We work in a female dominated environment but we don’t talk nearly enough about the impact of menstruation on our well-being…
Back when I lived up North, I was working in a neighbourhood nursery and one horribly dark cold winter morning I walked into my pre-school and started to set up. I always tried to make it cosy with lamps and calming music, and as I was prepping snack, I felt that familiar dull thud. The children and parents started to make their way in and the usual hustle and bustle had begun but all I could think was “please let me have paracetamol in my bag” because that dull thud was getting more excruciating by the second. I smiled through the pain as I asked through gritted teeth to a colleague “do you have any sanitary towels?”.
And then that next wave of holy hell happened, the blood emerged, my belly popped and my desire to be wrapped up in a hundred blankets intensified. My period tracker told me I had a few more days before this carnage but here I was cursing the period gods – the bastards.
Now every woman knows the danger of a soul-destroying period when you are not prepared for it and the horrors of being around wonderful but boisterous and screaming children. Children are quite literally the worst remedy for period pains. Not least because they require so much of our presence but because periods are physically wretched. It’s that head-to-toe ache that consumes your mind. I always recall that on that particular day I was in so much pain I just lay on the floor in the foetal position while the children looked at me bemused. (Disclaimer: I know for many, period pains don’t cause too much trouble but also for many, they can dominate lives).
Beyond our monthly curse, menstruation is an ongoing feature of our lives affecting our hormones, moods, emotional states and behaviours. Maisie Hill (2019), author of “Period Power” describes the menstrual cycle as transitioning through four seasons (yes, like the weather) and by viewing ourselves through this lens we can track our unique period blueprint and plan for all eventualities. She also describes the hormonal journey and I was honestly blown away by the fluctuating levels and just how significantly they can make our moods skyrocket or nosedive. Early education is a female-dominated environment so with all of us in one environment, we have to address how that impacts on the working atmosphere. Especially true if our periods are synchronised (which is a total myth btw).
Periods and pre-menstrual tension are often an inevitable burden, one which I do not think women get enough credit for. In fact – we often become the butt of a joke (“she is in a bad mood, she must be due on”) or are shamed for (“Eurgh periods, disgusting”). But we have an opportunity in the workplace to develop “period positive” cultures at this tender time. We talk ALOT about men in early years but much less so about the experiences of women and the way our occupational health can be enhanced or reduced.
Our workplace being “period positive” is crucial if we are to thrive during this monthly time. That does not mean to say that we will all be out playing tennis in all white outfits, running through meadows or riding wild stallions, but we can feel like we have the compassion and resources to get by effectively. The most important thing Maisie states in her book is that the starting point for healthy menstruation is to stop using it as an “excuse” for very valid emotional experiences. If someone asks, “are you okay?” – we often say things like “yeah, I am just due on”. Whilst this may be true, it also shuts down a chance for us to talk something through. In short, PMT often inflates what we are feeling but it doesn’t mean that we don’t still feel it when we don’t have PMT. I always call PMT my “spidey sense” – it is the time of the month where my deeper emotional grievances rear their heads giving me chance to plan to address them when my mood stabilises.
So how can we be “period positive”? – talking openly and non-ashamedly about a very natural process and sharing those hard moments when we need to. As leaders in the early years, do you have a “Period Positive Policy”, and while this may seem excessive, I think one thing we have to acknowledge is that periods come with additional burdens, for example, period poverty. If we think about the wages of early years educators, it is quite likely that many of our staff members are working hard to make ends meet and items such as sanitary towels aren’t cheap. I have heard some scathing remarks about the existence of period poverty and a fact for any non-believer – periods are heavy – some people go through several towels a day. So, trust me, the cost adds up. Oh, and if it disintegrates, chafes, falls out, or smells, you are going to be needing to change it for hygiene. Similarly, toxic shock syndrome is real – we can’t be leaving it in for seven days to save the pennies (period poverty rant over).
A policy is also important to demonstrate to employers that female care is important. I recently spoke with a lady who said she gets a really bad back during menstruation and picking up children becomes especially difficult. Do we make reasonable adjustments for women who have endometriosis or polycystic ovaries? Would an employee even think to share this as a medical condition? Is there support for the menopause? I advise that settings do offer “period breaks” because the blood loss during a period leads to lower energy levels and increased fatigue. A sweet tea goes a long way during those moments and encouraging staff to stretch it out before going into their classrooms is a slight but powerful habit for getting rid of anxious tension.
As well as a policy, there is also an opportunity to have some basic period positive provisions, for example, having a hot water bottle in the staff room, stocking some pain-relief and herbal tea bags. Could staff bathrooms include a few sanitary products, and self-are products? Periods can be heavy so if a staff member gets the unexpected visitor, its good to know they can access these things.
I am going to end on two period anecdotes – a serious and funny one. Growing up, I lived in poverty and having a period was quite literally my worst nightmare. In a house of three women, we did not have a regular supply of sanitary products and I have made towels out of lots of different items, because when you live in poverty, you have to get creative. My mum eventually got a free supply of Tenna ladies for an incontinence issue and throughout my teenage years, that’s what I had to use. Let’s just say, they don’t deal with blood as well as urine. Periods whether we like it or not come with shame, and had I experienced a “period positive” culture, my view of menstruation may be very different. While it is not our job to fix everything for our staff, we know that for our workforce, there are vulnerabilities and if we can make it a little easier why wouldn’t we? Now at 34, I have these periods down – I have a reliable app tracker, a reliable supply (slowly switching to eco-friendly pads) and I refuse to be ashamed of having a period. Although recently I wore a skirt to my in-laws and when I arrived, I was definitely wearing a sanitary towel – and then suddenly I was not and to this day, I do not know how that sanitary towel escaped, where it went and who found it. But that’s life I suppose.
How we experience our cycles dictates how we experience our daily lives and I don’t know about you, but I am no longer living in the shadow of my ovaries!
I am Kerry and I have worked in early years for over 12 years. I started out as a lunch assistant at my mum’s nursery because it was my summer break from university where I was working towards a career in journalism, ha. That soon changed! As soon as I finished my degree, I went straight back to do an early years teaching qualification and I have worked in numerous EY roles since. My specialism is special educational needs, well-being and behaviour and I was an EY advisor for a Local Authority for seven years.
I am currently working as an independent EY specialist & trainer, both in the UK and internationally. I am also working towards my MSc in applied Psychology so that I can go onto complete a PhD in Educational Psychology. I am an associate of Early Education, NASEN and Kinderly and work as a lecturer for a London university.
my MSc in Psychology. I am also a university lecturer, Early Education, NASEN & Kinderly associate and Mental Health First Aid Instructor (in training).