Why men need to learn to deal with menstruation
On my last coffee break before the Covid-19 lockdown, I was chatting with two colleagues who were happily sharing what their kids were up to. Their experiences had a commonality -- their kids had started asking questions pertaining to human biology lately.
“I don’t know what to say when my daughter asks what Senora is,” the male colleague gasped.
“Why?” asked the female colleague.
“Well, tell her the truth. It is used to absorb period blood,” I replied “P-E-R-I-O-D!” He exclaimed, almost spilling his coffee. “I am too shy to say that. I can’t even buy pads. Her mother can have that conversation with her.”
My colleague loves his daughter dearly and never forgets to buy her the fanciest stationeries she asks for. Like many dads, he has been part of a culture that divides discussions among couples based on gender -- mothers will talk to daughters about puberty and dads can take care of the sons.
Two worlds under the same roof
When girls get their period, they are told by the mothers to keep it a secret. Why? Because the mother was told by her mother to do the same. Fathers and brothers are not even allowed to look at pads or know where they are stored.
Many girls find their relationship with their dads change during puberty because the latter saw a responsibility to change the way they were with their daughters. Gradually the father becomes an absent figure in a young girl’s journey to womanhood.
‘But shouldn’t only women speak about periods?’
A mother has gone through this biological process and can probably shed light in a way a father can’t. But why does the subject have to be a taboo with dads?
The female body prepares for pregnancy every month. If no pregnancy occurs, the uterus sheds the lining which passes out of the body through the vagina. There is nothing impure or abnormal about menstruation. \
Young boys and periods
A study of male pupils in Taiwan found families and teachers refused to talk about menstruation to boys despite the latter’s desire for information. Boys obtained their knowledge from watching girls remain silent or listening to other boys’ self-invented theories.
As a result, boys developed misconceptions, such as girls peed blood during menstruation. Most boys in general never buy period supplies, are never introduced to the topic, are kept away from the “secret” when their mothers and sisters have menstrual problems.
They grow up and one day, find themselves as clueless, awkward, shy fathers to daughters who go through natural changes in their bodies. There remain no “men” in menstruation.
When you avoid the topic
Scenario 1: Your wife is not home and your daughter gets her first period before she has had her period prep talk. Are you prepared to answer her questions? Where will you find the sanitary napkin? How do you calm her down when she is thinking “I am going to die” in the toilet?
Scenario 2: Your daughter has severe period cramps and can barely get up from bed. Will you wait for the women of the house to take care of her? Will you withdraw yourself from the pain your daughter endures? Your daughters are watching you.
While they shape their perceptions of their own changing bodies, they’re gauging your responses. If you change the channel during every sanitary essential commercial or look away while walking by the feminine hygiene section of a store, your daughter may interpret periods to be shameful or gross.
How you can help
It’s OK to recognize the limitations of your knowledge as a dad. Fathers have never menstruated and never will. Instead of constantly deferring to mothers or ominously referring to “women’s problems,” fathers can buck up and educate themselves on the ins and outs of periods.
Ask a female friend the details, such as, how often should a pad be changed? What needs to be done if cramps get worse? In doing so, you will empower yourselves to have open conversations with your children when they are comfortable.
Puberty is one of the most uncomfortable stages of life. Focus on the emotions because that’s the part that’s really going to impact your child’s wellbeing. Talk about it the same way you talk about anything else -- with respect and care. “Are you going to Maisha’s sleepover? Do you have pads with you in case your period starts?”
Lastly, remember your son
When parents have conversations with boys about periods, they lift the veil of confusion, expand understanding, and instill greater respect for women’s bodies. The next time these boys see period stains on a girl’s skirt, they won’t be disgusted or make fun of her.
In this brave new world of more equal parenting, it would stand to reason that we loosen up on the roles traditionally played by a mother or father. My colleague finally agreed to face his fear and go buy a packet of pads once the lockdown is over. I am rooting for him.
Myat Moe Khaing takes an interest in indigenous and gender politics.