Ellen Kellogg is a mom, sister, daughter and co-founder of Nyssa. Like her Nyssa colleagues, she’s a strong advocate for women’s health and shining the light on the unspoken and unresolved issues in this space.
When I first heard of the concept of menstrual leave, my mind flashed to a visual of an empty office desk chair flanked by two men. Then, just a few cubicles over, another empty seat with a similar female vacancy. And then another... row after row... month after month. Is this really what we want?
I asked myself, “How is this productive?”— and I don’t mean for the company instituting the menstrual leave policy. I mean for menstruating people. News flash: it’s not a benefit to suffer in pain and discomfort in solitude, at home, wondering if colleagues who have never experienced a cramp a day in their lives are passing judgment. Rather, a benefit would be to support menstrual symptom sufferers in overcoming their pain and discomfort— expanding awareness and access to treatments. Of course, that would require next-level empathy and validation that the symptoms of menstruation are more than just an occasional personal setback, like the flu.
Unlike the flu— menstrual symptoms are not consistent across sufferers nor are they widely familiar. For starters, only about half of the population has the physiological capacity to experience them and their month-after-month persistence ever in their lifetime. Then, among that population, there is a small percentage that never experiences symptoms, roughly half that experiences mild or occasional symptoms, and another 40% to 50% with a chronic menstrual disorder who experience symptoms ranging from severe abdominal cramps, back pain, mood swings and vaginal throbbing to migraines, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Thus, by nature of their variability, menstrual symptoms are difficult to fully comprehend. That shouldn’t excuse us from trying (not at all) but it will take time, exposure, conversation, and education— none of which are aided by the sudden enactment of a policy that, in effect, tells people to take their menstrual pain home.
In the absence of widespread understanding and empathy, I fear menstrual leave will result in even more unfair and harmful judgment towards women in today’s workplace. In the eyes of the uninformed or merely self-informed, the person who does not take menstrual leave will be compared to the person who does take menstrual leave. Despite the reality that they could experience their periods entirely differently— from no pain or symptoms to doubled-over and unable to lift themselves off the bathroom floor— the non-sufferer will likely be seen as stronger, more committed to their job, and more considerate of their peers. Perhaps they may even be rewarded with pay or promotion gain for their perceived superior “fit”-ness for the workplace. In contrast, the sufferer will— well— further suffer... not only from their physical discomfort but also from eye-rolls, criticism, self-consciousness and self-doubt. I think we can all agree that the last thing women need is another bogus measuring stick deciding our reputation and fate in the workplace.
In shaping my opinion of menstrual leave, I spoke to several women in a range of professions— some who do shift work and only get paid when they show up, some salaried in traditional corporate jobs, and some who work for themselves in the modern solopreneur economy. They’re committed to their jobs for a variety of reasons— because they love it, because it pays the bills, because it gives them a sense of purpose, or because it’s how they contribute [to family, community, the world]. Although all motivated differently, the reaction to the idea of menstrual leave among these women was more-or-less the same: "I don’t need permission to stay home when I’m suffering period symptoms." In other words, they found the idea disempowering. I’d even go so far as to say that they found it belittling— as if their motivation to work/not work lacked depth or co-mingling with their overall sense of wellbeing, the prosperity of their family, or the health and success of the business, organization, or outcome for which they work. Basically the reaction was, “Menstrual leave? Thanks, but no thanks.”
To these women, I think it’s fair to say that the idea of menstrual leave offended them. I concur— for the reasons stated above and because when I read most pro-menstrual leave opinions they almost always cite the loss of productivity exhibited by the person experiencing menstrual symptoms. Really? We’re going to go there? How about when Bob over-imbibes on Thursday night and shows-up sluggish on Friday? Or when Jim checks his swipe-left and swipe-right options on his dating app all... day... long? Let’s face it, we all have good days and bad, and we all have ebbs and flows in our productivity. I’m pretty sure period symptoms— for most of us— do not put us that far outside the general productivity spectrum. And if and when they do, we don’t need permission to stay home. We need support and access to solutions.
What if instead of menstrual leave, our employers put effort and resources towards helping women and menstruating people access therapies to address their period symptoms? Wouldn’t that be more productive— for everyone? It could be as simple as stocking pain relieving heat presses in bathrooms and break-rooms. Or bigger things like advocating for better insurance coverage of interventions to treat dysmenorrhea (painful periods), menorrhagia (heavy periods), polymenorrhea (frequent periods), PMS (premenstrual syndrome), PMDD (premenstrual dysphoric disorder), endometriosis, and other gynecologic conditions associated with debilitating symptoms. The first step down this path would need to be education— witnessing and learning about menstrual symptoms and their cause. This won’t happen if menstruating people are encouraged to suffer their symptoms at home. Throughout history, when women’s discomfort has been hushed and held behind closed doors, it’s not been addressed. Look at latent progress in addressing the physical and emotional trauma associated with pregnancy and postpartum until this decade, when bold and brave women like Chrissy Teigan, Amy Schumer, and Serena Williams used their celebrity stature to put it out there. More, quicker progress will come if we live out loud.
artwork by louise bourgeois