by KayLynn Wheeler
We have all heard the terms shark week, Aunt Flo, and the crimson wave. Many of us hear these terms and know instantly that someone is referring to her period. Even the word period is slang for menstruation. Yet, even with the acceptance of period as mainstream language, there is still a stigma around the word. Think about that! A stigma around the slang word that is used to mask the cycle that about 26% of the entire world’s population experiences monthly.
A few months ago, I got the phone call that almost every mother of a teenage girl has received. “Mom,” the timid voice of my 16-year-old daughter said, “Can you bring. . . stuff. . .to me?” I could tell she was on the verge of crying. Of course, I went right away, taking her a change of underwear, pants, and feminine supplies. The moment she saw me she burst into tears.
We went into an empty office, and she told me how her teacher had “called her out” for asking to go to the restroom—insisting that she should go between classes and telling her how disruptive it was to have her leave class. She was so embarrassed.
Needless to say, I emailed the teacher and administration as soon as I got home. Things were quickly remedied on that front, but what about my daughter? We have discussed menstruation openly at home. I thought I had prepared her to face the world as a confident woman, talking about her period without shame. But when faced with a 20 something, single, male teacher, I realized that I had not armed her with the right tools.
What’s the problem?
The cross-section of menstruation and education is a big deal. During a girl’s period her chances of missing school dramatically go up, even in the United States. There are a few reasons for this—pain, feeling sick, etc.—but one of the issues is the fear of bleeding through underwear.
I wonder how we may have failed to teach our daughters how to simply state, “I am on my period,”—or possibly “I’m menstruating”— so they can be prepared for that moment of anxiety. I know that my daughter is not the only girl to have felt unprepared to discuss this with others.
Years ago, I crossed paths in the elementary school office with a young neighbor of mine. I was her youth group mentor and she knew me well. She looked to be in distress, so I asked her how I could help. With a panicked look on her face, she said, “I had an accident. My mom is on her way.” I noticed the sweatshirt around her waist, but at the time I had no teenage daughters, so I did not put two and two together until later. Had my sweet young neighbor told me, “I started my period,” I would have known exactly how to offer her the support and sympathy that was needed in that moment.
What can we do?
No matter how much our girls know about what is going to happen to them during menstruation, they still need to be prepared to have the language and the confidence to talk about it and receive needed support during this time of the month.
Here’s how we can do better:
- We can help our daughters be prepared to talk to anyone — male or female — confidently about their period through supplying language and then helping them to role play possible scenarios.
- Mothers AND Fathers can talk with their daughters, early and often to help them reduce the stigma in their own minds about relaying this information to adults.
- We can help our girls be ready to face awkward situations by letting them know that menstrual mishaps are common and they do not need to be embarrassed, especially if they know what to do and how to handle these moments in public.
There is information all over the internet about how to talk to girls about their period, but many of them miss a key element. For example, Christine Burke, in an article for Lifehacker, discusses ways to teach daughters how to get help when needed at school. However, even this article, like so many others, discusses the conversation between a mother and a daughter and roleplays “discretely” getting help from FEMALE teachers at school.
Practice, practice, practice
The fact is that many of our daughters’ teachers, counselors, and administrators are male, especially in junior high and high school. In this day and age of equality, even many of their nurses very well could and should be male.
We need to role play how to talk to males at school, not just the female counselor or nurse. Here is where dad comes in, or if needed a big brother or another close male, if dad isn’t around.
Have your daughter practice saying (to dad): “Mr. Smith, I am on my period and I need to go to the bathroom.” Or, if they are a little more reserved, teach them that it is okay to leave the classroom in an emergency, and leaking through a pad counts! Then have her role play talking to a teacher after class: “Mr. Smith, I’m sorry I left during class, but I needed to take care of my period.”
It may be awkward to role play, but—that’s okay! Getting past the awkwardness and learning to say those words in the home will help them be better prepared for public situation. If you think it is awkward for your daughter to talk to you about her period (especially when she is dry and not under stress), imagine how much worse it will be to talk to a teacher, especially if she is not prepared. Please start early, before the big day, and remember she will feel more awkward role playing if you look or act uncomfortable.
Male teachers can take a little longer to figure out what’s going on, especially if a girl has not practiced this scenario and is timid and trying to be “discrete.” Our daughters can and need to be strong in awkward situations. That is why the need to practice being straightforward and clear is so important. Our girls need to be able to tell any person—male or female— “I am on my period.”
Why this matters
Studies show that during puberty girls often lose confidence, and they find it hard to feel strong while their bodies are changing so fast. Emotionally, they are learning how to deal with mood swings and psychologically, they are under a lot of stress trying to grapple with the conflicts in their personal goals with social opinions and expectations. This is a lot for a young girl to manage. Throw in the shaming that still occurs regularly with menstrual mishaps, and a girl’s confidence has the potential to plummet even further.
We, as parents, cannot control the reactions of others when our daughters have period bleed through, but we can prepare them for the day when it does happen. We can let them know beforehand that there is nothing shameful or disgraceful; it is just something that happens. We can make sure that they do not question their own worth over a little spot of blood. All they need to do is go to the bathroom, have some supplied with them, and know how to approach those around them when they need to be excused.
If a girl is prepared to advocate for herself during a stressful time, she is more likely to manage the situation and herself in a confident manner. So, until we have prepared our girls to say, “I’m on my period,” in awkward situations, we have not truly empowered them, “accidents” and all!