By Jennifer Ha
The average age for girls in the United States to get their first period is 12 to 13, though the range of normal spans 9 to 15. And some research has shown that even that number is further encroaching into childhood, dipping more and more below 10.
As a mother of girls, that’s cause for pause. You want them to be spared of all that a little while longer. It feels like a very adult thing for a child to process and deal with, but the last thing you want is for her to be scared. Even though you’d dread the thought that that totally carefree part of childhood would be gone forever, you want her to be prepared.
However, having “the talk” (or at least one of the “talks”) is not the easiest information to give or process. The conversation I’d never have with my daughter:
“You see, honey, you’ll be dealing with blood for a very, very long time.”
“Just 38 years or so. Oh, and it’s every month…. But you get used to it.”
Not such pleasant news. Of course it is a sign of good health, but let’s face it, it is also a pretty big nuisance.
How do you have that discussion so that your child won’t get upset, but at the same time convey the enormity of what that change represents? Not to mention the pain that comes with it, and how that inconvenience eventually just becomes a way of life. I don’t remember anyone explaining anything to me — maybe they did, maybe I forgot, maybe I tuned it out.
But I do remember on some level how startling it was to go from being a child, a tomboyish one at that — and then to have to deal with blood and pain every month. For children, blood exclusively means that you’re hurt — a cut, a scrape, or even worse. Then you get a period, and it’s the opposite: that you are growing up and in fact, all is well. But it just doesn’t feel like a goodsuddenly you have to deal with pain, pads, tampons, embarrassing leaks, bloating, the works.
I wondered why the subject seemed to be awkward, even taboo. As Moms, who is better equipped or more close to a daughter? And yet, when I asked around to find out my friends’ experiences, few of their memories were warm and fuzzy. One friend started hers at 9, another at 15. One had her mother’s boyfriend explain it to her (really?). And another remembers all her sisters with her mother yelling out instructions on the other side of the bathroom door on how to put in a tampon, like they were coaching a football game. (It’s not as simple as it might seem, you find out.)
When I asked my own mother about how her mother broke the news, it turns out she didn’t. She just tossed my Mom a belt and a pad and said, “You know how that works, right?” Of course she didn’t. Belts must have seemed like a great convenience to my Depression-era grandmother, but was it embarrassment or awkwardness that prevented her from a gentler delivery?
There’s a social awkwardness, even between mothers and daughters about explaining it. And that just has to stop. One friend had her mother pass her a book, called You’re a Woman Now, just as she was leaving for school one morning. Her Mom was quite busy, and matter-of-fact, and relied on a book to impart to her poor daughter the major changes that were going to affect her body. My friend was 11 at the time, and remembers being mortified. “If I couldn’t ask my Mum or my sister about it, who could I ask?” she recalls. “I hid the book in a drawer at the very bottom, under something. I was embarrassed. It was like some awful secret.”
Other Moms were more conscientious, thankfully, and this anecdote from another friend about her well-meaning Mom was epic: “I have an older sister, and I guess my mother thought it best to prepare me — I mean, I would find out sooner somehow, anyway. So she took me into the kitchen to talk. She told me, I fainted. And not only did I faint, I fainted backwards and hit my head on the garbage can. I was frightened of blood, and I guess I was just overwhelmed by the news.” Who can blame her? As girls we go from no periods, no bra, no burden to carry, to a physical metamorphosis that means childhood has drastically changed, from worry-free to that extra responsibility.
The books have gotten better. American Girl has a book out called The Care and Keeping of You, and there are others, of course. But the last thing I’d want to do is toss a book at a daughter and say, “Let me know if you have any questions!” or worse, have her surprised and scared at 9 or 10 by unexpected bleeding. A Mighty Girl has an excellent blog post on how to talk to your daughter, “That Time Of The Month: Teaching Your Mighty Girl About Her Menstrual Cycle.” The comments on their Facebook page reference a Roseanne clip that addressed the subject quite brilliantly. On the show, Roseanne is speaking to her daughter after she gets her first period. She explains that her childhood is not over just because her period has started. “These are a girl’s things as long as a girl is using them,” Roseanne says, holding her daughter’s baseball glove.
One friend’s nine-year-old daughter casually asked her from the backseat, “What are those green and yellow sticks in the bathroom?” My friend demurred while behind the wheel, and told her daughter that she’d explain when they got home. “Why? What’s the big deal?” her daughter asked. Once home, my friend sat her daughter down, took a deep breath, and endeavored to explain. I asked how it went. She said that she did the best she could, nervously watching her daughter’s reaction.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“Not much. But she did put a blanket over her head.”
Getting a period does not make our girls women by any means. It’s just the very beginning of a long journey.
Our biologies are a thing of mystery, and a thing over which we really have no control. We don’t know when our periods will start, when they will come each month, and ultimately, when they will end altogether. But we have to do better by our girls. It shouldn’t be taboo, or feel like some dark secret. Our young girls deserve the respect and dignity worthy of the women we want them to become.
When the time comes for me to have the talk, I want to channel Roseanne. I want her to be prepared, but also for her to know that no matter when it happens, it doesn’t mean that her childhood is over. Far from it. Whether it happens at 9 or 15, she’s still a child.
And no matter how big and grownup she gets, I’m always her mother, and she can count on me.