Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dear Aunt Flo...

You & I go back a long (LONG) way, don't we? Forty (gulp) years, give or take a few months.

I was 11 the first time you came to visit. I remember how proud and excited I was. It wasn't like today, when moms take daughters to lunch or celebrate with cakes (!), but your arrival meant that I was growing up!! I was entering a whole new phase of my life. I was going to be a TEENAGER soon!! I could have BABIES someday!! The delicious possibilities of my whole adult life unfolded before my eyes.

We sent away in the mail for one of those "Now That You're a Woman" booklets. Not only did we get the booklet (a set of them, actually -- including one that contained a few vaguely worded paragraphs warning about "social ills" -- what the heck were they??) -- I also got a fairly substantial sized cardboard box filled with free Kotex products, including a box of regular sized sanitary napkins, a couple of samples of other sizes of napkins, & at least one (possibly two?) sanitary napkin belts. (Definitely no tampons.)

Note to my younger readers: You don't know what a napkin belt is/was? Be glad, my dears... be very, very glad. Have a look at the photos, left. [ETA:  I have deleted the photos, but just Google "sanitary napkin belt," and I'm sure you'll find some images!) In those prehistoric times before adhesive strips (and in my own defense, this was JUST before adhesive strips made belts obsolete -- thank goodness...!), sanitary napkins were thick & fluffy, like layers of cotton batten, with two long "tails" of gauze at either end.

A belt was a circle of elastic that you wore around your waist (pulling it up over your hips like a pair of panties, but worn under your panties, with a strip of elastic dangling down in front and another at the back. Each strip had a metal loop at the end. You pulled the long ends of the sanitary napkin through the loops and wound the ends around them to secure the pad. And that's how you'd wear a sanitary napkin. (Needless to say, women of the world, we owe the inventor of the adhesive strip a great deal of gratitude....)

(When we were cleaning out my parents' basement a few summers ago, my sister found HER cardboard box full of samples. I don't think it had even been opened before -- the contents were all still packed neatly away. "Anyone want a 35-year-old sanitary napkin??" We howled with laughter, & wondered if there was a museum that would want it??)

(I digress.)

It wasn't long, though, before the novelty quickly wore off. I soon learned about the joy (not) of cramps, and sometimes missed school because of them. And I think it was only your second or third visit when you decided to make a really grand entrance. I was sitting on a wooden bleacher in the grandstand at the local fair on 4-H Rally Day with my mom, sister, our friends & their mom, surrounded by our other friends from our club. I was wearing white pants (of course). I stood up at the end of the show -- and promptly sat back down again when I saw the red smear on the white paint of the bleachers. We waited until the crowd had mostly cleared out before making our own exit. My girlfriend loaned me her cardigan & I tied it around my waist until we could get back to the car.

(I had something similar happen years later, when I was at the Canadian figure skating championships in Hamilton, Ontario, in January 1998. I WAS wearing a pad, but it was a heavy day, the lineups at the washroom were long, and the skating was so good, I wound up (almost literally, as it turned out... ) glued to my seat. I waited until the people around me had left and cleaned off my (thankfully hard plastic) seat as best I could with a kleenex dipped in melted ice from my empty soft drink cup, then hailed a cab back to my hotel. I sat on a newspaper, folded it up as I exited the cab, & threw it away in a trashbin as I entered the hotel. Necessity is the mother of invention...)

Over the years, dear Flo, you've also left your calling card on our sheets (the housekeeping staff at my university dorm wouldn't give us clean sheets for our beds until we'd soaked the stains out of the soiled ones out first), mattress, sofa (when we got a new one a few years ago, I started sitting on a towel at "that time of the month" -- lesson learned), kitchen chair cushions, carseats (I spent a week driving around Nova Scotia with a newspaper tucked underneath me, so as not to muck up the rental car), as well as clothes.

In university, I met dh, & made the acquaintance of that marvel of modern medicine, the birth control pill. Besides making certain (well, about as certain as anyone could get) that I didn't get pregnant when I was still unmarried and in school and unable to support a child, an added bonus was the effect that it had on your visits. Suddenly, I knew exactly when I could expect your arrival. (My cycle was never, ever, the 28 days cited by most of literature I read. 32 to 35 days was the norm for me.) And while I still didn't enjoy your visits, they weren't as heavy or as crampy as they had been.

For 13 years, I was spoiled. But then, we realized that we were getting older, and that if we were going to have that family we had been talking about for so long, we were going to have to take a deep breath, take the plunge, and toss the pills.

I went to my family dr to tell him our plans and ask for advice. He was delighted, but advised me we should "use something else" for three or four cycles while the hormones cleared my body and it readjusted to life after the pill. He also warned me that my cycles might take awhile to re-regulate.

The first month I went off the pill, it was 53 days before you visited again. The next three cycles were almost textbook perfect -- 35 days each. The fourth cycle, when we actually started ttc? You tease, Aunt Flo (you b*tch!), it was 49 days. I finally went to my family dr for a pregnancy test and of course you showed up before they could even call me with the beta #s. The next cycle was 42 days, and the next 40. After that, they ranged from 30 to 39 days, with one more 48 day cycle thrown in there for good measure.

It took 26 cycles over the next 2 & 1/2 years before I found myself pregnant. Even then, you kept hovering around. I spotted all through my first trimester, and while everyone kept assuring me that spotting was normal, I couldn't shake the sense that something was wrong (quite rightly, as it turned out).

I bled for 2-3 weeks after my wee baby girl was stillborn. You returned on Sept. 15, 39 days later, and resumed your regular schedule of visits. And, despite dh's & my best efforts, including assistance from various fertility drs & drugs, you've hung around ever since, refusing to go away, even for the 9 months necessary to grow another baby in my uncooperative bicornuate uterus.

Sometimes you teased us, played hide and seek. I had one cycle that lasted 57 days, and another that was only 19 (and that wasn't when I was doing fertility treatments). Occasionally I'd go to the dr (even to emergency, once), where the medical staff would generally pat me on the head, tell me that these things happened to women my age and it was perfectly normal (hmmm, where I have heard THAT before...??), & send me on my way, feeling angry and confused.

Post-loss and pre-menopause, the cramps of my younger, pre-pill years have returned -- sometimes with a vengeance. At least once or twice, maybe three times a year, they're bad enough that I wind up staying home from work. (I've used very few of my sick days at work over the past several years -- and the vast majority of the days I have taken have been Aunt Flo-related.) Sometimes, I break out into a cold, drenching sweat; once in a great while, I have to make a run for the bathroom to throw up. I find the best way to cope is simply lie very still in bed, under the covers, until the spasm passes. A couple of times, I've been at work, and wound curled up in a ball on the floor of the women's washroom at work. Believe me, I had to be feeling pretty rotten to do that -- have you SEEN the women's washroom at work??? (That made me feel even sicker than I already felt...)

But you know, Flo, while I've never been your biggest fan, and as bad as the above sounds, I've never wished you gone, either (aside from the 9 months+ of pregnancy). I might not have welcomed your visits with open arms, but I did accept them, to some degree, as a natual part of life, part of what it means to be female, part of what had to happen in order to have a baby.

Many of my infertile friends, of course, want to know why we should have to put up with your visits if you're holding out on us with the other part of the female physiological equation (i.e., pregnancy & babies). And even my fertile friends have looked for ways to get rid of you once they've completed their families.

Of course, my complaints about the discomfort your visits cause are small potatos compared to what you inflict on some of my friends (both fertile & in-), for the most part. I can't blame some of them for seeking relief by deliberately suppressing your visits (by going back on birth control or other pills) or ending them altogether with endometrial ablations -- or even complete hysterectomies, in some cases. Still, I hesitated to do anything that would put a halt to your visits before their natural time. It seemed like tinkering unnecessarily with Mother Nature. (I'd already dipped my toe in that pond, with infertility treatments, & look how well that ended....)

But really, Aunt Flo, 40 years is an awfully long time. If I knew when you planned to make your final exit, I might feel better about putting up with you for awhile longer. The problem is, nobody can tell me just how long you plan to hang around. Every woman is different, yadda yadda yadda... I once had to ask my mother, when we had an appointment with a genetic counsellor during my pregnancy, a bunch of questions, including whether premature menopause ran in our family. "Good Lord, no," Mom said, "I thought it would never end." She didn't say exactly when it DID end for her, though, although I believe she was over 50 as well.

I asked Dr. Ob-Gyn at my most recent appointment with him, and he said he is seeing more and more women in their 50s who are still getting your visits. (Oh, lovely... I suppose the fact that I have company is supposed to make me feel better?) And so long as things weren't getting "out of hand," he told me it was nothing to worry about. Easy for him to say -- he doesn't have to put up with your visits.

This month, you arrived on Feb. 8th. Exactly 14 years ago, you also arrived on Feb. 8th. That was the cycle when I got pregnant, and the date that I found myself reciting ad nauseum throughout my pregnancy in response to the question "first day of last period?" While I know that, as long as you're around, pregnancy is technically possible, I very much doubt it, at this late stage of my life and with my track record. Furthermore, at this late stage of my life, I no longer welcome the idea of pregnancy. As much as I once wanted a baby, the time has long passed. It took a long time for me to adjust to the realization that I wasn't going to have children, but I'm done with that idea.

And, similarly, I think I've finally realized that I'm ready to say goodbye to you, too. I'll admit -- whereas 11-year-old me was anxious to learn all about menstruation -- a whole new phase of my life, full of possibility -- 51-year-old me is less enthusiastic about that other "M" word that heralds a completely different phase of life (i.e., menopause). But I know it's inevitable -- and I'm getting tired wondering every 30-35 days, "Will she? Won't she? Is this the month she doesn't come?"

Sorry, Aunt Flo. We've had a good run together, but you've overstayed your welcome. It's time to take the hint and say goodbye.


  1. I seriously believe this is the BEST post I've ever read! You should enter it in a blog contest...seriously!

  2. This is a great post...beautifully written and a perfect mix of bittersweetness and humour and acceptance. And THANK you for including the picture of the belt. I remember reading about that in Judy Blume books, but I could never quite picture it. Until I read this post, I`d forgotten all about my childhood confusion!

  3. I also just wanted to say how sorry I am about the loss of your daughter. No parent should ever have to lose a child. Sending you virtual hugs.

  4. Awesome post! And another THANK YOU for posting a picture of a sanitary napkin with belt. Those were thankfully long gone by the time I got my first period, but having read "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret" at age 8, I always wondered what the belts looked like. Awful. And now I get why in the book, Nancy immediately asked the napkin company lady, "What about Tampax?"

    I had a similarly embarrassing accident on my second AF cycle, in the middle of a school assembly. (My best friend, several years younger than me, said, "Oh my God, you were one of THOSE girls?!") It's unfortunate that a lot of the logistics of learning how to anticipate and deal with AF, and when it's really really imperative that you get to the restroom NOW, seem to be hard-learned lessons for many young women. It would help if schools gave kids more than 4 or 5 minutes to get to their next classes...

  5. You nailed it. Went to gyn and today and was told AF could hang around till 55! Good news, she is good for my bones. I guess there is brightside to it but by this age [almost 52] I'm tired of her. PS I remember those wonder belts and napkins too.

  6. I love your letter, and I swear, I will not take adhesive strips for granted again!

  7. I so identified with this. Have struggled with AF since age 12, now 48. Went through public floods, major cramps and general monthly illness like clockwork. Of course I couldn't conceive and struggled through IVF too. But when the (premature, I like to think!) menopause hit with a vengeance around 18 months ago I suffered with hot flushes (which are truly awful), insomnia and general ill health. HRT has been truly life changing in the last 3-4months. what irony - Af ruins a large portion of my adult life, doesn't work when I needed her to conceive - but oh how I missed her when she was gone; so much so I needed to resort to hormones again to keep her going.....!!

    I truly loved this post.

  8. OMG, I had one of those belts - for a New York minute. And then I had something called a sanitary panty. Gross!!!!! I begged my mum for tampons but apparently I couldn't have them because I wasn't one of THOSE girls. I HATED my period, I hated the cramps, the pads, the inconvenience, and all the propaganda that went all with it. I didn't have a party, my mother didn't seem happy about it, it was just a pain all the way around. Now? Well, I suppose the fact that I still have one is delaying the onset of a goatee.

  9. I loved this! Only on an IF blog would we give such detail and talk so openly. I laughed at the photo of the belt too - I remember them, though fortunately only for a cycle. My mother quickly moved me on to the sanitary panty and then tampons. Now though, I'm ready for AF to go - she's become a much more intrusive visitor the last few years, and quite frankly has outstayed any welcome she ever had!

    I wrote something similar a while ago here -

  10. Belatedly wanted to say that I got a huge kick out of all the references to Judy Blume. By the time I heard about her, I was a teenager & felt a little too old for "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret." I did, however, devour some of her later/more adult/naughty stuff, including "Forever" and "Wifey." ; )

    And I am sooooo relieved that I am not the only one out there old enough to remember belts & sanitary panties!! Thank you for that!! ; )

  11. Love this post! I too have mused in my blog on my short time with my period and how much I anticipated only to be met with terrible cramps and aches (wondering why the hell did i want this to happen at all).

    Really wonderful writing here - love the flow and tone. And oh my those photos! Definitely made me giggle and I was happy the tampon was around by the time I started my period.

  12. I have to admit, what you've gone through is why I am back on the pill (even though there's no contraceptive reason for it) - it keeps me from having cycles. And I am grateful for that. I was just not strong enough to get through every month, seeing AF arrive, and knowing that yet again, I was not pregnant.

    I can imagine that you are MORE THAN ready to be done with her. I hope she gets kicked to the curb soon.