Blog 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the most recent article is the best and research that was not published this year is somehow not as interesting or is out-of-date.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.

Understanding Research: Media Reports of Research

April 1st, 2013 by Paula Derry

The Huffington Post published a story last week titled “Last Menstrual Cycle Could Be Predicted With New Model”. The story stated that a research study had just been published about a new method for predicting the end of menstruation in which researchers developed a formula for using the levels of two hormones, estradiol and follicle stimulating hormone (abbreviated FSH), to make this estimate. This “new method for predicting a woman’s last menstrual cycle could have broader implications for menopausal women’s health”. Since “in the year leading up to the final menstrual period, women are met with faster bone loss and a greater risk of heart disease”, if the end of menstruation could be predicted, medical monitoring and interventions would become possibilities. The research was also reported as news on the medical website Medscape.

Research results are often reported as news stories, as though these results are facts. However, “dog bites man” and “man bites dog” are facts, but research results are not facts in the same way. They are “evidence” that most often must be evaluated, understood, and put into the context of many other studies. There could very well be disagreement about whether a study’s methods really did accurately make a point, or whether the conclusions the researchers drew from their work were justified. Sadly, it happens all too often that research does not make the point that the headlines claim.

Photo by clarita // morgueFile

Here, we have a study by a respected researcher at a major institution, UCLA, funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health and other prestigious grantors. However, we do not have the information with which to understand what the researchers actually did. UCLA issued a press release which states that the study “suggests” a way to predict the final period. The Medscape article states that “A new model MAY [my emphasis] help physicians determine how far a woman is from her final menstrual period”.

Suggests? May? I have no idea what this means. As a researcher, I want to look at the published article to see what was actually done. However, the publisher does not make a free copy of the article available. Anyone who wants to look at the published article—a researcher or an informed consumer—would need to pay the publisher $37.00 to access this 20-page article for one day. Predicting the last menstrual period from hormone levels, which is what is claimed, is something other researchers have tried but failed to do, so how these researchers worked with the difficult problems is an important question.

Assume for a moment that the model was a big success, and it did predict the last menstrual period. The idea that this has important implications for women’s health is stated as though it were another fact. However, this is not a fact; this is a complicated and controversial area. Bone density does decrease in the years surrounding menopause, but professionals disagree about how big an effect this has on bone disease. For example, current guidelines recommend testing bone density beginning at age 65, 15 years after the average age of menopause, because this is when the fracture rate has significantly increased. Heart disease risk factors may increase on average in the years surrounding menopause, but professionals disagree about whether menopause is important compared with other factors associated with aging.

Assume for a moment that bone disease really is an important negative health consequence of menopause. Whether interventions would be found that must be started in the year or two before menopause is another speculation. Such interventions might be found or might not. Predicting the last menstrual period, even if the claim is valid that a method to do so has been found, is a long way from preventing disease.

The medical satirist Andrew Vickers wrote an article called “News On Cancer Drug Fails to Raise False Hopes”, which begins: “A recent article on a novel cancer therapy has rocked the newspaper industry by giving a balanced and cautious review of an early-phase trial”. Satirists make extreme statements to make a point. Media reports are often written to sound definite and to portray a study as really important. A cautious approach to medical news is to withhold judgment unless the methodology of the study is clear and the context of the study is understood.

Medicating the Postmenopausal Vagina

March 4th, 2013 by Paula Derry

On February 26, 2013, the Food and Drug Administration issued a news release saying that it had approved a medication called Osphena to treat a problem called postmenopausal dyspareunia (pain during sexual intercourse associated with changes in the vagina after menopause). The medical website Medscape reported that the news release had been issued. How to read these announcements? It seems as though FDA approval should be enough to know that a medication is safe and effective.   However, what are some guidelines in reading and evaluating this announcement?

First, some background: After menopause, when estrogen levels decline, tissues (cells) of the vaginal lining can become thinner, drier (thus providing less lubrication during intercourse), and less elastic or flexible.

This can result in pain during intercourse, feelings of burning or soreness, inflammation, and irritation.

Andreyeva by Ilya Repin // Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

There are a variety of solutions for dealing with this.  Regular sexual stimulation (intercourse, masturbation) is recommended to keep vaginal tissues healthy.  Water-based lubricants can help reduce discomfort during intercourse.  Expanded views of sexual pleasure that don’t include intercourse might work around the problem. Leaving enough time to become aroused during intercourse (extended foreplay), communication between partners about when sex is painful and when not, can also help. Herbs like dong quai and black cohosh are recommended, especially by complementary/alternative practitioners, although the herbs  lack a research base. A low-dose estrogen applied to the vaginal area (as a cream, tablet, etc.), is effective. Local application minimizes estrogen being absorbed into the bloodstream, traveling through the body, and having effects, some of them potentially negative, distant to the vagina. There is, however, controversy about some estrogen being absorbed.

Now, to the FDA announcement:  The FDA requires proof of a medication’s safety and effectiveness before it is approved.  According to the news release: “Osphena’s safety and effectiveness were established in three clinical studies of 1,889 postmenopausal women with symptoms of vulvar and vaginal atrophy. Women were randomly assigned to receive Osphena or a placebo. After 12 weeks of treatment, results from the first two trials showed a statistically significant improvement of dyspareunia in Osphena-treated women compared with women receiving placebo. Results from the third study support Osphena’s long-term safety in treating dyspareunia.”

Notice, first, that the drug’s effectiveness was tested for 12 weeks. This is not an unusual amount of time for such a study, but it is not very much time. Notice also that women treated with Osphena had a “statistically significant” improvement. As I discussed in a previous post, “statistically significant” means “unlikely to have occurred by chance.” In other words, there was evidence that Osphena  really did have an effect, but we don’t know how big an effect—it might be very large or very small.

Safety was established by studying the experiences of women for one year: however, one year is not a long time for side effects to develop. Osphena is a systemic medication. That means it is not applied locally in the vaginal area, it is ingested as a pill so that it travels to all parts of the body in the bloodstream. It is a selective estrogen-receptor modulator, or SERM. SERMs act like estrogen in some places in the body while not in others. The idea is that a SERM like Osphena would act like estrogen in keeping vaginal cells healthy while not acting like estrogen to increase health risks like certain cancers. However, more time than a year might be needed for health problems to show up. Indeed, the FDA news release stated that “Osphena is being approved with a boxed warning alerting women and health care professionals that the drug, which acts like estrogen on vaginal tissues, has shown it can stimulate the lining of the uterus (endometrium) and cause it to thicken…. Women should see their health care professional if they experience any unusual bleeding as it may be a sign of endometrial cancer or a condition that can lead to it.” The FDA announcement also stated that “Common side effects reported during clinical trials included hot flush/flashes, vaginal discharge, muscle spasms, genital discharge and excessive sweating” and that Osphena should be prescribed for the “shortest duration consistent with treatment goals and risks for the individual woman.”

In conclusion:  It’s always a good idea to approach information with an alert and critical mind, to look for details, to have information about background and context, and it’s always great when you have a resource you trust to help interpret information.

Getting from the Average to the Individual When Reading Reports of Research

December 10th, 2012 by Paula Derry

We are unique individuals. Or, we are like everyone else. Which is it? For menstrual periods and the menopausal transition, as perhaps for most things, we’re a little bit of both. For me, keeping in mind that both are somehow true, and understanding the ways in which each is true, is a crucial but tricky business. Scientific findings are often reported as though they are universal truths. “The normal menstrual cycle is regular and occurs every 28 days.” “Depression is more likely during the transition to menopause.” However, research most typically examines groups of people, and results are most often average findings. A discrepancy between the average and the range of real experience isn’t surprising.

Take, for example, a study of the transition to menopause. This was longitudinal research—that is, the same group of women was studied for many years, and the patterns of change in their menstrual cycles over time could be documented. The authors conclude that there are three stages in the transition to menopause. At first women experience, perhaps beginning in their thirties, subtle changes in menstrual flow (like periods becoming heavier or lighter) without cycle length becoming irregular. Next, periods become irregular. Finally, women skip periods in the run-up to menopause. The stages are based on what, in the authors’ words, occurs “most frequently”; the average or frequent result is the basis for understanding the underlying pattern. Yet there is also a lot of variation. As reported in the article, only 39% of the women progressed in a forward manner through the three stages. Almost half seesawed back and forth. In addition, it is known that a significant minority of women report that they have gone from regular cycle lengths straight to menopause without a time of menstrual irregularity. I remember that when I first read this study I felt a certain comfort that changes in my body, like lighter periods and other changes, were predictable and fit into a pattern that other women experience. Yet, on the other hand, the findings can’t be used as a blueprint for what is supposed to happen. We share experiences with others, but we’re also unique individuals.

The average menstrual cycle is said to be 28 days—well, I don’t know many women with a 28-day cycle, and while some women describe themselves as “regular as clockwork” other women are bewildered that anyone could think that the cycle was regular. Rates of depression have been found in many studies to increase during the menopausal transition. However, the great majority of women do not become depressed (the “relative risk” has increased, but the “absolute risk” remains low). Knowing that the rate increases might suggest to a woman that she consider this possibility, but does not answer the question of whether she will become depressed, or, if she does, whether her depression is related to perimenopause or something else.

In trying to use scientific facts to understand ourselves or the world around us, the difference between the particular and the general, the predictable and the unpredictable, is important. Our individual behavior and physiology aren’t random or without form, but neither are they completely predictable.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.