Hi. My name is Grace and I'm a junior doctor. And so is my boyfriend; an obstetrics/gynaecology (OBGYN) doctor at that (though he's a bit less junior than I am).
This overlapping line of work makes for both equally compelling and banal dinner table conversation, though never for us specifically. No, it is the world beyond our clinical remit that puts a stop to that.
Indeed, we have found variously through trial and error that we generally have to keep conversations about work to ourselves for fear of, well, coming across as either impolite, inappropriate (my favourite - health unites us all, until someone mentions a bodily fluid), or single-minded (in many cases, we have insight into this. The so-called medic bubble is real).
But what I find most interesting is the divide in attention that is created depending on the work topic suggested - over Christmas drinks, my non-medic friends and family were fascinated to know more about my dealing with a trauma case of "patient versus aeroplane" (my poor chap got sucked into a propellor, but thankfully lived to tell the tale). Yet when my incredibly talented and empathetic partner is asked about his day-to-day dealings, he is more often than not met with an awkward silence or a rapid change of topic (because, inevitably, men who stare at vaginas all day must be creeps)*.
No, my boyfriend is not perverted, nor is he gay - the two most common assumptions by Joe and Josephine Public, as they were, for male doctors practicing in OBGYN. But it is a topic of discussion that we return to often; the perception of his validity as a clinician not only by his patients, but their partners, families and even his work colleagues, given the nature of what he does.
I consider myself lucky in comparison with my paired-off friends whose partners would run like the wind with embarrassment at the mention of the word period** or, god forbid, MENSTRUATION. But I also question more often than not whether it is a case of luck.
I talk freely with my boyfriend about period pains; my frustration at bleeding onto crisp new white bed sheets where my pads have failed me; my intermittently waning libido; and my hypochondriacal concerns about whether my IUD may have perforated my uterus whenever I experience menstrual camps (he is delightfully reassuring).
If anything, he is more in tune with my monthly cycle than I am and I am often met with anticipatory tampons stocked in the bathroom cupboard before I have the chance to buy them myself. And it has never occurred to me that such discussions should be anything other than as natural as asking what you'd like for dinner, or how your day was, with a member of the opposite sex.
Indeed, women from all walks of life enter into my boyfriend's gynaecology clinics on a daily basis seeking at least some form of salvation - be that verbal reassurance, a short course of medication, or a more complicated intervention - from various uterine ailments. They often share their deepest concerns with him; some even disclose histories of sexual abuse, rape and harmful impacts of social conventions that have left them with crippling pain, abnormal bleeding and psychological hurt.
And in many cases he is their first port of call. One woman who presented to him recently had suffered from 15 years of ongoing menorrhagia (excessive and heavy bleeding at the time of menstruation, often with clots) that she neither understood nor felt she was able to discuss with her family, friends or husband, but immediately voiced a torrent of concerns to my partner.
Others are more worrying still - such as cases where he has had to rush women to theatre who have attempted to (unsuccessfully) self-sabotage their periods with medication or foreign objects due to thinking the process "unclean" and have ended up being deeply unwell with infections, uncontrolled bleeding and permanent damage to their reproductive systems.
This in turn got me thinking about the influence of a clinical authority figure in discussing such matters - does our familiarity with the human body take away the associated embarrassment; do our poker faces on hearing about vaginal discharge simply normalize the embedded stigma? Does the anonymity of such consults alone help?
Interestingly enough, this line of thought was revisited in a recent discussion with one of my housemates, who coyly and contritely admitted to "milking it" when leaving work early with crippling menstrual cramps - a longstanding problem for her and for which she has received years of medical attention, albeit with sadly little benefit. Yet she believed that the only reason she was allowed to leave was through disclosure to her overly-inquisitive boss that she had period pains.
This bothers me immensely on two accounts - the first, that she felt the need to disclose such information about her health to her employer in order to leave her workplace, and the second that her perception was that she had to exaggerate her symptoms and embarrass her boss in order to secure her leave. Are we still at the stage of shaming men into embarrassment regarding an everyday (or, every month) physiological complaint in order to avoid further discussion? Or was it wrong of him to even ask?
Now, this is certainly not a problem specific to females and menstruation (indeed, a variety of health ailments can be considered embarrassing, or deeply personal - mainly because they are personal and putting that up for discussion remains an individual's preference).
But such menstruation issues equally shouldn't be associated with shame, or labelled as a gender-specific "problem". I would argue that this is one of the many strong factors influencing how we arrived at period poverty in the first place; that there is still a broad reluctance to chat about periods; and that there remains a glass ceiling here, too.
So whilst an all-encompassing solution might not be to date an OBGYN specialist (I stress this was coincidence for me, but hey, it's an idea - though the rota is a nightmare, so be warned if you enjoy spending time with your partner), opening up a discussion about your period remains a positive step towards not only maintaining good reproductive system health, but a healthy mind too. Period positivity might be cliched, but I'm going with it.
*For clarification, my boyfriend's line of work does not simply involve staring at vaginas all day. Though you really would be surprised at the number of people that think this is this case. For an amusing elaboration into the male experience of working in the field of OBGYN, I suggest you read This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay.
**For what it's worth, I have no idea where the word period was even derived from as an alternative word for menstruation. Is one's life on hold while this happens? Does it demarcate the end of a monthly bodily self-cleansing process? Answers on a postcard welcome.
Header image credit nursingschoolsnearme.com/