“Are you PMSing?” This question used to stop me in my tracks. No matter who was asking—a close friend, my sympathetic mother, or worst of all, a man—the feeling in my body was the same. My jaw would tighten, and my stomach would swirl in a sickly combination of bewilderment and rage. If it was a boyfriend who was asking, particularly in an unhappy moment in our relationship, the bewilder-rage would ramp up all the way to 10. I’d feel defensive, embarrassed, confused.
The question effectively killed any conversation. I’d stop talking, and try to cool my jets by taking some deep breaths. I’d pull up a little mental calendar, marked in red by the small nuisances of menstruation. What day was that? At the pool when I was rummaging through my gym bag for a tampon? I’d count the weeks. Sometimes, sure enough, I was about to get my period. Hmmm, I’d think to myself, maybe I’m just hormonal. Maybe this really isn’t a big deal after all. Maybe I should just wait a few days and see how I feel once I get my period.
Related: Pregnancy Hormones and Exercise
I did this mental exercise a thousand times. From the earliest days of puberty through most of my adulthood, I told myself my feelings weren’t valid if they happened to arise at certain times of the month. And the bewilder-rage I felt when I was asked about it? I chalked that up to “crazy” hormones too.
Most of the time, it was a lot easier than taking my own feelings and concerns seriously. So many people in my life met my big feelings with big skepticism, and I internalized it as my own. Plus, it was comforting to think that a problem wasn’t as dire as I’d imagined. It was a relief to blame it all on pesky hormones.
It wasn’t until I was 29 years old and pregnant with my first child that I started to appreciate the miracle of hormones. Early in my pregnancy, a surge of hCG caused me to push away my morning coffee in favor of a quick trip to the bathroom. I’d splash cold water on my face to try to ease my crippling nausea. And while I can’t say I was grateful for any morning I spent holding my own hair back as I vomited into the toilet, I had to marvel at the way my hormones protected the tiny embryo inside of me from questionable foods and potentially harmful substances. Pregnancy hormones made it easy to do something I’d tried to do before my pregnancy and never could—quit my lifelong excessive caffeine habit cold turkey, instantaneously.
My hormones were even more impressive after childbirth. A surge of prolactin swelled my breasts in the hours after my emergency C-section, sending yellow drops of colostrum through my nipples for my baby in the NICU down the hall. When I held him for the first time, a blissful surge of oxytocin washed over me, securing our bond and drowning out the anxiety caused by our traumatic birth (if only temporarily).
Hormones were my constant companions, lifelines that helped me survive those first few grueling months of parenthood. I barely slept, and yet my body kept churning out more milk to feed my growing baby. I was so exhausted, but I never slept through a single sound my baby made.
Sure, there were plenty of big feelings. There was a lot of sobbing. But in the rush of new motherhood, those feelings didn’t seem quite so off-base. Looking at my brand new baby, it was clear that the intensity of my feelings matched the moment.
My second son was born three years and two days after my first. And holy moly if I thought my hormones were impressive the first time around, they truly dazzled me round two. I suffered a bladder injury during my scheduled C-section with my second baby, but having him on my chest immediately made the whole ordeal seem easy breezy compared to the trauma of my first delivery.
For weeks, I gamely tucked my catheter and urine bag into a flowy pair of floral-printed pants and kept moving. I nursed my newborn while I caught my falling toddler. I bounced my baby to sleep on my chest while bandaging a scrape on my toddler’s elbow. I cared for both my kids and also did extra things like put on mascara and brush my hair like an honest-to-god superhero. Thanks, prolactin! Thanks, oxytocin! Thanks, vasopressin!
It’s only recently, three years since the birth of my second child, that I’ve begun to ask myself a truly life-changing question: If I can trust the hormones that took care of my baby and my body during pregnancy and early motherhood, can I trust my hormones all the time? I started paying more attention to my menstrual cycle, noting how I felt along the way.
I began to notice that the surge of estrogen leading to ovulation correlated with a burst of creative energy. I had all my best ideas at this time of the month, and all the stamina to execute them.
I also noticed that right after ovulation, I was much more alert to anything and anyone who might pose a threat to myself or my children. I researched this a bit, and learned that women have an increased stress response during this part of the menstrual cycle known as the early luteal phase. Estrogen enhances a woman’s stress response (pretty great for protecting our bodies and our babies). Stress suppresses testosterone in men, which can result in increased irritability and anxiety. When I learned this, I thought back to all of my attempts to address the troublesome issues in my past relationship. As it turned out, my ex-boyfriend’s irritated response was probably tied to a fluctuation in his hormones. My mind was blown.
And as for the premenstrual week of my cycle—that time known as the late luteal phase when both estrogen and progesterone drop precipitously—it wasn’t so bad, after all. I noticed in those weeks that I got softer, sadder, more tender and more tired. I stopped to snuggle with my children more. I went to bed earlier. Work felt like a slog. I procrastinated more and often felt tired after small tasks.
But I also spent more time calling friends and family. I needed more support at this point in my cycle. And rather than dismissing these feelings as untrustworthy, or lamenting that I was not as productive as I had been in the weeks before, I began to see the wisdom of these internal cyclic shifts. Rest is good. Time to connect is good. A bit of sadness makes a lot of sense. This is what my hormones had been pointing to all along.
Finally, I’ve learned to trust my hormones. And so, the next time someone asks if I’m hormonal, I’ll proudly answer yes. Maybe I’ll also add, “and you’re welcome for the profound insights and divine internal balance brought to you courtesy of the cosmic connection between my body and the moon.” My hormones contain millennia of evolutionary wisdom. My hormones helped me nurture, birth and sustain whole entire other human beings. My hormones support me in achieving my goals, and they guide me to take better care of myself and others. My hormones are miraculous. I am so hormonal, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.