My manager asked me to come into the shop on a day I wasn’t supposed to be working. It was 5.30pm and the closed sign had been flicked around, the card spinners packed away and taken inside.
I walked through the shop and into the back, where the piles of damaged books and proofs lived, and sat down on a stool. She was serious and her expression only confirmed what I already knew: I was in trouble.
I had called in sick two days before, when I was supposed to be working a shift in the shop by myself. I had done the same the month before that. The reason for my absence, rather than the sick day itself, was the problem though: period pains.
She went on to explain, in no uncertain terms, that taking time off work for something so trivial as the arrival of dear Aunt Flo was not the feminist thing to do.
I have suspected (though not officially diagnosed) endometriosis. Every month I spend at least the first day of my period in agony, unable to do anything besides breathe deeply and desperately – in for four, out for four – clutching a hot water bottle and swallowing ibuprofen every four hours.
Sometimes I get lucky and the rest of my period is manageable: I am able to work and socialise reasonably normally, only with a cocktail of painkillers in my system and the drone of discomfort deep within my lower abdomen. That first day of my cycle though, that is always an endurance test. And it is always a write-off.
Sitting in the backroom of the bookshop at the age of 18 while my manager admonished me for “letting women down”, I felt simultaneously deeply ashamed and burning with indignation.
I have worried endlessly that a prospective employer would prefer to hire a man (or a woman who doesn’t get bad periods) over me.
I walked home wondering how on earth I was going to enter the workplace as an adult and not endlessly disappoint people. Women. The women who had come before me to forge a place in the working world where one hadn’t been before. I was letting the side down. I was showing our feminine weakness. A weakness that was so deeply feminine that men didn’t – couldn’t – understand: the simple fact that we had to bleed every month. And the fact that it hurts.
It is believed that 10% of women worldwide have endometriosis, which is a condition known to cause chronic pain, bowel and bladder issues, depression and, crucially, difficulty fulfilling work commitments.
Around 1.5 million women in the UK suffer from the illness, and yet the stigma and lack of awareness around it leads to those same women dragging themselves to work when they are unwell and/or lying about their reasons for taking sick days.
After I left that job, on the cusp of a career I was so desperate for, I went on to work in multiple offices. In every single one, there was a culture of staying sitting at our desks as late as possible, even if we’d finished doing actual work at 5 o’clock.
I personally found that the men I worked with were far more likely to take a sick day than the women. I quickly realised that if I needed to take a day off because of period pains I would have to blame it on food poisoning. Or a migraine. (Experience showed that I couldn’t blame it on a cold and then be back in the next day without so much as a runny nose). Throughout most of my early twenties I was terrified that I was constantly on the verge of giving away our womanly secret.
The fact that I take a day off doesn’t take away from the good work I produce.
There is still so much work to do when it comes to equality in the workplace, but strides have indeed been made by the generations before us.
When we were just simply trying to get a seat at the table, admitting that we might have to rush off to the loo to change our tampon in the middle of a meeting wasn’t on the agenda.
When the question wasn’t how we work, but whether we work at all, periods didn’t get a look in.
That makes sense, but what has been left is a system that undervalues women who suffer with their menstrual cycle.
I have worried endlessly that a prospective employer would prefer to hire a man (or a woman who doesn’t get bad periods) over me. That I am deceiving them by not announcing at my interview: “I get really bad cramps by the way.”
But in doing so I am overlooking everything I have to offer – the fact that my taking a day off doesn’t take away from the good work I produce.
Now, I am 28 and I am self-employed. I am my own boss and I work from home all the time. My decision to enter the turbulent world of the freelancer was not completely based on my periods – I also have mental health issues that make working for myself appealing – but it was certainly a large factor.
My job was reasonably easy to shift into freelancing.
But many women do not have that option. Somehow, we must create a work place that values every one of them, regardless of how heavy or painful their periods are.
Claire Maxwell is a freelance writer.