My kid was going to be the most period-prepared young person on the planet. I was certain of it. I’ve spent the last several years championing cloth pads and menstrual cups, promoting period positivity, and helping put an end to the idea that menstruation is filthy, or a taboo topic. I know first-hand the benefits of switching from tampons to a menstrual cup, from ditching disposable pads and pantyliners to reusable cloth. It’s been probably 6 years since I’ve used a disposable. I’ve found my cup and cloth pads to be more comfortable and more convenient even when I’m traveling or camping! So, I was insistent that my kid would have the opportunity to be well-informed from day one, and I would set her up with a healthy, comfortable cloth pad stash, for whenever her first period arrived.
Our menstruation conversation started when she was around 6 years old. She saw a GladRags pantyliner and thought it was an eye mask. When I told her what it was actually for – to absorb menstrual blood — she didn’t flinch or say “ewwww!”. Instead, she said “I want one with owls on it!” Fast-forward 4-ish years and she has a GladRags cloth pad stash at our house, and one at her dad’s house, so when her first period started over Thanksgiving break last fall, she was prepared. And she was not scared. And she was not ashamed. (I cried and was mortified when I got mine!) She and I talked about it over the phone, since she was at her dad’s house when it began. Her grandmother was there, so was her best friend, and her bonus mom and bonus sister. She was the most period-prepared young person on the planet!
Or so I thought.
I learned pretty quickly that what I thought was top-notch menstruation education, wasn’t impermeable to the wide variety of individual menstruation experiences. Or that not all of what gets said, gets heard, and that of what gets heard, not all is understood. Some of the things I may have mentioned early on to her about periods — around the time of the eye mask clarification — may not have been committed to her young memory. For instance … periods don’t turn on and off like a faucet.
I couldn’t understand why I was washing SO much blood-soaked underwear. Or why I was finding bloody cotton balls and tissues in weird places around the house. So one day when I knew she was on her period I asked, “Are you wearing a pad right now?” She glanced up quickly from critical Minecrafting and answered, “No, I only put one on when I see my period.”
Ah. Got it. I missed something in that critical education. I filled in the missing info. “Well, when you first spot blood, that means your period has started, and you’re going to keep on bleeding pretty much continuously for around 5 days. So you’ll need to keep a cloth pad snapped into your underwear, always – changing it every few hours – for several days. It isn’t an off and on kind of thing, even though sometimes there’s a little blood, sometimes a lot, and sometimes it seems like it’s turned off.” She blinked and nodded slowly, as if that finally answered a huge underlying question for her. As if it actually made more sense than dabbing away a little blood here and there with a cotton ball or whatever.
Recently she has started to pay closer attention to her period patterns, and understanding which cloth pads or pantyliners work best for her depending on where she is in her cycle. But period tracking when you’re a tween … is tricky. It’s tough to remember to write it down (or use an app) when there’s softball and field trips and math tests to constantly think about. Bleeding is still new. And even with the most meticulous period tracking, young bodies’ menstrual cycles can fluctuate wildly. A few spotty surprises during spring softball, and I decided to buy her a few of pairs of period underwear, to see if that might minimize the laundry. Now she wears these on school days when she thinks she’s getting close to her period, and she keeps a GladRags Carry Bag in her backpack, loaded with clean cloth pads.
We were recently on vacation on the fringe of a National Park, hours away from a proper grocery store, when she pulled me aside as we were walking through the forest and said, “I got my period today. And I didn’t bring anything.” Our only shopping option was a tiny general store/restaurant – the kind where you can choose from THE jar of spaghetti sauce or THE can of ravioli from THE store shelf, but also order a really delicious milkshake.
We walked back through the forest to the store to see what they had. They carried 5 packages of period products: 3 boxes of the thinnest disposables pantyliners I’ve ever seen in my life, and 2 boxes of plastic-applicator tampons. Short of tearing up t-shirts and washing them in the tiny cabin washing machine all week, this was what we had. I bought all of the pantyliners, stuffed them in my overalls’ pockets, and walked back through the woods.
The next day we heard of a swimming hole nearby. For my 11 year old daughter, still in her first year as a menstruator, this was delightful, and devastating news. “Does my period mean I can’t go swimming?!” she moaned. I remembered the boxes I didn’t buy back at the store, next to the only new tube of toothpaste for twenty miles. We talked about tampons. She knew what they were, and understood their concept. She cringed. I told her if she wanted to try internal period protection, I would walk back to the general store and buy what they had, and she could give it a try. I flinched, recalling my first tampon trials, the frustration of trying to shove this horrid wad of cotton in my body just so I could go to the swimming pool. My body rejected tampon after tampon, until I finally relented and skipped swimming that day. I prepared her as best I could. “Locate your vagina with your finger, then put the tip of the applicator just inside you, then push on the plunger end of the applicator and the tampon will go inside, leaving a string behind. And if you can’t do it, it’s okay. Just try to relax.” As if it were that easy.
But it was! The kid did it! She had far more body confidence – and more support – than I had had at her age, and she got the tampon in on the first try. So we loaded up our backpacks and set out on a hike, which would be followed by an afternoon at the swimming hole! She kept her distance behind me on the hike, slower even than her normal dawdle. I hung back with her, “Are you okay?” She let out a big sigh, “It’s hard to walk. This feels like the worst wedgie in my life!” I chuckled, and then it occurred to me, “Oh no! Did you leave the applicator inside you?!” She rolled her eyes. “Nooo, Mom. It’s just really uncomfortable. Why can’t there be something comfortable that you can wear allllll day long …. ?”.
“There is!” I brightened. She had seen my menstrual cup before. She knew of them, but until now, she didn’t have a reason to really appreciate why a cup would be just about the greatest thing ever. “When we get home, I’m going to get you an XO Flo Mini. Your own menstrual cup. You can practice folding it and getting used to it – maybe try putting it in when you’re in the shower some time – and then when you think you’re ready, you can wear a cup for up to 12 hours. It collects your flow, not like a tampon that absorbs.” She perked up. “That would be the best! Then I wouldn’t have to worry about it at school, or for sports, and … there’s no string right? This thing is annoying!”
Now, maybe it’s the alleged process of menstrual synchrony, or maybe it’s the wacky world of peri-menopause that I’m starting to navigate, but whatever the reason, I got my period on the same trip, two weeks early. I was unprepared, naturally, and had to share in the same discomfort of disposable period products, purchased from the store in the woods, the first tampon I’d used in years, if you’ll recall. It chafed. The string really is annoying. How did I tolerate this discomfort so regularly before switching??? Massive props to my kid for knocking out a 5 mile hike with an inaugural tampon-wedgie! What a rockstar.
Tampons and disposables may have a place in this world — a “just in case” place — until other emergency options are available. And I’m grateful that she and I ventured down that uncomfortable “just in case” adventure together. Despite my cocky confidence that I had the most period-prepared kid in the world, and that I was the most period-prepared parent, we had the opportunity to delve a little further into the menstruation conversation as it pertained to our personal experiences. I’m learning that to be the best parent to my new menstruator, I need to continually provide ongoing conversation about periods: hers, mine, and the menstruation subject in general. It isn’t a one and done thing. Just yesterday we had another period conversation while waiting for her brother to get out of football practice. Sitting in the car we talked about what a cervix is, and how it’s good to get to know our bodies, and how our vaginas are no weirder or grosser than our noses. Some may say this is an uncomfortable conversation to have with anyone, let alone an 11 year old. But others might say a more uncomfortable conversation could be about how our mainstream culture continues to habitually use unsustainable period products that cost more, chafe more (seriously, ouch!), and leave an unhealthy burden on our planet.
So this was my first year being a mom to a magnificent menstruator, a word that’s still fresh enough in our cultural vocabulary to make spellcheck question its validity. But it’s normalizing quickly as folks like you and me — and this awesome kid — use it more often in everyday, regular conversation about periods. And when we talk more about cloth pads and cups, we make comfort and sustainability the new status quo in period products.