The emcee gestured toward me, as I stood near the banners behind them. Drowning in a too-bulky navy coat and a violet hat protecting my ears from the chilly January air, I made my way to the center of the stage at the downtown amphitheater for the Women’s March. My muscles relaxed as I shifted my body into a comfortable stance. The mic echoed my words to a sea of faces, to a crowd that included everybody but my family.
The Women’s March was not the only time my parents weren’t there at an important event. It wasn’t their fault. For almost two years, I spoke at similar gatherings regarding youth advocacy and never talked to my parents about them.
During my freshman year, I noticed girls at my school struggled to find feminine hygiene products when they were in need. With perpetually empty or broken pad and tampon dispensers in the bathrooms, the alternative was the nurse’s office where a student has to answer a series of questions about why they were not prepared before being given a product.
Frustrated with the panic and anxiety I witnessed almost every day, I recounted the details with my mother. Students waited in stalls, until a friend would be able to leave class to help them out. She took me to the side, despite us being alone in the house at the time, and told me I should not talk about the problem. I knew about the stigma around periods, especially in South Asian culture, yet, I was shocked.
My mother grew up in Delhi, the capital city of India. Despite my grandma being a doctor, she never talked to my mother about reproductive health, and they lived in a society where menstruation was viewed as dirty and religiously considered a sin. If a girl is on her period, she shouldn’t pray or go to a temple. Cultural norms can be a dominating force, and apparently they governed the comfort of the strongest woman I know in the privacy of her own home.
But, my mother’s perspective didn’t negate the uncomfortable situation students went through every day. I kept thinking and talking about the problem with my friends. I created a proposal for a year-long pilot program where I would personally stock and refill my school’s bathrooms with products purchased with school funds. After meeting with Rock Bridge’s administration, my proposal was rejected due to a lack of resources. I then turned to the district’s superintendent, Dr. Peter Stiepleman, to present my idea.
To my surprise, Dr. Stiepleman allowed me to carry out the program, with the district providing products. A year later, it was expanded to include all high schools in the district. I frequently wanted to tell my parents about my work throughout the process. But, when I tried to speak in front of them, my throat went dry. Despite my pride, the thought of my parents not being comfortable with what I believed in was frightening.
It’s not always easy to talk to those who are the closest to me. I am the most vulnerable version of myself in front of my parents. It was only when the project covered all the high schools that I first told my parents, thoroughly, about the work I was doing. When I shared with them the details of my advocacy, they answered me with a bittersweet reaction, one full of love but also hesitation. I could tell they were uncomfortable, and I decided not to mention it again.
“Despite my pride, the thought of my parents not being comfortable with what I believed in was frightening.”
It wasn’t that they were not supportive; my parents eagerly helped me in any way that they could. But, their sentiments would only worsen if I tried to have hard conversations with them about a topic facing unimaginable stigma in Indian culture. So, I stayed quiet instead.
During the summer of 2019, I expanded on my original idea by proposing a bill to have free feminine hygiene products in secondary schools across the state to Representative Martha Stevens. We met in coffee shops to discuss the proposal. I mentioned the meetings to my parents but never explained what we talked about. When we were ready to file the bill, I asked a friend to drive me down to the state capitol, afraid of confronting my parents. It was my normal.
On the day of the Women’s March, there I was, at the center of a crowd, advocating about the power of youth voice and talking about how we need to participate in discourse. It was then that I finally realized the effect of my negligent attitude toward my parents.
As I looked on at the audience, my hypocrisy stared back. My friends, who ran around the school with me to stock the bathrooms, were there with posters and banners saying “RESIST”. Representative Stevens stood in the cold as well. Resultant guilt loomed over me as I stepped off the stage. While walking during the actual march, I could only think about how alone I felt in the midst of a like-minded crowd without my parents’ support.
I did not heed the advice of my own advocacy which called for having those difficult conversations. I needed to change my fearful nature.
Later that day, I went home intent on explaining everything, understanding it would take a lot of time. I told them about the march and upcoming projects, explaining the reasoning behind them. It took months of dinner table talks, but my parents eventually listened.
In my mind, there was a wall between my parents and me, created by the astronomically different upbringings we all had. After building up the courage to speak to them, however, I realized the only barrier between us was time to understand.
I am lucky to have the parents I have.
I know there is still some discomfort on their side, but they don’t let it show. When I had to transport donations from location to location for a product drive I held, my dad volunteered his time. If I have a late-night meeting over Zoom to discuss grants and funding with PERIOD, a non-profit focused on menstrual health and equity, then my parents wait for me to finish so we can all still have dinner together. I had to be honest with them in order to honestly advocate for communication.
I will continue to fight for what I believe in, but I will make sure I listen to my own words. It is wrong to encourage others to make a change while not being brave enough to do it myself. I am no longer scared of difficult conversations. I now embrace them.