In Connie Willis’s short story “Even the Queen,” a mother takes action when her daughter joins a cult called the “Cyclists.” In this story, women who choose to “embrace nature” are presented as an idealistic, rather hippie-like club of women who refuse chemical alteration of their hormonal cycles. The story is barely science fiction. Several years ago, when I tried to find a book that would give me words to explain a woman’s hormonal cycle to my preteen daughters, I found little that satisfied me: from an abundance of fertility guides or new-age, pagan resources, to material for teenagers of varying quality with a grim acknowledgement about how horrible and inconvenient periods can be, and instructions for minimizing their impact so teens are able to live their lives as “normal” as possible. The most positive resources were simply basic explanations of the relationship of a woman’s cycle and pregnancy. These facts were essential, but not sufficient. I saw nothing of the breadth of a hormonal cycle and its effects on women’s bodies and minds, let alone give any hint of the joy and wonder at God’s creation of complexity.
Where is the perspective of a Christian woman, delighting in a fearfully and wonderfully made system? I realize that some obstacles make such a resource hard to write. A woman’s body is, in a way, secret knowledge, and women don’t really talk about it freely. We often hear from two varieties, the “fairy-touched strange,” or the crass, without boundaries of dignity. Many women are too busy or burdened to pay attention to their cycles; they have more important things to worry about. Further, there is a seldom spoken but often understood idea among Christians that anything about our cycles is a result of the fall of Adam and Eve. I wonder whether it is possible to overcome these barriers and instead communicate a different perspective, relieving the burden of unrealistic expectations and helping us to stop lamenting our bodies. Perhaps our generation can actually pass on some of the delight of womanhood to a younger generation that is woefully confused about it.
I gained perspective about my cycles orally, from my mother. When I was a teenager, I was intensely private. My mother doled out female knowledge gradually, knowing that bits of information fit my personality best. I was mortified when she gave me a brown bag “for later,” with feminine products inside. She left books on my dresser for me to find and read (or not read). She gave good information, but never too much. One afternoon, I made some grumpy remark about my period. I remember she looked up in surprise and said “Oh, did you know that your creativity and your cycle are connected?” Her comment floored me. I loved to write, but was rather embarrassed by my sporadic journaling. I compared my journal dates with my cycle, and was shocked to discover that my mother was right. I’d go several weeks with blank pages, then suddenly a gush of words that gradually tapered off again.
Her observation caused me to pay attention– maybe there is more to my cycle than just “a week when I’m grumpy.” I was surprisingly, annoyingly, consistent. I was frustrated at my seeming inability to develop habits that were exactly the same every day of the month. I didn’t realize that my entire month had distinct strengths and weaknesses, and it made sense to plan for those strengths instead of fighting against them. If there was one day when I wrote more, why not plan for that, instead of feeling frustrated because that was the day I volunteered for some social event? Maybe it was quite normal that there was a week I was more transparent with others. When I started looking at my life differently, I gradually realized there was more to my cycle than I had known.
Actually, a great deal of my life runs rhythmically– organization (when did I last write goals in my planner? A month ago!), socializing (When did I last post on social media?), my ability to smell and taste, risk taking and risk aversion. Am I inconsistent in my Bible reading, or did God design my brain to shift how I read the Bible? Is there predictability in when I stop reading my Bible reading plan and start reading Psalms? Should I feel guilty for that? Is it “bad” to take a week off reading systematically and just meditate on all my favorite passages? Why would we think that this approach is “bad” or “irresponsible”?
After I started paying attention, and realized I was affected more by hormones than I thought, I started looking for God’s purpose. I already believe that the creator God made his creation good and purposeful, so I had to accept that God intended me to be rhythmic in life. Somehow, my variability was a feature of creation, not a bug. I started asking Why did God make women so changeable? Is my hormonal cycle an unavoidable way to manage childbearing matters? Maybe I’m starting with the wrong assumption, and the variability I experience is part of “the curse” on Eve and her daughters? In that case, I can lament away, and just endure the rotten part of being a woman.
I still have not settled why my variability is an asset, but I believe firmly that it is. The trouble is, while the meaning of God’s response to Eve’s sin is debated by scholars, I cannot see how a hormonal cycle itself is a curse in Scripture. We can overstate what God’s word says: does the death introduced by sin actually mean the death of any cell? Does the text implicate the entire the hormonal system of humans and other animals? It seems much more likely to me that the variability and chemical changes throughout the month are part of God’s original plan. Perhaps the discomfort associated with some days in our cycle is related to the fall, but that discomfort should cause us to learn more about our bodies, not treat the whole system as flawed.
I found Alisa Vitti’s approach to be helpful in brainstorming ways that our cycle affects different areas of our lives. In her book, she compares a woman’s cycle to the growing cycle of plants, a metaphor that makes sense to me and was helpful for my daughters. We would not expect the harvest season to be all year long, and we aren’t surprised that the ground and plants need a resting time as they prepare for new growth. I may not agree with the extent of her ideas (her point of view is secular, while mine is explicitly Christian), but her approach is rare in that she sees our differences as an asset, and thus gives valuable insight as we fulfill our responsibilities and shape our lives.
I learned that, while I cannot neglect daily responsibilities, I do have a great deal of control in how I complete those necessary tasks. It’s not lazy to acknowledge that some days require more sleep and patience with myself. Women are not always kind to themselves. In attempting to erase the differences between men and women, our culture has made a definition of what is normal for women at odds with the reality that women experience. Resources women turn to for help increasing their productivity ignore the curious changeability in our lives. Books written by men tend to treat all inconsistency as a character flaw. Even the productivity books written by women seemed to ignore the differing strengths in a woman’s life from day to day. I see younger women trying to pattern their lives after a man’s normal rhythm, and feel defeated and befuddled why their lives are so overwhelming. Many try to live without the rest and recharge system that God built into our lives; however, if we don’t rest, our bodies will eventually force us to rest.
What can we do? Of all people, Christian women should seek to understand the rhythms of their bodies and, if not by sight, then by faith look for God’s design. We don’t have to understand our bodies to trust God’s goodness in creating them. We women undermine David’s words about being fearfully and wonderfully made if we don’t take the time to learn about and rejoice in how we are made. Ignoring a characteristic of who you are and pretending it doesn’t exist may be ignoring an asset. Stewardship will seek to capitalize the strengths of the moment, pouring energy in a direction where it will be used most effectively.
What does this kind of stewardship look like?
Step 1– Be curious. Pay attention to areas of your lives that feel “inconsistent”: Bible reading, housecleaning, writing, and so on. Consider whether the inconsistency is predictable, and if so, whether it is possible to be faithful by stewarding the strength of the week. In this way, we work with our biology, and avoid the inefficiency of fighting against it. “I don’t know why I’m so emotional” “Why can’t I be this focussed all the time?” Replace the condemning questions with curiosity questions. How can God use these emotions for good? Is there some part or task within this responsibility that the me today can do well, that the me yesterday couldn’t? God has a purpose in everything that he has done, and it brings him glory for us to search for it.
Step 2– Look for the breadth of your emotional cognitive range across the span of a month, rather than spending all of your attention and energy to achieve a “masculine standard” of productivity and consistency each day. Women can shift from being deeply empathetic to laser focussed. Accept the differences you find, and avoid making your standard the productivity of a man, or of other women who may not be honest with the struggles they are having to hold everything together.
Step 2.5– Shape my world to maximize or minimize the differences I find. I see a great deal of variability here. Women’s lives and personalities are different, and it makes sense that the expression of our hormonal lives will take a variety of forms and awareness. Also consider that, while not all women care or need to pay attention to these differences, their children may need to hear of them.
Step 3– Enjoy what God has done. Learning to find satisfaction in his work well may take all the rest of your life!
I’ve found this a fun topic to discuss with my friends. Share this article with someone, and then discuss it together! Here are some of the questions we’ve been talking about:
- God’s word makes it clear that God is a good creator who delights in his creation. How can we rejoice with him, particularly when we associate our cycles with pain and negativity?
- Do men need a rest and recharge cycle?
- Should mothers talk about a female cycle with their sons? What are important things for young men to know?
- In what ways is a woman’s hormonal cycle an asset for friends, husbands, or children?
- If the hormonal cycle is so great, why does it turn off in old age?
- How do I know when I’m being lazy, and when I’m listening to my body the way God intended?
- Is there a difference between self care and biblical stewardship?
Shakespeare’s Viola comments “This is not the time of moon for me to tolerate excessive words!”