That Time My Toddler Discovered My Period – and What I Learned From Her Reaction

I will fully admit I’m a pretty “crunchy” mama.

I never thought twice about breastfeeding in public and always instructed anyone changing my daughter’s diaper to please keep all comments body positive! But honestly, I didn’t plan to bring up the subject of menstruation with her for like, another half decade or so, at least.

The subject brought itself up only because we live in a quirky house with a bathroom door that doesn’t fully close in the winter. So there I am, sitting on the throne of hypothetical privacy, when my three-year-old scoots right in and saddles up to watch me reach for a new panty liner.

She’s intrigued by its bright pink wrapper and asks to hold it. I say she can keep that one and reach for another. She is quietly delighted with her mysterious treat. At this point I know that I could ask for space and there’s a 50/50 chance she’d honor that without protest, but the truth is, so far this is going fine.

I’m only a little nervous because I didn’t anticipate this interaction. It’s one of those strange parenting moments where you know a conversation is about to happen that you didn’t have a chance to plan, but you trust yourself and your relationship the way you trust your seatbelt on a rollercoaster. Something strong is holding you safe, so, might as well have fun!

As I begin to change my panty liner, she looks almost solemnly at the one I’m replacing. “Mama? Did that come out of your pa’china?” she asks. (Where do they come up with these great variations on anatomy? I secretly hope she never outgrows them.) I tell her it did.

The bright red blotch does not look gross to her, rather she finds it pretty and asks sweetly to touch it. I’m taken aback by her casual embrace of this “icky” aspect of womanhood. (Of course she doesn’t know the half of it yet, but it’s a very receptive start.) I tell her no dear, because just like runny boogers and poops, this blood is something the body wants to let go of. So we don’t play around with it. We respect our bodies’ wishes and help it move on its way.

She then asks me to open “her” panty liner as though it were a pouch of fruit snacks or a wrapped birthday present. I do. After some inspection, she wants me to put it in her junies (underwear), beaming with the same innocent desire to play “big girl” as when reaching for my makeup or stacking our TV remotes into her plastic shopping cart.

So I do.

She does a few comically exaggerated squats and we laugh together at her new sensation. “It’s kind of like a diaper!” I offer. “Because this blood is special – it comes when it wants to – and things like this help Mama stay clean and cozy.”

It’s all very logical to her. Because here’s the great thing about toddlers: they love the truth. They pretty much balk at nothing. And though she will probably not remember this conversation, and we’ll surely have to reprise it in greater detail, I make sure to appreciate this moment. Where my matter-of-fact little female feels no judgment of bleeding.

I hope this comfort with my body and its functions becomes the bedrock of a positive attitude for her eventual menarche. I hope it offers some counterpoint to the disgust and embarrassment that routinely attach to our wombs once we feel the world’s eyes looking up our skirt.

I hope that I might be brave and sensitive enough to strike the right balance as housemate to this nascent woman: not over-sharing my intimate life, but neither sheltering it behind a reflexive shame. I want her to notice that I do my best to honor my body’s private cycle despite the enormous pressure of modern life’s standardized sense of time.

I want her to know that I believe our bodies call us to sometimes fully rest, to stop producing and performing. They call us to check in and notice unpleasant feelings, they call us to ask for favors, they call us to ask for space. Because as much as I used to loath the cliché that women are more emotional “on” our periods, truth is, menstruation is more than the shedding of a tissue lining, there’s an emotional outpouring as well.

Women – particularly mothers – are pressured to assume the emotional labor of those who can’t, or won’t, deal with it themselves. So in addition to the messages of our own feelings, we often spend energy decoding the unfelt sadness, fear, and anger of our partners, bosses, children, and peers.

You can tell that mothers are still held responsible for the interiority of others, because when a child misbehaves or makes a poor decision, everyone still asks, Who is your mother? Where is your mother? Didn’t your mother teach you this or that? We are the ones silently appointed to transmit common sense, morality, and manners – but rarely are we allowed the time between life’s errands to ask ourselves in any depth, Who am I? Where am I? What do I believe and what have I learned?

I want my daughter to see her period as a time where she’s entitled to explore those questions, because they are important. (Especially if the world continues to expect her gender to enforce its conscience!) I hope her period is not, as it’s been for so many of us, merely something gross to hide or ignore and suffer through. I fantasize that her generation will have the courage to value the labor menstruating women carry out on behalf of our entire species, and compensate it by at the very least relaxing a few taboos.

No one should make a woman feel melodramatic, or lazy, or weak for acknowledging that not all days of the month are interchangeable to her body. That is asking her to participate in a lie that, by design, she can’t believe. I hope that by the time my girl joins the workforce, society will have evolved new routines that support the well-being of everyone, rather than discriminate who can work what job based on how they fit into a schedule originally designed only for men.

Society is meant to balance out the random constraints of circumstance and, to my mind, nature’s extra burden on the female body is a significant and habitual constraint. We can, and should, address it.

How great would it be – for everyone’s sake – to live in a world where women truly felt their needs were met, their work was valued, and life was basically fair? Maybe we could start just by imagining it, and letting our daughters imagine it, too.