I can hardly believe that my son will soon have his third birthday. His dad and I have already spent a lot of time talking about the opportunities we’d like him to have and the things we want him to learn about. From day one of our son’s life we’ve tried to create an environment where he feels free to be himself, and where he feels comfortable asking questions. We talk pretty openly about stuff around him, including stuff related to menstruation.
Before I became a parent I had no conscious plan to teach any male children I might have about the menstrual cycle. I don’t think I was against it or thought it should be something taboo, I just never thought about it. I think I figured that while all kids need “the sex talk,” only girls need “the period talk.” My thoughts on this have changed a lot in the past few years. Instead of waiting until puberty and having his dad give him the stereotypical “sex talk,” my partner and I do our best to model sex positive behavior and engage in authentic conversations with our son (yes, even at his young age).
The other thing is that I have realized how important it is that my son learn about the menstrual cycle. You might ask: But won’t he learn about menstruation without his parents teaching him? I mean, he lives in a society with tampon ads and constant TV references to PMS! And honestly, does he really need to know too much about it anyway? He’ll never have a period!
I’m not denying that my son will learn a lot about periods from his society and his peers, in fact I’m assuming that he will. Our society plays a huge role in how both girls and boys learn about the menstrual cycle. And of the “lessons” that it teaches, the ones that really stick out to me are: there’s lots of blood, it makes women crazy, and you need it to make babies.
This simplified and sexist view of the menstrual cycle is formed and perpetuated in a patriarchal society. Those who menstruate and who are frequently around other people who menstruate are able to learn more about what the cycle really is (and what it isn’t), although patriarchy can still get in the way of women having accurate information about their cycles. For those who don’t menstruate, more in-depth lessons generally have to be deliberately sought out.
But wait…can’t menstruators just tell their non-menstruating partners all that they need to know? Why do I think my son needs to learn about the menstrual cycle long before he could potentially be in a relationship with someone who menstruates?
Since every menstruating person has a unique experience of their cycle, it makes sense for them to tell their partners what they would like them to know about their individual experience. However, the idea that a woman should be responsible for teaching her male partner what the menstrual cycle is doesn’t sit well with me. The basics of her own menstrual cycle sure, but why should she be responsible for teaching him about the female reproductive system? Why isn’t this something he learned as part of his general education as a human being?
The answer is actually pretty simple: our society doesn’t consider menstruation an issue of importance to all people. And by people I mean men. Because when you characterize the menstrual cycle, a process so fundamental to the human biology, as a niche issue you are saying that being female is niche. It’s abnormal, it’s strange, it’s “other.” You are saying that menstruation isn’t something that concerns the general population because it’s not something a normal (male) body does.
I want my son to grow up with the knowledge that menstruation is a human issue, that people have menstrual cycles. There’s nothing “other” about it. Our species does this as part of the process that allows it to continue. I want his relationships with menstruating people (whether these are friendships, romantic partnerships, etc) to be free of the toxic idea that menstruation is something he should know nothing about. That, in fact, knowing about the menstrual cycle somehow makes him less masculine (if masculine is how he ultimately wants to identify). I never want him to think there is something gross about his partner, friend, or daughter. I want him to understand that while women’s hormone patterns are cyclical, that doesn’t mean that when we are pre-menstrual our feelings don’t count as real.
Because those are the messages his society will teach him. And because I love my son I want more for him and for the quality of his relationships with menstruating people.
When I was pregnant I chose to not find out my baby’s sex. I remember thinking early on that I was kind of scared to have a boy. As someone who has spent a lot of time studying history, I have seen over and over again that in patriarchal societies it doesn’t matter that man is born of woman. When a child is born male he is inevitably taught to believe that his mother and all of her sex are beneath him. It doesn’t matter how much love a mother gives, the pull of the patriarchy is too strong. Even boys and men who resist can never escape the male privilege that is awarded to them the minute their male genitals see the light of the birth room.
I did give birth to a son, and his infancy coincided with my increased interest in and study of feminism. I realized that while his society will always be there to whisper (or shout) sweet misogynistic nothings into his ear, none of us are powerless agents. In teaching my son about the menstrual cycle I am providing an alternative to our dominant narrative of the female as weak and dangerous. I have no desire to shield him from the world in which he lives, rather my hope is that he will engage in that world with a mind capable of out-of-the-box thinking. I cannot make my son’s decisions for him, but I can provide him with an early environment where respect for the bodies and ideas of others is valued and encouraged.
My son grew in my uterus. When the time came he left my body through my vagina. Strangely enough (well, maybe not so strangely), this is the same journey taken by my menstrual blood every cycle. At the start of my son’s life outside the womb I marveled at this beautiful sign of life, this incredible sign of my feminine power, my human power. I feel the same way when each menstrual cycle starts and I receive a physical reminder of my body’s astounding power to create life. Some people may think it’s silly or weird to say that your menstrual blood has something in common with your newborn child. And of course I don’t expect every menstruating person to feel the way I do. But my hope is that I can one day tell my son about my feelings, and that he will respect them even if he doesn’t himself understand.