The stigma about menstruation goes back a long way. The first turning point is the Biology class. The reproductive system is a chapter all of look forward to, at least I remember having read it way in advance of the actual class. For most of us children in secondary school ( Class Six onwards) , it was a minefield of ‘secret’ knowledge. The teacher stepped in that day, and the first thing she noticed was the desks where girls were sitting with boys. Mind you, this was a co-education school. We were hauled up to the front bench, as if it were some kind of protection against ‘unholy thoughts’ that could come into our mind on the momentous occasion of being taught male and female reproduction in humans. We were told to not be so ticklish about it. In actuality, the teacher herself was rendered the most ticklish as a result of the class. We shifted and the class began.
It is interesting that the female reproduction system is extensively drawn on the board while the male is always left out. As I have gone onto college and university, I have found out that this is a fact in several schools around the country. Also, historically, the male reproductive system is also never really asked to be reproduced in an examination. Female teachers do not want to draw penises. However, strangely enough, they are okay to draw uteruses and vaginas but the paragraph about menstruation is conveniently never read out. There is nothing to be read, you will know it when it happens to you. (At class six, most girls in our generation had not begun menstruating). Right, only discuss it, when it strikes like a bolt from the blue. But, really, when is the right time to speak about The Period?
The problem with menstruation is in how we receive it in conversation. As a child, I remember my mother having horrid days of heavy flow. Sometimes, there would be blood around. We would be taken away, as if this was not meant to be seen. But of course, we do not understand children much because they see things even if you hide them, and what’s more they understand. I remember discussing with my elder sister that this was perhaps something that happens to you after you grow up as a girl. And one day, as six or seven year olds we decided to take matters into our own hands when mother had stepped out to the market. Father was at office, so this meant we were totally alone. Mother would keep her packets of Carefree atop a steel almirah that contained clothes. It was always kept there, deliberately out of reach from us. We mounted chair atop chair and while my sister held firmly onto the chairs I climbed up to get the packets down. My mother had told us not to touch those, so pads were topmost on our list of priority investigations. After we got one packet down, I was reading out everything the packet said. We did not understand most of it, except the instructions, which were visual. And then the worst thing happened, Mother came in and we were severely scolded. Holding a packet of pads was a severe act of trespassing, it was wrong to sneak something that we were clearly told to stay away from. Again, there was no conversation about the actual issue. The Period Issue. The one that has caused so much bad blood, so to speak.
To mothers and fathers, I therefore write. Please do not wait for a certain time to announce puberty to your children. Yes, you should announce it to boys as well. If they find out before they are anywhere near puberty, which they will because there are ample ads around television and the mother will be needing sanitary napkins every month, please please take time out to explain it to your child at his age. Understand that they must at least know it is a normal bodily function just like excretion or sweating. Tell them just like a boy grows a beard or a moustache a woman starts bleeding every month. This is going to be difficult, because most children this age associate blood with injury. An internet portal (https://www.berkeleyparentsnetwork.org/advice/health/menses_explain) that has mothers reaching out to other mothers for explaining periods to children as small as four year olds has the following conversation among others.
“Does anyone have any experience or useful advice about how to explain your period to an almost four-year-old? It hasn’t come up yet, but there’s not much privacy in my house (this was useful when we were potty training him, and the pattern of shared bathroom time is now solidly established) so I’m sure it will. I’ve managed to be sneaky so far…. His only understanding about blood has to do with being injured, so I just haven’t been able to think of a good angle. Any wisdom out there?”
“Remember that a 4 year old doesn’t need a lot of info or complicated explanations. I told my boys that mommies get blood every month when they’re not having babies. It has nothing to do with being hurt, it’s just extra blood that the body doesn’t need. That satisfied them and still does, my 9 year old. The 13 year old has the facts now. Good luck. mom of boys.”
When will we have these conversations in urban Indian homes? Channels need not change if children are sitting alongside parents or siblings and a sanitary napkin advertisement comes out. Let us not penalize children for being curious about something that will become a fact of life sooner or later. Let’s normalize something that is so utterly normal.
Let’s have the period conversation early.