After sensing hesitation on talking about ‘girl’ things, Brian Gawlak reassures his daughter no subject is off limits.
“Daddy!” I heard my daughter scream from behind the bathroom door. In a sheer panic, I dropped the kitchen knife I was using to chop onions for dinner, and ran to my daughter, onions strewn about as I rushed to make sure she was OK.
My heart was pounding out of my chest and I frantically yelped, “What? Honey, what is it? Are you ok?”
“No, I need Mom!” she cried.
“Mom’s at work,” I reminded her, still frantic.
“But I NEED HER!”
I quickly realized my daughter did not, in fact, trip and split her head open on the tub, nor did she sever a finger on one of my razors (though the urgency in her muffled scream promised otherwise). She needed her mom because she had a “girl question,” and since my wife would not be home for another hour, I was her only available option for advice.
“We’ve talked about this before, hon. I have never gotten my period, and I don’t know what it feels like – but I know all the ups and downs and ins and outs and we can discuss this.”
Earlier this year, I had a brush with my daughter getting her first period when my wife was at work. I truly believed she had gotten her period, and panicked a bit (though held myself together as much as I could to act like I wasn’t phased). I wrote an article that tried to take a humorous perspective on the event (which did not actually happen despite evidence that showed otherwise). The article was published a few months later. In a fascinating timing of destiny, my eleven-year-old daughter got her first period the day the article was published. She had read (and approved of) the article before I submitted it for publication, so we had already begun a dialogue (and shared some laughs – link to the piece is below).
I knew ‘silence’ should not be accepted at face value in this situation. “Remember how you thought it was funny when you read how ‘brave’ I was being when that incident happened with the Popsicle, and you told me you saw right through me?” I asked.
“Um, yeah,” she replied dismissively.
“I think we’ve come a long way since then, and I truly am brave and am someone you can talk to if you need to, or ask questions if you have any,” I assured her.
“OK, if you change your mind, I am going to finish making dinner,” I said as I turned back towards the kitchen. I heard the lock on the handle click as my daughter emerged from the bathroom looking absolutely miserable.
“Daddy, why do I feel like this?” she whispered through held back tears.
I gave her a hug and then guided her towards the kitchen where I prepared a cup of chamomile tea and warmed a damp dishtowel in the microwave. “Here put this on your belly under your belly button,” I advised, as I handed her the dishtowel. I cleared my throat and gave my daughter that little ‘we’re about to get real’ look I sometimes give her, as I added honey and lemon to her tea. I continued, “Your body is going through a lot of changes, as you know, and you are going to start experiencing your period every single month soon. You are lucky because as a female you are able to have babies, but with that gift comes this responsibility that can often feel like a curse or a burden.”
“Why do we have to go through this every month? I get so upset and emotional and I don’t know why and then I hurt. It makes we want to rip my hair out of my head,” she said with a whimper.
I chuckled to myself at the thought that I will soon have three daughters going through this and a wife in menopause. I scrambled to find my next words and offered, “I don’t know why it has to be every month, and I don’t know that it is fair that it has to be every month (in my head: for anyone!). The key is for you to recognize when you need some extra ‘me’ time and take a step back from whatever you are doing. Have a cup of tea. Put a hot compress on your belly to help with the pain, and sit in a quiet room for a few minutes to regroup. If you have symptoms that get worse, there are pills you can take, but I want you to try to follow these steps so you will learn now that your period doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It will be more like an inconvenience. Don’t allow all the feelings to take over your mood or ruin your day, and get ahead of the physical symptoms to make sure you feel well,” I assured her.
My daughter gave me the most beautiful and reassuring smile as though a lightbulb clicked on for her. She cracked the half grin which means ‘you’re great dad’ that she grins every so often. I put my hand under her chin and winked and smiled, and returned to chopping onions. I motioned to her to join me in preparing dinner and she started peeling potatoes.
“So you basically have no idea or clue what you are talking about, but I can still go to you when I am scared?” my daughter asked with the slyly sarcastic undertone she mastered when she was around seven years old.
Without skipping a beat, I said, “You catch on quick, push-push (her nickname). I do my best, but I don’t have all the answers. I imagine if I were faced with what women have to endure, what I told you to do is what I would do.”
My daughter rolled her eyes and mouthed a dramatic “WOW” and smiled. We both chuckled and prepared dinner while talking about school and work. My wife came home from work and had a conversation with our daughter and all was well in the world.
I checked my email later that night, and push-push had sent me an email from the account we created for her to email her friends from her old school after we relocated To Florida from Connecticut. I opened up the email, and found: “Dad, thank you for today and for actually being brave this time. I don’t think you were right, and that towel didn’t do anything but make my shirt damp. I feel like I can talk to you about anything, though. I love you.”
I sighed and smiled at the same time, wishing I knew everything, but glad I handled the situation as well as I could. I wrote back and told her that I am a parent and an adult, but I do not have all the answers (no one told me that as a kid!). I promised to always be there for her and that she could turn to me with every question she ever has – I am strong enough and brave enough to handle anything.
The next day I received another email from her. She wrote, “Hi Daddy, how can I tell if a boy likes me?” She is eleven. That is a lot to process, but I have seen her and a boy in the neighborhood interact several times where it is obvious “that” time is not far off/is upon us. I wrote back and advised her that I knew she liked (name redacted), and since I have seen how he regards her, and have witnessed how he will walk away from the other boys to walk with her, and listens to her and asks her questions, that most likely he likes her and that he is a good boy.
Later that night, she responded, “(name redacted)??? EW, gross Dad! I meant (name redacted of two years older hockey playing boy who I am not particularly fond of)!!”
I have this sense of being on a precipice, and know that free-falling is not an option. My daughter and I have since continued these email conversations on a daily basis. Sometimes she just says “hi” (like back when she was two and would just randomly say ‘hi’), and sometimes I get hard-hitting questions from her.
I am not google and I am not female, but I am a father who loves and adores his daughters and wants to be a resource for them as much as possible. I may not have all the answers, but I hope we maintain this connection and openness so that at least my empathy and understanding come through in the whirlwind that is about to weather the teen years that are upon us.
Photo: Flickr/Petras Gagilas
Originally appeared on The Cook At Home Dad. Reprinted with permission.
To read the story about the Popsicle and the period that did not happen: click here
To read about birth from a dad’s perspective when ‘push-push’ was born: click here
To read more by Brian J. Gawlak: click here
To read an article from Brian’s ‘Dear Dad’ Column: click here
To read an article from Brian’s ‘Heart of the Home’ Column: click here