January 3, 2011 by Liz Lawler
I did an about face this month. I decided to stop believing in PMS.
It’s kind of pathetic, but I hadn’t even considered the culturally fabricated origins of this bio-myth until stumbling across this debate, in a blog that I sometimes read. It was kind of like finding out that the Tooth Fairy doesn’t exist—obvious in hindsight, but earth shattering in the moment.
Because let me be clear: I have blamed my hormones for a LOT.
Allow me to back up and clarify: hormones matter. In the months after weaning my son and moving from hormonal birth control to a barrier method, there was an, ahem, “adjustment period.” It was palpably related to my cycle, though my frustrations with early parenthood and the NY real estate market were also clear contributors (I mean really, who hasn’t wanted to kill their partner over a condo purchase?). The depression and anger came in waves that I could just glimpse before they engulfed me. But the dust has settled. I am also prone to, when surrounded by breastfeeding women, spring a leak, so to speak. The physical responses to hormonal changes are undeniable–cramps, bloating, fatigue, etc. (and might reasonably induce crankiness). But a dip in estrogen cannot be certifiably, medically equated with a loss of common sense, emotional balance, composure. Seriously, look it up.
Let’s think about this logically. If PMS is a “syndrome,” meaning an imbalance, or a problematic response to hormonal fluctuations, how can so many of us possibly have it? Is the female body so shoddily built that it cannot withstand the normal cycles and processes related to furthering the species? We are asked to believe that this is some design flaw, a nearly inevitable response to menses. It also apparently explains why women are not fit to run a country, drive a car, draw equal pay for equal work, or have legitimate feelings of sadness or anger (“you don’t really feel that way, it’s just that time of the month”). Why entrust these responsibilities to someone prone to monthly fits of hysteria? And even more strange, though men are allowed to blame their hormones for sexual indiscretions and road rage, they don’t seem subject to the same biological scrutiny when it comes to a question of power.
Menstruation is an uncomfortable topic for many people. And as Jews, there is a loaded heritage to navigate in this regard. When I first converted, I was shocked to find out that certain sub-sects of Orthodox/Chasidic men will not sit on a subway for fear that it might have been tainted by a menstruating woman. More commonly, we all know at least someone who will not sleep with her husband until a week post-period, and after a dip in the mikvah. The rules and regulations specific to niddah are convoluted and hotly debated, even by those who want to follow them. The language is ambiguous, at best. The descriptors are, of course, less than feminist–pretty much all contain some question of cleanliness. And of course, hygiene aside, the scheduling is tailored to procreation. So perhaps this is just one of those customs that we have to support out of tribal loyalty. And finally, one woman I knew put a charming spin on it: she claimed that first night back in the marital bed was always so exciting, like her honeymoon all over again. Is one possible intent of niddah to help keep marriages fresh? Is this a valiant attempt to sacralize sexuality in a world that has made it overly pedestrian? I guess I can get behind that. Monogamy is relentless work, and a sexual fast probably does keep you hungry enough to crave a return to your spouse (side note: my husband is getting really edgy).
Regardless, the whole tradition evokes a certain paternalistic prudishness. It is hard to shake that dimension. The notion of a woman as “unclean” during this time is nothing new or particularly Jewish—it pervades many cultures and dates back thousands of years. But the idea that a woman’s period might also make her crazy, well that’s newer and more secular stuff. PMS and PMDD weren’t actually included in the DSM until some time in the 1970s (and against protestations of many psychiatrists). And before that, we have the Victorians, Freud et all, to thank for notions of female hysteria and humors. That seems recent, but apparently long enough to fully filter into the communal unconscious. Why are we still allowing ourselves to be victimized by these archaic stereotypes? Isn’t it possible that what we are dealing with is just straight depression? Real anger? I do find myself occasionally breathless with annoyance, my voice rising an octave or two. But I’m now realizing that when I think of this as PMS, it is usually just a coincidence, and the thinking, the “noticing” only makes it worse, heightens the sense of crisis. So, whether or not I am right, I am no longer going to “notice.” I will deal with and process my annoyance, rather than sublimating it. And if it gets really bad, I will see a therapist, not a bottle of Evening Primrose Oil.