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Periods: Are we afraid to talk about it?

I've been using homemade cloth pads for the past few years (ever since that experiment with cup-style products), and I've noticed that I have a very much heightened sense of when my period is arriving, and exactly how heavy my flow is every day of my period. Moderate differences are very obvious when your absorbency is all based on cotton, not those high-tech absorbers in today's tampons and pads. While it's often inconvenient, and always a little messy, I feel somehow better without having what is essentially a stopper in my lady parts.

I have one day that's very heavy, one day that's somewhat heavy, and a few days of trickle. That heavy day is bad enough that I think about my period all the time. I try not to do anything on these days; if I have to, I often use tampons or the Softcup (I picked up a few free samples at Blogher -- the company rebranded and relaunched the product emphasizing ability to swim, do sports and have sex with the cup in; it doesn't seem a very mom-focused marketing campaign) because I pretty much have to be close to home to use cloth pads. Luckily, I'm there a lot.

So when I was invited to sit in on a conference call about heavy periods, I thought it would be interesting to hear what the PR firm arranging the event was pitching. I wasn't sure: what is the definition of heavy period? (Going through more than one pad an hour is, I think, the definition; the woman on the call representing heavy period sufferers says hers was far worse.) The belief of the PR firm arranging these calls is that women are afraid to talk about their periods, and that they are even timid about bringing up such complaints to their doctors.

I had to wonder, is this true for you? I've talked about my period to several close friends over the years, and I also chat about it (very superficially) with the teenage cross country runners I coach. It also seems that, every month, one of my kids barges in the bathroom when I'm changing a pad or wiping blood; I have to have the talk again each time. (I now say, for the record: "every month mama's body gets ready to have a baby. If there is no baby, the stuff that would have helped the baby grow gets sent out.")

The call, as it turned out, was put on by Hologic, the makers of a surgical technology that basically removes the uterine lining so that women plagued by terribly heavy periods can avoid them without a hysterectomy. Hysterectomies are frightfully common; in the 1970s and 1980s, they were one of the most frequently-performed surgeries on women of reproductive age, ranging from 7.5 per 1,000 women to 7.9 per 1,000. They've been more or less steadily declining to a rate of 5.1 per 1,000 in 2004. The surgery, Novasure, is certainly to be entered into only if things are dire; women who've had the surgery can't have more children.

I left the call feeling lucky for a number of reasons. First, that I don't have very heavy periods -- I don't have to carry around (as one woman said) "my own diaper bag." Second, that we live in a time when hysterectomies aren't, anymore, automatic once you're done having kids. Third, that I have a community to whom to chat about my period -- and inspiration, thanks to them, to try alternates to the traditional tampons and Maxipads. How about you? Do you talk about your period with anyone? Have you wondered if yours are unusually heavy? Did your mother, aunts or grandmothers have a hysterectomy -- and, if so, were there regrets or complications?

Those who listened to the call were entered into a random drawing for a few prizes, including cosmetics and an Amex gift card; I won one of these. Lucky me again! I did not promise to blog about the call, nor will I receive any further compensation for doing so. 


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I had the novasure procedure a couple years ago and it totally changed my life. I had suffered from heavy periods since I was 11, even had to reschedule a few finals in college one year because I was in so much pain from endometriosis. Once I was done making babies, I was so thankful there was another option besides hysterectomy (which I completely would have done, because my periods were interfering so badly in my life and ability to be present with my kids for one week out of every month). It took a long time for my doctor to mention it as an option, though, due to my age (29 at the time), which I understand, but I did think at the time that it wasn't really up to the doctor to filter which options I should know about. I would totally recommend exploring this option for someone who suffers from heavy or painful periods and is done having children.

Oh, yes, I talk about periods, you bet. Always have: to friends, acupuncturists (even male ones), doctors, etc.

Sarah, I'm so glad you feel better!

I had a startling experience: a few months ago, an extremely well-loved, well-regarded, quite low-key and kind GYN pushed a hysterectomy after I merely asked, "gee, periods changing/getting slightly heavier, could this be perimenopause." From his perspective, yanking it all out was the obvious, easy approach that would solve everything, incl a teensy fibroid that Novasure wouldn't take care of, and my reluctance to have an IUD. Can you imagine?! As the OP mentioned, such an old-fashioned approach.

And, no, I didn't take him up on it, as there's just no reason to do so right now. And, yes, I'm in the market for a new GYN.

Afraid to talk about periods with other women? What an odd concept! Every woman (peer) I have ever known has been very frank about that. We talk first periods, cramps, remedies, products, cultural issues, and we explain it to our children. And now, as we are getting closer to menopause (yikes!) that's in the mix, too. I've never met a woman who was afraid to talk about her periods. However, I do think that this concept drives a lot of (very icky) marketing of menstrual products.

This is a topic I would never voluntarily bring up with my close friends or even with my doctor. It's not fear necessarily, just discomfort. I was able to get through adolescence without ever having a conversation with my mother about my period or sex. Now as a mother of a five year old daughter, I realize this isn't necessarily the right approach, but it's something I would love to delegate to her dad. :)

chc: Things went much the same with my mother and I. Although she was a L&D nurse, she didn't talk to me about sex, either; she gave me a pamphlet.
I fretted for a long time about how to talk to my daughter, but she ended up leading the way and I found I'm much better at answering questions than I am at initiating conversations. Now we have a lot of good, open conversation.

Anyway, back to the topic. Sort of. As a middle schooler, my girl has a couple of girlfriends who are on the birth control pill due to "heavy periods." Not sure how "heavy" is defined, but that does seem a bit....I don't know....but the thought of barely-teen girls on the Pill makes me twitchy. Maybe I lack perspective since neither my girl nor I have heavy periods. Hard to say what you'd do until the shoe is on the other foot.

My roommate in college used to call women's tendency to talk very frankly about things like this "biological candor." I still get the sense that women talk about periods, sex, nursing, childbirth--you name it--in greater detail. Men tend not to. Of course, I'm not expecting them to talk about periods et al, but they've got their own set of issues, right? And maybe I'm wrong, but I think they don't have the same level of sharing about body issues.

I guess women sometimes have generational divides that keep them for sharing. It's harder for me to be frank with my mom or my mother-in-law than with women relatives and friends my own age.

Cafemama--Thanks for including your kid-level explanation of periods. It's perfect and I'm definitely going to adopt that.

As far as heavy periods--mine are borderline and some months, some years, I have definitely qualified. When you're getting up three times at night to change the superplus tampon (which OB stopped making--grrrr!) because you soak through it every two hours, when you have to change it once an hour all day long and are therefore tied to the indoors and places with convenient bathrooms, and when that heavy flow lasts for two-three days while the whole period lasts for 7-8 days . . . oh, you bet that the pill and surgery and anything else someone offers you start to look really good. Mine have calmed down in the last year or so, but I think a surgical, non-hormonal option for women who are done having children is a good thing.

oh good lord. couple things:

have some dignity, and lock the bathroom door when you're in the middle of changing a bloody pad. no, there's nothing "wrong" with having your period, or even being open about it with your kids. but again, have a little bit of dignity.

second, good lord! home-made pads? WHY??? if it's for the environment's sake, i think that is one piece of garbage that is justified.

thirdly, i've never been afraid to talk periods with girl friends or doctors. why would i be. having said that though, there is a line between necessary info and TMI.

I had the novasure procedure several years ago and I second Sarah - it's absolutely life-changing (p.s. I have no financial or personal stake in this procedure - this is just testimony from a very satisfied consumer). If you have heavy periods - please, please, please don't hesitate to look into this option if your family is complete. After suffering for several years with incredibly heavy periods - I am barely aware that I have 'em anymore. The quality of my life has soared simply because it's so freeing not to have to worry about periods anymore. My only regret is that I waited a full year before deciding to have the procedure in the first place.

I feel pretty comfortable talking about my period. Friends, my husband, in the past, boyfriends. It's a bodily function and while I don't think talking about bodily functions is necessarily appropriate with acquaintances or at the dinner table, if I'm having heavy cramps (as I often do) and someone I know asks, I'll tell them why.
I used to have ridiculously heavy periods and horrible cramps. My first trip to a gyno was at age 16 specifically because I had to miss a day or two of school every month because of my period, and I started menstruating at age 11. He immediately put me on birth control pills. While I appreciated the relief the Pill gave me, I now wish the doctor would have taken the time to find out why my period was so heavy. I haven't had many periods in the past four years -- I've either been pregnant or nursing for much of that -- so I don't know if they are still heavy. But I'm very sympathetic to anyone who has a heavy/life-disrupting period. And BTW, I don't think there's anything "undignified" about having young children walk into the bathroom while you are changing a pad. It happens to me all the time with a recently potty-trained 3-year-old and a one-bathroom house.

why homemade pads? because the feel so much better. i never wore pads before because they felt diaper-like to me. since i tried cloth pads they are mostly all i use - along with the keeper. love them both.

If you have heavy periods, please, please talk to your doctor. You may need help ASAP. There are some things - like uterine cancer - that only a hysterectomy can cure, and they can't cure it if you wait too late.

Cloth pads feel like diapers. My teen and I both use the Natracare pads that we buy at New Season's. I might sometimes use cloth at home on heavy day but never out.

Never personally had any trouble talking to my kids or friends about my period... which has always been fine until very recently. The perimenopause thing has caused my body to go back to puberty.. oily hair, pimples and heavier periods.

And no, I would never consider a hysterectomy before 40 unless my life was in danger.

I am with jln - home made pads? Different strokes for different folks, I guess. I shudder at the thought of washing them. ew.

I am a pretty private person, so I don't usually engage in discussion about my period. I will tell my husband that it's that time of the month so I feel crampy and grumpy, but that's about the extent of it. My kids have walked into the bathroom before, and I've answered their questions in simple terms. I want to make sure my kids feel comfortable asking questions because I never did with my mom. So, I always answer their questions calmly and in as much detail as they are asking. (usually not much will suffice for them at the moment).

But bringing it up and talking with friends over dinner? Not my MO.

I use the moon cup, or whatever it's called. The first day of my period having the silicon cup up in there by my cervix is irritating, so I go organic tampons (teaching yoga in a pad=no), then switch back to my *favorite* blood solution ever (try it! It's a big initial investment - $30? - but the company will let you return it for a whole year after purchase if you don't like it! Even used! I know! What? It's cheap, clean, lets you know what kind of blood you are passing, private, great for camping, swimming, bike riding, there's no way to forget an extra...) . My kid (who is 3 and cannot be locked out of the bathroom - hello, no locks in a hippie house) calls it my blood catcher, and is well versed in exactly the same explanation cafemama uses, especially since she is lobbying for a sibling... I think the monthly blood can be the same no-nonsense deal as poop or pee, if you aren't afraid to talk about it. Sure, most men (unless in a medical situation) don't really want to hear about it, and there is def such a thing as TMI, but I recall clearly the general pre-teen horror and ignorance surrounding this topic and any who tried to broach it. I still have friends who have no idea when they are fertile, how their cycles work, etc. Why start our kids on a diet of shame and fear?

I have never used cloth pads but I am curious. We cloth diaper at home; why not cloth pad? Are they sold commercially or only homemade?

I am not cup-curious however.

I do not think it is "undignified" to change a pad when kids might storm in. I actually rarely close the door when I'm in the bathroom.

I don't feel uncomfortable talking about my period or flow but it isn't a preferred topic of dinner discussion.

Thanks to my Paraguard/copper IUD, my flow is horrendous on day 1-1.5. I can go through a super-tampon plus super maxi in an hour. And then repeat that for maybe 3 changes. It's terrible. My flow is irregular so I can start to flow when I least expect it (like at a park when I'm sitting on someone else's picnic blanket & I stand up and I see some red gush down my leg. UGH. Sorry to those who witnessed & thanks to the urbanMama who ran down the street to the store for me & thanks to her husband who threw 3 dishrags at me).

I am sort of wary of interventions, so I am not sure how I feel about removing the uterine lining. And, I wouldn't consider a hysterectomy unless there was a circumstance that would require it.

you can buy cloth pads. i like luna pads the best. http://lunapads.com/ i think they also sell them at the alberta coop and other natural food stores in town.

another great local resource for cloth products and information for mamas, babes and family life is

my experience has been that using reusable products in all areas of life: the kitchen (replacing paper towels with various cloth rags), cloth diapers, stainless steel water bottles, cloth bags at the grocery store (even for bulk items) and reusable sandwich/snack bags for kid's lunch and on and on, is simple and saves money too.

as you can see i love this topic. just one more link i'd direct you to if you are interested in simplifying you life and home:

you can get cloth pads commercially. i haven't bought them in years, but there used to be glad rags and lotus pads and a few other brands i'm forgetting. people's food coop is a good bricks-and-mortar place to look, though i'm sure you can find an endless selection online. i mostly use tampons, but cloth is nice for wearing to bed - feel like my body likes a break from having anything inside. i find cloth bulky and uncomfortable for day time, but great for sleeping. and if you're uncomfortable putting pads in the wash with everything else, soak them in cold water for a few hours first. different strokes for different folks is right! but to me it doesn't seem any more or less icky than washing diapers (or any kid clothes with pee, poop, spit-up, etc.).

oh, and to the original question - no i'm not afraid to talk about my period. of course i'm not bringing it up in mixed company at dinner parties, but neither am i lamenting childcare snafus or a lack of intimacy when i'm in business meetings. context is everything. and my preschoolers get the same sort of explanation that sarah gives her kids. of course i like privacy in the bathroom, but it doesn't always work that way. and i want my kids to know that menstruation is as ordinary as every other bodily function - so it feels right to just discuss it when it comes up.

I have a super-lite period. Until I had an IUD put in about 3 years ago, I didn't even need to use a pad, much less a tampon. Since the IUD, my periods have definitely been heavier, but I still wouldn't call them "heavy".

That being said, I usually use whatever unbleached pads they sell at New Seasons. But I have to wonder about that cloth pad...

1. It looks bulky. Instead of cotton, have you ever tried sewing a pad out of hemp? (I switched to hemp diapers for my youngest because the cotton prefolds were too bulky and not absorbent enough for him. )

2. What about a layer of fleece or wool on the top of the pad? Like a pocket diaper, the fleece or wool would not retain moisture, leaving you feeling dry, while whatever is underneath (cotton, hemp, etc.) would get soaked. Fleece is definitely cheaper than wool and depending on the wool you get, the fleece will probably be less itchy. However, not all wools are itchy, and wool does have the added feature of being naturally anti-microbial....

3. What if you extended the wings and put velcro on either side, so you can attach the wings to each other underneath the panties?

Kate: You're describing my favorite kinds of mama-pads! They (hemp/wool/fleece and velcro) are out there, for sure! I buy from ZoomBabyGear, though there are lots of other makers. Just look around! :)

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