Knowing our Hormones

Two young children wearing raincoats play on a colourful playground slide. Woman, front right, taking the selfie, smiling, wears a black fedora. Behind her a man with long hair and beard has hands on waist while looking over the children. It is a rainy day.
the weather turned to winter, so i bought a hat to embrace it (plus the girls are so sweet in their rain coats)

As a teenager I used to have tremendous moods. Fuelled by who knew what biological currents and changes, I would always rationalise them. There could have been nothing worse, nothing more insulting to me then, than while deep in misery about the futility of human effort, to be told that I was “just hormonal”. I would succumb to dwelling on the idea that death would come to us all, and would rancour at any trite appeasements. One day, in such a mood, I distinctly remember a friend pointing out that that I was grumpy. I didn’t really care for that description either.

This contrasts somewhat with the middle aged self that I find myself today. The hormones of fertility continue to swosh away in a woman’s body, and never more so, I suspect, then after having a child. Throughout my thirties I’ve dealt with infertility and hormone treatments, or even been in the extraordinary situation that I find myself in today… For all of this, with lots going on on a psychological and emotional level, things that could even be considered matters of life and death, I would now often describe myself as feeling a bit grumpy. Maybe I’ve gone too far the other way.

The experience of having children made me realise just how out of touch with my physical body I am. I only have to look at breastfeeding as an example. Attending pre-natal courses, it was a genuine revelation to suddenly think about the functionality of these boobs that had been a part of my body for decades already. What did I think they were for til now – honestly, had I really been seeing them, part of my own body, for their sexual attractiveness?! Had objectification of myself taken that deep a hold on my own psyche? Well, it would appear so.

It was in the immediate post partum stage that it hit me for the first time in my life, beyond any possible doubt, just how powerful hormones can be. Of course it was difficult to separate out all of the factors of what was happening. I didn’t sleep for three days while we coaxed the girls to be born, after which I never resumed any previous sleeping pattern. I had the unbelievably profound experience of expecting to meet two little babies who would become my daughters only to discover that I would meet two actual people, fully already my daughters and in immediate need of functioning parents.

I loved them beyond belief. Looking at them, peaceful and content, filled my heart to bursting to the point that I could cry for the fleetingness of the moment. Seeing them crying or distressed would stress me to the core til whatever it was could be resolved. I had no small doubt that hormones were playing a substantial role in making me feel those ways – that was, after all, exactly how you would want me to feel in the interest of keeping those children alive. So what if it was hormones that were helping me to feel this way? If it was, I realised, it didn’t matter, it didn’t make my feelings any less real. Those hormones that were making me feel happy were not separate to me any more than what my eyes can see or my brain can process. It was all a part of the whole that makes up me.

Remembering growing up, as a teenager in Ireland in the 90’s, it seems that we were taught very little indeed about our hormones. Testosterone was the main one that we knew about. That was the boy hormone, the one that made boys do stupid things, in essence, like fight or be a bit sexually aggressive. An excuse for the boys, “the poor things sure they can’t help themselves”, and a warning to the girls, “watch what you do, ‘cos they can’t be trusted to control themselves”. And yes, I am still talking about the 90s.

The nuns didn’t tell us girls much about ourselves having any sexual appetite at all. Nor, for that matter, did the American tv shows that we absorbed so religiously. Even while we thought we were seeing depictions of young women taking control of their own sex lives, it was still one of two things. Either you gave away your sex to the boys freely, in which case you were a slut, or you gave away your sex to boys after they had dutifully passed a number of tests and proven their worthiness as a boyfriend.

The latter was concerning to a cynic like me, when those tests could so easily be manipulated by a fellow who had a notion to. And sure wasn’t that what we saw in these shows time and time again, girls who were tricked into thinking they had a well meaning fella, when in fact he was “only after one thing”. Missing were the girls who had their own sexual appetites and desires to tend to, who’s actions were driven by their own wants, rather than a complex decision making process to determine a boy’s worthiness to be granted access. Nope, even when a girl was shown to be taking ownership of her sex life, it was as the custodian of a coveted thing, the object of her sex, rather than out of managing her own desires.

Teenage hormones were certainly spoken about, but it was largely as a thing to be blamed or to be feared. An enemy of some kind to ourselves. These hormones would take over our beings and make us crazy. They would make us irrational, make us say things we didn’t mean, do things we didn’t really want to. We didn’t understand what they were, or how to manage them. But just knew that they were a looming threat to ourselves.

It’s no wonder, I don’t think, independent and defensive as I’ve always been, that I quickly wanted to distance myself from any notion of hormonal influence. Throughout my adolescence I was keen to assert myself as a rational and intelligent person, not someone who was privy to the whims and irrationalities of hormonal fluctuations. Some women have been much better at being in touch with their hormonal cycles, much more aware of how their moods are impacted over the course of a month. It’s always baffled me, and to some extent annoyed me.

Annoyed me, as it still would today, when a woman would blithely refer to some mistake she made and try to brush it away, she was just “PMSing”. How dare she bring discredit to all other women in that way. Her PMS hormones may have impacted her in some ways, but they mustn’t be an excuse, just as testosterone is no excuse for a man to commit sexual assault.

Use hormones as a way to wash away past blunders, and you discredit anyone else who might be imagined to be impacted by those hormones too. When I was pregnant, I was glad that most of my professional interactions were held over video. Close colleagues were not aware that I was expecting until close to the time that I went out on leave. I was glad because I wouldn’t be dismissed based on the fact that I was going to be taking leave soon, and glad that there could be no notion that I was somehow underperforming, somehow rendered unreliable, because of some bullshit notion of “baby brain”.

The startling realisation that I had with having my daughters, is that there is no state of being sober, as I had somehow always imagined, in relation to hormones. Hormones are constantly coarsing through our bodies, guiding us, together with our knowledge and experience, on when to eat, when to be scared, when to be affectionate. The balance of those hormones fluctuates, and will make us feel differently. But there is no sober, neutral state.

I have been trying to get to know my physical self a bit better. I’ve become a fan of Maisie Hill. I’ve started reading Period Power, and love the concept of empowerment through self knowledge. Friends of mine have been terrified to stop breastfeeding, afraid of the hormonal crash that can arrive once you do. It’s good that they know about it, that is at least something, since no medical professional ever mentioned it to me, but not good to be so scared about the impact that your own body will have on you. Knowledge is power, and the more we understand our own bodies the more we can work with them.

So I’ve been tracking my moods, building up some data, to be able to gain some insights into how changing hormones impact me. Until around July, when I realised, through busyness with work and life I suppose, that I had completely lost track. Ashamed and egged on to do better, I bought myself a little calendar, that now sits to the right of my computer, to be filled in daily with my moods so that I build a better knowledge and understanding of my cycle. I have yet to start filling in the days.

Before becoming pregnant with my girls we had six years of infertility. Starting out trying naturally, and being crushingly disappointed every time a cycle came full circle, no baby conceived, once again. To moving on to having fertility treatments, and all the effort of weeks and months of regimented drug intake – put into my body in every way imaginable – and the devastation at a failed round of IVF.

With this history behind us, you cannot begin to imagine the surprise we felt, when the girls were 17 months old, to discover that we had spontaneously conceived for the first time in our lives. We got excited, if a little bit scared. How wonderful it would be to have three children. Imagine them telling us about their lives when visiting us on a Sunday in 25 years time. How great for each of the girls to have another person to bounce off and share their childhoods with. The family band would really come together!

We would have two two year olds, and a little baby. It would be hard, and not something we were planning for. But it would be lovely to get to have a little baby once again. And (assuming it was just one) I would get to do some of the things I couldn’t before – I could wear the baby about in a sling, move from one room to the next with it on me, without it being a big operational undertaking. Maybe I would breastfeed more successfully. We have, after all, already done the hard work of establishing a family routine.

Other emotions quickly set in too. Namely worry and guilt. We are in the particular position to know that our embryos generally don’t make it longer than three days, so how was this little foetus even surviving. The reality struck that it likely wasn’t going to survive. Or what if it did and it was sick? Better for it to end sooner than later, better not to draw out any pain.

There was also the tiredness. When I was eventually pregnant with the girls nothing about that pregnancy was a problem. I greeted every pain and inconvenience with utter glee, I was so thrilled to finally be starting my family. With this surprise pregnancy I was feeling exhausted and it bothered me. Was this starting how it would go on? Would this child always be an inconvenience?

I booked an early scan – there was one egg sac (just one!) and it was in the right place. I booked another early scan, and unsurprisingly, the foetus was not developing well, and it’s heart beat did not look good. A third scan confirmed that the foetus had stopped growing, and there was no longer a heart beat. They call this a missed miscarriage, but in this case it feels like a misnomer – it wasn’t missed by me, as due to the circumstances (and realising that you can pay for extra scans when you have the finance), I had been checking in. I had seen it as it had played out.

Finding out that the baby you’re pregnant with is no longer alive is not nice whatever the circumstances. I’ve had some moments to cry and to grieve for the loss of what might have been. But I know that my circumstances are a million miles from the worst. We are so, so happy with the children that we have, and were not asking for any more right now, exciting as it might have been. Because we now know about our fertility situation, the fact that this baby didn’t grow is not a surprise, and there is no part of me that feels guilty about it’s not surviving. That is a unique situation. When we were longing to start our family, failed rounds of IVF were far more devastating than this situation has been.

I know that I am dealing alright with the facts of this situation. It’s a disappointment, but I know how to get past it. I’m able to plan. To picture my life in 6 months time – I won’t be taking leave from work, our family will consist of two parents and two wonderful, growing two year old daughters. What might we do?

What I’m finding much more challenging is the physical side of things. As much as miscarriage is a taboo in our society, which we are slowly but surely breaking down, I have rarely heard tell of the physical impact that miscarriage can have on a woman. This is probably, as in parenting itself, because we are so little aware of our bodies, and so little able to differentiate the physical impacts from the psychological.

I’ve started to learn that there are certain days in my cycle that I need to be aware of. Like day 11, 18 and 27 (I think, I’m really still only learning). These are days where it seems to be that either everyone that I come into contact with is utterly idiotic, or I have a particular balance of hormones that increases my stress levels. It’s good to be aware of this. Even if I’ve lost track of the days, by the time the second stupidest person on earth somehow happens to cross my path that morning, I might take a little pause and check – is it possible this is one of those days? Ok, so maybe I’m bringing something to the table here and I can look to master myself a bit better.

The last 6 weeks have felt like a non stop series of these days for me right now. My stress levels have been through the roof, I’ve been tired, had pain, been nauseous, unable to eat and drink as normal. Doing things feels like an effort, when normally I’d be glad to. There are certain days that I notice a “poor me” mentality in myself, a self pitying that’s accompanied by a tingling at the top of my eye balls, and I hate it. I love to detect it, so I can reign it right back in. That is not who I want to be.

The thing is, I know that I’m at peace with the facts of the situation. So I believe that the stress that I’m feeling is really coming from my physical state. I wish I’d started paying attention sooner, and wish I was stronger at working with myself. While the loss of a baby that could have been impacts both me and my husband equally, the physical phase of seeing this thing through to the end is for only me to deal with.

I feel that I am very lucky, in this situation, to be able to have some clarity over my feelings. If this had happened years ago, when I was longing for a baby and knew nothing about our fertility situation, it would have been a whole hell of a lot more complex and hard to come to terms with. When we don’t know anything about what’s happening with our physical selves, have no understanding of what emotions our physical bodies and hormones might be fuelling, it is impossible to isolate and deal well with those things.

When it comes to the practice of parenting, for those of us lucky enough to experience it, it is the same. Then we are also fuelled with emotions, though many of them wonderful and joyous, and we don’t know what’s our bodies and what’s not. So many assumptions may be made about the role of women in these situations. Women, or people with uteruses to be more precise, may have a different physical role to play when they are the ones who gestate the baby. But how much of that is what makes women so often become the primary carer? I would imagine that in truth it is very little.

Men and women alike can be rushed by oxytocin, the bonding hormone, when spending time with newborn little ones. Our lives today are not completely natural, they are massively full of culture. The homes we live in, the food we eat and prepare, the baby equipment that we choose to buy and bring into our homes, and the expectations that we have of ourselves and each other. All of this is cultural, and has nothing to do with the biology of being male or female. The trouble is that we know so little of how our own bodies work, that it all becomes so blurred and hard to understand.

Being a Female

When I was seven, eight years old, I spent my Saturday afternoons in the pub with my dad and his friends. My dad was well known, with a business that supported lots of others, and quite a distinctive personality and appearance. While these pubs were strictly child free, we were the exception. I was the single, only child allowed to be there.

I suppose it was an arrangement that worked for everyone. I can’t imagine the men would have wanted to deal with a high energy, talkative sort of child. That might have been a bit much of a disruption to their relaxing Saturday’s off. But I wasn’t that kind of child. I was most myself and happy when watchful and quiet. So it probably suited all of us just fine. I’ve always thought really fondly on those many afternoons, spent in the company of middle aged men.

As I remember them, we would sit around a table in the bar for hours and hours on end. The men would have pint after pint of Guinness, and I would be given coke after coke after sickly sweet coke, amused that they imagined that I needed to match them drink for drink. I suppose it goes to show that no amount of sugar was going to turn me in to a hyper kind of child.

The atmosphere was always quick and full of fun. The point of any conversation was to entertain. And I wasn’t left out from all of that. Maybe I presented an additional challenge of trying to keep the language clean, who knows. I recall scenes from children’s tv being enacted on my behalf, which must have been hilarious for everyone. I soon realised that their expectations of me, as a young girl, were so low that a little witticism well timed would gain a hearty and outsized reaction.

Hanging out in Dublin’s pubs is a joy that’s never left me. When I became an adult myself, or close enough, I could start to go with my own girl friends, and there the craic and the banter was still to be had. And now that I am approaching middle age myself, I again often find myself enjoying hanging out in the pub with a bunch of middle aged men. Long after the other women have had the better sense to head home, I’m often still hanging on, enjoying the pointless stories and jokes.

Throughout my life, I haven’t been completely oblivious to the expectations of what a girl or a woman is supposed to be like. I went along with my friends and took ballet and played with stickers, I enjoyed those things. At other times, the expectations haven’t felt like they related to me. It hasn’t concerned me. I generally just haven’t gotten involved, and found that that’s mostly been ok.

I suppose I grew up, influenced of course by my parents and older siblings, to believe that rules were there to be questioned. Never ones to instantly jump at what society suggested, but to hold the notion critically for a while, and consider what the choices really were. What will happen if I follow this rule, and what will happen if I don’t. I felt little pressure from them to conform majorly to any female stereotypes either. So this is the attitude that I’ve had about doing certain “girl” things. If I wasn’t interested, and it looked like nothing bad would happen if I didn’t get involved, I simply wouldn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, my choices have not always been sensible or at all protective of my well being. There was the time, for example, when my working in one of the seediest nightclubs around overlapped with the decision to go without a bra. I went weeks, becoming more and more uncomfortable, aware of people’s looks and reactions, while a sort of dumb defiance built up in me, before I eventually gave in.

Years later, in my late twenties I was happily working in a busy and fulfilling job. I would hit the road and meet with hotel managers and owners to consult and negotiate. Here I was, wouldn’t you know it, in the company of middle aged men once again. I soon realised that their expectations of me, as a young woman, were so low that a bit of well timed level talking and good business sense would gain an outsized response. I did well.

And now it’s time for me to make a sad admission. Instead of being annoyed that they would be so ready to dismiss young women, I think I prided myself on being a bit different. Not from other specific young women, because I knew lots of really great ones. But, from the generality of young women, as I too perceived them to be. I have fallen foul of that greatest of errors. I’ve been pleased with the responses I’ve gotten, I’ve been bolstered by the sense, that I’m not like other women.

So I guess this means, feminist that I’ve always considered myself to be, that I might be a bit sexist. The thing is, women are treated as a minority. And as such, any woman is somehow meant to represent all other women. Which puts us all in an impossible situation. How can I establish myself, in a way that will be best for my success, and support another woman while needing to be clear that she does not represent who I am?

I’ve always believed that women can do anything that men can do. I just may have failed sometimes, to be sensitive and respectful of the expectations that many women carry with them and all that they have to do in order to get to where they are, as they are. So you’re damn sure I’m celebrating all the good ones from now on (even those, yes, even those that are younger and more successful and better looking than me).

I lived my life up to my mid thirties certainly aware of the pressures of what it means to be a girl and a woman. There are times that I look back on with disbelief at what I thought was normal, like the conflict of wanting to be one of the boys while also wanting to be a sexual object to the boys, in my teens. But a lot of the time, and certainly as an adult, I’ve been able to step back and disassociate myself from them when I’ve wanted. Nothing bad has happened.

And then I became a mum. As a new parent, you look for advice on how to keep your little one healthy and happy. And you are greeted by a torrent of pressure, as a woman, to do so many things, and overall to behave in certain ways. Not all women are the same, so surely there are infinite individual ways for this parenting thing to be done. To read the advice out there, you wouldn’t think so. It’s a tough one to shrug off.

Now I find myself in lots of female only groups and communities. And I’m not different to these women after all. None of us are magic, we don’t have any mysterious parenting knowledge that shows us how to do things. We’re just here, somehow because of our gender, somehow the ones that are taking things on, and trying to figure it out.

Caring

The gender inequality in parenting is blatantly obvious. To be honest, how shocked I’ve been to discover it, only on becoming a parent myself, has caused me to have a good hard look at myself. How have I been so blind? Where has my head been at!

It’s also taken me down another avenue of questioning. Why aren’t more women speaking out and fighting about this? Why are more men and women not pushing for equality? It’s 2021. The push for gender equality is active and visible in every other arena. So why are we letting the inequality pervading parenting continue as it is?

The answer is definitely very complex. One aspect may be that while being really hard, parenting is also really great. Seeing a new little human coming into the world, arriving with their entire personhood, whole and intact, and housed in this little infant body, is incredible. Seeing them grow and learn and feel out the world around them is amazing. It teaches us in a whole new way about what it is to be human. And it brings to life the importance, for each of us, to look after each other.

Parenting is really hard. Parenting in isolation can be horrendously hard. But when the conditions are right, for some people, it can be a wonderful motivator. What more of a reminder that life is short can you ask for, then seeing your little ones change and grow before your very eyes. What more reason to become the person you want to be, then to do it for them, to be their role model. Then there’s the value of your time, which becomes so much more meaningful when you have so little of it to yourself. So, what are you going to do with it?

I’ve started to notice examples everywhere of amazing women, who shortly after having their child or children, do something epic. Like single handedly set up a new business, build it from the ground, and make it a success. Like dedicating their time to campaign for justice for a cause, and making a difference. Or solving a problem, creating a community or providing a service, to help others around them. The common theme? They’re generally fuelled by goodness, by the want to help people, to protect our earth’s resources, to make things better. That’s the power of what parenting can do. The work of caring for another teaches and constantly reminds you of the importance to care.

That is not to say that you have to be a parent to know how to care. There are lots and lots of people who are not parents and who do care. Amazing individuals who are motivated and driven to do incredible work in the world, and to make their slice of it better. Not at all, but it is the division that is harmful.

Parenting is largely seen as being part of the world of women. That world, despite being populated by half of all people, is pushed to the margins of society. While so many people are parents, incredibly, parenting is pushed to the margins right along with it.

We are now seeing more and more women taking positions of influence – in politics, in business, in the arts – hurray! Often with their ascension comes the expectation that they will do some good for women. With parenting generally considered a part of that world of women, they are often expected to do some good for parents and children. When a female politician moves up the ranks, we expect her to represent the concerns of parenting, childcare, maybe even education. To be fair that is often the thing that has motivated her to get to her position.

Historically these positions have all been held by men, many of whom are also parents. These men, though, have not been expected to bring the concerns of parenting to work with them. They’ve probably felt it unwelcome. The world of work and politics has been supposed to be separate from all that. Leave the wife at home to deal with the children, while we get together here to figure out the serious business of making money. Quite a separate thing altogether.

That’s the division that we are living with. Women are supposed to be primarily concerned with the home and the family, while men are supposed to be primarily concerned with providing for them. The more that dad is pushed to provide for the family, the less he may even know them. The less he may be connected to actually caring for them. The less he is thinking about caring as a fundamental necessity to the way we do business and run our countries.

Wouldn’t it be great to see all that goodness that I’m noticing around become part of the mainstream? Wouldn’t it be great to see women and men who care being the ones that drive us forwards.

But this all sounds like ancient history. Come on Liz, get real, it’s 2021, surely we’ve moved on from all that. Yes, it is 2021, and I live here in London, one of the biggest cities in the western world, in one of the most influential countries in the world. Can you even imagine a country like this being built on those sorts of foundations? Can you imagine what a leader of a country like this could look like, in a world where men are taught not to care in order to succeed – not to care about the people they lead, not even to care about whatever children they might happen to have fathered? What would that even look like?