As the world hovers, impatiently drumming billions of fingers on billions of tables, waiting for a vaccine to be developed for COVID-19, here comes the milestone anniversary of another important laboratory effort. On May 9, 1960, the FDA approved the oral contraceptive pill, a medication so revolutionary that it’s become known in the decades since as simply The Pill.
The Pill! It released women from the physical dangers of pregnancy and child birth, saved them from the financial strain of additional children, allowed them to work and plan their lives and care for their families or themselves precisely how they wanted. Nearly all American women will use contraception at some point in their lives, notes the CDC, but in their most recent study, 12.6% of women aged 15-49 were taking birth control pills.
And for me, my own tiny little life? The pill permitted my schooling, and enables my career. Without a doubt, I would not be able to function without it.
When I got my first period, the summer I was 13, it brought a surge of joy to my Judy Blume-loving heart (and uterus). I told my mother the news after leaving the bathroom, and she lifted me up into a hug and swung us both around. Within a year, it was less thrilling.
Periods would last for nine days or more, leaving my puny adolescent body weak and mind light-headed. I soaked through underwear, through jeans; I’d step out of the shower and watch scarlet rivers web immediately down my legs.
And that was just the physical part. For over at least a week leading into my period, my hormones would plummet until I was so depressed, I lay in the fetal position in the dark for days, refusing to get out of bed. Between the two planes of agony, my mind and my uterus, I started missing school — at least two to three days per month. Eventually, I passed some legal limit and had to write a letter to the school board asking them to let me stay in my grade.
My mother begged me to go to the gynecologist and get a prescription for the pill. “I can’t watch you suffer the way I suffered when I was your age,” she said. She knew how fixable this pain was. I was terrified of the gynecological exam that would precede a prescription — rightfully so, it turned out. Speculums are terrifying! But the reward was truly miraculous relief. I got the pill, and I got 16 days per month back.
Aside from taking a break for the babies I hope to have, I plan to be on some form of birth control pill until menopause. My uterus still carries a sea of troubles that I take arms against routinely; at 31, I woke up the morning of my friend’s wedding to find blood all over the hotel sheets. I had soaked through a pad, underwear, and leggings, and so I soon trudged over to my gynecologist to rejigger the cocktail, which needs to be rejiggered with my doctor every few years. I can’t imagine how I would have survived my twenties or launched a career without it. When a major job interview was scheduled during the week of my period, I started a new pill pack early to assure I wouldn’t be saddled with blinding lower back pain and cramps while trying to sell my best self. When I’ve caught myself getting overwhelmed by petty coworker disputes or crying in the office bathroom every month, I trudge back to my gynecologist to discuss.
It’s not easy, and it’s not pleasant, and yes, on occasion, I have felt weak with rage that I have to manage my menstrual cycle around my deadlines — that I have this invisible, unmentionable burden half of the working population can’t even grasp. But I shudder to think how I would have ever sat through a commute, presented in a meeting, or concentrated on an afternoon’s workload with the amount of blood loss I experienced as a teenager. How could I do any of it without birth control?
Mostly I just feel gratitude that it exists, and so it’s with the fullest throat that I wish a happy anniversary to the pill! Thanks for allowing me to have a life, any life, at all.
Kaitlin Menza is a writer based in New York and a contributing editor at House Beautiful. Previously, she was an editor at Teen Vogue, Seventeen and Glamour. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, New York, Time, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, The Cut and many more.