She is a passionate advocate for women and girls understanding and trusting their bodies, and lives in Somerset with her partner and three children.
Here Milli offers valuable advice on how to talk to your children about periods.
Both my own sons are fully informed about menstrual cycles and have been from a young age to build awareness, understanding and empathy.
I will of course be sharing insight and supporting Florence about her cycle when she’s a little older too.
Periods should not be a taboo subject nor should there be any associations of shame and embarrassment attached to women’s natural cycles.
Thank you Milli for your super guest post below.
Do you remember getting ‘the talk’?! I do. I was about 8 or 9 years old, and at my neighbour’s house. Their dog rolled over on her back to have her tummy tickled, and to my horror, I noticed she was bleeding.
Worried there was something wrong, I told my friend’s mum: ‘Judy has blood coming out of her…bottom!’
My friend’s mum didn’t look at all worried. ‘Oh she’s just in season’, she said calmly. ‘You’d better ask your mum to tell you more.’
Intrigued, I trotted home and my mum sat me down at the kitchen table. I can still remember her drawing a uterus on the back of an envelope, telling me all about periods, and – as far as I remember – chucking in a few bits of info about sex, just for good measure!
Later that day, I was mortified when my dad said to me, ‘I hear you’ve been learning all about the birds and the bees, eh?!’. And this just added another layer of confusion, as I had no idea what birds or bees had to do with any of it – and to be honest, I’m still not sure!
Talking to our children about periods can bring up feelings and memories of our own early experiences of our bodies, and the messages we were given about them. It can be interesting, even if you are not a parent yet, never plan to be one, or if your daughters are a long way off their menarche, to spend some time focusing on this aspect of womanhood, and the emotions that arise in you when you do so.
The purpose of doing this is to break any negative cycles there may be in your own family history. It’s amazing what we can unconsciously pass on to the next generation of girls about their bodies, if, for whatever reason, we are unable to unpick our own history and explore it a little.
For example, how did you find out about periods? Who told you? Can you remember what they said? How did it make you feel?
What other messages about menstruation were you given, for example by school talks, relatives, or friends?
Did your mother ever tell you the story of how she was told about menstruation by her mother? It’s quite often true, but not always, that women who grew up several decades ago were not given any information about periods at all. Many of them had to cope with starting their first period without knowing what to do, what to use, or even what it was, or how long it would last! If you don’t know the story of your mother, or even your grandmother’s first period, and you are still able to talk to them, it might be very interesting to ask.
The purpose of gathering in these histories of what some refer to as your ‘red thread’ or ‘motherline’, is to eventually turn to yourself and your own attitudes to your body, and ask – how were they formed? What was positive or helpful about the ways in which you and your mother and the women before her learned and talked about their female bodies? And what could have been different? Finally, how has this narrative shaped the way you might go on to talk to other people, including your own children, about periods? How were you made to feel by previous generations, and what do you want to pass on to the next generation?
In a practical sense, this could be observed in the details of your own parenting. For example, do your children see your menstrual blood or period products, or do you keep this hidden away? For some of us, the idea of exposing our children to the reality of our periods can feel quite difficult, but in fact, if it happens from a very young age, this can help them to be very ‘matter-of-fact’ about this normal part of most women’s lives.
It’s also a good idea to make talking about periods and bodies a part of the conversation right from the start, rather than, as happened to me with the neighbour’s dog story, telling them all in one go at a certain age. Children will often ask questions and the best and easiest approach is just to answer them simply. For example, the conversation may go something like:
‘Mummy, why is there blood in the toilet?’
‘Oh that’s mummy’s period.’
Then wait. Depending on the age of the child, they may well ask, ‘What is a period?’. But if they don’t, it’s also OK to leave it and wait for the next question they ask, which will inevitably come at some point!
Think, too, about the little comments you make about periods or your own period in front of your children. You want to strike a balance between honesty and positivity here, which again, can sometimes require you to do some work on yourself and your history first. How do you take care of yourself if your period is affecting your emotions or your energy, for example? It can be really positive for your children if they hear you say, ‘Mummy is taking a self-care day today because it’s nearly time for her period. She is just going to nurture and take care of herself, and let her body rest.’
It’s also helpful to balance information about periods with the fact that periods are just one small part of a cycle – the menstrual cycle. Information about periods is very rarely presented this way in schools – the emphasis is usually entirely on the bleed, and the products to use when you bleed. But of course, if we are not on the contraceptive pill, we all go on a cyclical journey through each month, of which the period is only a small part.
In my book My Period, it was very important to me to include this missing information about cycles, and to give lots of information about ovulation too. Often it’s only considered important to give women access to information about ovulation when they are interested in getting pregnant. But ovulation is a really interesting aspect of our emotional and physical experience of being female – and it’s great for everyone to learn more about it!
For example, if you are feeling that mid-cycle ‘glow’, why not mention it to your children? ‘I’m really feeling on top of my game today, I think I must be ovulating!’. It’s not often that young people get to hear about this aspect of the cycle, and yet it’s just as vivid a feature in many women’s lives as the experience of periods.
It’s also good to teach children and young people to listen to their body, and tuning into the menstrual cycle is one way to do this. Some people call the period ‘the fifth vital sign’ because it can be such a strong indicator of our overall health. We can teach our children to notice, not just period stuff, but other things that are going on in their bodies, for example, what hunger feels like, or how a healthy poo looks like a smooth sausage (they love that one!).
Really, talking to children about periods is not a case of sitting down and giving them ‘the talk’. It’s about building a narrative around the female body, beginning with yourself, that you allow to permeate out into your family conversations, with the ultimate goal of your children feeling at ease with their bodily functions, and happy in their own skin for their lifetime.
Oh and Judy the dog’s period blood? Well as it turns out, 35 years later when doing the research for My Period, I discovered that dogs don’t actually menstruate at all – they have an estrous cycle! If you want to know more, well, you’ll have to read my book My Period: Find your flow and feel proud of your period!