Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Girl Bonding 101: Moving Beyond Netter

I am in a state of slow, silent, ever-evolving panic.

I just looked over at my 10-year-old daughter (soon to be 11), and for a second I saw a young woman sitting in the armchair. Or at least, a young pre-woman. Ack.

She has shot up several inches and a couple of shoe sizes this year. I feel like she goes up one Tanner stage every week or so. Her face has gradually acquired subtle, more mature angles, and let’s not even talk about the rest…

She builds sand castles at the beach and sleeps with her teddy bear. But she also notices attractive young actors or singers, and her comprehension of the nuances of flirtation is accelerating at an alarming rate. She is bubbly and all smiles and hugs one moment, irate and scowling the next, at the slightest provocation. She can still enjoy Sponge Bob, but she can also start to discuss American politics and social issues. I am amazed and thrilled and in awe and totally distressed.

I want to tell her pituitary axis: whoa! Slow down! Childhood’s short enough! But it’s useless.

It’s time to have THE TALK.

No, not that talk. We had that talk when she was eight, because the kids at school were already disseminating all sorts of sketchy information about reproduction and childbirth. I told her I was okay with her discussing reproduction and childbirth but I wanted her to have the right information – and who better than her doctor-mom to provide it, right?

Now, I am sure there are lots of people out there who can describe the “right way” and “wrong way” to handle sex education. I myself got “educated” in a bit of an unusual way. I was in a book store when I was five and saw a book entitled Where Babies Come From, or something like that, illustrated with some cartoon-like illustrations. I had been reading for about a year. I picked up the book, learned the facts of life, and, bored out of my mind, put the book back on the shelf. My mom was a little surprised, I think, when, after she expressed doubt that I actually knew about intercourse, I explained the process to her fairly accurately. It was only later that the more abstract concepts came within reach.

When my daughter asked me where babies come from, I said, “Cells, of course. Remember how I told you all our bodies are made of little, tiny things called cells? Babies start out as little clumps of cells inside their mothers and grow bigger and bigger with time. The parts of the body develop as our cells make more cells.”

That explanation satisfied her for a while, but then the inevitable came: “How do the cells get inside the mommy? And is it true that mommies push the baby out through where they pee?” That was the part the kids at school were talking about.

That was the part that made me thankful I'd hung on to my Netter Atlas of Anatomy from medical school. I sat my daughter down between my husband and me and we explained the relevant mechanics of reproduction step by step. I explained a little bit about menstrual cycles. I drew simple diagrams of female internal organs and used Netter as a supplement. Last but not least, my husband and I both expressed our personal values regarding the place of sexuality in the context of human relationships. As our daughter listened I felt proud, because she seemed to be listening so thoughtfully.

Lately, though, now that she’s a little older, she has acquired a kind of embarrassed reluctance to discuss “woman stuff.” When she was eight we could almost sense a certain pride in her at being entrusted with these more “adult” concepts. Today, however, she’d really rather not talk about them. But I feel I have to get us talking about them, not only to reinforce the idea that it’s okay for us to talk and for her to have questions, but also to make sure she doesn’t feel anxious or uncertain or ill-informed. Sometimes it seems like it's almost easier to get patients to open up about personal things.

I wanted to have the talk about menarche. I think it’s imminent at this point. But how to create a level of comfort about the subject? And to make sure we’re prepared, together, before the moment arrives? I want her to feel good about growing up, to celebrate each milestone instead of dreading or being unpleasantly surprised by it.

The other night an opportunity arose. I don’t quite remember how. But the subject came up, and I asked her if she had any questions about periods.

No,” she answered emphatically, casting her eyes down. I could almost hear her mortified mental voice asking me, Please don’t give me an awkward, long-winded lecture; please don’t start looking for “ins;” and please, whatever you do, don’t ask me if I’m sure about not having any questions.
“Are you sure?” I asked, stupidly. So predictable.

Then I started to babble. I told her she could always come to me if she felt unsure or worried about something. I told her it wasn’t at all scary to get a period if you knew what to expect. I told her I would go with her to the drug store when the time came to look at the options in terms of supplies.

Then it happened. I got my “in.”

“Actually, that’s the part I wasn’t sure about,” she said, looking up again.

“What’s that, honey?”

“The supplies part. I don’t exactly understand how they work.”

Relief! She had given me a concrete way to nurture and support her! Hallelujah! I launched into an enthused discussion - not, I hoped, an awkward, long-winded lecture - about the pros and cons of various types of supplies, demystifying the “anatomy” and mechanics of each with appropriate exhibits. I explained what I liked and didn’t like about each option.

Sometimes, whether it’s a patient or a beloved child, it can be so tough to talk about so-called “sensitive” issues. And somehow it can be much easier to be direct with total strangers. “Are you sexually active?” we ask during a comprehensive medical history. “With one partner or more than one? Male or female?” I can do all that "doctor stuff" without batting an eyelash, but somehow when it comes to the mother-stuff of making sure my daughter’s emotionally okay, or figuring out if I’m asking too much or too little, saying too much or too little, I feel much less certain that I’m doing an adequate job. There’s no Netter Atlas of Parenting, after all.

I guess I just have to take my cues from her.

Photo: reusable menstrual pad with Kokopelli motif from Wikipedia article on the history of sanitary napkins
Link of interest, for the historically inclined: Museum of Menstruation


  1. Way to go finding an "in". While discussing puberty and sexuality is hard, it sounds like you are doing an awesome job. Lots of short conversations make it easier and help maintain that communication and connection. You might have already seen it, but I always like to recommend a book called "It's Perfectly Normal". Accurate information with great illustration and just enough humor to help alleviate the embarrasment factor.

  2. I love that book! I was just thinking it was about time I pulled it out... :)


  3. T, I'm right there with you with the male version of the puberty train coming down the track fast. My eldest is actually a little ahead of schedule for a boy. It IS harder talking about body stuff with your own kids!

  4. The Wikipedia article about sanitary products is very interesting. Reusable feminine hygiene products are a tough sell to me (yuck) Even in the 10th century they were disposable.

  5. I love the fact that you used Netter.
    And in relation to what momwithastethoscope said....I lived in student accommodation (for far too long), and remember a girl there who used "moon pads" that were reusable. In communal washing machines. !!!!!!!


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