Your first period

Do you remember when you got your first period? What was that like? Did you know what was going to happen, were you looking forward to it or were you frightened when you saw blood on your underwear or in the toilet? What was the reaction of your family?

I remember my first period vividly.

I was 15 years old, a late developer, and so I knew about the bleeding from friends, and not much else. I was very relieved “it came”. It was a Saturday early in the morning and everyone was still in bed. After going to the bathroom and putting a sanitary pad ( bought 18 months earlier!) into my underwear, I went into my parents’ bedroom with the news. I went to my mother ‘s side of the bed and quietly told her. I was so pleased. My mother’s response is indelibly imprinted in my brain. “It’s about time” was her response. And that was it!

Does this resonate with you?

I would like to think that things have changed. After all, this was a long time ago, but I’m not sure.

A negative view of periods

I still hear stories of girls terrified when they first see blood, thinking that they have a serious illness and that they are going to die. And then all the stories about “the curse”, the pain, the inconvenience, the mess, the smell and the general shame that still prevail in our society. It is no wonder that I have seen many girls in my work who dread having periods and often find it difficult to come to terms with having them at all.

Can you remember how periods were viewed in your family or even if their very existence was acknowledged?

Celebrating the first period

Many indigenous people have a culture of celebrating the first period in a girl’s life. They have specific rites of passage to mark the transition from child-hood to adult-hood and see menarche as a clear step on the road to becoming a woman, becoming an important member of their society and who will bring new life into the tribe.

Various rituals include private family celebrations to annual tribal festivals for all the girls who have had their first period in the preceding year. Many include a warm welcome into the community of women and a mentoring for the girl in terms of her new place in society. All are underpinned by goodwill and support from the entire community.

Our society marks events like exam results, eighteenth birthdays, and getting a drivers licence. All welcome but usually a bit late for puberty. And none recognising that huge change our daughters are experiencing during puberty and how it will impact on their lives and relationships.

Cultivating a positive attitude to periods

I believe that the first period should be welcomed and celebrated in a positive way which is acceptable to the girl and her family. It is in the gift of the mother or caregiver to ensure that the arrival of periods is seen as a positive event, a step towards a healthy full life as a woman. Preparing your daughter, having a balanced conversation, can influence the way she views her menstrual cycle and her role as a woman for years, if not a lifetime. Even if our own experiences of periods have been difficult, sharing this with our daughters who are just embarking on womanhood will not serve them well.

I always remember my daughter, age 3,who had a minor operation and was discharged home the same day. She had stitches. By the evening time she was charging around the house without a care in the world. She did not know that she was supposed to be sore! Similarly our dogs (all three) after their trip to the vet for neutering were perfectly happy a few hours later. There were no stories or ideas influencing their reactions to the situation.

A positive approach to menstruation begins at home

While most girls will experience some pain and discomfort during their periods I believe that nurturing a positive attitude will help allow our girls deal with any issues better and live their lives more fully.

There is no doubt that gynae problems can run in families. And I fully accept that significant difficulties can and do arise. After all, that was my job! But time and time again during the course of my work I have seen that the girls who do best are those whose mums have a problem solving, positive and empathetic approach.

Recognition of women’s health in society

It is encouraging to see the media beginning to discuss female health. Certainly the menopause has been receiving a lot of attention and this is very welcome. Changes to work practices, long overdue, are emerging and recognising the difficulties women face is now becoming accepted. Periods too are becoming a focus, and conversations around societal attitudes are beginning. Just recently Spain became the first European country to introduce paid menstrual leave for women with painful periods. Generally seen as a positive step towards recognising women’s’ biology it is not welcomed by all who fear negative gender stereotyping and increased employer discrimination against women. It will be interesting to see how this develops. Eastern countries such as India, Indonesia, Japan, Taiwan and south Korea have had similar reforms for some time. Isn’t it fascinating that these Eastern cultures have recognised the biological imperative of women long before ourselves in the West?

Knowledge reduces fear and anxiety

In our increasingly inclusive society, surely it is time to improve the lives of our daughters and young women. We need to embrace and positively underpin the conversations around the female narrative at home, at school and at work. By informing ourselves about the way our female bodies work and imparting that knowledge to our daughters we can remove so much fear and help them negotiate their life journey with confidence.

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