In the interview below, Chalice founder Jane Bennett talks to Mary Crooks about how the experience of working on the About Bloody Time project enabled her to finally educate herself and change her perspective around her period and menopause.
Q: So Mary, during our time working on About Bloody Time and the research around that, you spoke about your experience of menopause and your changing perspective of it, could you elaborate on that?
A: Coming to the experience of About Bloody Time in my early sixties was the first real time in my life that I had the impetus to consciously reflect on my own attitudes and approach to menstruation generally, let alone menopause. It made me realise that I had pretty much muddled through my life, as a teenager, a young woman, a pregnant woman, a birthing woman and then a menopausal woman. Strange this muddling through. Here I was, an educated woman with two tertiary degrees, and a high level of intellectual inquiry and curiosity, yet I had a relatively limited understanding and appreciation of my own body. I seemed to be just learning enough to get by, such as being on contraception and taking part in antenatal classes, and all the while never really talking in useful detail to my GP about my reproductive life, including my menstrual cycle.
The experience of About Bloody Time showed me that I was pretty much in the same boat as the majority of women, young and old, whom we surveyed; who go through their life not necessarily informed and/or positive about their menstrual cycle and reproductive health generally. I was able to identify and explain this predicament much more incisively within the deeply layered repressive taboo which surrounds menstruation.
When it came to menopause, our work with About Bloody Time made me reflect back on this specific part of my life. It was an experience that lasted for a couple of years from memory (I never kept a log so there’s a vagueness that I think most women carry about it). I wouldn’t have said that I suffered seriously but then again I really didn’t know what was going on. I wasn’t prepared for it in any way. It crept up on me. I’d heard broad references to mood swings and sweats and so on, but my level of credible information was pretty poor in retrospect. I did what I think women are accustomed to doing – I ‘soldiered on.’ I experienced symptoms over several years, waking up in a sweat, being uncomfortable with the relative heat exuding from my sound-asleep partner, feeling a bit guilty about that and not communicating well about it either.
I reacted instinctively to the mood swings, trusting myself not to make decisions or make conclusions about my work or people or anything when I was feeling low level irritation and high level tiredness. I had many, many months of broken sleep. I never chose to go to my doctor about it. I had made up my mind that I was not going near HRT (hormonal replacement therapy), probably more on instinct than anything else. I never sought any treatment, reflecting I guess that enculturated view that this was how it is and as a woman you just get on with things.
The experience of About Bloody Time made me realise that I hadn’t looked after myself to the max through that lengthy time. I hadn’t consciously self-cared, and I hadn’t really attended more to diet or relaxation or to communication with my husband and my kids. I didn’t talk to my female friends about it and basically internalised the whole experience. I certainly didn’t even see it as a positive in any way, and some sort of right of adult female passage! I talked a bit to my Mum about it and she pretty much told me that she felt the symptoms for a long time afterwards and I thought, “oh well that’s great!”
If I had my time again – and given my stronger understanding from About Bloody Time – I would have done at least two things very differently. I would have sat down with my partner and two teenage girls and explained that I was going through a really important part of my menstrual cycle. I would have been able to describe to them physiologically what was happening. I would have described to them how it was manifesting. And I would have said to them that I was not looking for sympathy or to be pampered but I was looking for understanding and to be cut some slack, that I might need more time to myself, to take myself away from you at times. I might need to change my sleeping patterns and my diet.
And the second thing is that I would have much more consciously looked after myself, in terms of my diet, relaxation and exercise. I would have cut down on rich food and alcohol and would have talked more to my partner and trusted female friends about what was happening. And I would have started yoga. It took the pandemic for me to start yoga instead of menopause!
Q: So now, your menstruating years have finished and your perimenopause years have finished but has the work that we did together, and the awareness that grew for you, changed how you now look after yourself?
A: Yeah, it has. But let me say first up that the experience of working so closely with wise woman Jane (co-author), has been the most critical part of all of this for me – above everything else, the research, and the involvement of many other wonderful women.
I definitely look after myself better as a result. I’m more exercised, I do try and tend more to my diet, and as I indicated earlier, I have been a latecomer to yoga.
Overall, the experience of About Bloody Time – the research and reaching the all-important publication stage – has provided me with a strong platform to work for change, to supplant the menstrual taboo by promoting the very idea of a positive menstrual culture; and to think of strategic ways to create transformative change, to change things for the better. This is very satisfying, turning a negative experience into something productive, to being a small cog in achieving a more informed and positive menstrual culture. I love seeing the younger women in the Trust office, for example, operating since with openness and positivity. I have had a real kick out of implementing our menstrual leave policy and seeing the benefits across our office and the way it has helped others start to take up this kind of thinking and workplace practice. I feel good to have been both a spark in that and a witness to it.
After an extensive public policy career, Mary Crooks became the Executive Director of VWT in 1996. She has designed and led ground-breaking community engagement initiatives, such as the Purple Sage Project and Our Watermark Australia. Mary was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) In the Queen’s Birthday
2012 Honours List for distinguished service to the community through contributions to public policy, particularly in the areas of social cohesion and water sustainability, and as an advocate for the advancement of women. In 2016, Mary won the Public Policy category as part of the AFR/ Westpac’s 100 Women of Influence for her years
of work in shaping public policy in Australia.
Jane Bennett is the founder of the Chalice Foundation and a social worker, researcher, writer and educator with nearly 40 years in practice. After experiencing the revelations of Natural Fertility Management in the mid-1980s Jane began working as a Natural Fertility Management counsellor, then trainer and later authoring The Natural Fertility Management Kits with Francesca Naish. Jane launched Celebration Day for Girls in 2000, Cool on the Inside in 2002, Fathers Celebrating Daughters in 2004 and Mense-Ed in 2016. Jane co-created The Rite Journey girl’s Year 9 program, and continue’s her long-standing role with Natural Fertility Management. Jane is the author of A Blessing Not a Curse and Girltopia, and co-author of About Bloody Time – The Menstrual Revolution We Have to Have, Woman Wise Conversation Cards, The Complete Guide to Optimum Conception, The Natural Fertility Management Contraception Kit and The Pill – Are You Sure It’s for You?, and is eternally passionate about nourishing healthy curiosity and best-practice self-care for women and girls.