As uncomfortable as periods are, sometimes talking about them can be even more awkward.
I grew up in a household of all men, and I felt embarrassed at the mere mention of menstruation. They -- being card-carrying penis-owners -- tried their best to be sympathetic, but couldn’t understand the very real struggle of a 10-year-old girl who had cramps akin to birthing a baby whale. When it came time to ask how to get blood stains out of my panties, or whether pads were better than tampons, well, I just didn’t.
Thankfully, I had my grandmother to (kind of) talk to. When I asked about tampons, her solution was to make me wear one, even though I wasn’t on my period. I still have cringe-worthy flashbacks of her pulling the string out of my body because I didn’t know how to remove the compact cotton plug.
Flash forward a few decades and there I was, once again in a household of all men -- this time with a husband and two sons. I hadn't really made a decision about when I would initiate the "girls have periods" talk with my boys, and I hardly ever mentioned menstruation to my husband -- although he knew enough about female cycles from his three sisters to express the appropriate amount of sympathy when needed.
Yet I knew my boys needed to know about periods because half the population has, or will have them, and they can impact the way a woman functions. At some point boys will either date, mate with, marry or befriend a woman who menstruates and they need to know what's happening, without losing their s--t.
My litmus test for whether or not our kids were ready to know about any mature subject was when they were old enough to ask or express interest. If a question about body parts, baby-making or even erections came up, I knew I would respond truthfully and factually. I envisioned these talks happening when my sons were pre-teens, not when they were just 6 and 8. Life, however, had different plans for us.
Our talk was spurred by our then 6-year-old who noticed a pretty pink wrapper in my bathroom trash can. Being a boy, he didn't hesitate to reach in the recepticle, withdraw the wrapper, and unfold it -- revealing a used maxi pad. The site of blood didn't gross him out, but it concerned him. With the pad clutched firmly in his fist, he ran to the kitchen (where I was entertaining friends), held it up and asked if I was hurt.
After the searing-humiliation, I decided to sit my boys down and have a frank, age-appropriate discussion with them about the menstrual cycle. Surprisingly, they took the news pretty well, even though most of what I said was hard for them to grasp.
“Boys, I want you to know something about women. We have eggs inside our tummies.”
“Like a chicken?” my oldest asked.
“Sort of, just way smaller. Anyway, we have these eggs, and every month, if a woman doesn’t get pregnant, her body pushes an egg out – ”
“Out of their butts?” my youngest yelled.
“No, not out of our butts. We push that tiny egg out of our vaginas, but in order to get the egg out, our body mixes it with blood. All we can really see is the blood, but it’s not a boo-boo, it’s normal.”
They both went silent on me and stared with their mouths open, so I went into over-explain mode, mentioning the lining of my uterus and vaginal secretions, all in an effort to make things better. Before I knew what happened, we were discussing fertilization, what ejaculation was, and how old they had to be to make sperm. It wasn’t my finest hour.
Thankfully, my sons are like goldfish when it comes to things like this, and they mostly forgot all of what we talked about. That’s why a few years later, when they were 11 and 13, I had the chance to re-explain and do it in a way that didn’t leave all of us traumatized.
This time, because they were older and desensitized to pretty much everything (thank you Internet!), they managed to not take our discussion like a spear to the gut.
We covered the basics once more and this time (thank you again, Internet!) we got to watch funny, informative videos that helped us both feel at ease.
My best advice for talking to your boys about periods is to keep it simple. It turns out very few boys will truly want to dive deep into the world of sloughed endometrial linings and viscous vaginal fluid.
But do talk to them -- lest you be responsible for the panicked scream of a grown man seeing a used feminine hygiene product for the very first time.
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