Since giving birth, I’ve developed a deep respect for my body and my fertility. What was once a reason for fear, and even shame, has become the source of self-confidence and joy. As the mother of a little girl, I hope to teach her this kind of self-respect. After all, it isn’t always easy for little girls…
I got my first period when I was eleven years old. I was so upset. I remember crying my eyes out– not because it hurt, but because I knew it meant there would be days I couldn’t go in the pool! As far as I could tell, periods were a major nuisance. But beyond that, I didn’t find them to be particularly gross or shameful. Until my Catholic grammar school had something to say about it, that is. One day on the playground, a girl in my class asked the other girls which of us had gotten our periods. I naively answered, “Yes,” as if this were not a big deal. Apparently, it was a very big deal. It seemed I was the only one (looking back, this was highly unlikely– I was just the only one dumb enough to say so). Among other idiotic responses was: “Now you can have sex with so-and-so” Obviously, this statement was ludicrous (and wrong– a period is not actually a prerequisite for sex), but it spread around the schoolyard like a virus, all the way to the aide on duty, who reported it to my teacher.
I thought my teacher was going to see things my way, reprimand those who started the rumor, and gently remind me, as my mother had, that getting your period was a natural part of growing up. I thought wrong. After recess, she dragged me into the hall for a chat in which she informed me that “periods” were not an appropriate topic for discussion. She didn’t stop there — she made me write a letter home to my mom AND dad informing them of what I’d done. When I brought it home, my mom hit the ceiling. She was so angry, she sent a note back to my teacher asking for a phone conference.
That weekend, my mom called her. I proudly listened while she made a case for me (and, as I see now, for all the girls in my class). My teacher repeated herself: periods are not up for discussion at school, at recess or otherwise. My mom asked her the million dollar question: if girls don’t talk to each other about these things, how are they going to learn anything about themselves? How are they going to investigate these subjects and with the changes they’re going through? How are they going to realize that this is all quite normal — and in fact quite amazing?
These are the questions I ask myself now when I look at my beautiful daughter. She’s so comfortable in her skin right now as she learns to use her arms and legs (and chew on her own toes). I want her to stay that way — maybe not toe-chewing, but loving the body she was born in. Looking ahead, I think this moment I’ve been talking about, her first period, will be crucial.
Of course, we want to talk to our kids about sex in a way that teaches them the gravity of it, but at the same time imparts to them the amazing power of their bodies. When it comes to girls, taking about periods is a big part of this. The same “talk” might not be right for every family, but here are a few suggestions for getting the conversation started in a productive and positive way:
Prepare her for what’s coming, and do so enthusiastically.
If you don’t know why it’s happening, bleeding out of your vagina can be very scary– and yes, this has happened to plenty of girls. Periods can and should be normalized before a girl gets her first one. Explain to her that this happens to you every month, and that at some point it will happen to her too. I think it’s especially important to contextualize a conversation about periods in such a way that they don’t just seem like nature’s special punishment for women, but part of a bigger cycle– the cycle of life.
Share with her the various options she has for dealing with her monthly flow: pads, tampons, reusables (like cloth pads or cups).
Explore these options together, discussing the risks and benefits of each. If you’re not comfortable with tampons, explain to her why. The less mystery involved here, the better. Remember that it is her body, and though you don’t want her making choices that you feel are irresponsible or dangerous, it’s important for her developing sense of herself as a woman that she not feel like her own body is somehow inaccessible to her.
Consider including Dad in the conversation.
Does the idea of talking to your father about your period still creep you out a little? Sexuality is a human issue– not just a male or female one, and if you really mean business about not making this a shameful topic, then it has to become something that can be openly discussed at home.
Find a special way to celebrate her special day.
She’ll only have her first period once. It’s a big event! You don’t need to invite the whole family over for a gala, but perhaps a special dinner, a movie, a gift — something to let her know that you recognize that she’s going through a significant time in her life.
A first period is only one of many “firsts” in a girl’s life, and there will probably be some that you don’t (want to) hear about. But opening the lines of communication early and keeping them that way is a step toward ensuring that when tough questions and problems do come up, she will know you’re on her side.