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The embarrassed silence around menstruation needs to go. Here’s how Indian moms can talk about periods with their sons.
By Maith Iyengar
From my son’s studied nonchalance, I knew the topic was sufficiently embarrassing. Sure enough, the proffered note from school announced the screening of the puberty video the next day. We had talked about puberty with the kids from around the time they each turned 10 and they were familiar enough with the expected changes in their body; but the seventh grade presentation in school talked about human sexuality, so it was time, in my opinion, to discuss menstruation with my son.
Growing up in India, I faced all the usual taboos regarding menstruation – one never mentioned it to men and my father and male friends were embarrassed when they knew women were having their period. There was so much unnecessary secrecy surrounding this entirely natural act that as an Indian mom, I was determined that my son would not be thus clueless about female biology.
It is also my opinion that children should learn about the opposite sex, and especially for boys, to learn that the default human is not male, and thus get a different perspective about bodies, the way they grow, and their functions. From a purely selfish motive, I also hoped for more sympathetic behaviour during my own periods!
We have always been open about bodies and biology, so both my children were unaffected by the presence of their sibling during the talk. Our discussion happened, as most such do, in the car, my kids seemingly more comfortable talking to the back of my head. However this wasn’t a single conversation, we circled back to the topic over several weeks.
We talked about periods being a natural monthly occurrence and discussed the mechanics of periods, in simple medical terms. My son who had “done” the human reproductive system in science, provided a description of the uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes, and their respective functions, and we talked about the uterus lining growing and shedding.
We discussed hormonal and physical changes that some girls and women go through during their periods, such as cramps, bloating and irritability, and talked about having to go through normal life nevertheless.
I showed them pads and tampons and explained their use. A digression into a “Horrible History” on the history of pads provided some humour while showing him how far we’ve come. I explained that leaks happen sometimes and mentioned to my son that teasing girls if they had a bloodstain on their clothing was not done – that the girl was probably very embarrassed already and that as a decent human (albeit teen male) the best course of action for him was to probably say nothing, or if it was a girl he knew well, to inform her privately.
We discussed hormonal and physical changes that some girls and women go through during their periods, such as cramps, bloating and irritability, and talked about having to go through normal life nevertheless. This was revelatory to my son, who had assumed that bleeding was something akin to urinating, with no real sensation associated with it. We also talked about attitudes towards menstruating women in India, the notion of menstruation being impure and the various forms of segregation practiced.
As we continue our chats, I want to talk to him about teen hormones that will soon be raging here. I hope we can discuss how the opposite sex will suddenly become vastly attractive, and what, if anything should be the approach to take.
– Explain the biology behind periods – the menstrual cycle that prepares the body for a possible pregnancy. Explain how hormones trigger changes in the uterine lining, ovulation that typically occurs midway through the cycle, and the shedding of the uterine lining, if no pregnancy occurs, which results in a period. Stress on the fact that periods are a natural monthly occurrence.
– When girls “start their period”, although they are biologically capable of bearing a child, talk about the physical and emotional readiness to be a parent and the moral and legal responsibilities of parents. This is a topic worth revisiting several times as puberty proceeds.
– Explain what pads and tampons are, how they’re used and that sometimes leaks happen.
– Boys need to know about the physical discomfort and hormonal changes associated with periods. Explain that women have abdominal cramps of varying intensities, and the reasons for such cramps. Talk about some methods of alleviating these if the question arises.
– Discuss other side effects of periods, such as tender breasts, headaches, bloating, fatigue and mood swings: PMS, in short. Talk about hormones and how they affect moods.
– Discuss how long the average period lasts; three to five days in general, with the bleeding peaking at about the middle of the time.
– Discuss male and female fertility: women’s periods stop at a certain time in their lives, as they enter menopause, at which point they cannot bear children. Contrast this to men who remain capable of fathering children all their lives. I include this information as I think it’s interesting that men and women have different fertility levels and the implications for things like child bearing.
So there you have it – the “period primer” for boys, with which they can set forth and conquer the world of puberty!
*Photo credit: Glen Johannes (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)
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