biological clocks

The Sisterhood of the Birth-Control Phone Alarm

Photo: Mark John/cultura/Corbis

Recently, a couple friends were sitting across from another young woman on the subway in the early evening when all their phone alarms began to clang. My friend called out: “Birth control!” They all gushed about the superiority of the shared 5 p.m. daily time setting for their pill reminder. (“It’s the best time, because you’re never asleep!”)

It’s a modern bonding experience. When another girl’s phone alarm goes off at odd hours, we glance around for the zinging device. The movements are habitual: There are side-eyed glances to the world, the dip into the purse, an emergence of pinched fingers, and a touch down for ingestion. Sometimes there will be a small shared smile with passersby if you glance up at the right moment. Hey, fellow responsible modern woman! We’re everywhere! What a handle we have on the conveniences of modern life! How far medicine and technological devices can take us!

It can be a secret or a celebration. Occasionally, a devil-may-care sort of lady will just pull out the whole business-card-size kit with the alarm still blaring and throw the crumb of hormones down the hatch. For a time, my pill was called Cryselle, which I initially misheard as Cristal. Depending on the company, I could make a little production about popping Cristal every day. There was a moment in later high school when girls wanted to communicate their official sexually active status through a public show of their alarms sounding and the subsequent capsule ingestion.

The daily pill ping also sparks contentious arguments about what time of day is best for a reminder. The selected hour does reveal what type of person you are. Are you guaranteed to be awake early or late? Do you try to time your pill-popping for alone hours, office hours, or socializing times? One friend has told me she has tried her hardest to schedule hers during guaranteed “solo time.” Despite attempting nearly every waking hour, she found that life is too inconsistent to ever guarantee privacy. Another night-owl friend has hers set at 11 p.m. She can be spotted knocking it back with carefree abandon at parties.

But, regardless of when we do it, we share a friendly secret. As both the witness and the witnessed, I have only ever seen a nod of shared understanding. It seems like something that only garners recognition from fellow alarm-setters. Am I breaking some unwritten rule by writing about this? I hope not. I just love it so, this thing we have between each other. Men — out of politesse or innocence? — never make a fuss. It’s our secret bell toll.

The Sisterhood of the Birth-Control Phone Alarm