Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Silent Suffering: In 3 Scenes

December 23rd, 2013 by Chris Bobel

In PMS jokes the punchline is often a bitchy, out of control woman //

Scene 1 10: 45 am:

A quiet Sunday morning, sunny and bright. Brunch on the patio.  I sat with my daughter, my partner, and my niece. Over pastries and coffee, I experienced waves of menstrual contractions, coming steadily every 15 minutes. And I winced, swallowing my moans.

While my niece spoke of her back pain, and my partner lamented his brief but powerful bout of the flu, I offered no comment about the vice grip around my uterus, the attention-grabbing cramping that hit me again and again. Through these cramping spells, I coached myself to  “tough it out” though I noticed that when I was alone, I audibly groaned. I hurt, but I said nothing.

And interestingly, later, while chatting with my stepson and his boyfriend, I kept the cramps entirely to myself. I chose to suffer in silence.


I hurt and yet, it seemed, my menstrual pain was not worth mentioning. It was mundane, even nearly universal. It was not the type of thing you sit around and whine about. I was aware, at some level, that an occasional mention of my pain would garner some sympathy, but beyond that, let the eye rolling begin. And in some company, it might be too-much-information, too private, too gross, even, to mention.

Scene 2  4:30 pm: Returning home after a 10-day road trip. The house, showing the wear of a place overrun by two cats with little human intervention, needed to be restored to order. Piles of mail. Bags to unpack.

But the very first thing I did when I walked through the door was take a shower and then do laundry. I had leaked badly during the last leg of the trip and I was a mess. My partner and daughter, alternatively, immediately settled on the (cat hair-encrusted) couch and reconnected to their wired worlds. While I, 21st century pioneer wife, scrubbed blood stains out of my clothes and hung another pair of “ruined” panties on the clothesline.

I walked past my family several times during my emergency clean up operation. With each glance, I felt envy rise up, and if i am honest,  resentment, too. But I did not complain. My body, my period, my mess. My problem.

But is it? Should it?

During menstrual moments like these,  (and now I will generalize) we often experience an acute embodied awareness that arrests our attention. At times, the experiences are painful or messy or both. Sometimes these ‘invasions’ are significant ,and we could benefit from some company. And yet, it is the rare menstruator who is NOT  socialized to  ‘buck up’ and ‘just deal with it.’ There is a persistent voice in our heads:  ‘No body wants to hear about your period…. Cramps are boring. And stain stories? Nobody wants to hear about THAT!”

I’ve argued this point before;  it seems the only acceptable menstrual discourse is PMS jokes (in which the punchline is a bitchy, out of control woman [see image above].

When it comes to expressing the reality of our menstrual lives—wherever our experiences fall on the continuum from menstrual joy to menstrual misery—we do so in a veritable sound chamber that CAN hurt us. For many of us, our menstrual experiences are uneventful, at least most of the time. But for the rest, they can be catastrophic. Or they may be normal, ho-hum, TODAY until they are NOT, a day later. Things change. Needs change. But the silence persists.

My concern is this: if we don’t open spaces for menstrual discourse, how can we find the support to discern the normal from the NOT normal? How can we get the info and support we need when we need it?

Scene: 3 3:24 am. I slowly came to consciousness and as I did, I instinctively reached between my legs. Yes. I was wet. Yes. My pad had shifted. And yes, so had the “insurance towel” I placed beneath me to protect the sheets. Damn. I didn’t want to get up and change my pad and underwear, but if I did not, I would have an even bigger stain on my sheet, maybe one that would  soak through the mattress pad and onto my mattress. Ugh.

So I laid there, trying to will myself out of bed to do this necessary chore, one that would ruin my precious, already too-little rest. The house was silent except for the sounds of my  partner’s staccato snoring. I heard nothing in the next room and assumed that my daughter slept peacefully, too. I began to rise, taking care not to disturb anyone. And as I did, I felt envious of their peace, their seamless sleep.

18 responses to “Silent Suffering: In 3 Scenes”

  1. Laura Wershler says:

    What thought-provoking Monday menstrual musings. Thanks, Chris, for sharing these scenes from your menstrual life.

    I wonder how much less suffering we might feel if we could be more open and honest about our experiences. This makes me think of a quote I just read that was attributed to Isak Dinesen: “All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.”

  2. Chris Bobel says:

    Thanks, as always, Laura. I wonder, too. Imagine feeling entitled to support (the way we do in so many other situations) instead of expecting the more typical “EWW responses” or awkward silences or menstrual shaming of a 1000 varieties. No one should suffer alone if they don’t want to.

  3. Limor Brief says:

    it is these kind of stories that i feel we lack in our conversations about menstruation, even those who are “aware” of the need to air it out. i wish i could translate it to hebrew with a link to the source of course, how would you feel about that chris? this discourse, that goes on here, is missing in my opinion where i come from (-:

  4. Leslie says:

    Thank you Chris for the menstrual experience insights. Your thoughts and words have hit on the cultural shaming and frustration that occurs with menstruation.

    Sadly, women do not realize this is a universal experience – and they embody their suffering and discomfort during the paramenstrum as their own.

    It is time the menstrual story be re-written…. include in that women’s stories as well.

  5. Chris Bobel says:

    Please do, Limon! I would be honored.

  6. Limor Brief says:

    Thank you Chris, so i did!
    It was an informative experience… you see, here is Israel the common alternative discourse for menstruation is the feminist spiritual talk. We do not even have a word in Hebrew for menstruator, the word i use can be interpreted in different ways. i hope your post will inspire a discussion. (-:

  7. Chris Bobel says:

    Fascinating, Limor. Keep in mind that MENSTRUATOR Is not quite an accepted term in the English language either. Some of the activists I studied while doing research for my book *New Blood* taught me that term….they were using it to challenge the assumption that all menstruators are women and all women menstruate. Gender identity and embodiment, after all, are not the same thing. Yet, some folks find the term ridiculous and offensive to women. I find it progressive and important, myself. We can STILL talk about the many ways menstrual experiences across the lifespan ARE gendered and how sexism and misogyny shape our practices and discourses while at the same time, acknowledge the diversity of menstrual experiences. We want to make room for trans and gender queer people who do menstruate, for example, and NOT further marginalize women who do not menstruate. That;s why I like the term menstruator. I will be curious to hear how the term is received by Israeli readers.

  8. Chris Bobel says:

    Thanks, Leslie! And i would add that even if our experiences are NOT universal, they still should be OK to talk about, right? We, especially women, are socialized to internalize, or as you put it, embody (their) suffering and discomfort, about so many things—partner abuse, sexual harassment, sexual violence, mental illness, addiction—The silence can be devastating. Of course, it takes MUCH more than saying it OKAY to open up…we, as members of communities, have to make it SAFE to do so. Otherwise, we burden individuals with risk taking and self exposure that could hurt them. What can we do to make honest talk safe? For all of us?

  9. […] silent suffering: in 3 scenes […]

  10. XiXi says:

    I loved this post, you did a great job capturing a pretty grim reality! However, what I really liked was this line “And in some company, it might be too-much-information, too private, too gross, even, to mention.” I have seen posts about this before on the blog, but I think one thing that would be really good to write about is a post specifically about period pain/ menstruation and professionalism. Where it isn’t just “embarrassing” or “gross” to have a tampon fall out of your bag, but unprofessional. Where while illness n general is “unprofessional”, gynecological problems are unforgivable. Menstruation to me is not just a social issue, but a massive corporate one too.

  11. Chris Bobel says:

    Thx for commenting. I so agree. Standards of professionalism are so fundamentally gendered and raced in so many ways—*appropriate* dress, *appropriate hairstyles* and so on…menstrual disclosure is a professional mandate. We welcome guest posts, XiXi…would you like to write one on this topic?

  12. Chris,

    This is such a wonderful piece. I can definitely relate to these feelings. Feeling selfish when I care for myself instead of others while I’m menstruating. Feeling frustrated and jealous that my boyfriend sleeps peacefully while I am awake, cramping in agony. It’s frustrating that our society keeps feeling as though we must remain hushed.

    Your wonderful post gave me an idea for my next SMCR post…so thank you for that!

  13. Chris Bobel says:

    Thanks for this! I can’t wait to read your post!

  14. […] possibly tiring – that they are going through when they get their period. See Chris Bobel’s great post about suffering in silence for more on this. She suggests that discomfort during menstruation […]

  15. […] I read Chris Bobel’s recent post about silent menstrual suffering, I was instantly drawn in. Although her experiences are independent of my own, this particular […]

  16. Vanessa says:

    Two words: diva cup. Almost no more spillage ever. And also: thanks for writing. I do talk about it in my family, especially to normalize periods for my daughter. When I speak calmly and without my own sense of stigma, others respond in kind – with female friends only so far though!

  17. Chris Bobel says:

    yes! cups are great, but not for everyone. But i think the problem is deeper than product failure…I think we need better support and awareness no matter what we use to catch our flow.

    Thanks for reading and writing, Vanessa

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