Do you remember that day in the fifth grade when the boys and girls were separated for the “Sexuality and Development” talk? Some nice old lady health teacher came into your room and gave you some straight talk about how the next few years were going to go for you. It was awkward and shocking and you knew your childhood would never be the same.
When you hit your mid-thirties, there should be some kind of Part Two to that conversation. All the ladies need to be rounded up, lead into a dimly lit classroom that smells vaguely of pencil sharpener shavings, and given some straight talk about what the next few years are going to be like for us. Since I guess there’s no plan for that in the near future, I’ll step up to the front of this virtual classroom and let you know what to expect when you’re eventually expecting your period in your 30s and 40s:
Ladies, a disservice has been done to you. You were told what your periods would be like back when you were 10, as though they would always be the same until the day they magically and blessedly just stopped. This was a lie. Since we first told you this lie, you have experienced approximately 300 periods. That’s about 1,500 menstruating days. That’s right, you’ve spent maybe four solid years of your life dealing with your period. We’re sorry.
We prepared you to start, but we didn’t really talk through what it would be like today, as you enter your thirties and forties. A body that is just learning how to toss an egg through a fallopian tube is going to do different things than a body that has potentially given birth, produced human milk, been exposed to various cycle-influencing medications, has had sex, experienced the sudden hormone changes of a miscarriage, tried 15 different diet crazes over the years, run two marathons, and has experienced the effects of aging over the last 25 years or so. Your body isn’t the same as it was when you were 10, so why should your periods be the same?
It’s time we told you the truth: your period is about to get weird. It’s about to have some kind of midlife crisis. You know that aunt you have who is mostly the nicest woman you’ve ever met and sometimes says passive aggressive stuff that makes you want to crawl in a hole? Your period is going to be like that. But more like if your aunt was usually drunk and irrational.
Remember how you used to be able to set your watch by your periods? Remember how they used to come every 28 days on the dot? Remember how if they were two days early you thought about calling the gynecologist and if they were two days late you were sure you were pregnant? That kind of regularity is a thing of the past. Like an uninvited houseguest, your periods now come when they want. Fifteen day cycle? Sure. Forty-five day cycle? Why not. There is no rhyme or reason to this. There will be months you’re mostly sure you’re pregnant only to find out your period decided to skip a month for no obvious reason. It would be delightful to have a period-free month, except you spend that whole month worried you’re either pregnant in a way a test can’t measure or dying of some kind of lady cancer. You will worry about these things no matter what a pregnancy test or your gynecologist says because WHAT DO THEY KNOW? This is YOUR body and your body has never behaved this way before.
And now things will come out of your body that you’re sure must be part of your internal organs. Your period is no longer a diluted ketchup situation and now is a thick and chunky salsa kind of experience. There will be moments you’re sure your uterus is deciding to leave your body, one bloody piece at a time. Now when you’re deciding on your feminine hygiene products for the day, you will no longer wonder if you should use a tampon or a pad. The correct answer is “both.” And you’ll follow those up with some kind of adult diaper situation for good measure.
Never bled through your pants before? You will. Never bled onto the church pew? You will. Never woken up in a pool of your own blood before? You will. Just a heads-up: at some point you will be sitting for a long time while you have your period. Maybe it’s a work meeting, or you’re reading stories to your children or you’re listening to the sermon at church. And then you’ll stand up. It will feel like every ounce of your blood is draining out of your body and you’ll try to maintain normal eye contact with the lady telling you that story about when her niece got a kitten and all you can think is, “I’M BLEEDING TO DEATH. HOW IS THIS NORMAL? WHY DID GOD MAKE US LIKE THIS.”
Hormone swings are still a thing. PMS is still a thing. Acne is still a thing. We’re sorry you were told these were just teenager problems. We lied. But now you also get the added bonus of wrinkles and gray hair (and maybe some facial hair), because it’s how we warn the younger people that life is hard, but you can make it. Cramps might be better than they were in your younger years . . . and then one month they’ll randomly make you wish for the relief of sweet death. We can’t explain this, it’s just true.
Of course, if something seems really off, call your gynecologist. These are the times when cancer screenings and listening to your gut (or more appropriately, your uterus) can be vital to your overall health. Honor your body and take it seriously when it calls for your attention. Just don’t be surprised if you tell your gynecologist something that seems totally bizarre to you and they tell you it’s “within the range of normal.”
What is “normal” anyway? We can try our best to be prepared for a lifetime of physical changes as women, but our bodies are so unique that what’s normal for you may seem bizarre to me. We may not know how many periods we have left in this life. They may get more strange before our reproductive days are all said and done. And someday maybe we’ll need to reconvene this little class for the next chapter: Female Sexuality and Development: The Menopause Years.