I was 12 when I got my first period. I was well-prepared. By that, I mean that I had sent away all the coupons in my Dolly and Girlfriend magazines to get free samples of all the pads and the kind of tampons that came in what appeared to be a cardboard launching tube; what a marvel of engineering that thing was. I had also been to the vague and mysterious talk that all the girls at school went to (no boys allowed), given by the school nurse. Periods, until the age of 10 or so, had been a complete mystery to me.
E Street- an education.
I have this vivid memory of watching an episode of E-Street (yes, I’m old as fuck) that involved the local skateboard-riding tomboy getting her first period.
The local GP, Dr Elly, played by Penny Cook, reassured her that it was normal and a part of growing up. What was? From E Street I learned that you might not feel like riding your skateboard during your period. There was some implication of pain but nothing about the bleeding. Was it just a monthly stomach-ache? No one I knew seemed keen on answering my questions directly, hence I was referred to the human body book on my bookshelf.
Not content with clinical explanations and unlikely diagrams that I found in there, I did what any kid of my era did when they wanted to know something. I went to the library to read all the teen magazines.
Dolly and Girlfriend, oh my!
These magazines were like the teenage bible. The first period, Dolly explained, was the first time your body would be able to get pregnant. An egg would be released. A lining would build up. When the fertile time had passed without conception, you body would eventually shed the lining. It might hurt.
By the age of 12, I was buying Dolly with my pocket money rather than relying on back-issues in the library. What can I say? I was proactive about my own education. Plus, the librarians didn’t like it if they caught you cutting out the free sample coupons and competition entry forms.
Like any other child of my generation, I read Judy Blume, too. In fact, I blame Judy Blume for the entirely misplaced sense of happiness and excitement that came with my first period. ‘Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret’ had me thrilled at the idea. I wasn’t alone; loads of girls at school were just as excited to get their first period. We were women, goddamn it. Grown ups! Walking around in training bras (could there be any less rigorous form of training? But, I digress.) and making a point of using the only cubicle in the girl’s bathroom that had a sanitary bin.
The other reason that book made us glad? We were so modern that our (giant, unwieldy) sanitary pads were adhesive. Margaret and her friends had to wear a sanitary belt with hook-on pads. If you’re wondering, subsequent modern reprints of this book has seen the descriptions of pads updated- I know because I didn’t want my girls to miss out on the misplaced sense of excitement, you see.
The fictional account in Blume’s book was not matched by the reality of cramps, mess, hormones and skin break-outs. Not. At. All.
Mums and Dads: When your kid gets her first period…
I remember that I was home alone, on a pupil-free day from school, the day my first period arrived. I rang my mum, still in a Judy Blume induced haze of happiness over it all. The cramps wouldn’t kick in for a couple of hours, so I was all: Mum was quiet for a second then asked me to hold on. I could hear her putting her hand over the phone mouthpiece (which is a very poor substitute for the ‘hold’ button’) and the muffled sound of her telling all the women in her office.
Don’t do that. How embarrassment. Mum then made sure I had all my samples, knew how to use them and advised me to take an of asprin. I already knew (from E Street) that I probably should avoid riding my skateboard (though I still wasn’t clear on why and it had never been covered in Dolly). I remember wondering if I could get a Carefree sample. Those girls went surfing and horse-riding. Surely they’d be okay for skate-board use?
Another thing to avoid is ambiguous language. I remember my Aunty coming to visit around the time of my first period. No, not a euphemism- an actual aunt. She said, without preamble, “So, Amy, I hear you’ve got the curse?” A lot of confusion could have been avoided right then and there by explaining that “the curse” was an old religious expression meaning “your period”. Instead, 12 year old me blanched and stuttered, wondering what this curse was, how I got it and how I could break it (in between Dolly mags, I read quite a few fantasy novels). It was a good week or two before I knew for sure she hadn’t meant a literal curse, cast by a witch of some kind.
If you have a kid coming up to that age, please, don’t skirt around or avoid any questions. I remember having my questions avoided and feeling like I had inadvertently asked something terribly rude. It would have been much easier to simply be told, in a matter of fact way, what periods were and what to expect. To have the options explained to me. These days, you can even use a good video like this to help explain it. Don’t just head to the library in search of Dolly back issues, especially since it’s out of print!
Yes, you might feel awkward or uncomfortable. But that’s parenting, right? A series of wonderful and not-so-wonderful moments interspersed with varying degrees of awkwardness and discomfort. I felt like that just last week while out in public but I still had to loudly ask my four year old to stop licking the side of the ATM. You gotta do what you gotta do!