The 11th hour

One aspect of this single motherhood by choice process I didn’t foresee is the awareness it’s given me about what’s been going on in my body every month for the last 25-odd years.

I think I got my first period on 25 October 1987. Don’t ask me how I remember that date when I can barely remember what I had for dinner yesterday, but it was on that day or around that time. I’ve been lucky enough since then not to have had very painful periods or other problems. I’ve almost always known when my period was due, as there were generally some mild to moderate cramps, but on the whole I haven’t had to put up with the misery of terrible pain, mad mood swings and PMT (PMS if you are state-side). Only relatively rarely have I had those agonising cramps that render you unable to sleep or function during the day. No ruptured cysts, no infections, no drama. For some of those years, I was on the pill, so my cycle was not really my own, but on the whole I’ve been lucky with my natural menstrual cycle.

I think as a result, I’ve given little heed to it and what various physical signs have meant. I didn’t even know the average length of my cycle until I started logging my details in a smartphone app in March 2011. I now know my cycle has averaged 33 days over the past two years. It was as long as 38 days on one occasion; that was the month before my initial consultation with the clinic in July 2012, when I was anxiously waiting for the right time to test my FSH levels. Omitting my three medicated IUI cycles, my cycle hasn’t dipped below 27 days over that time. And for some reason, it often ping pongs between longer and shorter eg 31 to 28 to 32… ; that makes me wonder whether my cycle length depends on which ovary is doing the business that month, which may be a totally absurd thing to say, I don’t know.

(TMI alert) It’s taken me a quarter of a century (wow) but, now that I’m trying to conceive, I’m more aware of what’s going on, starting with the various different types of cervical mucous and what they mean (and have been trying to tell me) for all those years. For example, I noticed after the last IUI that my mucous was the egg-whitey, stretchy stuff that means you’re at your most fertile. I had vaguely registered that my mucous changed over the month but had never paid attention or understood what it all meant. I have a memory now of the day my first serious school exams started when I was 15 and of noticing really, really stretchy mucous in the toilet before I headed out. You were ovulating, girl! And I’ve already mentioned that, while on the fertility drugs, I had a type of cervical mucous that I hadn’t ever experienced (or at least noticed) before and that other women get. At least, I assume they do: not having ever discussed this with friends or anyone else, I don’t actually know what is normal for most women, other than what I read or hear.

It strikes me even as I type the above that it’s strange I’ve never discussed this topic with my female friends. We’ve made the odd comment about cramps over the years but to my mind we’ve never, ever mentioned cervical discharge. Maybe not something you’d want to discuss over a bowl of carbonara, but it’s a feature of life every month for most women of child-bearing age. How bizarre that we don’t mention it and that I am a bit squeamish even writing about it and feel the need to warn people of upcoming TMI.

Which makes me wonder why we women pretend this stuff isn’t happening to us. Even in 2013, it’s rare that menstruation is ever discussed seriously in front of men. Half of the world’s population between their mid-teens and mid-40s experience it every month but we still find the topic embarrassing and off-limits in “mixed company”. Is part of that to do with equality? In the grand scheme of things, women entered the workforce only relatively recently. We fought to get there and to be seen as equals who can operate under the same rules. Fifty years after winning (part of) that battle, it seems we still don’t want to appear different to or weaker than men, or to ask for the rules to be changed. We don’t like to be whingers. You might drag yourself into work with the worst menstrual cramps in the world and chances are you are not going to say anything to your boss. You could be giving a critical presentation or sitting a life-changing exam with agonising pain ripping your abdomen and lower back but you won’t mention it to anyone – or be given any credit for it.

Isn’t it a bit sad that we still go about our lives pretending not to menstruate? We’re different to men but not weaker for that difference. It may be inconvenient or painful, but a woman’s cycle is a really remarkable thing. A Wikipedia article on menstrual cycles has just informed me that in a 1979 study around one-third of women had lunar period cycles in length, with cycle length of 29.5 days give or take a day, and that almost two-thirds started their cycle in the brighter half of the lunar cycle; another study found a statistically significant number of menstruations occurred around the new moon. It’s mind-blowing that women can be connected to the moon, like the tides. So, why does the word menstruation have a slightly embarrassing resonance with the power to make even grown men snigger?

Whether I get pregnant or not, I’m glad this process has helped me achieve a better appreciation of my body’s cycle and the amazing things that have been happening every month. Glad, but also a little sorrowful it’s taken me until the 11th hour to get there.

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