Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

When Menstrual Talk Comes Home

April 16th, 2012 by Chris Bobel

For the last decade or so, like so many others who read and write for this blog, I have been researching, reading and writing about how we think, talk and act (out) about menstruation. My particular interest is the various interventions that some brave activists make to disrupt the dominant narrative of menstruation.

But this post isn’t about my work or even the work of others. Not exactly.

This post is about my daughters and what sometimes happens when my work comes home.

In 2006, when my oldest daughter  was 13, we had one of many Mom-initiated short talks about her approaching menarche in the (of course) car. Posing as a super nonchalant mom, I casually asked:

ME: So what do you think your period will be like?

HER: I will hate it.

[GULP…I was grateful she could not see her feminist mother’s face completely cave in]

ME: Why do you think so?

HER:  All my friends hate theirs.

Later that year, her first period. My daughter did not share this with me, rather, I “discovered” this new development on my own. That evening, after we talked, she agreed—none-too-cheerfully—to a dinner at a local Mexican restaurant, but we were not permitted to discuss “the event.” The next day, I set the kitchen table with candles, tea and her favorite dessert—just for the two of us—and I presented her with a lovely bag to store her menstrual supplies (that I am pretty sure she never used).

Getting her ears pierced

Photo by Aaron Conaway // CC 2.0

We had decided, years before, that when she began menstruating, she would get her ears pierced. So we went to Claire’s and did the deed, but again, no fanfare—just a mom taking her teen daughter to get her ears pierced.

From that point forward, we rarely talked about her menstrual experiences, though I tried and failed several times.  For example, I suggested she try cloth pads (and why), but she was not the least bit interested

When my book on menstrual politics came out, my daughter  was 16. She and 4 of her friends, all dressed in red dresses, circulated trays of  menstrually-themed (read: red) appetizers at my book party. The party favors, the decorations, and the conversation were all highly MENSTRUAL, and I heard no titters, detected no blushing between my girl and her pals.

So did my daughter HATE her period, after all? Maybe not, but she, the child of a feminist committed to challenging the dominant cultural narrative of menstruation, became a girl, who, at best, managed her period. And I wanted better for her.

Today, my second daughter is 8.  She is 9 years younger than her older sister.

Since she could talk, she has called attention to my period. When she glimpses me changing my pad on the toilet  (yes, we have an open door policy), she typically remarks:

“You are having your period, Mama.”

“Yes, Honey, I am.“

She speaks as if her first period might be any day. It could be, but I doubt it. Her trajectory toward puberty seems to be moving at a pretty average clip.

She is very excited about getting her ears pierced when she begins menstruating. She loves wearing stick on earrings and clip ons; this is a girl enamored with ear bling. But she has never once asked if she could get her ears pierced BEFORE her menarche, even though several of her friends have theirs pierced now. I think she likes the link between menarche and ear piercing, seeing it as an established rite of passage.

She asked me the other day why I don’t use a Diva Cup, because, after all, she said, “They are less wasteful.”

I don’t know how to explain my girls’ contrasting reactions to their anticipated menarche, and I can’t easily predict how my youngest will actually experience her menstrual life (when the day comes, will I find her panties half hidden in her room too?) But I will admit that I was feeling like I had done ‘something right’ with Girl Number Two. Until….

The other day, she asked me: “What happens if my period starts when I am in school?”

I realized that with all the menstrual talk in our house, she still did not really know what to expect. She was afraid her period would start and her pants would flood. She said she wants to start carrying a pad around in her backpack “just in case.” I didn’t hear excitement in her voice. No, I heard anxiety.

This got me thinking about her many comments about starting her period. When? When? When? And she’s just 8.

I worry that the menstrual culture we’ve grown inside our home may have inadvertently burdened my little girl. It seemed to have a different effect on her sister. With my oldest, Mom-as-menstrual-warrior seemed to steel her against engagement with her menstrual self. With younger daughter, I wonder if it has made her anxious. Is the menstrual culture  at home creating a richer context for my youngest to understand her changing body? Or are my fears justified? In a menstrual-shaming society, does more -than- average attention to the big M actually backfire and create worry? After all, when she walks out our front door, who–out there–is going to affirm her?

I have to admit that I am frustrated trying to calibrate just the right tone, just the right approach that empowers my girls—any girls—without burdening or repelling. How do we create a new menstrual conversation that opens up, not shuts down, dialogue? Can there be too much menstrual talk? Is it all about the messenger and if so, what do we, members of the menstrual community (can I call us that?) do in particular, especially with our own kids?

I want to hear others’ stories of when your work, your art, or your activism comes home. Have you found the balance? How does the healthy, body-positive, literate menstrual discourse actually sound when we speak it?


11 responses to “When Menstrual Talk Comes Home”

  1. Beautiful article – thank you. My eldest daughter is 6 and a half and for the moment, so as yet, I have no answers for you :-(
    What came to me about Zoe’s anxiety was remembering how anxious I was until I’d gotten that first kiss under my belt. Until that time, I was freaked out because I didn’t know HOW to kiss someone, but then once it was done, DUH, it was so obvious and why did I ever worry? I think it’s perfectly normal to be worried about something when you don’t know exactly how it will be. Perhaps excitement and serenity are too much to hope for, even for the daughter of a menstrual warrior! But by letting her know that however that first blood comes she will cope, that she will know exactly what to do, even if if involves a wad of kleenex or a rolled up sock (huge brainstorming possibilities), I think you will empower her.

    ps. I’m psyched to be part of a menstrual community!

  2. None says:

    Not related, but PLEASE in the future reconsider using Claire’s to get ‘piercings’ as they use piercing guns which are not at all safe (not even for ear lobes).

  3. Chris Bobel says:

    Yes! Welcome to the COMMUNITY, Jacqui! :-) And thanks for your reassurance. I think you are right—the unknown is always scary and that is likely a normal/natural/expected part of her anxiety. All the info and hypotheticals in the world can’t substitute for the actual embodied and uniquely personal experience that awaits her.

  4. Chris Bobel says:

    thanks for the heads up.

  5. I don’t have children, but I do have a husband and I sometimes wonder how things might have been different for me if he was one of those men who is disgusted by periods. A close friend and his girlfriend recently broke up and she wrote a blog piece – which she sent on to me – detailing his horror of her menstruating and how his reaction caused her to stay on the Pill (and run packs together) for far longer than she was comfortable with – despite her feeling she was suffering from negative effects. Many of my friends have complained at some time or another to me about their boyfriend’s attitude towards menstruation (and other natural bodily functions and changes). I have one friend who swears she remains single because she will only go out with truly feminist men. I’m not sure my husband was truly feminist when we met, but now I sometimes think he’s more of a feminist than me and he can call me out on my weaker moments! I think it’s not a dissimilar process of honesty, education and openness in relationships between men and women as much between parents and their children. I’m not saying changing men’s attitudes will solve anything or everything, as it’s often other teen girls that are the source of most anxiety, rather than teen boys, but I think it helps.

  6. Chris Bobel says:

    I think you are right, Holly. Opening up the channel and refusing the shame to shape the dialogue–it is all part of the same intervention. I am fortunate as well to be partnered to someone who is comfortable with my menstruating self and I think if he were not, we’d have a real rift in our relationship (love me, love my menstruation?)). Thanks for writing.

  7. Laura Wershler says:

    Chris, this lovely personal story asks a really important question about how our activism, work, art, etc. impacts our families. As I have a son and not a daughter, I’ve only been able to imagine how my menstrual cycle awareness and activism might have influenced a daughter, and of course my imagining rarely takes into consideration that she might not have been as interested in learning about her cycles as I would hope for her to be.

    Your story reminds me of others I’ve heard. I know a sex educator and author whose teenage daughter wouldn’t talk to her about sex. Another mother working in sexual health angered her daughter by packing a copy of Our Bodies Ourselves in her luggage when she went off to university. But, a week later, her daughter called to apologize and tell her mother that three or four young women she’d met in her residence had already borrowed the book and told her how lucky she was to have a mom who would do such a thing.

    I think Gracie’s actions as you described them are proof that your activism had a positive influence. And I think the fact that you are aware of Zoe’s questions and concerns is the important thing. She knows she can talk to you about anything to do with menstruation. I also think that, often, our children are not even aware of how our openness about a subject influences their thinking and experience.

    For years I’ve been a vocal sexual health advocate, both in my advocacy work and at home. Although my son and I didn’t have many personal conversations about sexuality, I realized that our family’s openness about the subject empowered him in subtle ways. Once, when he was in high school, I called home from thousands of miles away where I was presenting a workshop. He told me that a guy had come to their sexual health class to talk about testicular self-examination and that, based on the information provided, he wanted me to make an appointment with the family doctor for him when I returned.(Which I did, and which turned out fine.) I remember thinking that he seemed to have no idea that this request of his mother was not something that many 16-year-old boys would make, even though they might have fretted about the same concern. There have been other examples since then that tell me he has developed healthy, positive, comfortable attitudes about sexuality. Whew.

    I like the idea of exploring this question you’ve posed with activists of all kinds. I just read about an extreme example in a book called Something Fierce, Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter by Carmen Aquirre. Her mother and step-father took her and her sister from Vancouver, where they had lived for five years, back to South America where her parents worked for years in the Chilean resistance movement against Pinochet. Now that’s bringing your activism home! It was a dangerous, stressful experience that absolutely impacted these girls’ lives profoundly. It’s a fascinating story, and the two sisters had completely different responses to their experience.

    Thanks so much for sharing this story with re: Cycling readers.

  8. Josefin says:

    Thanks for a lovely post, very much appreciated, as are the comments above.

    Our activism does of course come home, and not only in specific menstrual situations. Rather it is always there, I find it, since it is much of an identity thing. I am a menstrual activist. I AM a menstrual activist. I don’t have kids yet, but have thought a lot about how they will react to my activism. But I have already experienced unpredicted reactions to my menstrual acts.

    There have been numerous situations where it has sort of backfired, where I have realized that I’ve gone a little far without thinking about the fact that those around me naturally perceives menstruation as more of a taboo thing than I do. I’ve even realized that I often do things that I myself really do consider taboo – in order to try changing the way I feel about it. So I really do understand those around me. Pushing boundaries will cause reactions. Every action has a reaction. But it is weird, in lack of a better word, when the reactions comes from your family.

    Again, thank you Chris, and the rest of you.

  9. […] When Menstrual Talk Comes Home (Society for Menstrual Cycle Research) […]

  10. Chris Bobel says:

    Thanks, Josefin, for enlarging the circle a bit. Our work comes home in all sorts of ways and yes, people invariably react to what we do. i don’t think other’s perceptions are *naturally* anything, though, but a deeply embedded socialized response. Somehow, some of us are able to unlearn that (though I know I am never completely free of the old script). It is such a delicate dance figuring out how to push but not too hard. It is gratifying to be reminded that that so many of us are simultaneously trying to figure out the steps.

  11. Chris Bobel says:

    Thanks, Laura, for your (ever thoughtful) reply. I appreciate your encouragement and the suggestion that there ARE positive impacts, even if they are often subterranean. I love the story about your son coming to you to help another young man. Very cool and certainly proof positive that information access can change people’s lives.

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