We make a pact on the middle school playground. In the late 1990s, the handball and basketball courts echo the importance of our promise to watch each other’s backs. We will alert one another if the stain appears. We know what happens when girls do not ensure their own protection.

More than once, a girl at our small school stands up after class marked with the telltale bloodstain. Oh, how the boys laugh, pointing and shouting that girls are gross.

It happens to Kristyn first, right there in history. We learn about the Roman Empire, and when we stand to go to recess, she leaves blood on her chair.

“She got her period,” shouts a boy who is not afraid to say the word we girls are too embarrassed to speak out loud. We only hear the word in euphemistic sex education courses where we are given powder-scented panty liners and told to be discreet, or in tattered copies of Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., handed down from our mothers, who assure us that even though the book is old (nearly thirty years at the time), the story is not. Half of us have our periods and say nothing; the other half say nothing as we wish ours would begin. Once it starts, however, we are stained. Our silence speaks our shame.

“She can get pregnant,” says another boy. “Not such a Christian now.” Ours is a deeply religious school, despite its public nature. Prayer sneaks its way into most assemblies, and the Fellowship of Christian Students is the most popular club on campus, kids competing for popularity based on piety. This will change, of course, as we age, good kids becoming teenage parents, getting high before church, even our middle school principal leaving his wife and adult children to run off with a teenage girl he’d mentored in youth group.

Now, our history teacher, the tall man who leads the Christian Club, laughs. “Come on guys,” he says, before striding up to Kristyn with paper towels in hand.

“Clean this up,” he says. “Before you clean yourself.”

We girls circle around Kristyn as she wipes the blood while the boys walk out to recess with a chorus of ewww. She cries in the classroom, and later in the bathroom, and then so hard she goes home and skips school the next day. When she returns, she ties a sweatshirt around her waist.

We know what it means. Stephanie tied a sweatshirt around her waist the day she bled through her pants in history. Then Becky. Why, we wonder, is it always in history? We all decide to slouch in our seats through the Romans and the Greeks.

When Breanna tied a sweatshirt around her waist, we said nothing because she was serious and smart—the best at math despite what the boys said. They’d rush to answer questions, interrupting her in their attempts to show off, and after they were wrong, the teacher would call on quiet Breanna, so bored she taught herself Elvish in class because she already knew algebra. When Breanna bled, she said nothing, and neither did the boys because they did not want to date a girl who corrected them, even though they did like her boobs, some of the first in our grade.

Breanna tied a sweatshirt around her waist and sat with her books, but we knew.

So we make a pact to watch out for blood, to inspect one another, to keep an extra sweatshirt in our lockers. We agree to protect ourselves from our own bodies.

▴ ▴ ▴

Just prior to the 2016 presidential election, I teach a college course on women in pop culture, and we examine how mass media has influenced our understanding of women. On the first day of class, we discuss menstruation. We read texts about the ways young girls learned about menstruation in the nineteenth century and the messages they received about their bodies, sex, blood.

My students feel sorry for these girls of yore. They were given little warning, many believing they were ill or dying when the blood arrived. They were treated as sickly, confined to bed or solitude each month.

Students are glad times have changed. They speak openly of their bodies. They are nothing like my shy friends in middle school, whispering our shame over linked pinkies. Nothing like their mothers and grandmothers or mine, women who will not say the words “menstruation” or “vagina,” and instead call it “the curse” and “my woo woo.”

Still, the students share stories of being called dirty, smelly. They discuss how often to change a pad or tampon, dozens of times a day, menstruation requiring dedication to the same Victorian cleanliness and purity they wish no longer existed. They debate whether to work out, swim, have sex while menstruating. They hide their sanitary products when they run to the bathroom.

“My mother never told me,” one student eventually shares. “When it happened, I freaked.” Another shares a similar story. Then another.

I think of my father’s mother, who was born just after her mother turned fifteen. I think of my mother’s mother, who never told anyone—including my mother—the story of her first menstruation. I think of my mother, who started her period while at a pool party with her father’s business colleague. When she discovered her period had started while in the bathroom, my grandmother told her to keep quiet about it and forbid her from going back in the pool.

I think of all the generations told to keep the stories of their bodies secret.

▴ ▴ ▴

In high school, we read The Scarlet Letter. The story of Hester Prynne’s promiscuity and unwanted pregnancy is supposed to prepare us for the Advanced Placement test, but our discussion of sex and shame bleeds into our real lives. All around us girls are beginning to have sex, many starting in middle school, one, as far as we know, losing her virginity in fifth grade.

We know some girls get pregnant, but they are quickly whisked off campus to join the bad boys who smoked or fought too many times and were relegated to continuation high school. Our graduating class is around sixty-five people, so their absence aches like a wound. The continuation high school is a small modular building across the road, and we sometimes see the girls ushered in and out of the building, their hands clutching their growing bellies.

The Scarlet Letter’s Puritan policing of women’s bodies is familiar. Though we are a public school, there is a strict dress code. In middle school, girls are chastised for wearing tank tops and flip-flops, are sent home for dresses or shorts deemed inappropriate. In high school, female students are sent to the office for inspection if an outfit is suspect, if a girl’s panty line or thong is visible, if she forgets to wear a bra, and even if a large-chested girl’s bra is not considered supportive enough. We are not supposed to wear leggings or pajamas. We are not supposed to wear certain dresses. Even makeup is suspect, which is unfortunate during the early 2000s when we wear heavy eyeliner and brightly colored, teased hair. Girls’ bodies, the argument goes, are a distraction to boys and teachers, which we already know because boys try to see up our shorts or run through the girls’ locker room on a dare, and one of the girls is secretly dating the middle school band teacher.

No one polices the boys, who wear thin basketball shorts and pajama pants, who whip people with their wallets on chains. The only prohibition for the boys is that they are not allowed to wear undershirts (which everyone refers to as “wife beaters” without considering the rhetorical implications) as outerwear. But undershirts worn under open button-ups are fine, so the boys mostly stroll onto campus and remove the top layer, their nipples and chest hair visible through the thin cotton. Unlike our armpits and legs, their body hair is not monitored.

I dislike The Scarlet Letter because the metaphor is too easy, and the story is unfair.

While my pregnant classmates are sent away, the fathers of their children are allowed to remain. They saunter the halls, win student council elections, their garage bands playing poorly at pep rallies where we are required to clap. I like The Great Gatsby for a while, the lavish lifestyle so unlike my own hand-me-down existence, but I quickly realize Daisy is a fool, simple and selfish, and Gatsby reminds me of the wealthiest boy in school, whose parents’ credit card glints in his pocket as he takes groups of people out to meals or amusement parks, flies across the country and later the globe to woo women, a boy blissfully unconcerned with grades because his parents can afford to send him to any college he chooses, who teases his hair and wears the thick black eyeliner the girls are forbidden.

The book I like most is The Catcher in the Rye, though I spend most of the time searching for female characters. I like the despondency and anger, emotions I have learned not to express, replacing them instead with politeness and cheer. But the year after I read the book, someone’s parents complain about the profanity, insisting it is ungodly. Soon parents discuss removing the book from the curriculum entirely, the way other parents in middle school talked about banning the recently released Harry Potter books from our library, insisting they were satanic.

I laugh about this when I get to college, convinced that leaving my small conservative town means I will leave conspiracy theories regarding books behind and finally encounter women’s stories on the page. I am tired of writing papers about male characters and male authors, stories of exploration and adventure like egotistical Odysseus out adventuring while pious Penelope weaves and waits at home. But even though I am an English major, I fail to find many girls and women in the stacks of books I am assigned. In my first major course, I am required to learn Old English so I can read the original texts, but as the semesters progress, I do not learn the language of girls and women. The rare texts I encounter written by women are those about pride and prejudice, about the ways girls can be stubborn and smart, but will eventually marry a rich man anyway. Or they are texts about a governess who falls in love with her employer only to find the handsome man has locked his previous wife away in the attic.

Whenever I ask where the other women are—not to mention writers of color, queer writers, disabled writers—I’m told that we are focusing on the literary canon, an unchanging monument etched in stone.

Eventually I take one of my university’s few courses devoted to women’s literature, though we have two devoted to the Beats, four devoted to Shakespeare, and three devoted to Russian literature, which is, apparently, written only by men. We read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel that seems so far from my own experience as to be science fiction; Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which gives me the language to describe what it was like to be a young girl at the mercy of cruel men’s hands; and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which is the first story I read that describes my uncertainty about motherhood and accepting the domestic as my destiny. All semester we build our own canon, chipping away at the stone to etch the missing names. But when the class ends and we return to our required courses, it is as if the names have vanished.

▴ ▴ ▴

Because I feel invisible, I disappear in college. First my body, then my period.

My mother loves small children best—raising eight children, five adopted over many decades—and I want to be small so she might love me again. “Failure to thrive” is what social workers said about my many foster siblings, who arrived when I was in middle school, high school, college, each sickly and weak from being severely abused before they joined our family. As they began to arrive, I began to struggle under the weight of so much change, so much sudden responsibility as the eldest daughter.

In college, I hunger for visibility, and because I cannot have it, I stop eating. This seems the only thing I can control. At nearly six feet, I whittle myself from 130 pounds to 110. And after my first boyfriend—the only one, I am convinced, who loves or even notices me—leaves me for a tiny five-foot girl who shops in the children’s section, I dip dangerously close to one hundred pounds, too weak to rise from bed or hold a spoon.

Though I’ve been steadily losing weight for two years, my failure to thrive after the breakup makes my mother take notice. Her role, after all, is to love those who have been rejected, and so she pulls me into her lap once more, brings me cups of tea laden with sugar and honey. She fusses over me like I am her little girl again.

When my period disappears, I am pleased. I’ve reversed time, gone back to middle school before all the adoptions began. I started my period a few months before the first foster children came to live with us, and it felt like a marker of some great change. I’d always been told that menstruation marked when a girl became a woman, the potential to become a mother, and this is what it felt like. I began to bleed, and then there were two foster children, holding their arms up in confusion and calling me “Mommy.”

In college, I am careless. My period has vanished along with my body, and I feel invisible, unreal. It seems there is no one at home who loves me, and I have long since ceased to love myself, so I accept meager affections for my body. I believe boys who insist I am beautiful only because I am small enough that they can lift me from the ground despite my protests, that they can wrap their hands like a cage around my body. I believe boys who insist they cannot enjoy my body while wearing a condom. I believe—correctly—their love is conditional.

Shortly after my boyfriend leaves me and my mother threatens to take me to a hospital if I do not eat, a man slips himself inside me without asking. He does not wear a condom. He is only my second, and I am hurting and lonely and I believe this is sex because my first boyfriend had done the same.

When I lost my virginity, I did not consent. My boyfriend pushed himself inside of me one night, and I went along, convinced compromise was part of a relationship. Being agreeable and not making a fuss was something I’d learned from a very early age was expected of girls. The sex was short and unmemorable except for when he told me that I really should shave everything down there and that he would break up with me if I told anyone because he was afraid it would get back to his church. He did not use protection, and when I’d told him I did not want to have sex this way, he pouted like a child. I agreed to his requests because I did not want to be alone, because I did not know I could change my mind even though the decision had never been mine to begin with.

Menstruation was not something we discussed, like female desire or things other than video games and anime, so each month I waited for the blood alone. After my period vanished, so did he.

I gave up meals and pounds, and when a new boy came along, I gave up my body. For six months this second boy I hardly knew pulled out, and I prayed because this is what my friends did, some still finding themselves pregnant despite the piety. But I believed myself safe because I did not have my period, because I was a slim wisp of a woman so brittle a man could trick me into thinking sex had been my idea, so intent on disappearing I sometimes looked up at him and simply vanished until he was done.

The man announced he loved me. He wanted this in return. I did not love anyone. Even myself. He left.

The blood did not come. I would not take a test I might fail, so I waited, alone and afraid, until I was assured by the faintest stain.

When more foster children arrive at my parents’ house—children whose young mothers had been foolish and free with their bodies—I go to the clinic. I do not tell my mother, who made me promise in high school that I would not have sex, another command regarding my body that I obeyed. Instead, I gather my old school friends—girls once afraid of the arrival of blood, now women waiting for it each month—and make us all appointments at the local free clinic. We are required to pee in cups, undergo STI testing even if we are not sexually active, and submit to a Pap smear and invasive questioning, but we each emerge with a paper bag full of one year of birth control pills for free.

I want to menstruate again. I want the surety of blood. I will be nobody’s fool.

It works. My period comes. My breasts grow, even if I do not. For a while the blood each month is a reminder, a relief.

But eventually I miss the feeling of being invisible. I begin skipping the dark blue sugar pills so I can skip my cycle. I miss being bloodless. I feel like a stuck pig. I still want to be small like a child. Mothers and men, I know, like tiny girls.

I fashion myself into a bloodless, plastic doll, wide eyes and mouth. Motionless.

I skip cycles as I cycle through men, each as unconcerned with contraception as they are with consent. I dutifully swallow my pill each night, working around the packaged halo to keep myself as hollow and empty as I feel.

▴ ▴ ▴

Like most middle school girls who have not yet menstruated, I am terrified of starting, but not as scared as I am of starting late. It seems like everyone is starting, and because I already feel out of place—pray my wealthy peers will not discover I am a transfer student, bused in from forever away, for once they do, their parents usually forbid them from sleeping over, saying my town is too dangerous, which means too poor, too brown—I do not want to be marked by this too. My friends announce their periods have arrived, either by sweatshirt accident or in hushed whispers in gym class before they present an excuse note from their mothers, and I pinkie promise to protect them. I also make a promise to myself: I will start soon.

I am prepared. In elementary school, my parents gave me a sex eduction book, and, some Saturday mornings when I crawled into bed between them, my mother pulled the book out and we read aloud about my body, her body. Sometimes we read about my father’s body, and I was embarrassed to see our nakedness there on the page, especially when we got to the page where a man and a woman were presumably naked under the covers, caressing. Sex made me squirm, embarrassed between my parents, feeling awkward if I thought about them having sex in that bed, but also happy because I saw them hug and kiss like the couple in the picture. Many of my friends’ parents did not so much as look at each other. My best friend’s parents hardly spoke, and she said this was because they had a baby that died, but they stayed together to conceive her, even though that didn’t seem to fix anything.

The book never showed men loving men or women loving women, and later, when I began to feel a funny electricity in my stomach about women as well as men, I ignored it. The book did not teach me this, so it must not exist.

Neither did the book teach about delivery. The book explained, using unsexy words like intercourse, that when a man and a woman loved each other and had sex, that a woman would become pregnant. Illustrations showed her growing stomach and breasts, the dark triangle of hair between her legs, one that the middle school boys said was disgusting even though we girls still hadn’t grown any hair there. But there was little discussion of how the baby arrived. All the book said was that a baby comes from love, that a baby is wanted.

The book told me I would bleed, and so when I begin, I am not scared. If anything, I am relieved that I can stop worrying if or when it will come. My mother gives me a small panty liner and says we will stop for pads on the way home. I go to school and make Becky pinkie promise to keep an eye out for stains, turning on the hand dryer in the bathroom to cover the sound of my secret.

Outside, the boys wait like always, with rocks. In first-period band, the boys mimic blow jobs on their instruments and use their nails to carve the words slut and whore into the black-painted music stands. The sound hurts my ears, and afterward their nails are dirty half-moons. They are not the boys in my sex education book, smiling and soft.

All day I check my panty liner, worried about stains. My mother has given me extras, but I am too scared to put them on without her. I will mess up, I’m sure. I will expose my secret. I watch the blood creep closer to the edge of the liner, my stomach aching.

Becky whispers to me that it’s okay, sweatshirt at her waist. Kristyn dodges insults. Breanna stays silent, staring into her book.

▴ ▴ ▴

My childhood friend keeps her abortion secret. In college, she calls me late at night, telephone wires connecting her on one coast to me on the other. She whispers, like she did when she started her period back in middle school, ashamed and wishing the blood would vanish. But now she prays for blood, desperate for her monthly cycle, which is late by a few days, then a few weeks.

She has recently broken up with her boyfriend and is waiting for him to move out of the apartment they share, which she pays for as a full-time college student while also working full time, while he passes the days unemployed and attentive to his video game console. But he is her first boyfriend, the only man she has ever known to show interest in a plus-size woman.

“I didn’t think I would ever find someone who loves me,” she said, at first, when he broke her possessions during an argument or let his pit bull shit all over the house.

Now she wonders whether to tell him about the pregnancy. She does not want the baby. She does not want the relationship. She does not want this story of her life, one that seems prewritten and beyond her control.

She takes the test. It is what she expects.

She tells precisely two people—me and her mother. Over Christmas break, she flies home to California, where her mother takes her on a “special trip.” They do not tell the rest of the family. They pretend instead, when she returns home to rest, that she caught the flu on the plane.

“Please don’t tell my father,” she begs.

Twenty years later, her story is not unique. Many women share similar experiences, their silence not a choice as much as a requirement for the comfort of others. Let me be clear—my friend does not regret her decision. She is not ashamed. Her secret is not a stain she carries on her chest, but a choice she needed to make to have the life and the family she has now.

But the “stain” of abortion in far-right American rhetoric is perhaps the reason why women continue to keep their abortion secret despite the generations of women who have had them. My sisters have kept their abortions secret from the men in our family. “Abortion shmortion” they sometimes joke when talk turns to reproductive rights, the word only acceptable when it accompanies a laugh. My college students write about their abortions with shrouded language, admitting they are reluctant to use the word even as they tell their stories with powerful, unapologetic vulnerability. One student writes an essay about how the university impacts her abortion decision. She’s pregnant in the dorms, but will not be allowed to continue living there once she has the baby, though she will not receive a refund.

“This is the first time I’ve told anyone,” she says in class after we read the story, her hands resting on the question mark in her growing stomach.

Our increasingly hostile political climate toward women and their reproductive bodies reinforces this silence and shame. After a GOP debate moderated by Fox News host Megyn Kelly, Donald Trump took to CNN to blame her body for his poor performance. Angered by her question about his derogatory comments about women, he lashed out by saying, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.”

Throughout the debate Trump called women “fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals,” and afterward referred to Kelly as a “bimbo.” Late in his campaign, the Access Hollywood tape revealed him admitting to sexually assaulting women by “grab[bing] them by the pussy.” In each instance, he referred to menstruation and the vagina with the same vague language of disgust as the middle school boys of my youth.

Women’s bodily functions and bodies were also open for frank discussion when it came to female political candidates like Hillary Clinton. In 2016, the Williamsport, Pennsylvania Sun-Gazette ran a letter to the editor vocalizing a voter’s concern over a president with a uterus: “They call us sexist just because we are critical of Hillary Clinton and her health,” Carl Unger wrote. “What if that time of the month comes and she is sick at the same time?” While enraging, this line of inquiry also revealed a deep misunderstanding of women’s bodies—menopause typically occurs between the ages of forty-five and fifty-five, and Clinton was sixty-eight at the time—and a deep mistrust of what Donald Trump referred to as “the woman card.”

The effects of Trump’s administration are still rippling through the 2024 election. Though the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, candidates continue to talk about women’s bodies, the right to choose, and even whether women have the right to privacy regarding their menstrual history, like in Missouri, where in 2019 the director of the state health department admitted to keeping a spreadsheet that monitored the menstrual periods of Planned Parenthood patients.

On July 8, 2022, just a few days after the Supreme Court decision, the White House issued a statement warning individuals to be “really careful” when using phone apps that track, store, and sometimes share menstrual data, as it could be used against them if they seek abortions. Used by nearly one-third of American women, cycle trackers are now sites for surveillance, along with other personal data. In states that chose to criminalize abortion, this data can be used to build a case against someone, prosecutors subpoenaing any app on an individual’s mobile device, including period trackers, as well as text messages, like in the case of a Texas woman who texted with three friends about her abortion. Her ex-husband filed a wrongful death conspiracy lawsuit against his ex-wife’s friends, alleging that they helped the women obtain abortion medication in violation of state law. The issue remains ongoing, with states like Virginia debating a bill in February 2023 that would allow private menstrual data to be susceptible to surveillance and used as evidence in prosecution.

The murky legality of reproductive rights shifts so rapidly it seems impossible to stay informed, to know not only what is best for your life and body, but what you have the right to do with your life and body. I think of the sex education book my mother bought for me, the one we read aloud early Saturday mornings so that my body would not be a surprise, a secret, a source of shame. I wonder what contemporary sex education books will include and ignore. I wonder how they will differ from region to region, further separating and dividing the nation. I think about the landscape of reproductive rights and the impossible challenge of trying to write a book like that in a world that would rather those rights be erased.

▴ ▴ ▴

Now, years after my own experience as a college student and what seems like a lifetime from the 2016 presidential election, the books I read and taught are banned in states across the country. In 2023, the U.S. House passed the Parents Bill of Rights, legislation that allows parents to inspect the curriculum, including books and school libraries, a broad challenge to educators that prompted governing bodies like the Idaho legislature to debate a bill that would have criminalized librarians. According to a report by advocacy group PEN America, there were “2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique book titles” between July 2021 and June 2022, though the findings indicated that other banned books may not have been recorded. These bans are widespread, occurring in 5,049 schools with a combined enrollment of nearly four million students in thirty-two states. While some petitions to ban books originate from community members, 40 percent have been the result of directives from state officials or elected lawmakers.

The Handmaid’s Tale is widely banned, critics deeming the book “unacceptable,” including those in Madison County, Virginia, where Governor Glenn Youngkin signed legislation allowing parents to veto any teaching materials they perceive as sexually explicit. So too is The Bluest Eye, which is banned across the country for depictions of child abuse, something conservative parents and politicians argue should not be presented to young children, despite the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that at least one in seven children experienced child abuse or neglect in the past year in the United States.

Books written by or featuring marginalized and underrepresented people have been disproportionately targeted. Roughly 41 percent of the banned books address LGBTQ+ themes or have characters who are LGBTQ+, roughly 40 percent of the books feature characters of color, and roughly 21 percent of the banned books address issues of race and racism. But it is not only new, “woke” releases that are under attack. Classic literature, the kind that comprised my college canon and high school curriculum, including the texts most frequently featured on Advanced Placement exams, are being banned across the country with increasing intensity.

Oklahoma, for example, has banned Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, among many others.

Even Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret., is banned in states across the country. Born in 1958, my mother read Judy Blume’s 1970 work as a manifesto, and, despite my protests as a young girl in the 1990s that the book was out of date and embarrassing, it quickly became mine, as it has for millions of girls across the country. The book, which explores Margaret’s developing sense of identity, her thoughts on faith and family, and her maturing body, puts periods on the page, making menstruation a story rather than a shame.

This is precisely what book bans hope to change. Discussions of the female body, sexuality, of any identity that deviates from submissive silence to challenge white patriarchal heteronormative Christian values, are seen as a threat to the nation-state. Under the guise that minors need protection, legislators are censoring books as a way of preventing social and political progress. The larger impacts of book banning are frightening—in March of 2023, the Florida House of Representatives passed a bill that would prevent schools from discussing menstruation until middle school, though girls can start menstruating as early as third grade. Just as Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill bans educators and students from discussing real LGBTQ+ identities as part of formal instruction, this bill bans educators and students from discussing real bodily functions, a cruel irony considering that in the wake of the Roe v. Wade reversal, Florida considered requiring any female athlete who wanted to participate in school sports to log their menstrual cycles. Their hateful narrative bleeds beyond these pages. Now even contraception like Plan B is under attack, birth control pills increasingly suspect, increasingly scarce.

▴ ▴ ▴

The birth control I have taken for over a decade is discontinued without my knowledge. At first it appears to be a shortage, the pharmacies I frequent informing me that for some reason they have run out and I should try another location. For a few months I am able to track down packs of pills like I am on some kind of contraceptive Where’s Waldo hunt. I’m used to the inconvenience, my insurance refusing to cover more than a month of birth control at a time and requiring a doctor’s approval each time, often leaving me panicked when I have to repeatedly call my doctor’s office and the pharmacy to see if my prescription has been refilled on time.

Eventually I grow so tired of the task that I put my husband in charge. I’ve been on birth control for our entire relationship, and though he knows something of my pharmacological frustrations, the invasive and often unnecessary exams I’m forced to undergo for a contraceptive refill or to get antibiotics for a UTI or yeast infection, I want him to understand how much time it takes, how much work I must put in for the both of us to remain child-free. My husband dutifully makes calls to the pharmacy when they forget to refill my prescription and eventually tackles the process of trying to locate the dwindling birth control supply, even driving across state lines to track down a few packs, which we pay for out-of-pocket.

“Why do they make it this difficult?” he asks, more incredulous after I remind him of my privilege as an upper-middle-class white woman with health insurance. He begins to log the amount of time it takes him, though I remind him he is often given quicker results and applauded for his support, the way cashiers do when he runs to the store for menstrual products, the way people do when they learn that after many years of watching me shoulder the burden, he now completes a large portion of the invisible labor around the house.

It is not as simple as changing contraception. Like many women, I struggled to find a birth control that worked for my body, and I am not eager to begin the search again. But after months of struggling to find my prescription, I discover this is exactly what I will have to do.

My husband and I have been searching for my prescription at various pharmacies for nearly six months when we learn the reason. My doctor does not inform us, nor do any of the pharmacies. Instead, I resort to the internet to track down information, joining thousands of other women who are confused about the disappearance of their long-standing contraception method. Though the pill has been one of the most popular methods for decades, manufacturers have stopped making the pills, along with generic forms, citing risks like strokes, blood clots, and increased cancers as the reasons.

In the early weeks of 2020, we share this news with pharmacists as we try to track down any remaining packs of pills. News of the overseas pandemic is spreading, and it is only a matter of time before it arrives in the United States, shuttering access to healthcare. Each time we inform a pharmacist, they seem surprised, and I wonder how many other women arrived to retrieve their refills, only to be told there is a shortage and they must be patient. I wonder how long pharmacists tell this to women before they realize what happened.

By the time the world shuts down in March 2020, I am on my last pack of birth control. Pharmacies are closed. Doctors’ offices are closed. Conversations with my husband regarding our future family are closed.

Around the world, girls and women suffer most. Mothers are suddenly tasked with working full time, overseeing their children’s schooling, and running a smooth household when basic supplies are limited and everyone is experiencing trauma together. Female friends report how exhausted they are while male friends report how much work they are able to achieve and detail the new hobbies they’ve been able to develop with so much free time. My university sends out emails informing professors that they must teach every class via live video, that they should dress professionally and stand during class, that they should have professional office spaces at home rather than teaching from the kitchen table, that there should be no children visible or within earshot. Next door, I rarely see my female neighbor except when she weeps and wanders the yard in her pajamas, while every day her husband sets up elaborate mechanisms by which he can practice his golf swing for hours. Several friends deliver babies, terrified their children will get sick in the hospital, will catch the virus without vaccines. On television, male politicians wave their fingers and call these fears hysteria, even as they provoke anti-vaccine frenzy.

Immobilized by fear, I do nothing. We decide to wait it out—the choice to have children, the pandemic, the political chaos we watch playing out on the news. We watch late into the night as the television blares: another strict antiabortion law signed into action, another veto on healthcare for marginalized populations, another report about the increasing cost of having a baby in the United States, another presidential election where men shout over female candidates, another famous man accused of assault, another poll saying men are afraid to hire or work alongside women, another woman or girl murdered by an angry man or boy.

As the pandemic months and years pass, the news stories stain our nation. In Idaho, House Republicans reject a bill that would have funded free menstrual products in public-school bathrooms. Though leaders of the Idaho Period Project inform the committee that three out of four Eastern Idaho female students have missed a class or an entire school day because of lack of access to menstrual products (a 2021 nationwide study reported that 23 percent of students struggle to afford period products), the bill dies in the House. “Why are our schools obsessed with the private parts of our children?” says Representative Heather Scott, who called the bill a “very liberal policy.”

In Alabama, a pregnant woman is shot in the stomach, loses her child, and is charged with manslaughter. Marshae Jones is five months pregnant when another woman shoots her. Yet while the shooter remains free, Jones is indicted by Jefferson County grand jury and held on fifty thousand dollars bail.

Similarly, Ashley Banks, a pregnant twenty-three-year-old woman, is held in jail for months in Etowah County, Alabama, because of a rule that requires pregnant women arrested on drug charges to go through rehab and post ten thousand dollars in cash bail before they can be released. Banks is arrested on charges of chemical endangerment to her fetus after admitting that she smoked pot the day she learned she was pregnant, approximately six weeks into the pregnancy. But though she is ordered to attend rehab to be released from jail, the rehab center refuses to take Banks, arguing she doesn’t warrant treatment. This loophole leaves Banks in jail—where she argues she has to sleep on the floor—for three months, even after she develops a pregnancy complication that leaves her bleeding.

These cases are not unusual. The National Advocates for Pregnant Women finds more than 150 cases of pregnant and postpartum women who have been held in jail for prenatal “chemical endangerment” in the county since 2010. Hali Burns, for example, tests positive for drugs during her pregnancy and is arrested after she gives birth. In jail she has to stuff paper towels in her pants to deal with her postpartum bleeding. And her treatment is considered lucky—in Alabama, women who use drugs during pregnancy and deliver healthy babies face up to ten years in prison, but if pregnancies result in a miscarriage or stillbirth, women can face up to ninety-nine years in prison.

And in some cases, women do not need to be pregnant in order to be incarcerated. In Gallant, Alabama, Stacey Freeman is arrested for allegedly using drugs during her pregnancy, yet she is not pregnant. When Freeman is arrested for chemical endangerment of a child, she offers to take a pregnancy test at the courthouse but is refused one. Instead, she is left to sleep on a jail floor for thirty-six hours, during which time she begins her menstrual cycle, and is denied period products. When she is finally given a pregnancy test in her jail cell and confirms that she is not pregnant, Etowah County Sheriff Investigator Brandi Fuller still interrogates Freeman for twenty minutes, threatening to charge her again if Freeman becomes pregnant in the next several months.

Similar legislation aimed at women who are mostly poor, struggling with addiction, and often women of color is adopted across the country in Oklahoma, Mississippi, and South Carolina. In 2023, Republican lawmakers in the Alabama House of Representatives began working on legislation that would allow a pregnant person to be charged with murder for abortion or miscarriage. Over and over, we watch these latest headlines that reveal how women’s bodies are criminalized.

When my birth control runs out, we watch for blood. Without hormones, my cycle grows irregular, sometimes vanishes only to reappear unexpected. I worry about stains. I feel like I did in college, like I did in middle school, like I did as a little girl whose period had not even begun.

Everything and nothing has changed.

▴ ▴ ▴

The day I begin to menstruate, my mother picks me up from middle school. She is off work early to celebrate. We go to Kmart, and she takes me to the aisle where the feminine-hygiene products sit on shelves next to diapers. The pads are huge, and I’m worried people will know that I am bleeding. I hope the boys at school tomorrow don’t write slut on my music stand.

On the way home I cry because my mother is going to tell my father. The boys at school shout ewww whenever a girl bleeds through her pants, and I’m afraid I won’t be able to climb in bed with my parents on Saturday mornings anymore. My mother laughs and says my father would never think I am gross, but she reminds me again to carefully roll up my used pads into tiny balls, wrap them in the packaging of the new pad, then in several layers of toilet paper. Like wrapping a present or a mummy. My father doesn’t think I’m gross, but he does not want to see any evidence of my body.

I cry and cry, and my mother buys me a chocolate milkshake and tucks me into her bed to watch TV. When my father comes home, my mother tells him, and he pokes his head in the door to check on me but does not come inside. He asks if I’m feeling better but does not speak about why. I know, instinctively, not to burden him with the details of my body.

At dinner we eat in silence, each of us staring at our plates stained with the meat’s dark blood.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Halfway from Home (Split/Lip Press, 2022), Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, 2018), and three poetry chapbooks. Nerve, a craft book on unlearning the ableist workshop and developing a disabled writing practice, is forthcoming with Sundress Publications, and Abbreviate, a short collection of flash nonfiction, is forthcoming with Harbor Editions. She is an associate professor at Bridgewater State University.