The other day, my husband and I were talking about the aches and pains of getting older. A friend of mine once said, ‘old age is not for wimps‘ and she’s quite right about the challenges it brings, but that isn’t what this blog is about. I told him how happy I’d been to reach menopause, despite the hormonal minefield I had to navigate. I was just so bloody happy, if you’ll forgive the pun, to have finally stopped having periods.
‘Try having to shave every day,’ was my husband’s response.
What? Really? I was gobsmacked. Yes, shaving every day must be a recurring annoyance, but it brought home to me how little men understand about women and how little we women understand about men. Mars and Venus? Possibly. The point of this observation, though, is how can we expect men to understand women, when women understandably don’t talk about one of the most personal factors that influences their lives, and men probably don’t talk about theirs, either. (I used to get upset about my husband having a hard-on when he saw a pretty girl, before I understood it was an involuntary physiological response he had no control over – at least, that’s what he told me.)
Well, fellas, here goes, and I expect to hear from you, later. I want to know what makes you tick – your dreams and exasperations, your life burdens, anxieties, joys, involuntary physiological responses, and shaving. OK?
My ex-husband read my novel Where Hope Dares and commented that I perfectly understood men’s psyches. While I was pleased I had my male characters realistically portrayed, worryingly, their psyches weren’t very pretty. But I shan’t judge men by my ex-husband’s opinion of them – I know a lot of very caring fellas, at least, I think I know them.
Firstly, before we get personal, the general differences. A man once told me men have sex and women make love – I think that may say more about him than men in general, but it raises an interesting point: the basic human roles the sexes play. Men are hunters and women are gatherers. Men need excitement: women, if they intend to have children, need security. They complement one another in the necessary life skills required to raise the next generation.
As a writer mainly of historical fiction, the relationships between men and women in history loom large. I explore this a bit in my historical trilogy For Their Country’s Good, and I found the research I did illuminating. It helps when considering the women’s liberation movement and women’s push for equality in the workplace, possibly one of the arguments still simmering between the sexes, to understand from where the movement sprang.
Nowadays, gender stereotyping is fading, but in the mid eighteen hundreds, women had no rights. They belonged to their husbands, who owned everything they may have had before they married, owned any children of the marriage, and could legally imprison, beat, and rape their wives. Men were admired for their number of mistresses, but if a woman showed the least impropriety, she could be set aside, penniless, and be refused access to their children. As one enlightened male of the time said, the marriage laws were made by men, for men. Even as late as the 1970s, rape was still legal in marriage. I find this shocking, but this was the historical springboard of inequality for the women’s movements that followed. So when we get uppity about equality, chaps, cut us some slack – equality is very recent and tenuous, and we have some catching up to do.
War in the 20th century allowed some women out of the home for the first time, working in forestry, farming, munitions, factories, and various other hitherto male-dominated workplaces, but those who were able to work slaved for a pittance compared to their male counterparts. Women were, for the most part, entirely dependant on a man if they were to raise a family – and a family could be fourteen or more children. A woman was either pregnant or breast feeding for a large chunk of her life. Milk cows come to mind. Even in my own teenage years, I was told my choices of career weren’t open to me. I wanted to go into forestry, and failing that, farming. I was told the Forestry Commission only employed men, (Had they forgotten the lumber-Jills of WW2?) and I needed to be a farmer’s daughter to get on an agricultural course. I went into banking, which apparently was acceptable for a woman, and hated every effin’ minute.
I can’t help thinking that fewer relationships would fail if men and women understood each other better. A man’s primal hormonal urges might have been, wham, bang, thank you, ma’am, but if a woman gave herself to a man before around 1950, she expected to become pregnant and have a lifelong duty of care to her offspring or very possibly die in childbirth. Childbirth was the most common cause of death for a woman until midwifery provided a safe and sanitary environment. It wasn’t until contraception came along, in fact, the contraceptive pills and the intra-uterine devices of the sixties, that women could control their own lives to any real degree and actually enjoy sex for its own sake or consider a career and spread their aspirational wings.
Men hunt – women gather. Men go forth to multiply and provide food – women nest and nurture, and that isn’t always seen as the important job it is – the raising of a generation of balanced men and women, who are kind and considerate and are our future hope. We are genetically pre-programmed at a molecular level to be two sides of the same coin, opposites, but mutually inseparable. If we can understand and tolerate this basic difference and this basic co-dependence, then surely, we are halfway there.
I suppose it’s time we got more personal. Thankfully, each generation is less hampered by taboos than the last, but in my generation, one didn’t speak about periods. When I was thirteen, my mother gave me a small leaflet that ‘explained’ them and said now your troubles begin. Not very encouraging to a girl at puberty, Mother. That was all the sex education and support I got. I didn’t realise then how much this biological necessity would impact my life.
And then there’s maternal instinct, ladies – oh boy, don’t get me started. It doesn’t matter that you don’t particularly like children and have your heart set on being an astronaut, your primal hormone-modified body and brain insist that nine months of pregnancy, hours of agony in labour, and a lifetime of worrying about your kids is not only a good thing, but an absolute necessity you can’t possibly be happy without. That doesn’t mean I don’t love my kids to bits, but a rational choice in the matter would have been nice.
I had a friend, a petite brunette, a hairdresser by trade, who was the sweetest natured person you could hope to meet. She was happily married with a young daughter. She told me once that she didn’t know how her husband put up with her. This shocked me until she confided that, every month, he had to hide all the sharp knives. I thought she was joking. But no. Hormones, turned this lovely young woman into someone with an almost uncontrollable urge to stab her husband. I mean, can you imagine what that would have done to her life, had she actually done it? And women have gone to jail for no other reason that it was their ‘time of the month’. What a terrifying thing for both of them to have to live with.
My sister-in-law had such painful periods as a child, she would faint on the bus to school. Her doctor told her she’d be better once she’d had children. Great news for a twelve-year-old! Fortunately, my mother-in-law was forward thinking and insisted the doctor prescribed the contraceptive pill which helped her enormously.
Another friend suffered so much from menstruation she had a hysterectomy and denied herself the children she would have loved. So sad – she would have been a wonderful mother.
I was more fortunate. I do confess to having suffered mild Pre-Menstrual Syndrome, PMS, though I didn’t recognise it for what it was at the time, but compared with some posts I’ve read on forums, while researching both men’s and women’s experiences of PMS for novels, I got off very lightly and so did my ex-husband.
So what constitutes getting off lightly? The nearest I can come to explaining periods to a man is for them to imagine having constant diarrhoea and stomach cramps for about a week every lunar month but never knowing quite when it’s going to start or finish or how severe it will be.
Other symptoms? Feeling tetchy and tired. Feeling dirty and smelly. Always needing to know where the nearest loo is and how long it will take you to get there. The constant fear of blood showing on your outer garments due to leakage, having enough sanitary products on your person – I wasn’t fortunate enough to be able to use tampons – and the very worst thing of all, having to try to calculate when a period was likely to come in order to plan days out and future holidays, so I could enjoy them without embarrassment – and I could guarantee the gods would mess my cycle about, so I rarely managed a holiday or day out without needing loos… Climbing mountains, swimming, lying by the pool in a swimsuit? Oh, the joys of being a woman. No, I take that back, the very worst thing was feeling too embarrassed to tell my ex-husband why I was so cross with life and being generally grotty, when I should have been enjoying myself.
Towards menopause, things got worse, and I have a friend going through this at the moment. Hot flushes and night sweats – I swapped jumpers for cardigans, and my bedclothes were on and off like a bride’s nighty. Panic attacks – I wasn’t prepared for those, not being the panicky sort, but I had to walk out of shops because of the claustrophobia, had to stop the car halfway through a journey and get out, I couldn’t listen to loud music, and I haven’t been for a meal in a restaurant since – it was an intense feeling of being trapped.
Periods got heavy, and I mean heavy. It’s called menorrhoea, and had I known it had a name, perhaps I could have got help, but no, not me, being too embarrassed about it. I’m talking huge black clots of blood that felt almost like giving birth, usually in the middle of a walk, miles from anywhere, and feeling blood running down your legs and knowing three nighttime towels at once just wouldn’t cut it even if you had somewhere private to sort yourself out. Too graphic? Sorry, it wasn’t pleasant then, either. Stomach cramps so intense my husband called out the doctor at midnight, and I ended up in hospital. Exhaustion due to anemia – I had to have an iron injection and take iron supplements because I was pouring blood for three weeks out of every four. I literally hardly dared go anywhere for about three years, and needless to say, sex was way down on the agenda, but could I explain this to my husband? He knew, of course, but he couldn’t truly understand because I didn’t tell him how severe it was. Discussing huge black clots and dripping blood? Me? I’d have been mortified.
I was fifty-three when I finally stopped having periods, and my overriding response was rage. Not anger at being past the reproductive stage of my life, or beginning the descent into old age, but rage at having had my life buggered up for forty years – almost to the day. I have often thought that if men had to endure periods, they’d have come up with a ‘cure’. So why haven’t women?
The feeling of freedom, once the initial rage was spent, was immense. I could now go out for a day and enjoy it without worry. I could plan a holiday months in advance without the least anxiety – was this what it was like to be a man? I didn’t have to constantly wonder where the loos were and plan each stage of my journey accordingly, and best of all, I wasn’t ruining my husband’s enjoyment by being grumpy and tetchy and not wanting to ‘do things’ and needing a loo – well, I am a bit grumpy, sometimes, but not because I feel trapped by my own body, and ‘female’ – and now, because of his prostate, he needs the loos more often than I do.
There are downsides, of course, osteoporosis because of falling oestrogen levels and needing – wait for it fellas, you’ll like this – needing to shave! I never wanted to be a woman, but then I’m not sure I’d have coped well with the burdens and responsibilities of being a man, either.
I think I’ll come back as a dog. Sounds like a plan.
I do hope some fellas will reply and be as brutally honest about what it means to be male. For the sake of marital harmony, we women need to understand, too.