Menstruation. men-stroo-ay-shun. The word alone causes bubbles of embarrassed laughter to erupt from our mouths and spots of crimson to stain our cheeks. It’s a word many people can’t utter without stuttering, although it’s also a word that most people may never dare to say in their lifetimes. Despite society’s openness about bodies, our acceptance of nudity and sex, people of a certain age—of any age, really—often find the concept of menstruation difficult to discuss without twittering behind a hand poised at their mouths.
The day I started menstruating was a sweltering spring day at the tail end of seventh grade. Due to the heat and the fact that I sported a polyester plaid uniform, I headed to the restroom to wipe my face of perspiration. While there, I used the facilities, shocked by the reddish-brown blemish that stood out against the bright white of my underwear. I panicked. I had no sanitary napkins or tampons with me. I didn’t think to check if those products were available from a dispenser. And there was no way I’d seek out a teacher for help; I was mortified by even the thought of asking. I stuffed toilet paper in the crotch of my underwear and walked back to class, hoping that if I bled profusely, the wad of paper and navy shorts under my skirt would stem the flow.
That afternoon after school and while Mom was still at work, I asked my older sister for advice.
“I got my period today. What should I use?” My words tumbled out in a rush and I felt heat in my cheeks.
She opened up the cabinet underneath the bathroom sink and handed me a stack of sanitary napkins. “You might want to make sure and tell Mom about this, you know.”
Warmth flooded my entire body and irritation stiffened my posture as my sister and I continued to stand in the bathroom. My fingers fumbled with the thick bulk of the cotton pad and I considered what my sister had said. Mom hadn’t brought the subject of my first period up to me, so why would she want me to tell her about it? And how on earth was this pad going to fit against my less than womanly body?
As I bent near the toilet, trying to affix the pad correctly to my underwear, I longed for something different: thinner pads, more comfortable pads. I imagined a welcomed change to these too-large wedges of cotton that felt more like a diaper than I’d ever imagined. But I knew I wouldn’t ask Mom to go to the store and look for something different than what she provided. Despite the fact that two of her three girls were then menstruating, the subject would somehow still be off limits.
In fact, a long time would pass before I attempted to use a tampon. Somehow, stuffing a narrow tube of cotton and rayon inside my vagina didn’t hold any allure and truth be told, I was uncomfortable at having to touch my genitals. In my parents’ house, even the word nipple was considered verboten. How was I to ask about the vulva and labia?
I heard from my sister later that I had offended my mom by not informing her about the start of my menstrual cycle, but I had nothing to say. It’s not that I meant to hurt Mom, but I’d learned by example: menstruation was not a topic about which people talked. It happened. I dealt with it. End of story. I was somewhat confused by the contradiction set before me: Mom didn’t talk about the process, but when it happened, she wanted me to come speak with her?
In my head, it was Mom’s job to come to me and ask. But now that I’m also a mother, I feel differently about the situation and understand her point of view. Of course Mom would have wanted me to share my news with her. I realize that Mom, too, learned by example from her parents. She never had the opportunity to witness clear communication between parent and child, a concept that is paramount to the parent-child relationship and one that allows a family to grow healthy and strong.
I also don’t blame my mother for her behavior, for the lack of information. She wasn’t very forthcoming with scientific details of growth and maturation, but neither were her peers. Most of what I knew then about sexual maturation came from the science books I read; even when I was young, the human body fascinated me. And, Mom was not comfortable with her own body. She wore long sleeve shirts to cover up arms she perceived as fat and sported pants all year so as not to show her varicose veins. I rarely saw her in a swimming suit. Her message, while not spoken, was clear and I wonder now if her attitude impacted her ability to disseminate information to her girls.
If she had been more comfortable with herself and her body, would she have been more forthcoming with information regarding my body? Would I have felt more comfortable approaching her with questions? I’ll never know. But even then, in the twilight hours of the summer after I got my first period, I vowed to be different. To wear what I wanted to wear and to learn how to send a different message to the kids I did not have yet.
That different message involves as much information as one can handle, because I believe that the more information a person possesses, the better off that person is. I do not want my children to be so uninformed about and uncomfortable with their bodies that they refuse to speak about them at the most appropriate of times. Since their sixth grade year, I’ve equipped the twins with little care packages to tuck into their backpacks and we’ve spoken about menstruation and the like for years. My son knows what a tampon is and that someday, he might have to buy them for a sister, a friend, or a spouse. My youngest, a girl who is eight years old, inquires often about the basics of menstruation. To all of my children, I provide age-appropriate details and the correct anatomical terms. We are open about the anatomy and the physiology of our bodies in our house.
As of their 14th birthdays, the twins hadn’t started their cycles. I wondered what would happen when one of them looked down and saw the contrasting smear against her underwear. Would the other start at the same time, considering they’re identical twins? Would she come into the kitchen and tell me, with flushed pink cheeks, that she was a woman? Despite my constant communication with them, despite their knowledge and comfort with the anatomical terms, would she (they) tell me at all? I hoped that my effort would pay off such that the girls would know and understand they can ask and tell me anything.
Our relationship was put to the test one Saturday afternoon as I lounged on the trunk in my bedroom, messing with my iPhone. The twins, who were downstairs at the time, had texted me photos of Benedict and Arnold, our newest cats, and I tried to reply with my own photo of Lucy, the eldest of our feline friends. My text with the photo wouldn’t send.
Julia: Can we watch something because Daddy and Dominic are gone somewhere.
Gabrielle: Hey, I’ll be right down.
Me: Why can’t I send photos anymore?
Julia: Also I think I just got my period.
Me: Do you need me?
Gabrielle: Are you serious?
Julia: Nah, I’m good.
Julia: Yes, I’m serious.
Gabrielle: Wait what?
Me: Do you need a pad?
Julia: Are they in the cabinet?
Julia: Found them mom.
Me: A pantiliner might be enough.
Julia: *nm [Never mind, the asterisk indicates she corrected herself.]
Gabrielle: At least it wasn’t at school.
Julia: Ikr [I know, right?]
My daughter’s revelation that she’d had her first period struck me as odd in two ways. First, Julia’s nonchalance and frankness were far different responses than my own. Despite the 30 years that had passed, I still felt the hole in the pit of my stomach as I remembered what I had experienced that late spring day. The hesitancy in my step. The refusal to speak to my mom.
Second, I laughed at Gabrielle’s inability to comprehend what had happened to her sister. Maybe she, like me, thought Julia would be more active and shocked by the bleeding. That her twin would first share the news with her, huddled in the corner of their bedroom before letting me in on the secret. But this is 2016 and times have changed. Many secrets are intentionally (and unintentionally) divulged via electronic methods.
So I had to ask myself what Julia thought about the entire event and why she chose to tell me via text. Was she embarrassed to speak to me, or was it something else?
When I asked her my question the next day, Julia told me, “It had nothing to do with being embarrassed, Mom…I’m just lazy.” Her crooked smile danced across her face as she admitted those words, and I could see truth in her eyes. On a sluggish Saturday afternoon, she simply didn’t want to walk up the stairs to tell me.
Six months later, when the girls were on a camping trip with my sister, I received a short text message: “Gabrielle says to tell you she’s not pregnant.” My child had not had sex yet, but chose to use her odd sense of humor to tell me about what happened. The girls are identical twins, and somehow, it seems fitting that I also received Gabrielle’s news of her first period in the same manner I received Julia’s.
For a while after their first cycles, I felt as though I pestered Julia and Gabrielle. I made sure they marked the calendar for the days they started their cycles and that they understood where all the pads and tampons were. Julia and Gabrielle took in all of the information I gave them, never rolling their eyes. Even though Julia had experienced several cycles and Gabrielle only one, I asked if either of them wanted to try a tampon. The look on each of their faces told me everything I needed to know: it was too soon.
But a month later, when Julia’s cycle arrived again, she asked me about tampons. “Do you think you can help me?”
We stood in the bathroom with a mirror in one hand and a tampon in the other. We reviewed the anatomical parts of her body, and I impressed upon her that “once you find the right hole, you’ll be fine.” I also told her to relax. “Your vagina is a muscle. If you’re not relaxed, your vagina won’t be either. And then? The tampon won’t go in as easily.”
One feeble attempt by her and a little more coaching by me and the tampon slid in. Julia’s shy smile and quiet “thank you” made my heart sing, and then we washed our hands and high fived one another. I was proud of my daughter for doing something I was scared to do well into my early twenties. I was also proud of Julia for having the courage to ask me to help her.
Some mothers would find my behavior odd. Who helps her daughter insert a tampon?
But my aim was clear to me, and when I asked the girls about the whole situation in yet another of our conversations, I found that they understood what I was trying to accomplish.
I want them to be prepared. I want them to be able to speak about their bodies without shame and embarrassment. I want them to understand exactly how their bodies work and feel comfortable enough with me to ask questions. I want them to have something that I did not: comfort and confidence in who they are, what their bodies are like, and what their bodies can do.
And if they do have that comfort and confidence, I’m certain that someday, they’ll be able to use the term menstruation without giggling.
*Names have been changed.
About the Author
Christina Consolino holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and currently teaches Anatomy and Physiology at Sinclair Community College. Her work has appeared in Flights: The Literary Journal of Sinclair Community College, Short Fiction Break, The Huffington Post, and Literary Mama, where she serves as Senior and Profiles Editor. Christina is also the coauthor of Historic Photos of University of Michigan. She lives in Kettering, Ohio, with her husband, four children, and several pets, all of whom play a central role in her blog, Heptadecagon.