Just how badly did my mother handle my siblings' periods?
August 29, 2018 5:04 AM   Subscribe

I learned this weekend that my mother essentially never acknowledged my sisters' periods, seldom or never purchased pads or tampons for them, etc., and I'm wondering how to interpret this on the scale from "Standard Baby Boomer Parenting Shit" to "Straight-Up Abuse / Neglect." More below.

Additional details:

* Family makeup is mother born in the 50s, father born in the 40s, three girls and a boy born from 1980 to 1988. Midwestern Catholics of a liberal bent.

* One sister got her period at age nine, had no clue what was happening, and when she asked my mother about it after bleeding for multiple days, my mother handed her a pad, told her she'd tell her more about it soon, and then gave her a book about it but never told her anything or had any conversation with her at all about it.

* The other two sisters just never had any single conversation about it with my mother, by which I mean never not once in their entire 30+ years on this planet.

* It seemed pertinent to me that they also never discussed their periods with one another, despite all living in the same house at the same time, and two of them in the same bedroom.

* Basically they just found pads where they could, including in my mother's bathroom on occasion, used toilet paper instead of pads, etc. My older sister would ask my mother to buy her products in coded terms, and my mother would basically not respond and not buy her any.

* Less pertinent but related is how this information came up, which is that I recounted how for my entire adolescence I purchased deodorant for myself, hid it in my bedroom, and wouldn't even throw it away for fear it would be found by my mother. I just hid empty deodorant containers in my bedroom for years. Such was the taboo around growing up in my house.

* I should add that my father's role in these matters was nonexistent.

* My mother is a deeply mentally unwell person, though she functioned quite normally in the world during those years, aside from being essentially an emotional nuclear detonation site. We are all estranged from her today.

I was really angered to learn all this (and somewhat ashamed to have been so unaware while I myself shared the home with them). It just seemed so insane that I couldn't understand it. So I guess what I'm asking is that, in context, how should I interpret this? My specific questions:

* Is this standard 1980s parenting?

* Is this "get the State involved" neglect? (This is how it struck me at first.)

* Did this happen to you or your siblings?

* Should I be blaming my father in similar measure?

* Um . . . I don't know, just am I overreacting in thinking this is permanent-trauma causing behavior by a parent that makes me have to rethink my entire childhood somehow?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (41 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I was born in that timeframe, into a similar family (midwestern Catholics, etc), and this is not at all normal, either at my house or in the homes of people I was friends with. No parental discussions about sex was common, no parental discussion about menstruation was less common but still happened, in my experience. Flat-out pretending that people weren't maturing and refusing to purchase supplies for them, though, is well outside the range of normal parenting. It sounds, to me, neglectful at best, and certainly the kind of thing that could be intensely traumatic.
posted by mishafletch at 5:31 AM on August 29, 2018 [32 favorites]

My mother was incredibly INCREDIBLY useless at this stuff. I was born in 1980. She was born in 1937.

At age 10 I found pads in my drawer. No explanation. When I asked if she'd meant to put them there she said, "you'll need them soon". I asked friends and got the basic facts and then spent the next nearly-3-years worrying that I didn't need them and she'd said "soon" but being simultaneously terrified to tell her or ask about it.

When I started, the month before my 13th birthday, she was vacuuming. I 'told' her by asking what one did with used towels, and, without even turning the vacuum cleaner off, she mimed tearing one up and shouted "tear and flush". That was the sum total of our discussion on the topic.

BUT and its a huge but, every month a packet of pads and later tampons would quietly appear in my drawer, or in the supermarket my mother would ask in the relevant aisle "do YOU need anything?", or on the odd occasion I'd got none I would say "mum I've run out of supplies" and she would tell me to grab "something from her top drawer" and I'd soon find a new box appear in my drawer.

So I would say that your mother was really terrible. Especially as mine was born in the 1930's and was as un-hip as they come and still managed so I never didn't have supplies despite having to not talk about it except in a weird coded way.
posted by intergalacticvelvet at 5:40 AM on August 29, 2018 [24 favorites]

I was also born in that timeframe into a similar family (Catholic.) My mother also never talked to me about my period. She attempted talking to my older sister who told her that my brother had brought her up to speed so she never had "the talk" with my sister either. We just grew up believing this was normal parenting. Remember, the nuns in school still called it "the curse." I talked to my mother later in life about this issue and she said she was so busy with six kids she just figured I would ask if I had any questions.

Was it imperfect parenting? Yes. Intensely traumatic? No. None of us were raised by perfect parents. We do what we can with what we are given and move on. You probably need to make peace with your upbringing and forgive your mom, but it seems weird to me that you are having this strong visceral response to something that happened a long time ago.
posted by eleslie at 5:42 AM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't think is it normal or healthy. Probably harmful.

Same timeframe, Catholic family on the East Coast, somewhat conservative. I didn't get balloons and a cake (I know someone who did), but I did get a couple of talks about it, discussion about how to use pads and tampons and comfort levels around them, and products purchased regularly. My mom (Lutheran who married into a Catholic family) was open about when she was menstruating (though in a jokey, 'I'm on the rag' way that has its own issues). My sister and I didn't discuss periods much then, but we're open enough with each other now to talk about how much we love menstrual cups and which brands we've tried. My grandmother, even, who was born in 1919, congratulated me on 'becoming a woman' and proudly told her lady friends from church. (all of which was mortifying to middle-school me, but seems an okay way for my family to have handled it)
posted by carrioncomfort at 5:43 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Raised Catholic in NJ, born 1972. My first period came on the day of Andrew and Fergie's wedding, so solidly mid-80s. By then we had plenty of talks about it, we had supplies laid in and ready and she counseled me through it all and helped me set up a calendar. This, I found out, was because my mother's period onboarding was SO VERY BAD (her mom was born in 1917) she resolved to do things differently.
posted by kimberussell at 5:45 AM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

To me this is straight up abusive.

I can just about understand the not talking about periods, but the not buying supplies and having to scrounge for them is where it crosses the line into abuse for me.

FWIW I was born in the 80s, in India, had a discussion about periods well before I actually got them (when I was 11) and my parents (both mom and dad) regularly purchased supplies for me and talked about periods openly. I think my mom did not appreciate the way her own mother handled her first period, which was a huge surprise for her. (A friend of hers had got her period but she was Christian, so my mom assumed only Christians got their periods.) I think she was especially careful to be open and non-shaming with me because of it.
posted by peacheater at 5:46 AM on August 29, 2018 [40 favorites]

Well, you are all estranged from your mother today, so I’m not sure what there is to rethink about your childhood? Wait. Actually, YES. Maybe there is something new here for you. My parents were born in the late 40’s and we are estranged and my mom is deeply mentally unwell, so uh, I have a lot to impart to you.

First of all, I’m very sorry. It’s a terrible way to grow up.

To put this experience into context and from what I’ve been able to figure out, my opinion is that our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents went through absolute hell between WWI and WWII, the Great Depression, the Korean War, and Vietnam. You know that 1950’s happy perfect housewife trope? That was code for how to not get beat up by your alcoholic husband suffering ptsd from his experiences in WWII. Our parents’ own childhoods were rife with alcoholism, neglect, and abuse. Plus, there are shocking statistics out there about childhood sexual abuse, and later rape for women. Plus, 3 children in 8 years is significant during a time we did not really recognize or treat postpartum depression. In short, I’m advocating compassion for these experiences even if you remain estranged.

What you and your sisters experienced was significant emotional neglect and abuse. I (sadly can) imagine how scarring their experiences around menstruation are. Definitely it was not normal. Strangely, my mom didn’t buy me underwear (and deodorant!) very often at the same ages. I’m going to extrapolate our moms (and grandmothers, etc) had some pretty traumatic experiences around womanhood and sexuality and they just couldn’t cope as we grew up?

It’s ok to process and feel however you want to feel. If you can discuss this with your sisters and proceess + comfort each other, please do that. It’s normal in my experience to feel waves of anger and grief until... it just stops being a feature. Having some kind of exercise or meditation practice helps. Self-work with the focus of not passing in the cycle of abuse to our own children helps. Service to others.

IMHE, finding “new” wounds to process is not unusual if you grew up in a dysfunctional or abusive household. It’s actually a positive sign you are doing the work of recovery correctly.

posted by jbenben at 5:53 AM on August 29, 2018 [60 favorites]

Another vote for “this is not a healthy family dynamic” based on my personal experience.

I was born and raised on the US east coast, in the mid 80s, with non-religious parents. I also got my period earlier than most women (age 10). Considering how young I was, my Mom was pretty open with me about explaining menstruation and menstrual products - I knew before I got my period that it was a thing, also. My mom made sure I had regular access to both pads and tampons, that I kept a calendar to track my period and anticipate when it would start next; she also explained how to use the tampon applicator, how often to replace my tampons, and made sure I knew about Toxic Shock Syndrom (TSS) from the get go.

My friends’ moms were all pretty open about this stuff, too, as it would come up in conversation when I’d hang out at their houses.

As far as whether or not it counts as abuse: in the legal sense, you’d need to consult a family law attorney. But as far as how most of us perceive abuse, in the social sense? Yes, it’s abuse, because it’s neglectful of a child’s health needs.
posted by nightrecordings at 5:56 AM on August 29, 2018

I'm with peacheater: It's one thing to not have open discussions about menstruation*, but another altogether to not supply pads/tampons. What you describe reads as abusive to me and I'm sorry your sisters grew up in a house like that.

For reference, I'm a woman and was born in 1990. Both of my parents have always been happy to answer questions about periods and to buy supplies. Today, at age 28, I'm still 100% comfortable talking about my period to my mom and my dad. My mom cried a little when I got my period (as in, "Oh, you're so grown up!") but after that it was all science-based education and freedom to whine about cramps.

* Not that I think it's okay to avoid those discussions, just that it's still sadly common and just seems like shitty parenting, not abuse.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:58 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

I want to validate your anger. Some things that might be fine in the context of a loving family are not fine in the context of a dysfunctional or abusive family. All parents fail from time to time, but poor parents fail over and over without growth or acknowledgement. Taking a situation out of context can mask the greater reality.

So that said, my mother (I was born in '71 and got my period at Disneyworld '82) was by my and my therapist's standards really bad at this (she bought me the wrong kind of pad which resulted in my going to every bathroom in Orlando, and thinking that for the rest of my life I would have to visit bathrooms at 30 minute intervals) and she increased my allowance by half the actual cost of supplies so I ended up getting a job to pay, in part, for that. Any education I got was by books left on my bed, but that actually worked fine for me.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:58 AM on August 29, 2018 [13 favorites]

Oh, and to answer your specific questions:

Is this standard 1980s parenting?
Not in my opinion, but that's just based on anecdotal evidence.

Is this "get the State involved" neglect? (This is how it struck me at first.)
I think not providing period supplies was pretty egregious and abusive. Hard to say what (if anything) the authorities would have done/said if it was reported back then.

Did this happen to you or your siblings?
Fortunately, no.

Should I be blaming my father in similar measure?
I'm inclined to say you should go (a little) easy on him. Men just weren't socialized to talk about menstruation back then. He should have taken more of an interest in his daughters' health needs, but like everyone he's a product of his times. If your mother was this detached from her daughters' menstrual health, I imagine she shut him right out on so-called "female issues."

Um . . . I don't know, just am I overreacting in thinking this is permanent-trauma causing behavior by a parent that makes me have to rethink my entire childhood somehow?
I think you're reacting normally, but I also think that since you're all estranged from your mother, there is little rethinking left to do.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:03 AM on August 29, 2018

I'm from an identical family background. Except I guess my parents were probably more liberal Catholics because they only had two kids. My Mom gave us the booklet to read for starters, too, but period talk was fairly open. Supplies were always available, my Dad would pick some up at the store, too, if needed.

So, yeah, that's really fucked up. And you should blame your father at least some. I mean, both parents are responsible for their children's health and hygiene.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 6:23 AM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

No, of course it's not healthy and few (but not none) would think it normal.

"Get the state involved neglect?" Based on my admittedly dated experience (I was a foster mother to teenage boys in the 1970s) - no. This is "you need to talk to your friends and trusted adults" territory. (In this case, I'm thinking better the devil you know than DCFS.)

My mother is a deeply mentally unwell person, though she functioned quite normally in the world during those years, aside from being essentially an emotional nuclear detonation site.

Given this, perhaps "healthy" and "normal" were beyond her ability. Further, if you have already accepted that she is mentally ill, I don't see what you have to gain by rethinking your entire childhood.

Sure, Dad could/should have picked up the slack, but he didn't. Talk to him if you think it will be helpful, but first think about exactly what you want to get from the conversation and approach him accordingly. E.g. if you want an apology, don't start by putting him on the defensive.

If this is bothering you, see a therapist. But if you're thinking that perhaps you should be more bothered than you are, maybe just let it go.
posted by she's not there at 6:36 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

I apologize for the crappy way I formatted some of my answer.

Like schroedingersgirl just wrote, if you are already estranged I don’t believe there is anything to rethink about your overall current relationship with your mother. My point to you was that as you get older and gain life experiences, it is not unusual to rethink or revisit abuse from your childhood. It’s common and healthy to periodically recontextualize experiences in general, but especially childhood abuse.

Finally becoming a mother myself made me both gain compassion towards my mother (holy shit motherhood is traumatic even when everything is optimal!) and affirmed my perceptions that the way she abused me was unconscionable (I look at my own child and just... no, she had better choices available.)

I’m much happier with what I wrote at the end of my original comment to you. It accurately conveys what I believe emotionally healthy adult life after childhood abuse and estrangement looks like. You definitely seem to be on the correct path.
posted by jbenben at 6:41 AM on August 29, 2018 [8 favorites]

My family fits a similar age pattern and an exact sibling make up to yours.

My mom wasn't the best about talking about these things, so that's why she signed us all up for sexual education at school as early as possible. She 100% stocked the bathroom and more than once sent my dad on an emergency run for things that my dad would much rather have not had to buy by himself.

I'm not sure where on a scale of just-a-crappy-thing-to-do to abuse-and-neglect this would fall, but it's definitely on that scale somewhere. But if there were economic hardships where choices involved food OR menstrual supplies, I could see how food might win out. The world is different when your mode is pure survival compared to being in a position that is able to actually make decisions.

I think you have every right to be angry on your sisters' behalf regardless of the situation because it was clearly upsetting and possibly harmful to them at the time, so just offer them support if they want to continue talking about it. And just be a better dad and uncle to any daughters and nieces you have than your dad was.
posted by zizzle at 6:43 AM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

Raised Catholic, born around the same time. We did not talk about menstruation, my parents left it to my private Catholic school to explain everything. But my mom regularly stocked supplies! I even got to pick out the ones I preferred when we went grocery shopping.

In terms of processing... you are already estranged from her, not sure what else there is to process for yourself. Although, I'm wondering if you know how do your sisters feel about this? Frankly, they are the ones most affected by this treatment. And considering your description of your mother, I think this must be just one of a huge list of abusive behaviour she exhibited towards all of you.

Perhaps rather than trying to process this with your parents, are you in a position to reach out to your sisters? Maybe just say "Hey, for some reason I was thinking about this and I was wondering if it lines up with your experience of the situation. Do you want to talk about it?"
posted by like_neon at 6:45 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

This is abusive and shitty, but as someone who works in a field where I see families that have CPS involvement, it is not at the "get the state involved" level, because that's a really high bar, like, parents are always smoking meth and don't feed you, parents broke your bones, parents got you pregnant kinds of stuff.

I do want to say that given that your sisters never talked about this with each other, and you were busy hiding deodorant containers and the like, it's not surprising that you didn't know at the time but it's great that you're all communicating now and that you're asking these questions.
posted by bile and syntax at 6:46 AM on August 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

My mother did not know for about a year that I had my period. I started at 11 and she found tampons in my room and was pretty mad.

She had never mentioned it to me and never did later. I usually used wadded up toilet paper but sometimes friends's moms hooked me up (because I did not have money and none was ever provided at school).
posted by beccaj at 6:47 AM on August 29, 2018

I grew up in that time frame. My mother was mean and petty, I don't talk to her anymore and I am good with that.
I started my period when I was about 11, in Kmart. My mom was irritated by this. Took me home, gave me money to walk to the drug store for pads and truthfully that is the last I remember of my mothers involvement with my period. She had had a hysterectomy and did not have periods. I suspect she noticed and resupplied but we never talked about it that I remember. My sole sex education from my mother was the comment "Men only want sex, it's nothing to women. Don't bring any babies home to me". As an adult, I can now see how that comment explained a lot about her.
I can also now see how her up bringing was 10X worse than mine, I see and recognize what she sacrificed to raise me. I give her credit for all the good things she did and I no longer dwell on the bad parts (the many many bad parts) because nothing I do now will change the past, I can only move forward.
posted by ReiFlinx at 6:54 AM on August 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

Should I be blaming my father in similar measure?

For everything after your sisters were 12 or so, yes, of course (before that he could be forgiven for not knowing it was already an issue. though he had also not made himself into a parent who could be approached about it when your one sister was nine. If your mother was as described -- terrible, neglectful, and shaming -- and yet she was still the only one your sisters ever even thought of trying to approach for help, that says volumes about your father.)

The only thing I can add is that women don't know biological facts about menarche any more than men do unless they're taught them, and women who don't talk to each other don't know what normal is. Probably most of your mother's abuse/neglect was from her own free choice and for her own psychological reasons, but even kind and healthy women frequently tell their own daughters the same thing they were told as children, whatever that was and however damaging it was. Your mother might have been doing no worse than was done to her, or even a little better. hard as that is to imagine.
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:58 AM on August 29, 2018 [9 favorites]

How do your sisters feel about this? Or quite possibly each has her own view.
Although I did not grow up in the US i grew up in a Catholic family.
My mother was born in 1939, father in 1941.
I was born in 1965 and had my first period in 1980. My mother very much wanted me to have a good experience, and explained everything, and provided pads and tampons. She also gifted me Our Bodies, Ourselves. My dad took the family to a fancy dinner to celebrate.

However, i resented her totally for her efforts, to the point i pretended not to have further period s after the first one, which among other things led to a skiing holiday in an alpine hut with only exactly the supplies we carried in our backpack s and me basically free bleeding...
After that incident i had no more periods for years, but never told my mother.
Later in life, with therapist i was able pinpoint my problem as resenting the fact my mother would know each monthly return, and i felt intruded in my privacy. I also only used the bath/shower when i was sure everyone slept.

I share this because i deeply believe that we can suffer trauma even if our parents totally do the right thing. Each individual, so also your sisters will have a viewpoint, of your common childhood which may differ from each other.
I think it is best to work on your own trauma, and unless your sisters are truly interested in discussing the past, leave it be.
posted by 15L06 at 7:05 AM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

I don't think this is a generational issue; my grandmother was born in the 19-teens and could talk about it with me in a straight-forward and helpful manner. This isn't standard parenting in any decade. It is neglectful.

I was born in '79, my mother was not chatty about such things but I had all the information and supplies I needed and she would check with me from time to time to see if everything was going ok and if I had questions. (I didn't, being much more embarrassed than she was, which I think is a normal dynamic. If an adult is more embarrassed than a teenager about...well, anything, there is probably something wrong there.)
posted by frobozz at 7:08 AM on August 29, 2018

I think there are two separate issues going on here: the communication-of-information, and the obtaining-of-supplies.

I had Catholic mother born in the mid-40's here, I was born in 1970. Mom was always very, very uncomfortable talking about sexual stuff with me as a pre-teen or a teen - she greatly preferred the "nudge child towards a book, and then ask if they had follow-up questions" approach. However, in terms of supplies, I don't remember being unable to ask her for them when I needed them; it was part of the regular grocery run, as were all personal care items I may have needed.

So the "very little discussion" angle doesn't seem weird to me; although, what DOES seem weird is that the school itself didn't do anything. I don't know a single female of my generation raised in the United States who didn't have that one day in fifth grade or so when there was a special girls-only school assembly where we all sat through a boring filmstrip with some title like "There's a New Wonderful You Coming" or something, followed by a lady showing us all how pads worked and stuff. (I'll grant that my experience was the public school one, and private schools may have done different things.) Public schools in my day tended to recognize that parents sometimes dropped the ball on the information end of things, and stepped in themselves to make sure. Some schools even invited parents (at least my mom was at mine).

The expecting the child to fend for themselves when procuring the pads, though, that feels more egregiously wrong.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:40 AM on August 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

Midwestern Catholic growing up in the 80s; I find this unusual. I got complete menstruation information from my mom, my public school, AND my Catholic CCD program, beginning in 3rd and 4th grade. (And the Catholic school kids got it too, my BFF was a student there and we compared sex ed stories.) And school and church both instructed parents on the importance of talking to kids about it, as did the pediatrician.

I do think this is harmful, but I doubt that 1980s social services would have found it abusive. Several pieces of this could be normal on their own, but the whole picture is pretty bad. Like, dad not being involved at all? Pretty normal 1980s parenting. Expecting kids to buy their own products? Might be normal, depending on the family. Mom too anxious to talk about it? Not unusual, although not healthy. But mom avoiding, no purchasing support, dad checked out, kids with no information? The picture as a whole is really problematic. Like I definitely had friends whose moms were too anxious to talk about it, but they made sure their kids got the information they needed from school and/or doctors and made sure the necessary products appeared. I definitely had friends whose parents put a lot of emphasis on them buying their own personal care products as part of becoming responsible for themselves, but they helped and coached and taught them how.

So what might be particularly difficult in thinking about this is that any one piece of it might be fine and okay, but the picture as a whole isn't acceptable.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:58 AM on August 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

You are allowed to continually re-evaluate and re-contextualize your childhood experiences every day of your damn life if you want and need to; this is a thing adults do.

Born 1972, grew up in Texas, none of my close peer group got extensive discussions from parents (two of my best friends had older sisters and I'd say most of our backchannel discussion was informed by their information) but we certainly were all in families that could afford and did routinely purchase supplies. I got a filmstrip in 5th grade, which my mom knew about, but I myself was intensely private about basically everything and didn't want to talk to her about it and she largely obliged but, again, I had multiple choices of supplies stocked in my bathroom and as I got older and had preferences I would mention them and the purchasing would get taken care of.

Lots of families today cannot afford menstrual supplies (and you can't buy them with some benefits; many shelters are prohibited by grants and funding to use the money for those supplies too, because everything is terrible) and I don't believe that's considered CPS-worthy unless you additionally aren't allowed out of the house to obtain them somehow.

I would rate what you describe as shitty, and obviously part of a larger parcel of abuse/deliberate neglect. If a kid had an otherwise engaged and needs-meeting relationship with their parent and this was the one weird thing that didn't happen I would write it off to a form of prudery that may very well be rooted in the parent's past abuse or very specific trauma around genitals or reproductive health, but it's still undeniably shitty to not provide menstrual supplies, if you are able to afford them, to children who do not have jobs or income or another caretaker who would handle that task.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:30 AM on August 29, 2018 [6 favorites]

I think not discussing it well or at all could be possibly forgiven as a product of the times, but I agree that refusing to provide you any supplies crosses the line to neglectful. It sounds like she bought supplies for herself (that is, she wasn't using wadded up TP) so not buying for your teen daughters is neglectful.

I'll also add that I think a common dynamic in dysfunctional households is the warped expectation that children can/should act like adults in terms of asking for what they want or getting it themselves. It's entirely possible that in your mom's world, she maintained plausible deniability by telling herself "well they're not ASKING me for pads, so clearly they don't want/need them". Even your sister asking in coded ways could have been denied as "if only I knew what Janet really wanted!! She won't just come out and ask!" Etc.

It's possible that a lot of your pain and anger now is coming from a place where you were expected to articulate your needs or provide for yourself like an adult before it was time? If this sounds relevant, you can PM me and I probably have some book suggestions for you.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:55 AM on August 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

This may be more common than you think. During girl scout camp in the nineties, one of my cabin mates got her period for the first time. The counselor brought her a big pack of pads and tampons and talked her through the whole process. Another cabin-mate was in shock - she had been getting her period for years, but had just been using wadded up toilet paper. This led to a whole discussion and of about 10 girls, two had never used any type of menstrual products, two were not allowed to use tampons (one said her mom told her if she used tampons she wouldn't be a virgin anymore!!), and at least half never discussed it with their mothers. This memory has stood out to me for years and since then I've tried to always be open and informative about menstruation around young women.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 9:30 AM on August 29, 2018 [12 favorites]

I grew up in the 50s and 60s in a Catholic family. Periods were not discussed by my Mom, but she made a booklet available at about the right age. Menstrual supplies were in the bathroom. My Mom was an alcoholic, running out was not uncommon and instead of a ride to the store, I'd have to go to a neighbor's. I was utterly mortified but in retrospect I realize they probably judged her, not me. Alcoholism and mental illness make it very hard to parent even adequately.
posted by theora55 at 11:32 AM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was born in 1974 in the southeast. My mother was also mentally unwell and not great at teaching/communicating sensitive information, but I was somehow made aware of what to expect before my first period happened. As a further anecdote I remember going on an overnight school trip when I was nine or ten years old, and my (female) roommates and I discovered that all of our moms had packed supplies for us just in case we needed them. The impression that I got was that all of us had been prepared by our moms in at least a rudimentary way for our first period. I also remember my mother giving advice about how to get blood out of clothes and to be prepared for heavy flow first thing in the morning. So, yes, I think this was at the very least neglectful.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:52 AM on August 29, 2018

This is not unlike my own experience. I was born in the early 1980s to parents born in the late 1940s. I feel fortunate that my public school district had a credible health education program because that's how I learned about puberty and menstruation. I don't recall my own mother ever discussing it with me directly, and I definitely don't recall her ever buying menstrual supplies for me either. I pilfered from her stash, bought them myself when I had the money for it, half-assed my own solutions (carefully folded toilet paper, fingers crossed nothing would leak through, ugh) when I didn't.

I also didn't tell her when I got my first period or when I started menstruating regularly. I never asked her, directly or indirectly, to buy supplies for me. At this point it's hard for me to explain exactly why not. I do know, because my mom told me as much, that even though she noticed I was taking her menstrual supplies she didn't ask me anything about it.

My dad didn't get involved one way or the other. I didn't have any other relatives or "auntie"-level friends of the family in the area who could intervene.

My parents were liberal Christians and, for their time, in many aspects pretty progressive about gender roles and sexual morality. However my girlfriend, who is a little older and grew up in a much more overtly religious and conservative culture, said basically "Wow that is weird and pretty f-cked up, I am sorry that happened to you".

I don't view this as "call Child Services" level abuse, no. I do see it as part of a larger pattern of neglect that I experienced growing up, none of which approached "call CPS" levels either but let's just say I've spent a significant amount of time and money on therapy to work through it. There are some complicating factors related to my mother's own health that make me inclined to be a little more forgiving about this specific issue than I otherwise might be. I also don't especially fault my dad for not realizing what was going on, given what I know of his own experience and background. Still, I won't excuse it as acceptable or pass it off as normal parenting.
posted by 4rtemis at 12:12 PM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was a child of the mid 60s, liberal bent Lutheran upbringing, also a mentally unwell mother. Dad was mentally well, just uninvolved bordering on purposefully checked-out. I have three sisters and a brother, who is the youngest of us five kids.

My mother put 'The Life Cycles Library multi-book set on my sister's bed, told her to review it and come to her with any questions, which sister very wisely did not do. Mom did accompany older sister to a single girls-only afterschool event filled with pink butterfly images and demonstrations of Stayfree canoe-sized maxi pads application demonstrations. As far as I know, this was pretty much the sum total of our mother's menstruation education campaign for all four of us girls. In our family, the older girls helped the younger girls the best we could.

I am essentially your sister who started menstruating at 9 years of age. I was on a trip with grandparents and my older sister, too mortified/scared to tell anyone.

Mom was the household shopper and bought her own supplies, which we would then sneak. I taught myself how to use them, didn't use tampons until adulthood since I just couldn't figure out how to get them placed properly. My older sister has told me that mom did not discuss or teach her how to use the box of OB tampons our mother purchased for her (note: they are much harder to use for a beginner bleeder, there's no applicator, you gotta shove them up/into unfamiliar territory using just your finger)

As mentioned, our mother was mentally unwell, and this was just tip of the iceberg stuff, honestly.
posted by mcbeth at 12:13 PM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was born in the 80s, my mum was born in the 50s, and we never spoke about it. I had a strange family because it was actually my dad who dealt with this kind of thing - he was the one who talked to be about my period, albeit extremely awkwardly and briefly!

I spent my teenage years taking mum's pads and tampons, or getting free ones from the school counsellor. Sometimes we would have coded conversations about 'supplies', as other people have mentioned. Sometimes new boxes of pads would just turn up.

Honestly, I didn't want to talk about it with her either so it never felt neglectful, it felt like a relief. I was a very secretive kid and hid all sorts of stuff from my parents - maybe I knew stuff just wasn't talked about openly. It has occurred to me as an adult that parts of my upbringing were super unhealthy but I've never really suffered from it (I don't think).
posted by thereader at 12:17 PM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's messed up but to me doesn't fall more than one standard deviation from average. My family (I'm in my late 30s) wasn't that puritanical and nevertheless, about once a month, I walked to the grocery and bought tampons, deodorant (if needed), razors for shaving my legs, and a teen magazine. (I have no idea where I got the money but probably from spending less than the lunch money I was given.) Before that, I took them from my mom's supplies. To this day, on my own grocery and packing lists, I use code words for those items, but I also don't carry any shame about any of that. It was kind of an adventure in having my own secrets as an adolescent. Maybe ask your sisters what all of this means to them? The fact that your mom ignored your sister's requests strikes me as the worst part.

I think our society is screwed up around all this, and maybe there are bigger concerns, or maybe this was really damaging, depending on how all this landed for your sisters. One thing I've learned is that the same thing can happen to two different people, but minor differences in their personality or the situation can lead it to have very different impacts.
posted by salvia at 12:30 PM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

There are a lot of good answers above, and I want to add to the chorus that your anger is valid.

When I think back on issues or episodes of neglect in my own life, it's helpful to me to extrapolate further back into my mother's (or father's) childhood, and then back into their parents childhoods.

It's not hard to imagine that your mother may never ever have been given a talk about her own body, and if she was born to parents who lived through the Depression then it's not hard to imagine that she learned at a very early age to never ask for things for herself, and to just make due with whatever was available.

Add religion to the mix and it's possible that she suffered so much shame over her own body that she simply could not bring herself to walk down the menstrual supplies aisle. Or, she may have felt shame that she had somehow done something (original sin something something) that caused her daughters to be afflicted with this curse (remember that it was common slang in the years of her childhood for menstruation to be referred to as The Curse). It's not hard to imagine (and I apologize if I hurt your feelings here) that a person with so little knowledge of or agency over their own body may have been subject to marital rape. She may have been a victim of acquaintance rape or child abuse. That she would so completely ignore menstruation may have been for her a form of denial, as she may have felt powerless to protect her own children from a similar trauma.

I agree that it is neglect, yes, and I get that you are still sorting through your childhood. I've walked that path too. You have every right to be angry. There have been plenty of times when I've said (to the air, as my mom is long since passed) "You should have known better! You should have done better!". In the end I have come to realize that my mom was not malicious, she was doing the best she could with the resources she had, even if I later deemed that to be not good enough.

Last thing - you may find it helpful to consider that we talk about anything and everything these days, but our parents were taught as children that that was considered extremely bad manners. You didn't talk about your business outside of the house. Psychologists were "shrinks" and there was huge stigma around going to one, even in the 80's. Even for someone who wasn't afraid to divert family resources to their own needs. You were selfish if you took money from the family to go to a shrink. You were crazy. We as a society were not that far removed from women being involuntarily committed for being hysterical. Pretty much the only outlet anyone had was the parish priest, and I think these days we're all aware of how that could be problematic. In short, your mom may have just been entirely ignorant around the subject, and didn't know how to rectify that.

I wish you peace.
posted by vignettist at 1:22 PM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's the lack of supplies that makes me feel like it's borderline neglectful treatment, on par with not having toilet paper for weeks at a time and having to make do with newspaper, in that time frame and part of the world. Not necessarily "call the authorities" but definitely "if I'd heard about a neighborhood kid going through this I'd be having a strongly-worded conversation with their parents and/or would leave tampons and pads and a small trash can in an accessible place at all times." My socially awkward Catholic family just sort of told me where I could find sanitary napkins in the house when I was 10 or 11 and left it at that. But in some cases, there were no menstruating people in the house, which means they bought those supplies specifically for me and got over themselves for long enough to point to the back corner of the guest dresser. I'd consider that the bare minimum from a parent (my mom did more).
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:37 PM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

You're getting a wonderful range of answers, but I wanted to address the 'is this contact the authorities' question. Access to menstrual supplies is absolutely vital to girls' education and women in general's participation in society. (Sorry about the list of search results -- I think they communicate what a global issue this is, so I didn't want to just pick one.) Do I think CPS would have intervened? Heavens no. But this is a real problem, and you would be right to feel whatever feelings you have, but just...yeah. This is a big, important deal that they didn't have access to good supplies, on top of what it says about your mother's ability to deal.
posted by kalimac at 1:44 PM on August 29, 2018 [10 favorites]

My great-grandmother (born in 1910) didn't tell my grandmother (born in 1927) anything about periods and left her on her own to figure it out. My grandmother told my mother (born in the early 50s) what to expect, but refused to teach her how to use a tampon or to supply them. My mother was pretty open with me (born in the early 80s) and normalized the purchasing of supplies early in my life. I think it's not unusual that based on whatever culture - economic, religious, immigrant, etc - your female ancestors were raised in, to find yourself further to the left on this spectrum than stereotypical modern America might assume is normal. So sadly I don't think it's out of the question that your sisters didn't know what hit them.

As far as not buying supplies, that strikes me as being kinda fucked up, but there has historically been a *lot* of shame around the purchase of menstrual products (it took me until my late 20s to feel comfortable taking products to check-out staffed by a man, or carrying them any distance in translucent plastic bags) and being able to have a conversation with another woman about what supplies are available and what someone's preferences are in order to shop on their behalf, or taking kids shopping for supplies, could understandably have been something that felt problematic - then it's possible that after a few years she was like "well I guess my daughter is figuring it out/going to teach her sisters so I'm going to decline to be a part of this." I mean, it's not awesome by any means, but I guess I wouldn't necessarily default to it being abusive. But, I don't know your mother or her other patterns of behavior, so it's sort of up to you how to interpret it.
posted by olinerd at 1:47 PM on August 29, 2018

UK Catholic (RC mum, atheist dad), born 1981. No great big sit-down Talk, but my siblings and I (both boys and girls) were always aware of the biological mechanics of periods and sex from when we were very small, in a very factual manner (it was Not Something To Be Silly Or Giggle About, but also Not Something Dirty Or Shameful, either). Always had a communal stash of sanitary pads/tampons available in the airing cupboard (and my sister and I were told to let our parents know if we were running out), and both parents were equally unembarrassed about purchasing/providing them.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 2:34 PM on August 29, 2018

So, I think more the communication is what's important and it's not normal.

In a household where fiances are tight and basic hygenic supplies are hard to come by figuring out how to get your own deodorant would be a relief. One you would share. You would be able to throw away empty containers and purchase needed items at will however you figured it out.

The shame around needing hygenic supplies (male and female) isn't normal. Parents do have a wide comfort level and style with discussing these issues in depth, but the basic provisions still happened (provided income in there).

Abuse, especially emotional and sometimes physical neglect, is hard to define. Emotional neglect is very real and very harmful. It impacts communication styles, relationship development and how comfortable you feel with yourself. Should CPS be involved vs the practicality of involvement is really difficult to untangle.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:51 PM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Born 1969 to youngish parents born shortly before 1950. My mom was not great at discussing this stuff but knew that she should, bought me books, etc. I was ashamed to tell her when I first got my period, and borrowed pads from another kid friend. When she found out she was mad I didn't tell her, but I had no precedent for knowing how. There was an aura of Catholic shame around the whole thing. That said, once it was in the open I never lacked for supplies.

I agree that shame/silence is fairly common (not healthy but common), but not providing supplies is neglectful. What were they supposed to do? There's a deep level of indifference or denial there, and willingness to accept your child's shame and discomfort, that I think goes a lot beyond simple awkwardness and 1950s hangups. To me, that is where i would draw the line. It's not CPS level, but it's most definitely messed up.
posted by Miko at 7:57 PM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is so interesting. Was born in the same era to a Jewish/atheist family (parents both born in the year 1950) in an all-Jewish community and can’t even remember when I learned about periods or what to do when I got mine because it was all discussed so openly. I got mine in school in the first week of 7th grade and had a pad ready to go in my backpack. I don’t remember where I got it but probably my mom gave it to me or a friend made sure I had one. Later I told my mom when she got home from work and she gave me a hug. I doubt we talked about it. I already had a supply of pads in my bathroom. It was no big deal, there were no balloons, but it also wasn’t embarrassing or a surprise or strange. It seems like Catholicism plays a role in a lot of these stories so from my POV this story is INSANE and definitely abusive but I recognize there’s a cultural/religious aspect at play here that was still creating an information desert in certain homes where maybe the Internet would fill in today. Where I’m from, this was NOT normal 1980s stuff because the 1980s was not one monolithic culture.
posted by Yoko Ono's Advice Column at 10:01 PM on August 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

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