Two weeks ago I was lying in the bathtub quite literally minding my own business when my ten-year-old came in and made herself comfortable on the toilet (seat down, fortunately).
“Mom,” she said. “I heard that when girls get older blood starts coming out of their vagina. Is that true?”
And just like that, mommy time was over. Prince Harry was no longer calling it off with Meghan Markle and whisking me across the pond. Thoughts of hillside romps with the corgis and G&Ts with Liz evaporated as I was catapulted back into the real world courtesy of one very confused and concerned little face.
Of course, this had to be the one time I was tech-free in the tub so, unable to rely on Dr. Google and his partner, Dr. Google Images (which, in retrospect is probably a good thing), I had to go it alone. I had to figure out, on the fly, how to distill some pretty technical and—let’s be honest—horrifying, information down to something age-appropriate.
My brain went into overdrive but I still tried to play it cool. Don’t make a big deal, don’t scare her, stick to the facts, I thought. And as word bubbles like “blood, uterus, baby, tampon, cramps, and sex” appeared in my brain at breakneck speed I realized I’d been getting my period for thirty years (not consecutively) and still didn’t really know how to explain its usefulness, other than to get out of gym class.
I knew this conversation was coming, I just thought I’d have more time. She already knows where babies come from but we hadn’t had this phase of “the talk” yet. My daughter would want me to tell you that she’s not ten, but ten and a half, and I’d always thought 11 would be the right age. I almost made it.
“Ummmm….” I replied in a futile attempt to stall for time, “yes it’s true. It’s called having your period and it happens to all girls when they get to a certain age.”
And suddenly I was very aware of being completely naked. I realized that talking about periods, cramps and uteruses might be even more traumatic while viewing my naked, half-floating, 44-year old body. As if she needed further proof that it’s all downhill from age ten.
So I sat up, which she took as a signal to continue.
“So….. does it hurt?”
“The blood coming out doesn’t hurt but sometimes you feel sick or get cramps, and that part can hurt.”
Her face, understandably, was a giant question mark. She knows how babies usually come into the world (“THROUGH THE VAGINA?”) so I wasn’t surprised the idea of more indignity and trauma to her lady bits was rocking her world.
“The whole thing usually lasts about five days,” I continued. “For me, it starts with feeling not like myself. I get really cranky and tired and sometimes my breasts or my tummy hurts and that’s how I know it’s about to start.”
I figured “cranky and tired” would suffice for now. No need yet to tell her it’s actually more like wanting to eat a box of donuts before embarking on a murder spree.
“So it hurts before the blood comes out but not during,” she said, both summarizing and processing this impossibly bizarre information.
“And…. WHY does this happen? Why do girls get their periods?”
“Well,” I said carefully, “it’s our body’s way of telling us it’s ready to have a baby.”
And now her head nearly did well and truly explode, which was the perfect time for my husband to pop his head into the bathroom.
“A BABY? I’m supposed to have a BABY when I get my period?” she yelled.
He looked from her to me and back to her again. This was clearly not the reaction he was expecting when he came to see who wanted ice cream.
We both ignored him until he retreated, returning moments later with a bottle of red wine, which he used to refill my glass before backing slowly, wordlessly, out of the room for the second time.
“You don’t have to have a baby,” I continued. “But if you have sex with someone after your period starts you can get pregnant so you have to be very careful.”
I was pleased to see that this information was horrifying to her, so I doubled-down on the period-sex connection.
“The blood comes from the lining of your uterus, where the baby grows. It sheds every month to get ready for that” I said, mentally discarding what I really wanted to say which was: therefore you should never ever have sex unless you’re prepared to get pregnant and have a baby that will cry all night and poop all over and you’ll never see your friends again.
“It doesn’t mean you have to have a baby,” I reluctantly acknowledged. “It’s just a signal that it can happen.”
“When will my period start?”
“Everyone is different,” I said. “I was in grade nine but some girls get it much earlier, like grade six. It usually happens around the time your body changes in other ways too. I think you have some time.”
“And the blood…” she said slowly, “it goes where?”
I took a deep breath. “Well, you can wear a tampon that goes inside your vagina or a pad that attaches to your underwear.”
“That sounds gross.”
“Ya, it’s not that much fun honey, I’ll be honest. But everyone goes through it, and after you’d had it for a while you’ll learn to manage it. It’s not that bad once you get used to it,” I lied.
She nodded her head slowly, not buying it and perhaps filing it away under “things I will accuse my mother of lying to me about in a few years.”
We were both silent for a minute before I took her hand and told her I was glad she’d asked me these questions and reminded her that she could always come to me about anything, anytime.
She was silent so I downed the last of my wine and reached for a towel. And at exactly the moment I did so she asked, “Mom? What’s a condom?”