Menstrual leave is making waves in the news, from an April BBC article on the topic to a bill introduced in Spain that would, in part, fund paid leave for women with painful periods. These policies acknowledge that women’s and men’s bodies are different, and this acknowledgement comes in a space that, historically, has not recognized this truth.
Corporate America has been eager to provide benefits like contraception, abortion, and egg-freezing as a way to eliminate fertility and pregnancy, rather than accommodate women. Many companies still offer no paid maternity leave.
However, the conversations about menstrual leave have overlooked the fact that the symptoms that require a woman to use this leave are not "normal" for a period: Debilitating pain, out-of-control mood swings, and unmanageable bleeding are not normal (or at least, they shouldn’t be). Women experiencing these symptoms deserve not to be penalized for missing work – but they also deserve authentic health care.
What Is Normal for a Menstrual Cycle?
Conditions like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis are common and often run in families. Due to this, many women who experience symptoms like irregular cycles, heavy or painful periods, or premenstrual syndrome (PMS) think that this is normal because they know so many women who experience them. Severe menstrual cramps and dramatic mood swings, in particular, have become part of our cultural understanding of what a “normal” period is. We make jokes about them, we (sometimes) make allowances for them – but we never question them.
While a healthy period might be uncomfortable, and while you may need to take it easy or take some Ibuprofen, you should not be in so much pain that you can’t go about your normal daily activities. You might have some minor mood fluctuations, but you should not experience depression or anxiety that significantly interfere with your life.
Beyond Menstrual Leave, Provide Authentic Health Care
The standard “treatment” for these symptoms is to ignore them or prescribe hormonal contraception. While hormonal contraception can help women manage symptoms, it does not address their root cause. As a result, even women who experience relief – and even women who do so without any side effects – may still have a health condition that is not being treated and may even be getting worse.
Hormonal contraception works by flooding the body with synthetic hormones, knocking the natural hormonal cycle out of whack. For a woman whose body is already not cycling the way it’s supposed to, contraception doesn’t restore its natural functions. It doesn’t treat whatever is causing problems with the reproductive system; it shuts the system down.
Restorative reproductive health care protocols, such as NaPro Technology and FEMM medical management, identify the specific hormones that are out of balance in a woman’s body and then use approaches like bio-identical hormone supplementation, lifestyle changes, and diet to restore health. They treat fertility and a healthy cycle as something good to work toward, not something to be manipulated or eliminated.
A recent Scientific American editorial points out that women’s reproductive health conditions are shockingly under-researched and calls for the removal of stigma around menstruation. The author, Dr. Christine N. Metz of the Research OutSmarts Endometriosis clinical study, notes that although endometriosis affects approximately 10% of women, the National Institutes of Health has allocated $176 million to fund its research since 2008, compared with $2 billion for ulcerative colitis, an illness that affects only 1% of Americans of both genders.
Simply discussing periods in the workplace – let alone offering menstrual leave – is a good step in the right direction. It acknowledges that women’s bodies have unique needs. What’s left is for the workplace to acknowledge that women’s bodies are also uniquely good, and for health care professionals to treat them that way.
In 1980, as part of his teaching on the theology of the body, Pope St. John Paul II said, “The body, and it alone, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It was created to transfer into the visible reality of the world the mystery hidden since time immemorial in God, and thus be a sign of it.” It is time for our workplaces and our health care to reflect this reality: That women are made in the likeness of God, that the female body is good, and that fertility is not a condition to be prevented, but rather a gift to be supported.