I don’t think they’ll ever offer their girlfriends Midol, but periods have lost their mystique and element of shame.
I met my first real boyfriend my sophomore year of high school. Every afternoon when he wasn’t working, we hung out at his house while his mom was at work. One of those afternoons, not long after we began dating, I tried to sneak a tampon with me into the bathroom. Much to my dismay, he saw it and I froze, waiting for the Earth to swallow me whole. “Do you need a Midol?” he asked in a matter-of-fact tone. “My mom has some.”
I’d like to say that I appreciated his empathy for my period cramps, but I couldn’t have been more humiliated. I was convinced that periods were a dirty secret, to be talked about in hushed tones amongst my female friends, and it had never occurred to me to speak openly about it with my boyfriend. My boyfriend’s mom was single, and I was certain that it was her fault he didn’t understand how guys should act. My future sons, I vowed, would know better than to embarrass their girlfriends like that.
Twenty-five years later, I’m a single mother to a passel of kids, two of whom are teenage boys. Like most of my promises to myself before I became a parent, my vow to raise my sons to be appropriately horrified by periods was quickly broken. In fact, a few years ago, when my then-adolescent sons made a joke or two about how “gross” periods were, I thought back to that long ago day and decided I owed that other mother a mental apology. She was right to have raised her son to view periods as a normal part of life (because they are!)—and it was time for me to do the same.
Not long after my sons’ foray into period jokes, I took them with me to the grocery store. As I parked the car, I rattled off my list. “Run in and get milk, eggs, and tampons,” I said. “Tampons?!” they squealed in unison. “Tampons,” I said firmly. I handed them my debit card and left them to figure it out for themselves. It took them about 15 minutes to muster up the courage to call me to find out exactly which tampons to buy, and then they waited in line at the self checkout lanes rather than go through an open line with a cashier. But they did it, and I was proud of them.
It didn’t take long for buying tampons to become second nature to my sons. They learned the brand and size I use, and stopped worrying about what a cashier would think. They stopped making jokes about how gross periods were, and through time they even began to ask me a few questions about menstruation. I don’t think they’ll ever offer their girlfriends Midol, but periods have lost their mystique and element of shame.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that it was my daughter who was the most embarrassed by periods, considering my own years of period shame, but I was. I expected my daughter to be more receptive to re-framing periods as normal and natural, and more willing to cast aside period shame, than my sons. But it was the exact opposite. She objected the most, and always tried to avoid a cashier, no matter how many times I sent her into the store. She avoided talking about her period so much that I only knew she switched from pads to tampons when all of my tampons began disappearing from the bathroom.
My daughter is 17 now and a couple of months ago, she came home with an epic period story that required buying an entire new outfit before a job training. Unlike all of the other times she refused to talk about periods, she told this story with relish. By the end of the story, we were all convinced she’d basically hemorrhaged all over her pants. The next day, her brother came upstairs shaking his head. “She left her bloody pants on the bathroom floor and they were barely even bloody,” he said. “Here I was thinking it was like a crime scene or something.”
It’s safe to say that none of my kids are embarrassed by periods anymore. Maybe they’ll embarrass their future partners by being “too open” about periods, or maybe their partners will appreciate their normalization of what should be a normal part of life. But either way, at least they won’t contribute to a culture that tells women their bodies are something to be ashamed of—and that’s far more important than a moment of embarrassment.
I’m glad now that I had a model for what an accepting man could look like, even if it embarrassed the hell out of me at the time. I had never considered until that day I didn’t have to treat my period with secrecy and shame, and my high school boyfriend’s matter-of-fact reaction to it paved the way for me to be more open about it with future partners. Some of whom, I’m sad to say, were more embarrassed by my period than I ever was.