Between Private Blood and Public Guts

You’re about to get to know me much better.

I’m a public person, but I’m selective and strategic about what private things I make public. The very nature of the surgery I’m having next week has made me deliberate about how public or private to keep it. I’ve wondered if it is something I should share on Facebook or not. And then I’ve wondered if the reason I’d share it is to get attention or to get prayers or to make a point. Or, honestly, to just let people know in case I act weird while heavily medicated as I go about my way in town. Truth be told, it’s all of these. But it’s also more.

The surgery I’m having is not terribly scary or worrisome, but it’s not nothing either. I have a growth on the lining of my uterus that has caused bleeding since early March (yes, every day). While I thought it may be the start of my glorious entry into menopause, it’s probably not. The growth will be removed, the surgeon will do a D&C to clear the uterus, and she’ll do an endometrial biopsy, but no organs will be removed. Because it’s about the reproductive bits of my body, sharing the story has required some deliberation on my part. I’ve had lots of surgeries that require general anesthesia, and shared many of those stories, but there’s something about lady parts that makes me pause (there’s also something stupid about the phrase “lady parts” but I had to fit it in somewhere here). And, indeed, the fact that there’s concern about endometrial lining issues (eek, insert cancer scare here) means I’m just a little nervous.

In my not-too-terribly but-still-kinda nervous state, I’ve decided to share my private story publicly. I offer three reasons below.

First, women’s bodies are in this strange place of being simultaneously assigned to private realms (think “cult of domesticity” as women’s relegation to homes) and public debate (think “cult of elected officials who regulate at the same time they make claims that match neither women’s actual experience nor biological evidence”). The hemming and hawing I’m having about disclosing my story is precisely the same hemming and hawing I had deciding whether to disclose my stories of infertility and miscarriage in years past. You know, stories that bridge that weird line between common and invisible. Women’s stories. Stories that become controversial to me when the public implications of them are not controlled by the storytellers themselves.

Calling public attention to private life, as I’ve said in my writing before, is important in order to uncover what everyday life is like, for good or for bad. We don’t have to shout from a mountaintop what tampon brand we buy, but we ought not be ashamed of placing that box of tampons squarely on the grocery checkout belt next to our chicken pot pies. Or, for our girls in schools, let’s not keep requiring the extra mental energy required to sort out where the heck to hide a pad in a Trapper Keeper between classes (note to self: do students still use Trapper Keepers?). Isn’t it strange that something that half the population goes through is to be kept behind doors, under cabinets, and in folders?

Isn’t it strange that the prepositions associated with women’s reproductive experiences are all “in,” “under,” and “behind?”

We also ought not be taxed on tampons, by the way, but that’s a post for another day.

For women in our forties — those of us going through some bodily changes that make us call our moms and ask things like “did you have this?” and “should this look like that?” — the issue of symptoms that seem like they may be about (peri)menopause is at the forefront of our minds (and in our abdomens) and, increasingly with each generation, in our small group conversations. Maybe some talk to men about it. But, like miscarriage, it’s a topic often reserved for moments behind closed doors. Sometimes the privacy behind this door makes us feel safer and more secure because it’s secret. But might that also render our difficulties even further into the invisible realm? You know, the place where we feel shame even in our collective comfort? The place that gets co-opted by lawmakers who claim they know the secret stories.

So you see? Women’s reproductive issues bounce around the border between public and private. I say sharing some secret stories makes the public stuff align more with what actually happens. So, this mystery that is my body for these six months? Probably not that unique. But it sure feels lonely. I don’t like lonely.

The second reason I’m sharing my story is because women’s bleeding has been placed into the public imaginary and imagery in such a way as to render that fact somehow debilitating. Lessening women’s worth. Lessening women’s capacity to lead or be strong. Lessening women’s capacity to be in certain realms. Or to just be (in the “I am as deserving to be as human as male-type humans” category). This goes way back, of course, and sometimes even women make this kind of claim. I think it has something to do with some sacred texts that get used too frequently for convenient justification of gender inequality. But that, too, is a post for another day.

For the last six months when I’ve bled every day I’ve wondered what people would think if they knew. I think this especially in light of the fact that I’ve traveled extensively, published two books, written a bunch of short pieces, taught classes, hosted parties with dozens of guests, interviewed fifty people for my research, cooked some dinners at home, and managed to stay married and not permanently damage my child. All of this, by the way, while spending mental energy a dozen times a day on strategic bathroom locating and tampon hiding that is required to do work in the midst of others while wondering if I am hemorrhaging into my chair. Clearly I have been debilitated. Clearly I’m incapable of success. Clearly I should be relegated and regulated. Clearly.

Clearly, now in a voice that is not sarcastic, I have done more than enough. The only concrete debilitation I have experienced is that I have removed white pants from my wardrobe options. But honestly, most people should probably remove white pants from their wardrobes anyway. Everyone is putting up with something in their lives, often invisibly. It has become visible to me that I have succeeded in keeping up the appearance that I’m fine for half a year under debilitating circumstances. And do you know how much energy it takes to have this success? I’m gonna throw out that the number exceeds 17 on a scale of 1 to 10. But you would never know. Because that is what makes me strong. But wouldn’t I be even stronger if I didn’t have to spend the mental energy that yields a 17 on a scale of 1 to 10? Just image what I could accomplish without the worry of social stigma about something my body is just doing. Seven extra points for me!

Third, I want my son to understand women’s bodies. I have talked to him lots about this, to the point where I think he knows more about the female reproductive system than I did at his age. This is a good thing. While I could keep my story private within my own family, thus making him aware of the issue at an individual level, why not make it so that the story is carried farther into the ether of “what women teach their sons?”  I’m fairly certain the daughters will be grateful. Eventually.

Many of you may feel sharing this seems weird, wrong, or not-quite-comfortable. Do not take my disclosure as a judgment toward those who keep things private. I promise, I get that. It’s just that I happen to be in a position where my public self can do something about a private concern that, well, affects the public more than the public may care to admit. So, I’m not going to say I’m sorry. But I will say thank you for reading even if it felt weird to read.

By the way, I could have inserted a disclaimer several paragraphs ago saying, “Caution, squeamish souls beware — women’s body stuff and blood discussion ahead.” But then I would fail for precisely what I think is problematic. I would deny the political implications of my story (and my story’s not particularly controversial, I might add). I would be succumbing to the socially imposed secrecy that sucks energy that’d be much better used for something else. And I’d fail to teach.

Oh, and while I have your attention, I would most certainly appreciate the prayers on Monday. If you do pray, could you do me a favor and exclude reference to sacred texts that lessen women’s worth by virtue of their bloody lives?

I’ll collect the prayers in my new Trapper Keeper. And I’ll put my tampons on top of it.

14 thoughts on “Between Private Blood and Public Guts

  1. they do sell trapper keepers, but they are deliberately retro. as in nearly hipster. and so certainly not in w2.
    i don’t have any data but my impression is that most girls move super fast from pads to tampons these days.
    thank you for writing this just the way you wrote it. blessings and prayers.

  2. Nicely said, Michelle. I agree totally with you about how women’s bodies are talked about publically in detail at certain times but then hiddn in a closet at others. Remember being pregnant when suddenly you and your uterus with baby became everyone’s comfortable conversation interest shared easily by everyone?

    I hope all goes well for you. I had the same experience several years ago. Fibroids were diagnosed but they weren’t sure what the surgery would entail. I was told that if I woke up where I started out in the same day surgery unit, they’d just had to do a D And C. But if I woke up in the hospital next door, I would be missing all those ‘lady parts’ you speak of. (still intact)

  3. ***************** (that’s 17 stars. 😉

    Last week I had a conversation with the Garrison principal about the availability (lack of) of menstrual supplies in the school, suggesting that they should be freely available AND easily accessible. Rocket science.

  4. This is beautiful Michelle – and so are you. I can’t imagine the toll of six months of bleeding! Woah. Thank you for sharing your story and for encouraging more public dialogue of these topics. I will be thinking of you on Monday and wishing you well before, during and after surgery.

  5. I will definitely pray for you! I’m so sorry to learn you have been dealing with health issues. I had an endometrial ablation surgery two years ago. It’s been the best decision of my life! The surgery went well, felt perfect the next day, and haven’t needed a tampon since! Oh, and I bought a pair of white pants because I finally could!!! I had no idea how much anxiety was tied to bleeding all the time until it was gone. I hope you have great results and can experience a completely new freedom too!

  6. Lovely, Michelle! I appreciate the lack of disclaimer. You are in my thoughts Monday.
    Oh, and I recently asked some students if they knew what trapper keepers were, and they kind of did after I explained them. So, no, they aren’t a thing. I think Lisa Frank is having a comeback though!

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