Monday, January 17, 2011

On Getting Your Period

A couple of weeks ago, I asked if anyone had stories to tell about their bodies.  A dear friend of mine, Denise Bennett, a consumate storyteller wrote the following story about what it was like when she started her period.

 I had my first period when I was eleven years old. I did not know what it was and I was terrified that I had some horrible illness and was dying. Yes, I had seen the movie they showed all the girls in fifth grade, but the actresses in the movie (made in the early 60’s) all looked to be at least 18 years old with bouffant hair-do’s and large pointy breasts. They did not look at all like me. I was the smallest kid in my class and, at eleven, I looked like I was eight… I am sure that they used the word “blood” somewhere in the movie, but all I can remember is the girls smiling and laughing together in their June Cleaver-look–a-like dresses and a diagram of a uterus. The diagram, like the rest of the film, was in black and white, so of course there was no trace of red. I did not have a clue – the one thing I did know was that there was something embarrassing about the whole thing. The girls were separated from the boys when we saw the movie after school and there was a lot of smirking about it on their part. I remember that people talked about one girl who was heavy and very developed in the fifth grade; that she had already “gotten it”. I didn’t really understand what “it” was, but since it had happened to her and she was so unpopular (purely based on her appearance so far as I can remember) there was a aura of shame around “it”.
At one point my mother made reference to something “pinkish” happening “down there” -- maybe she didn’t want to scare me by saying there would be blood or maybe that was the way it started for her. Anyway, when my period came that summer between sixth and seventh grade, I was totally unprepared. In my panic, I hid my underwear in my Barbie doll suitcase with their evening gowns and little plastic high heeled pumps. Then I started stealing my father’s handkerchiefs to use as pads. I had noticed the always so carefully wrapped in toilet paper little bundles in the bathroom wastebasket, but I did not connect them with those bulky white things that looked like giant bandages in the pastel box underneath the sink or with "it". My mother finally figured out what was going on when she noticed that both my father’s hankies and my underwear were not showing up in the clothes hamper. I don’t remember exactly what she said to me when she spoke to me about it; she was not mad at me but she was genuinely puzzled as to why I did not tell her what was happening. What I do remember was feeling tremendously relieved that I was not dying and mortified to know that "it" had happened to me too.

Denise's story is distressingly close to my own.  I think my mother tried to tell me about all that stuff, but I was unable to listen.  She gave me a book about it.  I grabbed it, ran up the stairs, and stuffed it under the rug between the rocking chair and the bed without even thinking about looking in it.  The horror!  I was certain it was NOT something I wanted to know about.

When I was 13, I was in study hall at school and noticed, with mortification, that I had a dark red stain spreading rapidly over my jumper.  I got up, put my pocketbook over it, and ran to the bathroom.  I was very confused when I saw that my underpants were clean, but my dress was not.  Then I noticed that a dark red marker in my pocketbook had lost its top and was "bleeding" all over my dress.  I didn't have a clue what to do about the stain, because anyone who saw it would assume it was my period, but at least I didn't have the double horror of also getting my period!

When I did finally begin my period at about age 14 I had horrible cramps, so bad that I didn't want to get out of bed.  I woke up with brown coffee grind crud in my underpants.  I think I knew what it was but was so grossed out, I didn't know what to do about it.  I was much too disgusted and mortified to tell anyone about it, so I took off my underpants and hid them behind the toilet.  Mom had bought me a pack of "napkins" and a sanitary belt, but the thought of a) trying to make it to the closet to get it without bleeding all over the floor was impossible and b) trying to figure out how to put it on was also impossible, so I opted for toilet paper.  Lots and lots and lots of it.  Every hour or so, as I lay in bed moaning, in pain, trying not to let anyone know what was up, I had to get up to change the toilet paper pad which was already bleeding through.  Thank goodness it was a weekend, so my family just figured I was caught up in a good book and didn't want to stop reading - typical behavior on my part.

Finally, a couple of days later, our dachshund Snoopy blew my cover.  I heard my younger sister calling to my mother, "Mom, Snoopy has something and it's really gross!  Come here!  Quick!"  I tried to get very, very small so I wouldn't be seen, but Mom traced it back to me pretty quickly since I was the only possible choice since she'd had a hysterectomy, and my sister was only 11. 

She asked me, dismayed, why I hadn't told her.  What was wrong?  All I could do was mumble, "I dunno" and hide my face in my shoulder, hoping she would go away.  Fast.

Thankfully she did, leaving me to my shame and embarrassment, but now at least I could open up the new pack of pads she'd bought for me and use them instead of the wads of toilet paper I'd ineffectively been using.  Clearly, it was very difficult for me to make the transition to being a woman.

I tried to make periods more normal in our household.  I think my kids knew I had periods and that I used pads and tampons, all that stuff.  I talked about them some, though since it was only the three of them and me, there weren't all that many opportunities to talk about it naturally.

I talked to my daughter and told her about her period.  She'd already learned about it in school, I think.  I should ask her what she remembers - I'm guessing my mom doesn't remember telling me even though it was so memorable to me, and I don't remember talking to my daughter about it all that much, though I would guess she does.

I know I found it a bit awkward to talk about with my daughter.  I wanted it to be very natural and normal and fine.  I wanted her to feel comfortable talking to me about it and asking me whatever she wanted to know.  I'm not sure I quite pulled it off though.  I could talk to my women friends about all that stuff, all the gory details of childbirth, all the ins and outs of basically everything, but that didn't quite transfer to my daughter - she was younger and had some natural resistance to bodily functions, and I had some shyness because of my own experience when I was younger.  I know my mom did her best and did a darn good job, given my utter resistance, but it was tough!  I'll be curious to see what my daughter says when I ask her what her experience was like.

My fantasy was to give her a big Blessing Way (the link is for a blessing way for pregnancy, but blessing ways can be for any transition, not just birth), a ceremony where we had her friends and my friends, as a way to welcome her into Womanhood.  I wanted it to be a celebration.  But I think we were both a little bit too shy to do that, so we settled on my taking her out for a special dinner and a more private celebration.  I hope she felt better informed and less embarrassed than I did, but I think for most women in our culture, it's a very personal, often embarrassing event.

By the way, here's a link to a nice youtube video about what to expect when you're getting your period.

What's your story?


  1. You know what's funny about my first period? How easy it was to tell my mom! It's interesting to realize this, because it highlights for me in a new way how separate the physiology piece was from the sexuality piece in my family. Talking about my developing uterus? Easy. Talking about the development of me as a sexual, sensual being? No way in hell.

    My mom was a childbirth instructor in the '70s and a natural birth proponent. Pregnancy and birth were everyday topics in our home and eventually I witnessed the births of my three youngest siblings. I can remember being three or four and seeing my mom change her sanitary napkins, and she explained what they were to me. My preadolescence was spent desperately wishing for breasts and my period.

    When my period actually came for the first time, at 13, almost 14 years old, it was just one or two brownish spots on my underwear at the end of a beach trip. I remember being in one public restroom stall with my mom in the next, and telling her through the wall that I thought maybe this was my period (I was surprised, I had expected it to be heavier the first time), and that I needed her to buy me some pads. She was pretty matter-of-fact about it. Not congratulatory, not embarassed.

    A month or so later when my first "real" period started, heavy and crampy, I was equipped with thick pillowy pads. I waited for the bus on the first day of my high school career with this mattress between my legs, feeling crinkly and certain that everybody could hear it or smell it or see the way I walked. I didn't comment on those worries to my mom, who was at the bus stop with me. They seemed more personal, less physiological.

  2. Thanks for your terrific story. I love your distinction between physiology and sexuality. That makes a lot of sense to me. I think for many people the two are so intertwined that it's all that much harder to talk about periods - it's all just "down there - gross! - with the pee and poop and blood".

    I'd love to hear how it was for you to be there when your siblings were born. I've heard cautionary tales that kids will be damaged by seeing that (not that I particularly agree), and I'm wondering if it was a positive or negative experience for you?

  3. Overwhelmingly positive. I was 4 1/2 for the first (I had one brother in between, but I was only 19 months old that time and wasn't present). My parents had assumed that I'd stay with a relative, but as the birth approached, they realized that I was expecting to be there. They changed hospitals because the one where they planned to be for the birth forbade children in the birthing rooms due to concern about traumatizing them. A few miles away, in another town/another state, there were no such concerns. I stayed awake all night, eager to see my sibling being born, and was at the side/foot of the bed during the grand event, kissed him right away, LOVED it and told my mom that I wanted to have babies. HA! So much for being traumatized. At the birth of the fourth child, all three of us were there, and ditto for the birth of the fifth. That one was the only one that was hard for me - I was 11 and I found the sounds my mom made embarassing. It wasn't the gore or the body parts involved, it was the sensuality/intimacy of the moaning.

    I credit those experiences for being part of my own feelings of competence when it came to birthing my own children. While I wasn't eager to experience labor in my teens and early 20s, I knew I would do it and I didn't fear it. What's more, my mother did not use pain medication, so I had a sense that labor and birth were hard, sometimes painful work, but that I was up to the task.

    I'm sure my own childhood experiences also influenced my parenting choices - I'm very open about nudity, menstruation, sex, pregnancy, and birth. My older children have a lot of access to the "facts of life" (in manners appropriate to their cognitive and emotional abilities) and the oldest was present when the youngest was born at home.