I grew up in a family where we didn’t talk about periods. In fact, when I got my first period I didn’t tell my mother about it for some time, such was the privacy surrounding menstruation in my family. At some point after I gave my mother the news, I became aware that my father had been told. He never mentioned it to me (something I was very happy about – the secrecy surrounding menstruation begets more secrecy).
Perhaps this explains why, as a mother, I found myself similarly private when it came to my periods. Although I am generally very open with my children (including in relation to my body), and consider myself happy to discuss any topic with them, until quite recently I hadn’t discussed periods with them at all. More than that, I was private in relation to anything related to periods in the household. For example, if my children came into the bathroom while I was changing a tampon, I was discreet about what I was doing. I have to say this wasn’t a conscious decision. In fact,
I only realised I’d adopted my parents’ approach to periods with my own children when I went on a weekend away with some good friends, all women with kids around the same age as mine .
The topic came up, and almost everyone in the group expressed surprise that I hadn’t talked to my kids about it. My kids were 6 and 4 at the time, and my view was that they were simply too young. Why would I want to trouble them with the rather confronting news of a monthly shedding of blood? For my part, I was surprised that the others were so open about menstruation with their young children. The conversation got me thinking, however. It made me ask myself why I was so reluctant discuss menstruation with my children when I am open and honest with them about just about everything else.
The conversation with my girlfriends led me to have a bit more of a conversation with my two kids about menstruation. But I still found it hard, and I suppose my approach was to talk to them about what they needed to know (or what I thought they needed to know) and leave it at that. As often happens with children, however, events overtook my carefully crafted approach to the issue. Earlier this year, my 8 year old daughter spied a book at a local book-store. The book that caught her eye was “Welcome to Your Period!” by Yumi Stynes and Dr Melissa Kang (art by Jenny Latham). My daughter immediately asked to buy it. How could I refuse?
From the moment my daughter started reading this book, she was transfixed. She has loved every minute of it, absorbing all the facts the book has to offer.
She has enjoyed talking to me and almost everyone else she knows about what she has been learning, including by asking a lot of questions about our own experiences. Her questions are not for the faint hearted. Apropos of nothing, she has asked my friends about the colour of their first period. She has asked me why some people don’t like to have sex during their period. She has asked to see me insert a tampon. Apart from learning a lot, she has become positively joyful about the prospect of one day having a period. She sees it as something important in her future life, something to look forward to and be proud of.
For someone brought up in a traditional Catholic family, where we simply didn’t talk about such things at all, these conversations have been sometimes difficult, but mostly hilarious. And on reflection, wonderful. Wonderful that she is learning a lot, so much more than I knew at her age (more than I knew as a teenager, in fact). Wonderful that she is not embarrassed about periods or about talking about periods. Wonderful that she has gone beyond the absence of embarrassment and is actively looking forward to experiencing her first period.
The impact has travelled beyond my daughter to my 5 year old son. Given my daughter’s excitement about everything she has read in this book, he couldn’t help but be drawn into the conversation. One morning I found them sitting on the couch together, with her reading parts of the book to him like it was a lullaby. “Now, pads with wings …” she said. A few weeks later, he came up to me at the breakfast table and asked (without any embarrassment) whether I had just started a new period, and how long it would go for. Without this book, I wouldn’t have dreamt of such a conversation with him.
I wrongly thought they were too young to be having such a discussion. I wrongly thought the idea of blood coming from mummy’s body would upset them. Instead, they are fascinated. They are curious. And they have both learned a lot. For my daughter, this information and lack of self-consciousness about the process will be a gift throughout her life. For my son, it will give him greater understanding of the women in his life – also incredibly valuable.
The book also triggers discussions about other significant issues. Having read the book, my daughter volunteered one night as she was about to go to sleep that “you shouldn’t make a person have sex – it is a question of consent”. I asked her more about this, and it came from a chapter in the book about periods and sex. This is an incredibly important discussion to be having, and again not one that I had thought she was ready to have.
Thank you Yumi Stynes and Dr Melissa Kang for your incredible book, and to Jenny Latham for the brilliant art-work (which is engaging and inclusive).