With one new book and one new film out on menstruation, My Little Red Book, and Period: The End of Menstruation? respectively, women are being given an opportunity to update their thinking on a subject that still creates anxiety in the public.
To add my voice to the discussion, here is what women have had to say about it in my anonymous Women’s Realities Study
. If you’re at all moved by the poignancy of these women’s quotes, please feel free to add your own voice
to my menstruation questionnaire.
This is the questionnaire with the highest response rate in part, I think, because it’s first in the chart of questionnaires, but also because it’s perhaps the most unifying feature of being female, so women feel safer telling their stories about it.
Because of its “ordinary” nature there’s an almost mundane quality to menstruation. But what interested me in the responses from women (ages19-105) was that 65% of them wished they’d been taught about it differently. And this is what appears to be the essence of that sentiment: At its heart, our initiation to menstruation has largely to do with the quality of our mother daughter relationships. There were mothers who really came through for their daughters around this life change, but mostly, even when daughters were taught about it by their mothers, it wasn’t necessarily satisfying, and many were left completely on their own, or farmed out to other sources entirely.
The 105 year old woman I interviewed said that after she got her first period, about which she knew nothing before hand, her mother sent her off to “lectures for young ladies” at the Women’s Club. A 72 year old woman I interviewed was told nothing, got her first period and thought she was hemorrhaging to death. Even now as you’re reading this and probably thinking, well that’s to be expected of women of a different generation, I’m sorry to bear the news that women currently in their 20s report having been left to the school nurse, health teacher, or their girlfriends.
Some remember this being an embarrassing conversation, and other women noted they were taught the “mechanics” but wish they’d been given far more texture and color to help them get a fuller understanding of what it’s like to live with your period. Many mothers presented this material in a clinical one time, brief encounter. Like an inoculation.
The responses reflect that when girls were taught, they got the anatomical basics and were shown sanitary products, but rarely given much to contextualize it physically, sexually, emotionally or relationally. Even though girls can only absorb so much life altering information, the tone set in even the simplest explanations tended to be antiseptic and awkward. I think this is one of the reasons it’s difficult for women, even today, to assimilate our sexuality into the whole of who we are.
There are societally reinforced splits in the perception of female sexuality. We don’t think of mothers as sexual, for example, although mothers usually have sex to end up that way. When many mothers taught their daughters, or left them to glean information on their own, the mother’s discomfort was read by, and absorbed by, the daughter. Often mothers gave them reading material on menstruation but then never discussed it with them, let alone augment it with their own sense of its meaning. Very few women referred to an emotional quality other than embarrassment in these moments, and the girls whose mothers weren’t embarrassed, were far less likely to feel uncomfortable.
So this seemingly mundane condition of being female hints at the fissures in our core vulnerability: we’re not fully comfortable welcoming our girls into womanhood because we ourselves aren’t fully permitted to be comfortable there.
“I do wish my mom had spoken to me about it. Not because I needed the information, but because I craved to have a bond with her as a woman and as her daughter.”
“I wish it had been taught to me in a way that made me feel excited and proud rather than anxious. I wish that we’d been given a whole book about it, giving us all the details about what to expect so we wouldn’t, despite the pamphlet telling us that we were normal, think something abnormal and wrong was happening when some detail about the whole process was not exactly how it was described to us.”
“I wish my mother had sat me down, somehow revealing in the warmth of her face (which isn’t actually warm) the complex magic and pain in the ass experience that menstruation is. I wish it had felt for both of us like a shared rite of passage.”
The next two are from women in their mid thirties.
“My parents handled it all so poorly – it’s really shocking. I was completely mortified of my body – for most of my life – it totally started me on a path of disconnection with my sexuality.”
“I feel betrayed because my mother should have prepared me for this. I was very young to start yet she should have seen the signs.”
These next two are from women in their 20s.
“Nothing was explained to me. My mother threw the pads on my bed. That’s how she knew I had my period. I read the strip on the pad to know how to use it.”
“The day I received my period, my mother gave me a pad and told me never to let boys play with me ‘down there’.”
And lastly, a sweet one:
“I read Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret. Then my mother told me about it one summer night when she tucked me in.”
Yesterday afternoon I had occasion to be hanging out with my two favorite sixth grade girls while I had a coffee and they sipped a chocolate drink the consistency of concrete. They agreed to be quoted on the condition of “like, total, anonymity.” I asked how they felt learning about menstruation, and in a mixture of giggling, gravity, and eye rolling, this is what our sisters in the field had to report. One said, “No offense, but sometimes what I read about it is cheesy. If I talk to my mom, I like her to talk to me one day, then stop. Then wait for me to come back if I have questions.” The second said, “I love talking to my mom…but not for, like, hours and hours and hours and hours!”
Every mother daughter relationship is different, and for those that are lacking, thank God for girlfriends, and literature written on our behalf. There are obviously many helpful ways to approach the topic of menstruation, but maybe the best place to start is to not think of it as “the talk”, but as the beginning of a life long dialogue between mothers and daughters, and women new and old.