Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

No Snack, Just Tampons

April 24th, 2014 by Heather Dillaway

I was flipping through the May 2014 issue of Working Mother Magazine the other day and landed upon a small article about a working mother’s recent “faux pas”: on a “crazed morning” she accidentally packed her bag of tampons in her 7-year-old son’s camp bag and took her son’s snack to work with her. Not only did this mistake leave her son without a snack for the day but also with an “inappropriate” item in his camp bag. The article, titled “The Big Switch,” told of this mother’s horror when she realized that she packed tampons in her son’s camp bag. It told of the constant agony and mortification she felt in just thinking about what might happen at school if anyone found the tampons in her son’s bag. She called her friends and they laughed, offering no advice. She braced herself for the end of the day but, when the end of the day came, she found out that her son had received a special treat of Oreos at school because he had no snack. Her son arrived home happy and unphased. The story ends without us finding out whether the son ever even realized that he had tampons in his school bag. We are also left to think, “Phew, disaster averted.”

Mothers naturally make mistakes all of the time (indeed, it’s maybe one of the things we do best!). However, this mistake was high stakes because it challenged an important social norm: a concealment norm. Women should not let anyone know that they menstruate and they should definitely not involve and/or show kids the evidence. This mother worried for her son’s potential willingness to “share” his knowledge of the tampons in his bag among his friends. She envisioned moments within which everyone at camp would know that she had packed tampons in her son’s bag and was concerned about potential repercussions. This mother worried that camp counselors might even call Protective Services if they found out about the tampons in her son’s bag, and that other parents might find out and complain as well. She knew there could be real consequences….but there weren’t consequences. In fact, in the end, this mistake seemed trivial. Perhaps the son saw the tampons and didn’t think they were a big deal, or perhaps he never saw them.

When we go against concealment norms and “show” to others that women/moms menstruate, we realize exactly how powerful those concealment norms are. This mother spent an entire day on the edge of her seat, unable to engage in her paid work, worried about what would happen to her son and to her because of this mistake. She thought about all of the possible problems and solutions, and engaged in quite a bit of emotional work trying to deal with the fact that she had made this mistake. This illustrates exactly how much work women invest in the concealment of menstruation, how much time and energy it entails yet also how fragile concealment is over time. Women must continually engage in concealment (and also be ready to do damage control) to make certain that menstruation can remain hidden.

This is also a story about how working mothers are constantly negotiating whether they are “good” mothers. This mother provides lots of excuses for why the “big switch” happened – everything from having deadlines at work to being a single mother. Thus we see another set of social norms at work as well in this story: social norms about who is a “good” mother. According to our social norms, there is only one kind of good mother at the end of the day: the mother who does not make mistakes. How silly is that? The ending of the story even seems to suggest how silly these motherhood norms might be, because the son turned out just fine — tampons didn’t hurt him, nor did his lack of snack.

In the end, this small story is just one more representation of the tightropes that women walk, and the impossible demands that social norms place on women. Let it be known that women menstruate and that mothers make mistakes. No social norm has the power to discount those facts.

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.

Working Mothers

April 29th, 2013 by Paula Derry

“Working Mother and Son” Photo by Russell Chopping // Creative Commons 2.0

Research is often reported as though it is news, as though the most recent article is the best and research that was not published this year is somehow not as interesting or is out-of-date. I recently dug out some articles I wrote about the psychology of working mothers that were based on a study I did in the mid-1980s. I interviewed psychotherapists about how being a mother had affected their professional lives. This study was qualitative research. I offer the results as interesting ideas, not as definitive conclusions.  Some points I think are still interesting:

  1. Overall, about 64% of the 25 mothers I interviewed opted for part-time work; when children were preschoolers, this was about 78%. Psychotherapists, unlike many other women, have the option of working part-time:  part-time jobs, especially for therapists who see clients in private practice, are the same jobs that a full-time worker would have.
  2. I compared the mothers with another group of 19 therapists who did not have children. The non-mothers tended to work full time (about 90%).  However, both groups of women were deeply and apparently equally committed to their jobs.
  3. Many of the mothers (about 60%) felt that work was not as important to them as it would be if they were childless. However, this did not mean that work was unimportant. For most women, it only meant that they now had two strong priorities instead of one.
  4. Almost all of the mothers (88%) felt that having children affected their work as psychotherapists by deepening their empathy, understanding, or emotional knowledge about parents and parenting. This was not simply intellectual, that they knew more facts, although this was also true. It was experiential understanding, a different experience of what facts mean. This was so even though their profession involves helping clients understand their parents or their parenting, and was reported whether they had a child while in graduate school or after they had worked for many years.
  5. One aspect of this increased knowledge was an experience of how passionate an experience mothering is. Another aspect was a less idealized view of both parents and children, and greater tendency to see the experiences of parents and children from their own perspectives. For example, in addition to seeing parents in terms of how their children felt (e.g., that the parent was mean or rejecting), the therapists might perceive more clearly where parents were coming from or that children might misunderstand or be unreasonable.
  6. This greater ability to see the position of both parents and children more clearly is what a psychologist might call psychological individuation. That is, the stereotype is that mothers are or should be all-giving, selfless, thinking only about their children. However, these mothers seemed to grow more realistic, clear about and accepting of who children as well as parents are. As I said in one paper:  “Interconnectedness, or intimacy, requires a sense of oneself and the other as separate but related. (If children really do lack a sense of this separation, that is no reason why their parents, who are adults, should identify with their perspective.)”


Derry, P.S. (1994) Motherhood and the importance of professional identity to psychotherapists. Women & Therapy, 15, 149-163.
Derry, P.S. (1992) Motherhood and the clinician/mother’s view of parent and child. In  J. Chrisler & D. Howard (Eds.), New directions in feminist psychology:  Scholarship/Practice/Research. New York: Springer.


January 7th, 2013 by Paula Derry

I recently had the opportunity to present a talk at something called Ignite Baltimore. Scheduled a few times a year, Ignite has proven to be extremely popular. I discovered that not only had the event sold out, but people arrived early for a pre-event reception in a sprawling lobby filled with animated people conversing.

The format is this: Sixteen speakers each give a five-minute talk. During each talk, twenty slides are each shown for 15 seconds, and the talk has to be built around this constraint. During my Ignite event, the topic of talks ranged from musings about what magic is, to how to revitalize Baltimore, to mine on motherhood. For me, giving a presentation was an opportunity to experiment with using a different kind of language than I use in more academic presentations, and to experiment with a mixture of words and visual imagery.

Here’s the YouTube video of my talk about what it means to be a mother. It’s also about the idea that we exist as whole, integrated people, not isolated bits of hormone, brain chemicals, stereotyped behaviors, stimulus-response connections to the environment. The imagery is unfortunately blurred, but I hope you can make out enough, and I hope that what I say is of interest.

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.

Sometimes we read works by evolutionary theorists and others that presuppose prehistoric women were sort-of-like housewives, dependent upon men for food and safety.  This overlooks the fact that women were the gatherers in hunter/gatherer societies, providing a significant amount of the family’s food.   Over the course of history, women were potters, weavers, cooks, doing all kinds of necessary work.   Women with leisure to devote themselves primarily to childrearing must have historically always been a minority.  Would women have survived, or would their children have survived, if they were muddle-headed when pregnant or menstruating, or ruled by their hormones rather than tasks that needed to be done?

Even rat mothers must continue to feed themselves, retrieve pups if they wander off, and engage in other instrumental tasks or their young won’t survive.  Being a human mother involves love, receptivity, psychological maturity, thinking skills, and practical competence, neurons as well as hormones.

‘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]

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