When I was in fourth grade, I got chickenpox. I remember waking up, realizing my mom was outside, and shouting from the window, “Mom, I got it.”
I was, of course, talking about chickenpox. She, however, thought I meant my period and was instantly excited. I was mortified, hoping none of the other neighborhood kids overheard our conversation. I don’t think I really even knew what a period was when I was 10.
I didn’t actually get my period until I was in eighth grade. Other than the period misunderstanding three years earlier, I don’t actually recall my mom and I having a conversation about what a period was or how I should handle it. To be fair, I have a terrible memory. Perhaps she lovingly guided me through this momentous occasion of growing up, or maybe I just figured it all out on my own. It’s just not one of those formative teenage experiences that I’ve carried with me into parenthood.
So when my own daughter was in fourth grade last year, I decided it was time to have the talk. Period. As much as I wanted this it be a memorable conversation for her, I also wanted it to be a memorable conversation for me as a parent.
I had started noticing some signs of physical maturation (budding breasts, hair down there, and serious mood swings — am I the only one dealing this those? Makes me worried about real PMS!) in my 10-year-old daughter and I began to wonder if that meant getting her period wouldn’t be too far down the line. I’d read that most girls get their period along a similar timeline as their mothers. But I’ve also read that girls these days could be getting their period earlier because they have been exposed to outside hormonal influences that are causing them to mature earlier than previous generations.
I began to worry, not that her period would come too soon, but that when it did arrive she’d be at school and be frightened and not know what was going on. And instead of asking for help, she’d simply take the situation into her own strong-willed, fix-it-yourself hands (qualities I admire in my daughter, but perhaps wouldn’t serve her well in this situation) and deal with it. I could imagine several scenarios where she’d fashion some sort of solution, probably involving a lot of toilet paper, and I wasn’t sure any of the options would work out for the best.
I wanted my daughter to be in the know and be prepared, not shocked and scrambling. I needed her to know that when her period did arrive, if she happened to be at school or some other place with a trusted female adult that was not me, she could ask for help because we’ve literally all been there.
My number one goal was to normalize the conversation about periods. In doing so, I hoped to ease her fears, open the door for questions that she wouldn’t be uncomfortable asking, and set a tone for other important growing up conversations we’d be having in the months and years to come.
But, here’s the deal. I’m not great at difficult conversations. I was nervous. I wasn’t sure I had the right approach or words or answers. But I knew this was a pivotal and emotional discussion we needed to have. So I told my daughter we needed to talk about some girl things, and we snuggled up on her comfy tweenage bed and started to chat.
1. Start with a book
We are bookworms here at our house. We turn to them for entertainment and education. So it’s not surprising my first instinct for this conversation was to reach for a book. Happily, I found The Care of Keeping You 1. I loved this book’s approach, as it goes from head to toe to talk about all the changes your daughter’s body will be going through as she gets older. (The team behind this book also makes a version for older girls, The Care and Keeping of You 2, and one for boys, Guy Stuff.)
We talked about how the hair on her head may change and be oilier. We talked about how she’ll need to wash her face every night. We talked about the importance of deodorant and that hair was going to grow in her armpits. As we read, I could tell my daughter was really soaking it all in and looking forward to hearing what might come next.
2. Find something to bond over
When we got to the section on the vagina, we talked about what a period was, how much blood would come out, what it would feel like, and how she should take care of herself during her menstrual cycle. Honestly, I think I even learned a new fact or two.
She asked me great questions and at one point said, “So, this happens for, like, ever?” I couldn’t help but smile. I wanted to say “Right, girlfriend?!” It was a moment I won’t forget in my parenting journey as I could sense the bond with my daughter, not because she came from me, but because we are female. I acknowledged that sometimes it feels like your period last forever (like if you get it before your other friends or you have to skip a day at the pool), but that in actuality her period would only last a few days and that as she grew older her period would eventually stop.
3. Don’t shy away from anatomically correct language
Several years ago, I had a friend with older daughters (finding such a friend can be super helpful in your mom journey) remind me that when we have these conversations with our children, we need to not only be compassionate and patient, but also be straightforward and matter of fact. Using anatomically correct language when talking about body parts and bodily functions is key.
If your daughter hasn’t heard you use terms like ‘vagina’ and ‘menstrual cycle’ since she was little, she may initially cringe at them. But in the long run, she’ll come to realize that we should treat them with the same care and respect that we treat the rest of our body. Our private parts and these rites of teenage passage are not something to be ashamed of. There’s no better way to normalize these conversations than to talk about our bodies and the incredible things they do normally.
And if your daughter isn’t to puberty or adolescence yet, there’s never a bad time to start paving the way for these conversations. It’s never a bad time to start using anatomically correct language — whether you’re potty training or neck deep in the period talk.
4. Forgive your nerves
Like I said, I was nervous for this talk. But we shouldn’t let our nerves stop us. We can acknowledge that they are real. And when we get to the trickiest parts of the conversation, or the ones where our daughters ask us a question that we aren’t quite sure how to answer, we can be honest with them and let them know that we’ll find them the answer — and sometimes we might even find it together.
My daughter had plenty of questions that I hadn’t anticipated before we began talking (upon reflection, maybe I should have expected some of them!). She was curious about how she would know when it was time for her period. I told her we couldn’t exactly pick out a date on the calendar and plan for it. I told her that might make it seem scary, but there are signs we ca watch for. She might get a tummy ache, she might feel bad cramps near the tops of her legs on in her lower back, she might feel a little bit mad or sad for no reason at all. I told her that as the weeks and months came, I’d ask her how she was feeling so she could remember to keep me updated and I could help if anything didn’t feel okay.
It’s important that we allow her to ask those questions — but we don’t have to know all the answers right away. Honestly, who better to share these life lessons with your own daughter than you, even if you are figuring it out as you go?
Before even broaching the topic with my daughter, I reminded myself — as I often do with these tricky parenting conversations — that this period discussion wasn’t necessarily going to end with us embracing and my daughter saying “You’re the best mom in the world.” These mother-daughter moments don’t always have to be wrapped up in a neat bow. But they do have to happen and we must be confident our daughters will remember the important stuff.
5. Keep the conversation going
When my daughter and I turned the final page in the book and I’d answered all her questions for the night, I tucked her into bed and I walked away feeling pretty proud of my parenting skills for the day. But then I reminded myself that I wasn’t checking off a task off on a “to do” list. This was the first of many conversations my daughter and I will have about periods and making safe choices to care for her body. We didn’t yet discuss tampons or menstrual cups. We didn’t do a full dive into the role your period plays in the whole reproductive cycle. We didn’t talk about sex or female pleasure. Those conversations are for other nights, but they are very much on the horizon. As she gets older, I want to be the one she turns to with questions, challenges, embarrassing moments and funny stories, and so we’ll keep having our talks.
That first conversation was about a year ago. Now in fifth grade, my daughter still has yet to get her period. But I’m glad we’ve started these talks. My hope is that I’ve begun the conversation in a way that sets us up for meaningful, open and more comfortable conversations in the future.
And when the day comes that she tells me “Mom, I got it,” I’ll know what she means and I’ll know that she is ready.
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