On the path to raising healthy, well-adjusted kids, there are a lot of uncomfortable subjects to tackle. From getting dumped by a friend to answering the ever-so-popular, “Where do babies come from?” question, there’s no shortage of kid conversations that may make some parents squirm. Of course, educating kids about puberty and menstruation is no exception. I’m not sure when it hit me just how hard it would be to talk to my daughter about her period.
Was it the first time I found her playing with a pile of (unused, thank God) tampons on the bathroom floor as a toddler, gleefully twirling them around by their strings like little helicopters? Or maybe later when we walked up to the cash register manned by a teenage boy at the local Target and I plunked down a package of overnight pads only to see his face bloom red. Or was it when a then-presidential candidate (now president) tried to shame a member of the news media for an experience that affects more than half the people on Earth?
When did I realize that the “period talk” could be just as hard as the “sex talk” — if not harder?
Oh, not the technical end of it — that’s been pretty easy. Since she was old enough to ask, “What are you doing?” when she spotted me in the bathroom with a tampon, I’ve been feeding her info on what they are (and pads too) and what it is that makes a woman bleed once a month. We’ve purchased — and read — several different books on puberty and changing bodies, and she knows that one day she too will have a menstrual cycle.
But what about the rest of it? All the things that make getting your period one of the many curses of having female reproductive parts? These are the things I haven’t said to her yet because I’m still figuring out how.
1. Some boys are probably going to try to make you feel ashamed
And you absolutely shouldn’t feel ashamed. But boys — especially hormonal, uncomfortable, jerky teen boys — have a tendency to say really mean things about girls’ changing bodies. Unfortunately, only a small number of said boys will grow up to become the sort of mature, sensible person who may deserve to date you should you be interested in that. Others may share an office with you, where they will take great glee in responding to simple requests that they replenish the copier paper tray when they empty it with cries of “Somebody’s on the rag again.” Don’t be afraid to report them, be it to your high school guidance counselor or your company’s human resources department. Harassment is harassment. And you don’t have to take it.
2. Girls might too
We may all be blood sisters, but any woman who hasn’t entirely blocked the middle school years from her memory, Spotless Mind–style, can report that the girl who gets her period first is often ridiculed. Of course, so is the girl who gets it last. And the girl who first begins using tampons. And the girl who uses a pad longer than some arbitrary time period determined by said middle school’s queen bee. Somehow, even in college, you may be faced with that one girl who scoffs at you because “OMG, you are still using an applicator to put your tampon in? What are you, a prude?” and it may sting in the way that all girl-on-girl hate stings. Remember these four words: your vagina, your choice.
3. It might just be painful as hell (then again, it might not)
Up until puberty, bleeding has always been associated with something hurting. Before, it usually meant a fun Band-Aid and probably something cold with a cartoon on it pulled out of the freezer because Mom doesn’t like seeing you hurt. So I can only imagine what you’re going to think when I tell you you’re going to bleed for days on end. I want to tell you that it’s temporary and nothing like that time your cousin bit you and you complained that it hurt for a week. But the truth is, I don’t know how it’ll be for you.
Nearly half of all women experience pain with every single period, and at least 40 percent experience it during some of their periods. The amount of pain varies; some feel slight twinges during that premenstrual time. Others are hugging the porcelain throne and crying out for codeine for days on end. I’m afraid to scare you, but I’m just as afraid of you one day thinking there’s something wrong because you’re hurting so much more than your best friend does.
4. It might make you feel a little… off
About 3 million women experience some form of PMS in the few days before their period — mood swings, bloating and a whole lot more. That’s unpleasant in and of itself. But you could easily be one of the 3 to 8 percent of women who experience premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a “significant premenstrual mood disturbance” with often uncontrollable feelings of anger, depression, irritability and more. The worst part? The feeling of a total and complete inability to do anything about it.
5. It might hold you back a bit at times
Those tampon ads are great, aren’t they? The women out jogging and hanging out on the beach having the time of their lives? Fun. Normal. Periods don’t have to change your life; just change your tampon! (Wait, did I just make a catchy jingle? Call me, Always).
When you were a little girl, I taught you that “commercials are just trying to sell us something,” and when it comes to menstrual supply ads, what they’re trying to sell you is a load of B.S. You could go swimming with a tampon, but you’re probably not going to want to worry about whether your tampon string is hanging out when you’re hitting the surf. And that camping trip you were planning with your girlfriends? Let’s just say that three days in the wilderness without bathroom facilities will hit the bottom of your list when you’ve got to change a super-flow every three hours, lest you risk your underwear.
So yeah, your period might — in fact, it almost definitely will — change your life, for better and also worse. But it will be so different for you than it was for me or than it will be for your kid or even than it will be for your classmates. And that’s great. However you decide deal with your period — and all of its side effects, both social and physical — is the right way for you to deal with it. And don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
Originally posted August 2015. Updated October 2017.