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I blame Michael Keaton for this particular awkward family conversation. It was the evening of the Oscars,and Scott and I were reminiscing about past movie roles. We were laughing about his role in Mr. Mom, and that great scene where he goes to the grocery store to buy tampons for his wife, when my son — whom I did not know was listening — broke into the conversation.
“What’s a tampon?”
You take this one, Scott’s eyes seemed to say.
“Well,” I said cautiously, “it’s something ladies use.”
“But what is it for?”
“They use it once a month.:
“But why do they need it?”
“Well, once a month, ladies bleed.” He looked disturbed. “They bleed from their private areas. It’s part of the reproductive cycle.” I waited for his response.
“That’s really creepy,” he said.
Yes. Yes, in a way, I guess it is.
As the mother of two boys and no girls, I have realized that there are some kinds of conversations I will have in my parenting life, and some I will not have. I am not at all looking forward to shepherding boys through puberty ; I actually intend to divert many of the accompanying questions to my husband, just as I do with all queries about computers and space travel.
And, without a daughter in my life, I will not be faced with explaining the practical aspects of periods, and how to insert a tampon, and what to do when your period comes for the first time ever in the middle of the school day (I have some personal insight into that one).
But I am realizing that, even though my boy will never know the experience of “the monthlies,” odds are good that at some point in their life, they will be living closely with a woman who does (someone other than myself, I mean). And at some point — not now, but when they are older – I feel that I need to give them a little bit of insight into what this all means to a woman.
Which means, first of all, that I need to figure it out myself.
I guess I can say this: Having a period is a study in wild extremes. Nothing is worse than being the first girl in your group of friends to get it, unless it’s being the last girl in your group of friends to get it. It comes a few days early and you curse; it comes a few days late and you are in agony. There are months when its arrival is met with profound disappointment, and then there are the months where its arrival is met with weak-kneed relief. And, in my early forties, I’m getting to that stage where I’ve spent three decades complaining about the pain and mess and expense of it all, but when that day comes where Aunt Flo says goodbye for good, I kind of think I just might miss her.
How do you explain all this to a man, though? I am not sure any guy can really grasp it, just as there are things about being a guy that I will never ever be able to understand. That said, I think maybe we can teach our sons to have a certain kind of awe in the face of this phenomenon that was in part responsible for their very existence. At the very least, we can tell them not to make dismissive comments about Woman X being crabby because it’s her time of the month. (As any woman will tell you, only one person in the room actually knows whether her moods are due to PMS or some other reason. She gets to be the one to say whether or not there’s a connection.)
I am fearfully and wonderfully made says the psalm. I will be honest that, when it comes to periods, I tend to lean more towards “fearful” as being the appropriate adjective. If I were in charge, I sure as heck would not design the female reproductive cycle this way, if for no other reason than that I don’t like carnage in my bathroom (or anywhere else).
But maybe I’m getting a little older and wiser, or at least a bit more philosophical. Having had a few rounds of the conception/pregnancy game, I can’t deny that I have a respect for the reality of female menstruation. Two pregnancy losses and two births have led to an appreciation that, like it or not, I did depend upon that system to bring my two little boys into the world … boys who enrich my life in so many ways, including asking me questions that get me thinking about the role that my periods play in my life, in all their messy mystery. I may not like the experience of a monthly period, but I am grateful for what it has brought to my life. In that way, I guess it’s like most good things in this world: some sort of pain or sacrifice inevitably goes into the creation.
So in the end, I’d say that my son is right — menstruation is somewhat creepy. It is fearful and, I guess, also wonderful, at least in some sense of the word. But whatever else my boys learn about this phenomenon that is so intimately a part of most women’s lives, I hope they at least learn this: It’s part of what got them here, so it’s something that they — and all of us, really — should treat with a certain amount of respect.