When you’re a dad, parenting questions often come up that you struggle to find an answer to. Since other parents are the worst and Google will send you down a rabbit hole of paralyzing, paranoid terror, we’re here to help by putting those questions to the experts. This is “Basic Dad,” an advice column for dads who feel stupid about asking for basic advice.
The Very Basic Concern
I think I’ve still got a couple of years before I have to worry about my daughter needing the “period” talk, and if I’m being totally honest, I’m kinda hoping that’s going to be mommy’s job. But God forbid I end up single or divorced by then — or in any other scenario in which I’m the one to give her this uncomfortable lecture — I’d like to know how to usefully shoulder that responsibility.
At the end of the day, someone is going to have to tell my baby girl what’s going on with her body, so why not me? I just want to get it right if that’s the way it works out.
Basically: How do I talk to my daughter about her periods?
The Expert Advice
Cindy, mother of one: When my mom got her period back in the early 1940s, no one had ever spoken to her about it, and if not for her fifth grade teacher, she would’ve thought she was bleeding to death. Her parents had never prepared her for it, and even afterward, they never talked to her about it. That was terrible for her, so when she was raising me, it was never some great mystery as to what was going on. We were very open. When it happened, I knew what was coming. It wasn’t embarassing or scary, it was just normal. I did the same thing with my daughter — it was just something that was always there. That’s how it should be, I think; it shouldn’t be a mystery, it’s part of life.
Rosemary, mother of one: I got the talk from my grandfather. I was prepared somewhat, as my mom had told me a little about the female reproductive system, but I still didn’t know what to expect and neither of my parents were very good at communicating with me. I was at my grandparents’ house when it happened, and I remember coming out of the bathroom and telling my grandma, “I need some stuff.” She quickly hurried off to the pharmacy to buy me some supplies. Then I was alone with my grandfather, who muted the Mets game and did his best to talk to me about it. He said, “So, you’ve become a woman,” and continued on from there about the responsibilities of being a woman and how I have to make good choices.
At the time, I was thinking, “Please stop talking, Grandpa,” but over the years my feelings about the whole thing have evolved. See, my parents had just split up, and I spent most of my weekends with my grandparents in Queens. And while it was weird at the time to get the talk from him, I’m grateful now that he did that. He was a tough-as-nails, old-school New Yorker who came home at 6 p.m. sharp every day with a cigar in his mouth, but the fact that he knew that I didn’t have the parental situation I needed demonstrated to me how aware he was of my situation. Even if it made him uncomfortable, I know he loved me enough to be that person for me.
Glen Chernak, licensed psychologist in Pleasantville, NY: When I was working in a residential facility, one of the middle-school girls I was working with was getting her period and she was very ashamed of what was going on. She lived on campus, and while she did have a mother, she only saw her once a month and the mother didn’t feel comfortable having this exchange with her. We had female child-care staff in the facility, and they would have clothes ready for her when she had an accident, but none of them were willing to talk about this with her. Since she didn’t really have any support and I was her clinician, I figured that she needed to understand what was going on with her body.
In our private sessions, I explained to her that this is a part of puberty and that this is a part of your body preparing itself to be able to have a baby. I told her that each month, an egg is going to be released, and when it’s not fertilized (which it won’t be), it’s released as this bloody discharge that you’re going to see for two or three days very heavily, followed by a couple of days where it’s much lighter. I explained that she can mark on her calendar when to anticipate it, but that this is happening to all girls around her age.
I certainly never thought I was going to be in that situation, but I figured that she needed help, and that was more important than any level of embarrassment or discomfort on my part.
Ryan Stewart, gynecologist in Louisville, KY: It’s not uncommon for young girls to have some ideas, or at least some preconceptions, about starting their period. So this is where I start as a male gynecologist, and where I’d start as a father explaining to my daughter. The conversation goes something like this:
You probably already know that for a pregnancy to happen, sperm and egg have to combine. Males contribute the sperm, and females contribute the egg. When you’re born, you have in your ovaries every egg that you’ll ever have. It just so happens that when you’re a little girl (before your body is ready for a pregnancy), the eggs are all asleep in the ovary. When it’s time to start your period, your brain starts sending hormones to your ovaries that “wakes up” these eggs, and every month or so, one of them is released. At the same time, those same hormones are telling your ovaries to produce hormones that cause the lining of the womb to become thicker. The purpose of this thick lining is to create a cozy resting place should that egg encounter a sperm and develop into a baby. If the egg doesn’t encounter a sperm, the hormone balance changes, and that thick, cozy lining of the womb detaches and passes out of the body through the vagina — this is what we call “the period.”
Al Vernacchio, sexuality educator: Too much of our discussion about puberty with kids is centered around the changes they experience as strange, upsetting or uncomfortable. That’s a lousy frame to use: When I talk to young people about puberty changes, I tell them puberty is the time in life when they develop their adult superpowers. So, getting a period is the start of a girl’s reproduction superpower. It’s her body turning on the mechanism that will allow her to get pregnant if and when she’s ready to do so. It doesn’t mean she has to get pregnant, just that she can.
Another lesson all superheroes must learn is that, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Thus, this is a time to talk to a young woman about learning more about her body, how to take care of it and keep it healthy.
Don’t talk about a period in negative terms: Don’t call it a curse; don’t call it a problem; don’t call it messy. Don’t make them scared of a natural body process, and don’t show that you’re scared of it. Normalize the experience — make her feel proud of her body and its abilities. Make her feel powerful, rather than powerless.