I didn’t set out to be a crunchy granola hippie mom. Sure, I breastfed my son until he was 2, and I made all his baby food from scratch, and I cloth-diapered, but that was more about saving money than being an Earth momma. And my childhood growing up in Seattle — taking ballet classes in the same building as Greenpeace — might have rubbed off on me more than I realized. Even still, I usually asked my husband to keep our toddler out of the bathroom when I needed to take care of my feminine hygiene needs. But after my divorce, I didn’t have anyone to distract him, and one day he burst in on me changing a tampon, mid-string-pulling.
“Mommy, what are you doing?” he asked.
I finished pulling it out and tossed it in the wastebasket. “Changing my tampon, kiddo.”
His eyes got really wide. “Is that blood?”
“Yes,” I matter-of-factly unwrapped the next one and did my business.
His lower lip started to quiver, and he looked mildly panicked. “But, you’re bleeding. Are you going to die?”
“No, honey, I’m not going to die.” I closed the toilet lid and sat down, pulling him into my lap, and did my best to explain about uterine linings and babies and monthly flow.
“So you’re bleeding because there’s not a baby in you?”
“Kind of, yes.”
“Then we need to find a daddy to put a baby in you RIGHT NOW so you don’t die!”
Right. Mommy fail. I started over. When I told one of my girlfriends about the incident a few days later because I thought it was funny, she gave me a strange look. “You let your son see you changing your tampon?”
I started to feel a little defensive. “Well, I didn’t let him; it just kind of happened.” She’s married and has a husband to wrangle the kids and keep them out of the bathroom. The one time I’d tried shutting the door, I’d come out to find that my son had pulled the dining room chair over to the kitchen counter and climbed up on top to get to the candy stash. I pee with the door open.
“Isn’t that kind of gross?”
Her question took me aback. Cis women (and some trans men) bleed for over 30 years of our lifespan. Some estimates place the total cost of a woman’s period over her lifetime around $18,000. It’s not something we can control, or stop, unless we pay for birth control or other methods. It’s a normal thing. So why do we still view it as "gross," something to hide or be ashamed of?
My son is 5 now, and he’s seen me buying boxes of tampons and panty liners in Target. He’s pointed to a "super" box and said, “I think you’re going to need that one, Mommy.” I’ve managed to keep him out of the bathroom since that day (mostly), but he’s aware that it’s a monthly thing that happens, and I don’t die.
Google "men’s misconceptions about women’s periods," and you’ll get a good laugh. It’s obvious that men still need to be educated about the realities of our monthly flow. I don’t think it’s healthy for either male or female bodies to be viewed with fear or ignorance. If there was a little more knowledge, there might be more understanding. In many states, menstrual products are still taxed as luxury goods. I have to wonder; if the mothers of the men who passed those laws had been more open with their sons about their periods, would they still view it as a luxury?
Worldwide, girls miss school every day due to their periods. In Nepal, 30 percent of girls miss school every month, and in Africa 1 in 10 girls doesn’t go to school during her period. Cultural traditions that force isolation during that time of the month contribute to the problem, but so does the simple fact that many girls lack access to sanitary products. That box of tampons I buy every month with my son is out of reach, both financially and in terms of availability, for many girls around the world. The days of school that they miss can ripple through their lives, as poorer educational achievement leads to fewer employment opportunities, which in turn leads to repeating the cycle of poverty. Viewing our periods as gross, or something to be ashamed of, holds women back in very real ways.
While I didn’t plan on talking to my son about my period at age 4, I’m glad that I did. True, it won’t solve the world’s problems. But if we could talk more openly, and without shame, about a natural, normal part of life, then maybe it would be easier to come up with and implement solutions to those problems. If the men who formulate policy and write laws knew more about how women’s bodies work, maybe they’d be less likely to legislate them. When ignorance is replaced with understanding, change happens.
Will my son be part of that change? Who knows? But at least he’ll know the difference between super and regular tampons if someday his girlfriend sends him to the store to pick up a box.