

Suffice to say I haven’t tried it again since, and nor do I intend to. I was just like one of those women on the ads when I went back to using tampons for my next period: I felt so unencumbered and carefree I could have gone roller skating and bungee jumping and still kept an inane grin on my face. If I wasn’t so old that is; and I didn’t have to worry about breaking my hips.

The one good thing about the Mooncup is that it has measurements printed down the side of it, so I was able to work out precisely how much blood I’d lost that week (well, apart from the blood that leaked continuously out of the cup, no matter how many times I tried to reposition the damned thing). Apparently during an average period a woman loses about 80ml of blood: I lost double that in the first three days. After worrying about this for a couple of weeks, I went to see my doctor: “You’re 43, you’ve had four children, one abortion, and you’ve been sterilised. Hence you bleed a lot.”

Well gee doc, thanks: it’s amazing what you can pick up from six plus years of medical training. Now tell me something I didn’t know.

So now I’m counting down the days to my menopause, even though that could be years away yet. I don’t know if you can get greetings cards to mark the rite of passage into older womanhood, but I do know I’ll be throwing the biggest party ever to celebrate it. Who knows, maybe by then I’ll be ready to embrace my inner goddess; but I won’t be holding my breath.

Advertisements