Our daughters are losing their amazing, full-of-themselves smiles, the ones that break our hearts with their beauty and lack of guile. Something is making them anxious and afraid. You can see it in their worried, critical expressions when they look at themselves in the mirror. You can hear it in their tentative voices that were once so strong and sure.
One mother expresses her concern this way:
“My 10-year-old daughter is so strong, so out there. She embraces life with passion and confidence. But my 14-year-old, she’s all hesitation. She’s so cautious about everything. She doesn’t want to talk about things anymore. But what you don’t understand is that she never used to be that way. She used to be like the 10-year-old, full of opinions and enthusiasm, until she got to middle school. So now I look at my 10-year-old and think, “How long will it last? How much more time do I have?”
As mothers, we are inundated with stories and statistics about eating disorders, obsession with body image, and emotionally disconnected sexual activity, but what can we do? Our daughters seem less available to us with each passing day.
Understanding Their Feelings
To prepare our daughters to be strong, confident women, we need to take an honest look at our culture and the messages we convey about what it means to be a woman. Begin by listening to how girls feel about their changing bodies:
“I’m getting so fat!” As a girl’s estrogen level increases, her body fat increases. A certain percentage of body fat relative to total weight must be achieved for menstruation to occur. A preteen girl is becoming round and soft in a culture that values lean and muscular. Is it really so surprising that some girls stop eating?
“Freedom!” The power to do what they want, when they want, is a natural expression of the adolescent push toward independence. Boys feel more physically powerful, but girls, with their tender breasts and unpredictable periods, feel more vulnerable than ever before. Many girls compensate by using their newfound sexual power, but sexuality without intimacy leaves them even more vulnerable.
“I’m so gross!” One aspect of this new physical vulnerability is the experience of “dirtiness” related to menstruation, body odor and body hair. In a culture obsessed with clean, girls often see these changes as “disgusting.” The desire to obliterate all signs of these physical changes can reach obsession and is supported by a multibillion-dollar cosmetics industry.
“I’m sick!” Menstrual cramps are a part of life for many women. In a culture where pain is interpreted as illness, our daughters often believe that they are doomed to get sick every month. With enough Motrin, they can pretend it’s not happening. But think about it: How we introduce our daughters to menstrual pain sets the stage for the choices they will make in childbirth and menopause, as well as the way they experience those milestones.
“Don’t pay attention to me. I’m in major PMS.” For many women, menstruation comes with a period of emotional intensity. How we define this experience is critical to a girl’s sense of identity. When we talk, or allow others to talk, about our intensity as instability, we teach our daughters to discount their own thoughts and feelings.
“Whatever.” During childhood, being defined as “smart” carries social advantages, but as girls begin to sexually develop, intelligence doesn’t hold the same prestige. In order to remain attractive in this new sexual environment, girls learn to shift their energies to perfecting their bodies.
Teaching Pride in Our Bodies’ Wisdom
Every aspect of a preteen’s female development seems to put her at a disadvantage. Not only is her body becoming vulnerable, but the world is not responding to her in the same way. Generations ago, the reward for all this vulnerability was motherhood, but today most newly menstruating girls are not imagining having babies for another 15 years.
What does a mother tell her daughter that will make all of this change seem worthwhile? How does a mother help her daughter feel proud, comfortable and strong in her new woman’s body?
Begin by looking at how you introduce her to the single most defining event of her female development, menstruation. The meaning you give this experience lays the groundwork for her identity as a woman and has a profound effect on how she will accomplish all subsequent female developmental tasks.
As mothers, when we limit our assistance to a hygiene lesson and painkillers, we convey the message that menstruation is an imposition best made invisible to the world as well as to ourselves. We inadvertently teach our daughters to disconnect from their bodies. Yet our daughters are hungry to understand the meaning of what’s happening to their bodies. When we don’t deliver more than hygiene, they look for meaning elsewhere, too often in the sexual power their new bodies seem to afford them.
So how do we imbue the experience of menstruation with meaning?
Only recently has menstruation become the topic of serious research, and the findings are exciting. A great resource for mothers who want an intelligent synthesis of this research is the landmark book: Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom by Christiane Northrup, M.D. Dr. Northrup discusses how our very nature is cyclical. Our sexuality, creativity, sociability and emotions follow a predictable cycle. By paying attention to this cycle, we connect to our body’s innate intelligence. Research demonstrates that as we follow our hormonal shifts throughout the month, we find that before ovulation we are outwardly focused and involved with the world. During ovulation, we become more content and receptive to being cared for. In our premenstrual phase, our energy turns inward and we tend to use more of our emotional intelligence to process information.
Our cycles are rhythmically in sync with the cycle of the moon. Studies have found that more women ovulate and give birth during a full moon, whereas more women begin their periods during the dark cycle of the moon (the new moon). The most amazing research confirms that not only are our cycles in sync with the moon, but they’re also in sync with each other. Research supports what many of us have observed, that women who live together cycle together. There is also some evidence that after a daughter leaves for college her cycle stays entrained to that of her mother for several months, until the pull of the community of college women brings her into its own rhythm.
With this information we can begin to teach our daughters that their bodies hold a profoundly intelligent life force that connects them to the universe and to women everywhere.
Research confirms that premenstrually, we are more inwardly focused, wanting to be alone with our thoughts and feelings; our thinking is more emotionally based. But why should we interpret this as a negative? In a world where people are constantly trying to learn stressreduction techniques, having a built-in message urging you to slow down and assess who you are and how you feel about your life is a blessing. How empowering to view the emotional intensity that surrounds menstruation as intelligence calling for our attention.
Menstrual pain is an invitation to pause and pay attention to ourselves. As a clinical psychologist I hear many women talk about menstrual pain as part of their time of emotional and physical cleansing, when everything that has attached to them during the past month can be washed away and life can begin again, new and fresh.
Sharing the Experience
Some mothers initiate first-menstruation rituals with their daughters. Although this is a welcome addition to the hygiene lesson, it’s also important to respect most girls’ desire to be private and inwardly focused. One mother began by inviting her pre-menstruating daughter to begin a journal. Once a month, during her inwardly focused time, mother and daughter would discuss what happened over the last month. What had changed? What could they let go of? Then each would take a few minutes to write in her personal journal. By inviting her daughter to pause, share and reflect, this mother reinforces the value of listening to the body’s wisdom and gives meaning to the experience of menstruation.
We have so much wisdom to share with our daughters. Even our mistakes are food for conversation, learning and laughter. Our first menstruation story, our experience of breast buds, unpredictable periods, body hair— it doesn’t matter that we don’t know the perfect way of discussing these things. What counts is the sharing and the laughing.
Not long ago, while they were making dinner together, my 19-year-old niece shared a particularly dreadful “girl story” with my 11-year-old daughter. Out of sheer horror, we began laughing until we were bent in pain. My daughter was so pleased to be included in this growing-up war story. I was so grateful to my niece for sharing it. I know that if and when my daughter has her first really embarrassing moment, she will not feel alone.
Creating a Loving Community
Look for a group in your area of mothers of preteen girls, or start one of your own. These groups share information and concerns about their daughters, as well as their own stories about being women. These groups create a powerful safety net of female wisdom that can protect daughters from a society that is often at odds with a young girl’s emotional well-being. They also give daughters a community of “aunts” to turn to when Mom becomes the last person a girl wants to talk to.
Our daughters have a right to feel proud and strong in their own bodies. They deserve an environment that allows them to compete as vigorously as males and at the same time respect the intelligence of their own uniquely female bodies and minds. School health programs that honestly address the concerns of preteen girls, sports programs that honor the uniqueness of our daughters’ growing bodies, and fathers and brothers who understand the importance of speaking and listening with respect, help create this environment. But a preteen’s primary resource in learning how to respect the intelligence of her body is her mother. We need to hang in there through the attitude and the hysteria, be brave enough to examine our own insecurities and fears, and continue to stay in conversation with our daughters about both the pain and joy of becoming a woman.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #45.
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