I was 12 years old the first time I looked down at my underwear and saw blood.
I remember feeling so disoriented—like the first time you see a positive pregnancy test. A new stage of life had been hoisted upon me; I was “becoming a woman.” But back then, the only thing I could feel was embarrassment and red hot shame.
I rode my bicycle down the block and threw the first pad I ever used into a neighbor’s trashcan.
It took me a full day to tell my mother that I got my period.
It was refreshing to see Pantone destigmatize menstruation by releasing a color called “period” in 2020. And it is why I am teaching my sons about what this all means. They won’t experience what I did but they need to know that there was no shame in what happened to me that day and what happens to girls and women in this world every day.
When I was 12, my body was healthy. I was starting a normal part of every girl’s life. It was functioning exactly how it should. And I couldn’t even speak a word of it out loud.
Like many girls of my generation, I was ashamed of my period. I was taught that it was something to keep quiet. Something to *NEVER* let other people see, but especially boys.
Do you know what it’s like to spend one week every month of your teenage years absolutely terrified that someone might find out…THAT YOU’RE A MENSTRUATING WOMAN?
Add in the Maxi pad ads that emphasize just how leak-free the pads or tampons truly were. Get the point girls? NOBODY IS TO EVER KNOW YOU BLEED.
I might not have been explicitly taught that periods were shameful, but the silence around menstruation made the message loud and clear: periods were something for girls to hide.
But if girls hide their periods, what else are we taught to hide?
Our desires—for sex, for love, for total independence—were longings we should keep hidden away.
Our fertility is something we shouldn’t talk about.
Our pregnancies too private to be taken seriously by policymakers.
Our traumas, violations and vulnerabilities—all things we should keep locked away.
So when I became a mother, I decided that the silence around menstruation was a code of secrecy I didn’t want to keep.
I decided to teach my three sons about periods
It happened a few years ago when my then-4-year-old son walked in on me in the bathroom.
“Mommy, why is there blood?” he asked, a look of genuine concern on his face.
Within moments, my second son joined the potty party, poking his head in the bathroom behind his younger brother. (We all know moms can never use the bathroom without an audience.)
“Oh honey, I know it looks a little scary,” I told both boys. “But actually, it’s totally normal and healthy! Every month, girls and women like mommy have some blood come out of their vaginas. It actually is from their womb and it helps make a nice home inside if I were to grow another baby. The blood helps my womb stay healthy.”
“That’s cool!” they said in unison. And then raced off to play with their legos.
At first, talking to my kids about periods and where babies come from, and how their bodies work felt really uncomfortable for me. But I knew how important it was to just say the words—however imperfectly—so I’ve just kept talking.
I’ll remind them about body safety rules while we’re driving to school, trying hard to keep my tone of voice normal. I’ll drop in a mention of my period when I am taking a break from Charades: “Be right back, mom has her period so I have to go change my pad real quick.” I even answered a direct question about how babies get into my tummy with a simple truth “Daddy’s penis went in my vagina and the sperm he put in there mixed with my egg and made a baby!”
“That’s cool mom,” I was told.
Every month, my sons see remnants of menstruation around the bathroom that we share: a soiled pair of bloody undies in the laundry basket, a rolled-up pad in the trashcan. I’m not purposeful in leaving things out, but I don’t go to lengths for them to be hidden. I just want them to see it as completely normal.
I know that more conversations around sex, social media, porn and consent are coming around the corner.
The amazing news, the liberating truth that I wish I could have told that ashamed 12-year-old girl that I was, is that the more I talk about these things, the easier it is, for all of us to keep talking. And if I can talk to them about bodies and sex, then perhaps one day they will be able to talk to me.
I no longer have a stressed feeling of heat in my face, or shortness of breath, that I used to experience when these topics came up.
I just feel like a mom telling the honest truth about what it means to be a girl or woman in this world, no shame required.
And then maybe, if they turn into boyfriends or husbands, or friends, or fathers, of other girls and women and people who menstruate, my boys can react with empathy, understanding or even, perhaps best of all—a shrug.
Because if I can raise three little men who see the lives of girls, women and non-binary or trans people with periods as completely normal—even perfectly boring—I will have done my job.
A version of this story was published October 1, 2020. It has been updated.