Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Men-ar-kee in the U.S.A. (yes, that's a Sex Pistols reference)

Menarche, pronounced "men-ar-kee" is the technical word for a girl's first period.

Though my daughters are only six and eight I have never kept the issue of "menstruation" out of their sight or minds. Maybe it's because we're an all-girl house - or perhaps it's just me and my "no holds barred" attitude. In fact, I'm often surprised when my friends' girls don't know anything about periods. "How come your daughter doesn't know what this is," I asked, holding up a tampon that clearly confused the heck out of my friend's eight-year-old daughter. “YOU know why," she said, looking at me expectantly. "Remember…I don't get my period."

Ahhh, the amenorrhea (absence of menstruation) that sometimes occurs with low body fat and prolonged breast-feeding. Yes, this friend in fact did not have her period for the two years she nursed her baby, and then again for another two years with the second one. However, the other day I said something to a mom like, "Well, doesn't your daughter see you take out a tampon once in a while? Or see bloody underwear? I mean, what do you say about that?" She looked a little confused, “Um...no. She's never seen any of that." I detected a note of concern in her answer that seemed to say, "I'm not sure your girls should know that either."

All of which made me wonder: Do I have no boundaries with my girls? Or is this one boundary for which I find the line indistinct? I like that my girls will say to me, "Mommy, did you get your moon yet?" They have heard me talk about the fluctuating moods and effects of my cycle. They understand that you "bleed" because there is no baby there and that if egg met with seed a baby would grow in the womb. So, it's all rather poetic and sometimes clinical; and that seems to suit our style.

Hormonal effects and subsequent moods have a huge impact on me. Recently, I had a rather difficult task ahead of me as I was called to be a character witness in a lengthy trial. As a witness I knew that MY character was bound to be attacked, as that is a defense tactic. So each time I was called for this task (there were two false alarms) I was truly concerned about where this obligation would fall within my lunar cycle. It didn't occur to me that this was even remotely "kooky" or strange and I spoke of it openly with friends. For a moment, it reminded me of a friend who would not sign a contract while "mercury was in retrograde". And while I had patience for her astrological observance I felt my concern was far more concrete and plausible.

I know my psyche and my cycle very well; and I knew that if I had to testify just before my period began I would be in a more vulnerable state than if it occurred at the turn of the cycle. Sure enough, the fateful day approached and it was to be exactly three days before my period started. Then somehow, rather miraculously, my clockwork cycle interrupted itself so that I bled three days early. I took the stand the morning after my moon commenced and I went up there with a raging self-confidence; I was eloquent and brave and shot down every single opposing mud-slinger the other attorney threw at me. And I did so with the power of being at the start of my cycle; when the inner voice of doubt had taken a backseat for a few weeks.

So, the other day I received a package from my new friend, Madeleine Shaw, founder of LunaPads. Her company is dedicated to creating environmentally-safe alternatives to disposable period accessories. Let’s face it, we get quite up-in-arms about millions of diapers clogging our landfills, but did you ever think about the used pads and tampons doing the same? And if you consider that one woman gets her period about 400 times in her life…well, that’s a lot of buried “biohazard” (anything with blood is considered biohazard). In this care-package was a whole bunch of reusable cloth menstrual pads, an insertible cup to catch menses, and a pair of cute black undies to hold the reusable pads. But most interesting was a beautiful booklet geared toward girls who were about to have their first periods, "menarche".

Sure having your period can sometimes be inconvenient, but we encourage you to keep a positive attitude about it. Better yet, learn to honor and understand your monthly cycle now, as it can have a big effect on how you feel about yourself now as well as later in life. Use language that reflects respect for your body. When you talk about your period consider phrases like "moon time" and avoid negative phrases like "I'm on the rag". In many cultures menarche is cause for a big celebration - a way to mark and celebrate our "official" transition from being a girl to being a woman. It's something that a lot of us wish that we had done!

I love this approach. And though the words in this booklet are directed at the girls themselves it's really the mother's job to initiate such a celebration. I thought about how I might do that for my girls when the time is right. We frequently worry about what's called "precocious puberty" as girls are experiencing menarche earlier and earlier. What used to be average has moved down a year and what used to be the normal range has gone down to 7 & 8-year-olds depending on culture (African-American and Latina girls leading the curve). My daughter, at eight-and-a-half, is probably just a few years, at minimum, away from moving into this realm. And I want her experience to be full of wonder, respect and knowledge...unlike the one most women from our generation had.


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