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What it’s like ... for a father to teach his daughters about sexual health

A few months ago, my seven-year-old and I were at a grocery store, and she was standing there staring at the menstruation-products aisle. I was trying to find Kleenex. After I found it, she asked, "What's all that stuff for?"

It was easy for me to say, "That's for women when they have periods."

I didn't have to explain more than that because she already knew what a period was, generally speaking. It's not a concept that is anything more than theoretical for her at this point. But from then on, I thought about all the stuff I didn't know. I didn't know anything about the different products and how they work, really. I've seen the ads on TV and I've been sent on missions to buy pads or tampons, but always with specific instructions.

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My wife and I have always taken the approach that sexual health isn't one single talk, but a long conversation. Our three daughters are 2, 7 and 9, and as soon as they were learning to talk and learning their body parts, we talked about vulvas and vaginas, just as we did arms and heads. We want them to have the proper vocabulary to talk to us if they, you know, have a rash or if it hurts to go pee, or whatever.

When I was growing up, my parents and I didn't really talk about puberty or sexual health. It was largely due to their own discomfort and maybe their hope or assumption that school was taking care of that. They're products of a different time. There's no blaming them. It was just different. There were lots of talks, however, when I told them my girlfriend was pregnant – but by then I was 15. They thought they had time. But they didn't.

My girlfriend ended up giving birth to twins, whom we gave up for adoption. We had a cover story for why she wasn't in school while she was pregnant. We just said she'd been sick at the start of the semester, and she was going to take correspondence courses. I was there when they were born. I wasn't in the room, I was sitting outside the room. It was pretty amazing – amazing that I was part of creating these kids. While it was the right choice for me not to be a parent then, the desire to be a dad probably started there.

It was a while before I could actually touch them because they were about a month premature, and were in incubators. I don't really remember the first time seeing them, but I went and saw them every day after school, and to see my girlfriend, who had health complications. I do have a memory of seeing how fragile the babies looked because they were so tiny. They had IV lines going into them and stuff. I don't know what the emotions I experienced were. I don't tend to hang onto emotions from the past.

Once my girlfriend was able to be discharged, that's when we left the hospital and left them there.

I never doubted whether adoption was the right choice. It was the right choice for the twins and for us. We wouldn't have been able to give them a good quality of life at that stage in our lives. And for me, it never felt like we had given them away or abandoned them, because we got to pick the adoptive family through an anonymous profile. But I always wanted to know where they were and how they were doing, and there was also a lot of shame tied to it, of not talking about it and not acknowledging that it happened.

My girlfriend and I stayed together for another two years or so. We didn't really talk about it, even to each other. Not really. I don't think anybody said, "Hey, don't talk about this." Teen pregnancy just wasn't something that was discussed.

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Later, in my final days of university, I signed up to be a volunteer sexual-health educator for Planned Parenthood Ottawa. Initially, I saw volunteering as an opportunity to help other people, particularly young people, get the information they needed about sexual health and contraception and relationships and all of that stuff, so they wouldn't have to go through life wondering what happened to the children they placed for adoption. What I actually discovered was therapy.

In the course of my training, I disclosed my experiences as a birth father, which was the first time I talked about it to people who weren't close friends. It ended up being a story I told many times. As with revealing any secret, especially one that you've been trained to think of as a shameful thing, talking about it peels the shame away and the more people you tell, the less embarrassed you are about it. It just becomes who you are.

Until I started at Planned Parenthood, I had told fewer than 10 people that it had happened. There had been years when it was tough and I thought about it all the time, and there were years when it was not so much. I think it's like when someone close to you dies. The memories come and go, except mine weren't memories of a life together and they weren't thoughts of lost potential or anything like that, but of wondering. Did they turn out okay?

I did sexual-health education for the better part of 10 years. I spoke in schools, from elementary to postsecondary, to businesses, at community events, at halfway houses. I ended up serving as a chair of the board for Planned Parenthood Ottawa and, for a time, I was the interim executive director.

When my oldest two daughters were about 5 and 7, we found some great books for them, so they have the foundation knowledge of really the whole scope; they know where babies come from. My nine-year-old can tell you what a zygote is.

When it came to menstruation, I knew the biology and how it works. But in terms of how to help my daughters and prepare them? I didn't really feel ready for that. I didn't have enough information. So I did some research.

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I wanted to understand the social context of how men and women talk about and perceive and think about menstruation, to understand what my daughters and all girls face as they hit puberty.

And also the anxiety that's going to come with that. Where does that anxiety come from? How are we going to mitigate some of that anxiety and support them?

To get some answers, I talked to my wife and women in our circle of friends to understand what they felt like and what they went through. I also decided to learn about all the different products. There are all sorts of options. What are useful options and what are marketing ploys? Some of that was online research.

I also talked to women in our social circle, some sexual-health educators I know, and some pharmacy staff, particularly about menstrual cups and to understand what people ask about them. So yeah. I feel smart now.

For my daughters, I hope to counteract the social stigma around menstruation and to be able to make them feel like they have support. There are lots of messages in media, in advertising and society in general that it's icky. I don't feel that way. I won't be able to defeat society, but I can make my house a more positive place for them.

For me, if I'm going to be an involved parent, I can't dismiss a whole section of my daughters' lives. They need to know they can be comfortable coming to talk to me and I will help answer their questions. And who knows? When it starts for them, my wife might be out of town or whatever. It's my job.

Chris Farley Ratcliffe is author of the blog Dad Goes Round. He lives in Ottawa and is the sole male in a household of five females – including the cat. As told to Wency Leung

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