If you are a girl or young woman, the idea of boys/other girls and relationships can be exciting, confusing, not yet on the radar, intimidating, baffling, fun… or all of the above.
If you are the parent of a young girl or woman, the idea of her and intimate relationships can be just as much of an emotional mix.
A mother's attitude to her daughter’s body, sexuality and intimacy with others directly affects how her daughter feels about them too. Evelyn Resh, in her thought-provoking, practical book The Secret Lives of Teen Girls: What Your Mother Wouldn’t Talk about but Your Daughter Needs to Know, includes a whole chapter on The Hidden Costs of Just Saying No. She concludes with these words:
As mothers, it falls to us to foster a friendly and positive relationship between our daughter and their bodies, which includes teaching our daughters to listen to their impulses, to satisfy their desires, and to explore what gives them pleasure, so that they can develop the positive body confidence and body friendly perspective that they will need to live long, happy and fulfilling adult lives.
Her book covers a lot of ground. She offers stories of various teen girls and women who have come to her clinic over the last 20 years, where she has worked as a certified nurse-midwife. The Secret Lives of Teen Girls explains how teen brains work, the effect of parenting on body image and eating disorders, the issue of teens and authority, and what a mother can do to help her daughter.
The likelihood that a teen girl will grow into a sexually healthy and satisfied woman increases dramatically when her mum is willing to face the fact that her teen daughter is thinking about sex and able to give her the information and help she needs to explore this part of herself safely and without shame.
She also puts a highlight on the shadow: sexual assault as well as sexually transmitted infections. She points out that over 70% of assailants are known to their victims. Girls and women are most often sexually assaulted by friends, family members, teachers, coaches and people they work with. Many parents don’t discuss sexual assault with their teenagers. And she throws cold water on the idea that the threat of STIs will be an effective deterrent: Pressing the “STI alarm” … will get you absolutely nowhere when it comes to prevention.
Resh goes on to detail the facts about sexually transmitted infections and teens. Not only symptoms, but how common they are, how to prevent them, testing and treatment. Provided not to scare, but to help you feel more informed and as a result more realistic about what could happen.
She makes you have a good hard think about expressions or attitudes you were given during your own adolescence. Consider:
Value: Sex should only be experienced with someone you really love.
Fact: Really loving someone does not necessarily determine someone’s
experience of enjoyment and pleasure.
She also presents the parenting reader with some food for thought through a section called Questions to Ask Yourself at the end of each chapter. They often make you reflect on your own values and how you came develop them. Here are a few examples:
2. Health-seeking behaviours, such as specific diet and exercise practices
5. Compassion for self and others
6. Sense of humour
In discussion about education that covers puberty, adolescence and the emergence of new feelings, I hear adults ask, ‘But isn’t it encouraging girls and boys to start too young if we talk about the pleasures of sex with them?’
Many of us fear that if we discuss our daughters’ emerging sexuality, it will seem as if we are opening the door to reckless behaviour. In my experience as a midwife, sexual promiscuity is not the norm. Girls who are promiscuous are often teens who lack maternal attention, guidance, and support. It’s also frequently indicative of a history of sexual abuse.
To back up this approach, there was recently an article by Matty Silver in the Sydney Morning Herald titled When can teenagers have a partner sleep over? She compares the culture around parents, teens and sex, as well as the statistics, of the United States with the Netherlands. She found that
Teenagers in the Netherlands tend to wait longer before having sex, have fewer partners and use easily-acquired birth control consistently and correctly, resulting in much lower rates of teen pregnancy and abortion.
The main reason for this is that the country has a liberal attitude towards sex, and teen sex education is based on an assumption that young people are curious about sexuality and have a right to accurate and comprehensive information. Educational materials at schools are characterised by clear, direct and age-appropriate language and attractive designs. The leading message is: If you are going to have sex, do it safely.
The article goes on to call for better sex education in Australian schools. The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority had to delay its plans to upgrade sex education after religious and conservative groups raised concerns. They believed talking about puberty and sex was "best done by family".
One of the passages close to the end of The Secret Lives of Teen Girls is a great one to spur you into action:
The development and maturation of a healthy sexual foundation is best fostered during adolescence, when our daughters’ sexuality is emerging and highly sensitive to outside influences, especially those of the parents. A mother’s example and focus while parenting go a long way to building self-esteem and inspiring strong health-seeking behaviours, optimism, creativity, compassion, and humour.
So what happens if the parents are willing enough, but don’t feel equipped to provide a detailed, ongoing conversation about their son’s or daughter’s physical, mental, hormonal and emotional changes?
The best place to start is to get yourself informed. Find some great resources – friends with older kids who have the kind of parent-older child relationship you respect, books, websites, clips. Have a look at our Resources list on the Step into Womanhood website.
Find an educator and/or program that works for you, your daughter and your parenting. A Celebration Day for Girls, Cool on the Inside, Fathers Celebrating Daughters and the Step into Womanhood Mother Daughter Retreat are all great spring boards to help you dive into and find your own style in supporting your young adult in a positive and informed way.
The investment of the time you take will continue to unfold its rewards for a long, long time.
 p. 178, The Secret Lives of Teen Girls, Resh, Evelyn
 p. 86, ibid
 p. 97, ibid
 p. 89, ibid
 First question from Questions to Ask Yourself at the end of Chapters 1, 2 and 3, ibid
 p. 182, ibid
 p. 185, ibid
 When can teenagers have a partner sleep over? Article by Matty Silver in Sydney Morning Herald, 17 March 2014
 p. 184-5, The Secret Lives of Teen Girls, Resh, Evelyn
Preston workshops offer menstrual support for girls entering adolescence
Always nice when you get the front page!!
View the article on Janoel Liddy and Jac Torres-Gomez published 10 June 2014.
Darebin Libraries in partnership with the Darebin Intercultural Centre and Crimson Movement are presenting this event on Tuesday 10 June (now sold out).
Event Details: A panel of guest speakers, music, food, henna art, coffee cup fortune telling – at this evening of entertainment we will embrace and explore what it means to be a woman in our wonderfully diverse cultures and through the seasons of life.
Speakers include Jac Torres-Gomez, community development practitioner and founder of Crimson Movement and author of Cycling to Grandma’s House, Dr Asha Pahuja who in her long career in India, the UK and Australia delivered nearly 12,000 babies, Daphne Milward, a Yorta Yorta elder who has worked within Aboriginal Affairs and provided indigenous policy and advocacy advice, Lina Kamel Hassan who fled civil war in Lebanon, eventually arriving in Australia and working for many years with Melbourne’s Arabic community groups and the Iraqi Women’s Refugee Group and Gover Navill Cadamster, born in Mumbai where she began her studies in nursing, and then completed further studies in Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture in Australia.
Don’t miss this chance to hear their stories, share your own and enjoy the other entertainments!
Venue: Darebin Intercultural Centre, 59a Roseberry Ave, Preston
Presented by Darebin Libraries in partnership with the Darebin Intercultural Centre and Crimson Movement.
Review of Jane Bennett's book
These figs look luscious, drawing you to them to savour their sweet but earthy character - as long as you are a fig fan. It all depends on your attitude to figs, doesn't it? They are also uncannily suggestive of the delicate folds of the vulva - something else which is viewed in such contrasting ways. How we feel about anything is directly influenced by how we are introduced to it and what we know of it.
Which is where Jane Bennett's book A Blessing not a Curse A mother-daughter guide to the transition from child to woman is a gorgeous gift that offers long lasting benefits. Not only does it help mothers with practical tips and inspiring information on how to support their girls as they reach menarche (theri first period), it gives girls a positive approach to their body and their cycle for the rest of their adult lives.
After all, we have our periods for decades (on average from 12 to 50 years of age), so surely it's better to feel good about our cycle rather than shame, irritation or faint disgust.
A Blessing not a Curse opens the door to a positive approach to how a girl, as she matures, can understand how her body works, take advantage of this knowledge in how she looks after herself and be proud of becomes a woman. It does this mainly through speaking to her carers, although teachers and other key people would benefit from reading this book, too.
Yes, in Part 1 Jane covers the facts about our cycling bodies, looking at our natural rhythm, how we are connected to the moon, why we menstruate and the interplay of hormones and our psychological cycle. However, she goes further than a clear explanation of what happens to us. She has divided her book into another 4 sections:
I must confess at this point that I am a fan not only of Jane Bennett's book, but Jane herself. She is a wonderfully warm person, who shares her knowledge with grace and generosity. It's no surprise that the program she developed in 2000, A Celebration Day for Girls, to give young girls and their mothers a positive and clear approach to puberty and periods, has now grown to be delivered around Australia and overseas. I am proud to be one of the licensed facilitators of this program, part of a wonderful network of women who have been personally invited by Jane to do the training and take up this special work.
So, why do I love this book? I like stories, and I like to find out the reasons why things are the way they are. So here we learn why it is that many cultures, past and present, view women's menstrual blood as a sickness or curse, or simply as something to out up with. She discusses the shadow and the legacy of the witch-hunts, a dark period in time (pardon the pun) I recall being first drawn to with my friends when we had begun cycling, but were still new to the experience.
Here's a sample of what she has to say:
The lure of beauty, freshness, being in control, 'safety', 'protection', eternal youth, sexuality and perfection are all part of menstrual product advertising. But who is being protected from what? A more honest, responsible and healthy approach would be to encourage girls and women to enjoy their bodies, their cyce, their flow, as a beautiful and healthy part of their own sexuality. Self-enjoyment and a positive self-image remain beautiful and become richer with age.
Her section called "Rite of Passage" is rich with suggestions for how to mark your daughter's menarche (her first period). Jane writes that a girl's period is a special time to be honoured, and and is perhaps her most important rite of passage. She has questions for mothers and fathers about their own experience, and how that has affected the parenting of their daughter. There is a great list of suggestions for what you can do, bearing in mind your daughter's character and what suits her, too. She lists ideas such as:
That's just half of the list, taken from pages 74-5 of A Blessing not a Curse.
For some women - probably not you if you had read this far - Jane's book can be a challenge to get your head around the concept that you can dance with your cycle and be comfortable in your body. Sure as eggs (pardon the pun again), your attitude to periods and body image will rub off on your daughter.
Jane talks about Charting your Cycle, if you haven't ever done so. It's a great way to review your overall health, and gets you in touch with how you are, in your body, mind and emotions. In Appendix 1, Jane lists what you can chart. A few points include:
Not just whether you're bleeding, but how much, what colour it is and so on, your cervical mucus (white/pasty/clear, scant...), physical sensations, oily hair, pimples, energy, moods, dreams, the moon phase. (pp 137-8 of A Blessing not a Curse).
Charting your cycle is a terrific thing to do - it's worth a separate blog post, and I pledge to do it on this blog soon.
All the way through the book, Jane provides references to research that often make you raise your eyebrows. As the book was published in 2002, some of the studies are getting old, but society is pretty slow to change, and I still think they're worth knowing about to wrap your head around our cultural background. Try this one:
A 1984 study of Australian girls revealed they think menstruation is:
Of course, this connects directly to how a girl feels about her body. Think about the implications of this down the track, when the girl becomes a woman in a relationship. How does she enjoy a relationship and being intimate with another when she is not comfortable with herself?
She has a section on 'The Gear', explaining all the options. She also includes some great stories about what women have used over the years in different cultures; ancient Romans and Greeks rolled wool into tampons for example. We learn in which cultures women have used used paper, vegetable fibre, doeskin, moss, sea sponges, crocheted pads... Some more labour-intensive than others!
The Problem Periods section covers common menstrual problems, what you can do to treat them yourself and when and how to get professional help.
Learning to Ride the Menstrual Cycle has three chapters; Supporting your daughter, Establishing and maintaining menstrual wellness and Self help therapies.
If you are looking for some help with preparing your daughter for this significant stage in her life, this is a great resource. I highly recommend it.
A Blessing not a Curse by Jane Bennett, Sally Milner Publishing, 2002
Soft cover, 168 pages.
Available through clicking on this link: St Lukes Innovative Resources
You can find out more about Jane Bennett by clicking on this link: janebennett.com.au
The reality is that if you look after yourself, you'll feel better. And in feeling good about yourself, your positive approach will affect those around you. So what's the point of being a self-denying trooper who has to get all the work done before she rewards herself? When I do that, I end up resenting my partner, because he has the knack of ignoring the dirty floor or dishes when he's tired. A skill I am still working on.
What I have also learned is that if I look after myself, do things that I love regularly and give myself time out when I need it, my family and community benefit. I bounce back, with more ideas and energy than what would be the case if I had simply kept trudging on.
So, here's a Self Care Quiz to test where you are at (on the right hand side of this page). 10 Questions. Not hard.
Your score may not be as high as you anticipated. If it isn't, use it as a really great excuse to look after yourself more. Some things are easy to change. Others, like leaving a job, are big. Go ahead and look after yourself. You're worth the investment. After all, think of all the time you have to spend with you over the rest of your life.
And if you score a perfect 10 - well done. Now go and inspire a friend or colleague to love life the way you do.
I'd love to know what you think of the quiz and your score - comments welcome!
Being in a women’s circle is more than a chat over dinner with friends. It takes some setting up, but once you’ve done that, you create a safe, sacred space that can support you to become the woman you want to be.
Picture a group of women meeting each month. My favourite number for a circle is five, but many circles have more or less members than this. The women who meet feel connected to each other from their shared, regular experience.
During the circle together we may meditate, sing, explore a creative process, cackle like mad women or release tears over grief long held back, surprise ourselves with an emotion or idea we didn’t know was there underneath our daily commitments.
The safety and integrity of the circle are important; as we honour the circle and other women, we honour ourselves, so turning up on time and not missing circle is part of the journey, unless we are interstate, overseas or so unwell it’s dangerous to travel. (We plan our dates for the year, so it’s easier to plan trips around circle dates.) Often we find that when we are resisting coming to circle, we really need to be there; an underlying truth we’ve been avoiding is waiting to be unveiled in this safe space.
The space where we meet is selected with thought – you need somewhere you won’t be interrupted or distracted. We were lucky enough to meet in my friend’s yurt, a circular single room Mongolian structure, for many years, but any room or space in nature that is free from passers-by, phones or screens will work.
There is always a clear opening and clear closing. Not like a party, where people wander in and drift into and out of conversation. Opening with clear intention means we consciously bring ourselves to the present, sloughing off the distractions of chatter and daily details. The ceremony of opening is up to you. How would you create a sacred centre that brings you all into focus? For us, we welcome the elements around us; earth, air, fire, water and spirit. We often follow that with a sounding, sharing tones together, a meditation and breath work before we check in.
Checking in is another element of women’s circles – that is, hearing each sister’s voice. What is said in circle stays in circle, so we don’t fear gossip. We listen actively as each of us checks in, honouring her space to speak her truth. It’s a time to speak, and be witnessed, and then witness others in turn. To indicate it’s our turn to speak, at times we have used a tiara, a crystal wand or a necklace to show that we have the ‘talking stick’. So often, we find a part of our story told through another.
It’s not a space to give advice or dismissive soothing that everything will be fine. The magic of knowing that you can express what is going on for you, without being judged, is precious. If we feel moved to share, it needs to come from a place of sharing our own experience, rather advising.
I sometimes find that as I speak, I come to realizations that hadn’t crystallised before. Simply allowing myself the space to reflect, in the safety of my sisters’ presence, brings me back to myself.
How do you find the other women? You just need two of you who want to create a circle to start. If the women you invite love the idea and then invite another, the circle grows without one person being at the centre. Despite the fact that you may only know one other when you join the circle, the process means that your connection runs deep very quickly. I couldn’t do the calculations, but I’d say you can bypass months of casual social interactions it would normally take to get to the love we feel for one another.
This leads me to another question people ask me: Who leads? Some circles have a clear leader, with the other women secure in her leadership. This can be a great place to develop your experience of women’s circles. My preference is for a circle where the roles are shared; I enjoy leading, but I also cherish the leadership of my sisters; I gain so much from their shared wisdom.
Consciously closing the circle offers opportunity to feel gratitude and ensure there’s no unfinished business. Or if there is, it’s acknowledged, and a resolution to respond to it is worked out.
In a circle, you feel held, supported, inspired as you give yourself and your sisters space to reflect on what has gone before and what will come.
Respect each other and the space, and the magic will come, every time. Just like magic.
-Janoel Liddy is passionate about girls and women recognizing and acting on their needs to lead a satisfying life. She teaches puberty and wellbeing to girls and boys in schools, facilitates workshops and retreats and works with groups in TAFE, university and community organisations in training and events. She is a mother of two with her partner of over two decades and dances, cooks, reads and writes when she can and must.