For two weeks of the month, I was the perfect mother to my five-year-old boy and three-year-old girl. I threw myself wholeheartedly into entertaining them, whether it was whizzing up fairy cakes, making some sensory stimulating gloop, kicking a ball round the park or braving the local soft play.
I easily enlisted them in helping me with simple chores by turning things into a game – we tidied up to supercalifragilisticexpialidoc
My partner came home to a calm household with two well-nourished, stimulated and happy children. Once they were in bed, I had the energy to get through some jobs,catch up on personal phone calls and get things ready for the next day so that it ran just as smoothly as the last.
I marvelled at how lucky I was to be a full-time Mum, loved the sense of community that came with motherhood and couldn’t believe my luck at my two healthy children, my hard working partner and supportive family and friends. I didn’t miss the work I quit two years earlier, because I could think of nothing more fulfilling thanchatting and playing with my children and seeing their delight as they drank in all the world had to offer. I felt intense gratitude for everything I had. For an afternoon or so, it peaked to an almost unbearable joy. And that’s when I knew the black cloud was about to descend.
Over the next two weeks, my energy and enthusiasm ebbed away and I slowly morphed into the mother from hell. My body felt increasingly clumsy and heavy. I feltlethargic, foggy-headed and progressively more sensitive to noise, movement, light and mess. My focus shifted from the wonderful things in my life to the sloppy spaghetti and grated cheese that stuck to my sock, the wall to wall artex in the kitchen and the mind-numbing nature of the chores that filled my day. My clothes felt tighter, my hair greasier and mental clarity eluded me. My children became less a source of joy and more an irritation, from the way they elbowed me in the boobs at 6am and clamped their mouths shut at teeth-cleaning time but mostly just for being noisy, in my face and wanting stuff from me every nanosecond of the day.
Household chores that I used to incorporate effortlessly into my day now seemed insurmountable. And dull. I didn’t feel like I was doing a valued – or valuable – job anymore. I was merely picking stuff up: toys, socks, dishes, hairclips, marbles, pen lids, washing and junk mail. I craved space, and the more my youngest sensed this, the more she clung. I couldn’t pee, peel a carrot or put a basket of washing away without her at my heels. The more she whinged, the more annoyed I got, so the more she clung. It was a vicious circle – and one I couldn’t break until my period arrived.
I became increasingly inconsistent. Because I couldn’t stand any whining, I gave in to every demand, ranted incessantly or made unrealistic threats they knew I wouldn’t stick to. I felt like the third, stroppy child instead of the calm mother I wanted to be. Instead of following Dr Tanya Byron’s sensible advice to ask once nicely, ask once firmly and then impose consequences, I asked once, asked again, shouted, shouted louder, then gave in and did it myself.
Their tantrums – which had been so effective in getting them what they wanted - got worse. I couldn’t manage their moods because I couldn’t manage my own. I no longer had the patience to tolerate the snail-paced actions of small children or the mental energy to sugar-coat any demands I made of them. So I nagged and shouted. I hated the sound of my irritable voice and tried to replace it with the playfulness, praise and positivity that filled the house only a few days earlier, but couldn’t keep it up.
I craved anonymity and wished I didn’t bump into several people I knew every time I left the house. I envied those who had grandparents on tap and felt inferior to those who didn’t but still seemed to achieve more. Feeling less in control of my children and disconnected to everyone I knew, I ventured out less. I didn’t initiate any messy art or cooking projects either but tried to play games, such as doctors, that involved me lying down. The kids saw less of their friends and more of Charlie and Lola.
I no longer appreciated my partner’s conscientious, frugal ways, but moaned that I was bottom of his list below work, fiddle playing, alcohol and computer games. I boiled with rage at his messy habits and felt powerless that he was the one with the skills and the money, but not the desire, to improve the house. The more I nagged, the more he retreated, so the more emotionally needy I felt. I sobbed but felt a strange mixture of despair and relief – as did my partner – because we knew it was a sign the hell was nearly over.
I woke the next morning with my period and my perspective restored. I felt pathetic for finding it hard to get through the day with two children, when my granny had 15 to contend with. I felt ashamed for fretting about artex and chores, when there were earthquakes and wars. But mostly I was relieved that family life, for a couple of weeks at least, was about to be good again.
I have plenty of friends who say they can’t tell when their period is coming. I envy them. Mine usually lets me know with bells, horns and whistles that it’s on its way and always has. In my career as a freelance writer, the only recipient to my pre-menstrual growls was my keyboard. I could deal with it by retreating from the world for a week or so. As a full-time Mum, I couldn’t. School runs, play dates and chatterbox children didn’t allow me to.
I was hugely relieved if Christmas, my children’s birthdays or visits from parents or in-laws fell in the ‘good’ two weeks, and gutted if they didn’t. Yet I made the most of my post menstrual phase every month. While my energy and spirits were high, I tried to get ahead on everything and give the children my all so that the two unproductive weeks and the Charlie and Lolathons didn’t matter.
Apparently I’m not alone in having my parenting skills determined by my menstrual cycle. According to the Natural Health Advisory Service (NHAS), mums are more prone to PMS, because the nutrient demands placed on them during pregnancy and breastfeeding have left them short of a few essentials, such as magnesium, which is responsible for normal hormone function.
Reading that it can get worse in your thirties (I was then 37) made me search for some coping mechanisms. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) say that lifestyle adjustments such as improved self care, a low glycaemic index diet (eating foods that release energy slowly) and stress reduction should be tried before considering medical treatments such as antidepressants (prescribed differently for PMS than for depression) or the combined pill (to suppress ovulation).
I don’t want my children to be brought up by a Jekyll and Hyde mother but thought it would be best for me (and my children) to have two brilliant weeks and two rubbish ones than a month of detached numbness and nothingness which is what I remember from being on the Pill in my early twenties. So I went down the self care route. I ate better, took multivitamins, took up running and went to a circuit training class in the park.
Exercise definitely helps disperse any stress hormones surging through my body. But what also helped is time, and the fact that life got easier as the children got older. My children are now five and seven and are both at school. By their absence for six hours a day, they are naturally less demanding. I miss them, but also like having uninterrupted thoughts, time to get organised and time to write. Doing Mum things between 3:15 and bedtime now makes a pleasant change from sitting at my desk trying to get my brain to work, and I treasure my children more for not being around them 24/7.
My ability to referee a fierce sibling row is still much better post-menstrually than pre, but the PMT seems less consuming. Because my children are less demanding of me, I am less demanding of my partner. It’s more harmonious all round.
With more free time, I am able to take better care of myself and therefore better care of my family. I’m still lethargic, clumsy, anxious and crave quiet in the week before my period. I have one night where I can’t sleep, and one night where I have an overwhelming urge to cry. But as a freelancer, I’m in a position to find that quiet when I need it. The news, a moving article or a gripping drama can fuel my tears: it doesn’t have to come from a humdinger row with my partner. The distinction between the good weeks and bad weeks is less obvious; the transition less like plunging off a cliff and more like sliding down a ramp.
I have cursed my hormones many a time in my life for dragging me down. But I have always known it will pass, always known it’s going to be better round the corner, unlike sufferers of serious mental health problems or physical disorders. And for that, I’m grateful.
I am also grateful that my hormones enabled me to have children. There were no ovulation kits for me, so obvious was that time of the month for me marking the transition from high to low. So, yes I’m grateful to those hormones, but I don’t want those same hormones to hinder what kind of mother I am. For that reason, minimising my PMT is always a priority. It’s the reason I try to eat well, exercise and keep stress in check. On that note, I’m off for a run.