My first memory of my mum is of her chopping wood for the stove that heated our house. I loved to watch her stand logs on a stump in our front yard, and swing her ax cleanly through the centre of each one with a satisfying thunk, come rain or shine or, in this particular memory, snow.
A stranger would probably have remarked on her surprising strength, but by the time I could form memories, I was already used to it. When my mum put her mind to something, from chopping wood to surviving poverty to becoming one of the first women in the local police department, she didn’t care what people assumed she was capable of. She just did it.
My mum valued education in all its forms. Growing up as one of six siblings, in a small house in the US state of Indiana, college was a dream that was beyond her family’s financial reach (although she would later go back and earn her degree as a nontraditional student). But for me, her only child, she wanted nothing more than a good education. This included good health and sex education, which had been gravely lacking in her own childhood.
Less than 10% of girls in the US start their periods before age 11. My mum was one of those few, and her experience was traumatic.
Imagine finding blood in your underwear, as a young girl, and having no idea why. Imagine periods being something you had only heard older girls whisper about, as if they were a dirty secret. Imagine reaching out to close family members, wondering if you’re sick or injured, only to have them refer to what is happening to you as “the curse,” and warn that “You’re a woman now, so you can get pregnant if you’re not careful.” This is what had happened to my mum, and she was determined that history would not repeat itself.
So, she made a point to educate me about periods from a young age, using simple, friendly language that she knew I’d understand. She became an expert at quelling doubts and fears before they ever had a chance to settle in my brain.
“Periods are something that all women have,” I remember her telling me, when I was around the age of 6. “Some people may tell you that they’re bad, or scary, but they’re not. They’re totally normal and there’s nothing wrong with them.”
“As it turned out, part of her preparations had included buying a set of age-appropriate sex education VHS tapes, specifically for the day I started my period.”
She explained that, since she’d started her period early, I might as well. As I got older, she gave me a plan of action for the day I started, so that I would know exactly what to do and what to expect.
“You’ll be using the bathroom, like normal, and you’ll see a little blood. You won’t feel any different, so don’t be afraid. Come get me, and no matter what we had planned for the day, we’ll go to the store and get you what you need.”
It was a school-day morning, two days before my 10th birthday, when I went to the bathroom and noticed some small spots of blood. I can only imagine what I would have felt if my mum hadn’t prepared me. But as it was, I wasn’t afraid. I called for my mum and she came quickly, scooping me into a hug before I even had a chance to pull my pants up. I’ll never forget standing in the bathroom, pants around my ankles, laughing as she hugged me tight.
As she showed me the best way to clean stains from underwear (“You use cold water, so the stain doesn’t set”) she turned to me with a serious look and told me something that I wish more parents, teachers and media would explicitly state: “This doesn’t make you a grown-up. You might hear that starting your period makes you a grown woman, but it doesn’t. You’re the same as you were yesterday. You’re a kid. You just have your period now.”
I had, indeed, heard people say this. And I was immensely relieved by my mum’s words. No 10-year-old girl is ready to become an adult overnight. Thanks to my mum’s well-timed words, I didn’t feel like I had to.
My mum’s preparations didn’t stop there: She had planned out the entire day. As promised, she canceled all previous plans, which included calling my school to tell them I’d be staying home.
Instead, we went to the local drugstore, where she explained the difference between pads and tampons. She suggested I use pads at first, but left the final decision up to me. (I would later realise that it’s a decision many girls are not allowed to make for themselves.) I opted for pads. As we approached the checkout counter, I asked if I could get a watermelon Ring Pop (one of my favourite candies to this day). Her response? “Of course. This is a special day!” A special day, like a birthday, or Christmas.
I had already gotten to stay home from school and have a Ring Pop, so I couldn’t imagine the day getting much better. That was before my mum suggested that we go to Baskin Robbins and get ice cream. She then took me home to watch some “learning videos.”
As it turned out, part of her preparations had included buying a set of age-appropriate sex education VHS tapes, specifically for the day I started my period. They explained topics like puberty, including periods, and the basics of how human reproduction worked.
“Starting my period might not have made me a grown-up, but I couldn’t help feeling that my mum had granted me some special 'grown-up knowledge.'”
Their tone was warm, rather than overly clinical, with kids and teens narrating different sections of each. One especially great segment came when a group of puberty-aged kids sat down with a real doctor for a question-and-answer session about puberty. They asked everything I could have ever thought to, and I absorbed the doctor’s answers like a sponge. Looking back, I learned as much from the tone of the videos as I did from the actual information they presented: Puberty isn’t scary. Everyone goes through this. It’s OK to ask questions.
Starting my period might not have made me a grown-up, but I couldn’t help feeling that my mum had granted me some special “grown-up knowledge.” Suddenly I was the girl who knew what tampons were and how puberty worked. Instead of feeling embarrassed or ashamed of my period, as many young girls do to this day, I felt pretty proud of myself.
Although access to information has improved vastly since my childhood, ignorance and stigma surrounding periods still persists. Some people believe that tampons “take a girl’s virginity.” The idea that starting one’s period instantly makes one an adult is still prevalent.
Even more common is a refusal to acknowledge periods at all. Most media aimed at elementary-aged girls and tweens never mention periods, even indirectly, which only makes them seem taboo.
If my mum’s well-executed plan taught me anything, it was that talking openly, honestly and often about periods is the best way to break this longstanding stigma.
Though I’m not having children of my own, I hope that in the coming years more parents follow in my mum’s footsteps and help their children feel confident about this perfectly normal part of life.