If you’re an adult biological female, chances are you vividly remember getting your period for the first time. I was twelve years old when it happened–I hid it, deeply embarrassed, for a couple days before I screwed up my courage and told my mom, who showed me where the supplies were kept, went downstairs to tell my dad (which caused a fresh wave of humiliation to break over me), and it was never spoken of again.
Why was I so embarrassed? Why is this natural bodily function shrouded in stigma and silence the world over?
When it was my own daughter’s turn, I was determined to do better.
This watershed parenting moment arrived on a normal weekday in early spring. My twelve-year-old daughter texted me to say, “I think I got my period.” I didn’t check my phone and never saw the text. We were in the car alone together later that afternoon as I drove her to swimming, and she announced, “I think I got my period.”
I gasped with excitement and almost veered off the road. “Oh my god yay! Congratulations!” I yelped. Then I reined in my emotions and said warmly but calmly, “Welcome to the sisterhood. You are one of us now, PJ. Today, you are a woman.” Then I high-fived her.
Did I handle that okay? I wondered as I drove back home alone. She hadn’t seemed embarrassed–that was good. I giddily announced the news to my husband and younger daughter, and texted my mom. I also told several friends and coworkers. Women like to share their first-period stories, it turns out; they just need an invitation, like when you announce the news of your daughter’s menarche to a van full of your colleagues on the way to a professional conference out of town.
I felt like we’d done a decent job of casting my daughter’s first period in a positive light. But I wanted to do something more.
It felt momentous, for both of us, and I wanted to properly commemorate it. Together we cast about online for ideas. There are many first-period traditions from around the world (from being slapped in the face to swallowing an egg whole to consuming a delicious-sounding sticky rice and adzuki bean dish), but our culture had nothing concrete to offer.
Then we saw this photo that went viral and this video of comedian Bert Kreisher talking about his daughter’s period party on Conan. A Period Party–of course! (Sometimes called a Red Tent Party or a First Moon Party.) “Can I please make you a cake that says ‘Congratulations on your period’?!” I squealed. Then I read this Washington Post article in which a woman hires a shaman, who erects a red yurt in their backyard, fills it with altars, scarves, and pillows, and leads the guest of honor and friends in “storytelling, crafts, and guided meditation.”
“This embodies my outdoorsy, hippie, white-person-interested-in-cherrypicking-Eastern-traditions sensibility perfectly!” I thought with excitement. The only trouble was, I didn’t know any shamans, and it sounded like the whole thing would be way out of our budget (which was miniscule). Still, I started wondering aloud if it would be possible to rent a red tent or somehow paint our family camping tent red before the next weekend.
Then I read something that stopped me cold. “‘Ask your daughter what would make her feel loved and special, since that’s your goal, and what would be embarrassing or overwhelming,'” a professional counselor was quoted as saying in this Parents article. “‘When you listen to what she prefers, you do two important things. One, you strengthen her trust that she can rely on you about emotionally complex situations. Two, you reinforce that she has sexual agency—a right to make important decisions about her body and sexuality, and that her choices must be respected by others. In this case, you; later, by romantic partners.'”
Wait a second, I realized. This is not about how cool I’ll look to my friends or what will look good on Instagram. This is completely about her!
So I toned it down and asked my daughter genuinely what she wanted to do, if anything. I dropped the idea of a custom cake that she clearly didn’t want. We eventually settled on a small party with four of her friends, at which we would eat and then hang out while a nail artist friend of a friend gave us manicures. I don’t actually enjoy cooking or entertaining, so when the aforementioned professional counselor, in her infinite wisdom, said later in the same article that, “judging from her clients’ experiences, ‘very small, low-key’ celebrations are often the most positive,” I felt extremely validated. Plus, a self-care activity seemed appropriate for nursing oneself through the physical and emotional discomfort menstruation can bring–and my daughter was extremely excited about the manicure idea.
Other ideas for structured activities at a Period Party (if that’s your daughter’s jam):
- embroidering or appliqueing felt zipper pouches for your period supplies
- sewing reusable pads
- doing mud masks or facials
- doing henna
- making beaded jewelry
- making a clay plant pot for a little succulent
- making lavender sachets
- decorating cookies
- tie-dyeing pillowcases
- getting your hair braided
- getting a massage
- making empowering Shrinky Dink pins for your backpack
- writing your fears about womanhood on small pieces of paper and then ceremonially burning them in a fire
We snacked on red velvet mini cupcakes, pizza bagel bites, red grapes, chips and salsa, pomegranate arils, strawberries, sparkling fruit punch in fancy glasses, and these fancy layered Jell-O parfaits my daughter specifically insisted upon. They were delicious, but you haven’t known pressure until you’ve tried to balance half a dozen champagne flutes filled with liquid Jell-O at a precise forty-five-degree angle in your freezer two hours before a Period Party commences.
Other ideas for red foods to serve at a Period Party (if this is the direction you’re going in. Eat whatever special foods your daughter wants!):
- pasta with marinara sauce
- red wine
- raspberry cheesecake
- iced, heart-shaped sugar cookies
- avocado and cherry tomatoes on toast
- hibiscus tea
- blood oranges
- rhubarb pie
- tiny finger sandwiches with strawberry jam
- a cake with the female reproductive system outlined in raspberries on top
It wasn’t a yurt filled with sitar music and the chanting of an expensive shaman, but I did secure my daughter’s permission to erect a low-key red tent: her father and I pinned a red tablecloth (which happened to be from our wedding reception) to the ceiling above our kitchen table, draping it artfully. My daughter cued up the playlist of feminist tracks she’d created for the event.
The decorations were red, the food was red, and we asked her guests to wear something red. The conversation flowed (pun totally intended), as the girls discussed periods without an ounce of apparent shame. Completely unexpectedly, my daughter’s friends also arrived with beautiful gifts in hand: care packages filled with various types of pads, tampons, and menstrual cups. She also received a hot water bottle, calming oils, two kinds of chocolate, a plant, and an extremely heartfelt and encouraging note from one friend. These items were passed around and admired–one girl described how to insert a menstrual cup for the group.
It wasn’t perfect or Pinterest-worthy, but the point was to surround my daughter with a community of supportive and encouraging women, and we achieved that objective.
Even though periods can sure suck, we wanted to recognize that menstruation is a marker of power as well as pain and that her body, with all its attendant functions, is a gift.
Finally, we wanted to move periods out of the darkness of stigma and taboo and into the light of conversation and clarity. I hope that this Period Party is just one event in a long history of openness in our family around topics related to sex, bodies, and reproduction, and that my daughter will continue trusting me to help her navigate these parts of her life.