Sunday, September 20, 2020

All Boys Allowed, Period


Kristy just moments after her big life moment. Photo: The Babysitter's Club

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It was a perfect Sunday afternoon, complete with elastic waistbands and bellies full of breakfast pastries only reserved for a lazy weekend morning. 

"Can we watch something, Mom?" my daughter asked.

"Of course! But you both have to agree. I don't want a fight."

"Babysitter's Club?" my daughter asked.

I braced for my son's whine and nasally request for an off-roading YouTube video. 

"Sure!" he exclaimed.

"Mom, will you watch with us?"

We all snuggled on the couch as my girl scrolled through the episodes. Since they had both seen the entire first season of the Netflix series, episodes were now chosen based on my kids' personal rankings. Which, thank goodness, seemed to be similar.

"Oh, Kristy's Big Day!" my son excitedly said.

"Yeah!"

The episode, which mainly focuses on the wedding of Kristy's mother, also includes a big milestone for Kristy herself - getting her first period. The moment is treated with the perfect combination of sincerity and humor and then knocks it out of the park with a display of beautiful female support. After Kristy discovers her period has arrived in the middle of her mother's wedding reception, her closest friends are right there with a pad and hugs. I was so lost in the magical girl-power of it all that the next moment felt like a poke in the eye. 

"What is going on?" my son asked.

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"That... Kristy's... what happened in the bathroom?" my son said with his index finger pointing at the screen.

My 7-year-old son wasn't following the first period storyline. Why the hell would he? I froze in the moment and could feel my knee-jerk response of "it's hard to explain" brimming at my lips when I had moment of clarity. It's not that hard to explain, after all. I mean, I wouldn't have to go into every scientific detail, but I could give some explanation. Before I could utter my off-the-cuff period lesson, my daughter interjected.

"It's a girl thing. You don't need to know." she said.

Okay, that was all I needed to kick my ass into gear. Bullshit he doesn't need to know. 

"Now wait a second, actually he should know," I started with my heart pounding and my butthole firmly clenched, "Kristy started her period. That's something that girls get around her age because their bodies are changing. It's totally natural and just means she's growing up into a woman."

He looked at me with furrowed brows and I knew there were more questions coming. I mean, let's face it, I gave a solid C minus definition.

"But what did Mary Anne give her? She said to put it on her underwear?"

Oh boy... well, can't stop now!

"Okay, so when a girl gets her period, she bleeds. Um... blood comes out of her... (unnecessary throat clear)... her vagina. So a pad is like a protective kind of towel that keeps her underwear and clothes from getting... er, bloody."

My words were echoing around my brain like a bad remix of a PM Dawn song. Towel? Did I say a pad is like a towel? That was weird. Whatever. While the wording may have been odd, I was glad that I didn't shy away from explaining a period to my son. I looked at him, his big hazel eyes darting around, absorbing what I told him. AH! I should have used "absorb" in my clunky explanation. 

"Feel free to ask me any questions, buddy." I said.

"No, that's okay," he said, "Hey rewind it! I like when Richard asks if his shirt smells like meat!"

My son flopped back down on my chest and I wrapped my arms around him. Whew, that was a moment I didn't expect to have with him for a few more... well, wait... I don't think I ever planned on having that conversation with him. How dumb.

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My memories of the sex education unit I sat through in 5th grade are sparse to say the least. We watched a video showing 80s, poofy-haired girls talking about hiding their pads and tampons in their jean purses. In between the robotic delivery of poorly written dialogue, we saw animated depictions of our reproductive organs with a little cartoon egg making it's way through our fallopian tubes and so on. I do remember how that 30-minute video showed so much detail, but the word "blood" was never uttered. Instead, I believe the narrator mentioned the "shedding of tissue" or something without any animated visual aid to help us understand. 

After the projector made that flapping noise and our eyes adjusted to the lights, I remember thinking, "What the heck are pads for?" At age 10, I wasn't a believer in the notion that there "are no stupid questions," so I kept my burning query to myself. Luckily, a classmate raised her hand immediately. 

"I don't get it, what are pads and tampons for?"

The two female 5th grade teachers glanced at each other, shifted nervously and waited for the other to speak. Finally, Mrs. Freeman broke the silence. 

"Well, honey, to catch the blood."

You would have thought Freddy Krueger entered the room. We all gasped and yelped at the thought of blood coming out of our vaginas! The teachers tried to quell our horror, but it was useless, so they handed out a pamphlet and sent us out to recess. On the other side of the hallway, the boys were handed a pamphlet about boners or whatever and also sent out to recess. By the time we were in our single-file lines coming back in, there were dozens of ripped pages with illustrated pubes, breasts and dongs blowing all over the playground. That was probably the last year they let kids take the puberty pamphlets out to recess. 

I felt dread as I walked home that day... my brain heavy and confused with all the new information. One thought that was not confusing? I was terrified to get my period.

Let's Talk About Sex, (my first) Baby

My daughter will be going through the sex education unit this year. She's in 5th grade and if I'm honest, I'm excited for her to learn about her body. I feel a strong need for her to understand herself and to not be ashamed of her parts. Growing up, I never felt comfortable talking to anyone about my body. Not that I felt ashamed, per se, but it was more a belief that everything about sex or puberty shouldn't be discussed openly. 

F*ck that. I've already started the conversation a little bit with my girl. She has seen my feminine products and asked me why I need a heating pad on my abdomen sometimes. Without hesitation, I've answered her questions. Depending on her age, I would tweak the explanation, but within the last year, I've sensed her curiosity go from "what's my Mom doing" to "this will happen to me sometime soon."   

Even though my first period wasn't as traumatic as I thought it would be, I definitely did not feel comfortable talking about all the emotions of that day with anybody. So, that's what I hope to be for my daughter - the person she can come to when she sees blood on her underwear for the first time. And not only me, but Paul as well. There is no reason a father cannot help his daughter during one of the biggest transitions in her young life. While he may not be able to give any experiential advice, he can simply be there with an ear or a hug, whatever she needs... and play a very important role in cementing her acceptance of her beautiful body. 

Got Penis? 

Hey men! Chances are you know at least one woman, right? I thought so. Congratulations, you have qualified to learn about what we ladies go through. 

When I think back to my sex ed unit back in 1989, I find it a bit silly that they separated the boys and girls into different rooms. Just because you don't have the parts means you shouldn't learn about what the other gender experiences? That makes no sense to me. Both genders benefit from learning about the others' experience. If I had learned about boy parts, perhaps my penis-ignorant brain wouldn't have imagined that pubic hair grew down the entire shaft. Yeah... I was 19 before I knew a penis wasn't covered in hair from base to tip like a little Alf hanging from men's bodies. That was a big reason why I was scared to DEATH to see a real-life penis for a long time. I think I just heard my late father sigh with relief. 

Expanded education can help de-stigmatize all the changes women experience in their lives. Maybe if a girl bleeds through her pants in class, instead of being grossed out, our boys could serve up some supportive energy and dampen the humiliation for their female classmate. When a new mother is nearing the end of her maternity leave, wouldn't it be fantastic if the transition back to the office could be handled in a way that takes into consideration all of the emotions she may be going through? When a woman is experiencing a hot flash in a meeting, supportive men at that table can take note and give her space to deal all the debilitating symptoms of menopause. Acceptance and understanding by our male counterparts without judgement is the way to move forward and improve the operations of any society. Girls and women should never feel ashamed or penalized for simply going through natural lady stuff. 

From periods to pregnancy to motherhood to menopause... be in our corner, guys. 

Timing Terror

I recently figured out that I will likely be experiencing the onset of menopause at the same time my kids' will be going through their own hormonal rollercoasters with puberty. Ohhhhhh man. That realization stopped me in my tracks... literally. I was on my daily walk when I did the math and my feet stopped receiving messages from my brain since it was processing so much terrifying information. I'll be 42 in a few days, and peri-menopause can start as early as... well, tomorrow. DEEP BREATHS, SHEEVANI. 

Well, since my name isn't Marty or Doc or Biff, I have zero chance of taking a time machine to alter my history, so I have to tackle the hormonal intersection of me and my kids head on. Honestly, I think the awareness of this reality is a good thing. While I'm not sure how I will handle menopause when it arrives, I can hopefully keep in mind that we are all going through some very natural transitions that may cause some tension, bad moods, emotional tirades, physical discomfort, etc. I include Paul in this as well, not that he will be dealing with anything hormonal per se, but he will be dealing with 3 very unpredictable people for a few years. Any help you can send his way is much appreciated, please and thanks.

Since both my kids are old enough where I can remember myself at their ages, I rely heavily on my own memories from those times to guide my parenting. My mission is to approach them with understanding and empathy. I remind myself how emotional I was in junior high, how sensitive and moody I could be in my teens and so on. So often during my formative years, my feelings were dismissed and invalidated. Because of that, I feel a responsibility to apply my experiences as a guide to help my kids deal with some brutal shit. That's not to suggest that hormonal changes absolve all shitty behavior, mind you... for me or them. My hope is that keeping a constant hum of empathy in my soul will help squash some serious meltdowns over the next 10 years. Seriously... keep Paul in your thoughts.

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I'm writing this post in the wake of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her tireless work as a champion for women and gender equality is something for which I will forever be grateful. As I think about her life's work as it relates to this post, I'm not sure there's a better way to wrap up my sentiments than with her wise words:

"Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation." - Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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