August 2002, and I’m standing on one leg in a poolside toilet in Cyprus, sweating profusely. My bikini bottoms are round my ankles and my other leg is propped up on the edge of the loo seat at an awkward angle, leaving me at constant risk of falling, quite literally, tit-over-arse. I peer at the instructions leaflet, perched precariously on the cistern, and take a deep breath.
“Gently slide the applicator all the way into your vagina, until your fingers touch your body.”
Christ alive, I think looking at the yellow, long and indisputably solid piece of plastic in my shaking hand. How on earth is THAT going to get in THERE? – at which point dad’s voice come through the flimsy keyhole: “Clare, darling – what are you DOING?! We’re waiting for you out here.”
My little brother is waiting to play sharks. My dad needs (wants) to join in, and my mum, the only person in the whole world who can help me out of this menstrual muddle, is hundreds of miles away in England. I thought I’d got over the divorce – after all, it was over six years ago by that point – but at this moment, in this cubicle, having never used tampons before, all I want most in the world is for her to be here holding my hand and reminding me which is my index finger again.
I take a deep breath, jam the smoother end of the yellow plastic in me and push. It hurts a bit, and I’m not entirely convinced I’ve hit my target – but I’d rather spend the rest of the day with a pained look on my face than tell my dad what it is I am actually doing. I was five when I pointed to my chest at bathtime and asked him what these “pink pointy things” were, to his acute embarrassment, and his answer – “um, nothing, darling” – has done nothing to reassure me of his helpfulness with regards the blood in my bikini.
But wait, I hear you thinking. This is supposed to be an ode to fathers, not a critique of them! To which I’d reply that, for me, my dad’s approach was the best he could have taken. It might not have been conscious – it’s difficult to imagine the Scottish son of an emotionally reserved maths professor behaving any other way around his teenage daughter, to be honest – but it was genius in that it granted me the opportunity to embrace, for just a wee while longer, being a bit of a child. I finally shoved that tampon in there (and duly spent the next few hours wincing and waddling slightly. You can get these things in an awkward angle sometimes) not so much because I was embarrassed, but because I wanted to play.
Dad had blown up the beach ball. We could swim through his legs. He might even throw us. I wasn’t ready to stop having fun with him and my brother just because I was bleeding out my vagina. Whether he ignored or simply didn’t notice my acceleration toward puberty, I’ll never know – but I suspect he had noticed, and decided it was nothing a long cycle ride or a game of rounders couldn’t solve. There was wisdom in this: exercise boosts the mood, relieves period pains, and perhaps most importantly distracts you from yourself. A solicitor in the City, dad would work 18 or 20 hour days when he didn’t have us in order to ensure he could be home in time for a game or a ride on the days he did.
He taught us squash, tennis, snowman- and sandcastle-building. He is an adult, in every sense of the word – down with bills, bank accounts and homework – but he also he has an irrepressible inner child: one that refuses to be put off by such a trivial matter as puberty. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I reckon my dad spotted my tendency to navel-gaze fairly on, and decided that while he may not be able to help me navigate premenstrual cramps and hormones, he could certainly run and laugh me out of the anxieties that came with. Caring, compassionate maternal voices are essential for a young woman, but don’t underestimate the power of a practical bark, telling you “chivvy up and get your shorts on who cares about your leg hair you can’t cycle in jeans put your helmet on no one looks good brain damaged.”
Besides, in a way, he did help me with the tampons. There’s nothing like FOMO at the side of your family having fun in a dazzling swimming pool to make you shun the towels and get on board the tampon train, toot sweet.
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