Having the Period Talk for the First Time

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Swellness is a monthlong series exploring the health and wellness stuff no one talks about.

I never got the talk. I was 11 when it first happened, and my mother was on a business trip. It just hadn’t come up in conversation before then. My dad acted quickly by dropping me at my oldest sister’s apartment — she’s 15 years older than me — where she talked to me about … pads, I think? None of it was especially memorable except her stories about leaking, which were meant to comfort me. I hadn’t yet even considered the possibility.

I wasn’t scared — just embarrassed. I was the first girl in my class to get my period, which at the time felt painfully unfair. I viewed my period as a disadvantage, a flaw that should be hidden rather than carried with pride. I obsessed over how to get my pad to the bathroom at school, dreading anyone noticing. I panicked when I heard that many girls took a break from sports, especially swimming, during their periods. I quickly taught myself how to use a tampon. I never complained about my period or missed a game or school because of it. I did everything I could to hide it.

“What is that?” my oldest daughter, Fianna, 5, recently asked after seeing blood in the toilet. I had used the bathroom to pee, and before I’d finished, both Fianna and her little sister, Lughnasa, broke inside to join me.

“Mommy has her period,” I said. In typical kindergartner style, Fianna instantly had more questions: What is a period? Does it hurt? Is that a diaper in your underwear?

This wasn’t how I pictured our period talk happening. I didn’t have a clear vision of how the conversation would go, but I expected that the discussion would come a couple more years in the future. But I did know that I wanted to talk to her openly. I wanted her to be more informed, more confident in her body and less afraid or embarrassed than I was. Still, I guess I’d just anticipated one or two basic questions, which I’d casually reply to in super-parenting fashion, then we’d move on. She’d leave the conversation feeling more comfortable with her body, and I’d walk away patting myself on the back for my parenting skills. Easy peasy!

In reality, I stumbled through my responses. Despite my intentions, I realized I had no playbook, since I’d never had that conversation before.

Many other moms I’ve spoken with didn’t have the talk either. “I didn’t understand cramps, toxic shock, or what my period was for, how to ease pain,” Kristjana Hillberg, a public-relations manager in Rapid City, South Dakota, wrote over email. “It just all felt … expected and something to ‘deal with’ silently.” She recalls one time bleeding through her pants on a classroom chair, though the feeling the memory conjures isn’t the one you’d expect. “I don’t remember being embarrassed so much as annoyed that I wasn’t prepared or didn’t have the items I needed to take care of it.”
Jillian Amodio — a social worker, author, and founder of Moms for Mental Health in Annapolis, Maryland — felt completely unprepared when she first got her period at 13. Amodio, who today has an 8-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl, noticed blood in her underwear at school and didn’t know what was happening. “I started crying, because I literally thought I was dying. I had no idea why I would be bleeding,” she says. The experience was a terrifying shock and left her feeling “an immense amount of shame.”

The lack of these body discussions led to confusion, feelings of shame, or a general dislike of our own bodies — and now we’re desperate for history not to repeat itself, to help our kids understand and embrace their bodies. Making it a point to discuss periods openly seems like an obvious start. As Hillberg, now mother to a 10-year-old girl, says, “Everything can be talked about and discussed, and nothing is off-limits” in her house.

For some, these conversations may come intuitively. But for others, like me, the period talk is easier said than done.

Sarah Joseph, co-founder of Parental Queries in St. Louis, wishes that she’d breached the conversation earlier. When her daughter was 12, one of her friends got her period for the first time. Feeling unprepared, the girl went home in tears. The timing surprised Joseph, who was expecting to have the talk later. “I gathered myself and started the conversation by telling her that this was a normal part of being a woman,” Joseph recalls.

It’s important to educate children about periods, ideally by age 8 or 9, says Marni Sommer, an expert on menstruation, professor at Columbia University, and co-author of A Girl’s Guide to Puberty & Periods. (The average age of menstruation in the US is 11.9 according to the CDC).

The conversation came earlier for Hillberg — much earlier than she’d expected. When her daughter was 3.5 years old, one of Hillberg’s 14-year-old clients from a behavioral health clinic where she worked stayed at her house for a night. The girl’s mother had asked Hillberg to watch her daughter, as she needed a night away. At one point, the girl yelled for Hilberg from the bathroom. Hillberg entered with her daughter to see that there was blood all over the client’s underwear and pants. Hillberg explained to both girls that periods happen to every girl and it’s not something to be embarrassed about. (When Hillberg and her daughter saw her client six months later, her daughter touched her arm and said, “How are your privates?”)

The timing is up to parents, but Dr. Lea Lis, psychiatrist and author of No Shame: Real Talk With Your Kids About Sex, Self-Confidence, and Healthy Relationships, advises openly discussing menstruation and other sex education topics with kids as early as they can talk. The complexity of the conversation, of course, will evolve with time as they grow. “With 5-year-olds, you’re just going to be like, ‘The blood helps create life, and that’s how we have babies’ and that kind of very basic stuff,” Dr. Lis says.

When speaking to kids about periods, Sommer suggests explaining how period blood is normal. When children experience blood, it’s generally a sign that they’ve hurt themselves, so it can be scary. According to Sommer, it’s essential for a young child who is close to getting their period to know “that the blood that comes out from your period does not mean you’ve hurt yourself. It is just a different kind of blood than perhaps they’ve been hearing about throughout their childhood until that point.” It’s important to share that when a period starts, it can come out looking different ways. Sommer’s book mentions that menstrual blood comes in all different colors — such as light red or brown. As a young person gets older and has more regular periods, Sommer adds, it’s important that they understand that too much pain and too much bleeding are not to be ignored. It’s worth noting that these conversations are important for all children to hear and participate in — including those who will not menstruate.

Dr. Sara C. Flowers, vice president of education for Planned Parenthood, advises parents to acknowledge that other changes happen during puberty as well. “A lot of things that people don’t talk about are things like vaginal discharge, body hair, and breast development,” Flowers says. In the years leading up to a first period, she adds, “These are all things that are happening much more consistently and, frankly, visibly.” Flowers advises parents to use inclusive language, as not everyone who identifies as a girl or woman will menstruate, adding, “We want the learning to be something that everyone can identify with.”

I don’t recall ever speaking to my mom about periods. It felt like pain or discomfort didn’t exist, because neither hers or mine was acknowledged. During my brief conversation with Fianna, she asked if periods could be painful, and I honestly responded, “Yes.” I worried that I’d scared her about periods, but sharing my experience with honesty felt more important. In those moments, Dr. Lis advises that every time you share something negative about a period, you balance it by saying something positive. For example, if a child asks if it hurts, you can say, “Sometimes it hurts a little bit, but it doesn’t hurt that much.”

Some kids may not want to have these conversations. Amodio tried to have the period talk with her daughter when she was 10, but her daughter appeared unfocused and fidgety. Knowing that her daughter loved to read (and often learned through visual aids) and how similar conversations had gone in the past, Amodio started writing what she’d planned to say and printed the document out instead. (The book eventually turned into a 30,000-word document, which Amodio is publishing later this year and touches on topics like disability, gender, and sexuality as well as periods.)

“It served as a great tool for my daughter to refer to in her own time,” Amodio explains. After Amodio’s daughter read the book, the conversation of periods became more normalized in their house. Her daughter now shared when a friend had started their period or was having a rough day because of cramps and when her own period arrived for the first time. Amodio created a period kit with for her daughter when she was 10, which included period underwear, black leggings, small waste-disposal bags, and a note of encouragement that read, “Never forget how loved you are, how strong you are, and how amazing you are,” among other items. When her daughter got her period six months later, she was happy to have everything she needed.

Joseph’s daughter incorrectly learned that tampons are reusable from a friend. “Young people are really good at sharing bad information with each other,” Sommer says. “Make sure they have a correct and factual source of information to potentially counters some of the misinformation they may get from others.” That source could be a caregiver, book, or pediatrician. Joseph wasn’t home when her daughter got her period, so she had to ask a friend for supplies, which embarrassed her daughter. “This experience made me realize the importance of preparing and planning for your period,” Joseph wrote in an email. When her daughter arrived home, they discussed her feelings, which Joseph validated, and the necessary supplies her daughter might need as well as the importance of keeping spare supplies in her school or travel bag.

Six months ago, Hillberg’s daughter started asking her mom to make her a period kit. Hillberg thought it was premature and shared that she hadn’t gotten her own period until she was 14. “But that was you, and everyone is different. I could have a different experience than you,” Hillberg remembers her daughter saying, which immediately changed her mind. “And I was like, ‘You are 100 percent correct. You are not me, and you might start tomorrow,’” Hillberg says.

Since our initial conversation, Fianna hasn’t asked any more questions. But I know there’ll be more opportunities. (“It’s not something that you do at 9, 10, or 11, then you check the box and you never talk about it again,” says Flowers.) For now, while my girls are still young, I mention my period to my husband like any other news from the day that I’d share in front of my kids when it occurs. I want to educate the girls about what a period is, but I want to teach them that it’s not a secret that needs to be carried alone.

Much like the rest of parenting, I try to focus on the next step. When Fianna asks another question, I’ll respond honestly and as she gets older, I’ll buy books and create a period kit. It’s an imperfect process, but I know that periods will be part of the conversation in our house.

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Having the Period Talk for the First Time