What I learned from Instagramming my menstrual cycle

Last month Lucy from Lulastic and the Hippyshake documented her daily menstrual cycle experiences on her Instagram and encouraged others to do the same. I’ve charted my cycle for heading towards a decade now (minus a few years period-free thanks to breastfeeding), mainly for natural family planning. But I began to notice trends in the way I felt and the things I thought about, accompanying the physical changes I was recording month after month.

When my period returned after Talitha, I didn’t give it much thought. I was completely focused on having another baby. All my period signalled to me was that conceiving wasn’t happening as quickly as I’d like. After Ophelia, I began to notice it more, probably because I wasn’t sure we’d have another baby. I began then to deeply long for a sisterhood of women around me and I felt like the two were connected somehow, wanting to explore more of this important part of what it meant to be me and wanting to connect with others who were on a similar journey.

I’d read somewhere about journalling about the experiences of your menstrual cycle and began to write a word or two at the top of my daily planner at the end of the day, to reflect what my dominant mood had been that day. I didn’t take it further than that but even the monosyllabic records began to show up when my memory was at its worst and when I was at my most articulate, when I felt anxious and when I craved company. So I was intrigued to see what would happen if I began to dwell on it that bit longer, in full-on captions on my Instagram.

For me, the public nature of the project was important in helping to shift some of the shame I still carry around menstruation and, by extension, around being a woman. At first, I felt a bit odd about male friends and relatives who follow me knowing that I was on my period. Recently in conversation with my friend Kath who’s written about what she’s uncovering about her menstrual cycle on her blog The Long Walk Home, I realised that Instagramming my last menstrual cycle has convinced me that the negativity we’ve developed around our menstrual cycles is both a form of internalised misogyny and a direct result of not living in a world that values women’s experiences enough to accommodate and make use of the changes we go through month to month.

It was also interesting to look at what how other people described their days tagged #mcaday1, 6, 12, 23, etc. Were the variations because of other things going on in my life or were they down to personality differences? Did I have fewer days of wanting to be surrounded by people because I tend towards introversion? I’m aware that the high energy, high mood phase of my cycle is shorter than it potentially could be and I’ve wondered if that’s because I often don’t give my body and mind the things they need in terms of nourishment, sleep and processing, which could be affecting the length of my menstrual “summer”.

At the same time, I’ve realised that, on the whole, I have a much more pleasurable experience of my menstrual cycle since spending more time outdoors in recent years and committing to opening up more, initiating more friendships and putting more effort into sustaining older friendships. There is an idea that having intimate friendships can actually regularise of menstrual cycles and make them shorter and I wonder if this has been happening for me. Being outside, especially in the woods or by the water, gives me open spaces to absorb any frenetic energy. These are also places to rest when I feel spent. And sunshine is no doubt chemically improving my overall health with fresh air and gentle movement offering some pain relief too. I hadn’t spotted that I’ve been enjoying my menstrual cycle more until writing about it each day on Instagram.

And while I was aware of the things I normally worry about in my premenstrual phase, committing to observing it like this brought me face to face with things I couldn’t ignore. Like what I really believe about myself and the people around me. Like the background noise I’m able to mute some days but not others. Like what I really, actually want as opposed to what I think I should want.

I feel like I want to spend a lot more time exploring my menstrual cycle. Possibly I’m tuned into it because I’m moving on from the all-encompassing baby phase. Or maybe it’s just that I’m in my 30s and I’m now in a place where I want to know myself and I’m no longer afraid of what I’ll find. There’s also a spiritual dimension of this quest for me, knowing that my cycling must reflect something of God’s image and that it quite likely has the potential to help me find where I’m meant to go.