My 4-year-old daughter was playing on the bathroom floor while I took a shower today. I have my period right now and had my supplies all ready and waiting. Tampon, pad, and three Extra Strength Tylenol. When I turned the shower off and opened the frosted glass door, there she was. All beautiful and little and innocent. Just in a Hello Kitty shirt and Anger (from “Inside Out”) underwear. She picked out the outfit herself.
“Mommy, what’s this?” she asked, holding up a tampon. My mind went in a million directions. Why should this be a stressful question?
“That’s for big girls, honey,” I answered in the cryptic way my mother would’ve.
“I’m a big girl!” she countered.
“Yes, you are, sweetie pie! These are for mommies… to take care of their bodies. How do you take care of your body?” I deflected with a question.
“Ummm….soap!” she answered. She took the bait. Yes!
“Yes, soap! Very good!” and then I let her open the wrapped tampon because all kids love unwrapping stuff. And then the questions were over and I was left in my towel in the bathroom, transported back to being 12 years old.
It was a very different time. My mother had been raised in an old-fashioned Eastern European Orthodox Jewish home. The kind of house where, when a girl gets her period for the first time, her mother slaps her face. Lightly, I hope. And that’s exactly what my grandmother did to my mother. My mother at least knew that wouldn’t be the best way to welcome me to “womanhood.” She skipped the slap.
I got my period for the first time in 7th grade. I was getting changed for gym and noticed a brown wet spot in my underwear. I had no idea what it was. Really, I didn’t know. I hadn’t gotten “the talk,” and I guess I didn’t pay attention or understand the closed door/girls only/lots of giggling presentation by the school nurse in the previous school year. I told the gym teacher I was sick and just waited for the school day to end. It was my parents’ anniversary, October 27, 1980. My mother was crying happy tears and couldn’t wait to tell my father.
Now that I have my own daughter, the memories of my mother are stronger than ever. She died six years ago. And while I know the days of really having to explain periods and tampons and pads to my daughter are quite a few years away, I want to make it all OK and normal now. I think I can keep the sacred secrecy of the body that my mother had balanced with the modern openness and pride of being a woman. A 4-year-old woman so far, but I think I’m laying the foundation. I don’t want her scared and confused in the gym locker room like a scene from “Carrie”.
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t change a thing about my mother or my period or being that confused 12-year-old girl. I spent my first decade of my period using giant pads because, according to my mother, “Tampons are only for married women.” My blasphemous friend Marybeth explained that wasn’t really true and tampons were added to my young adult shopping list.
One day in the not too distant future, I will tell my daughter about that day in gym, the happy tears my mother cried, and my blasphemous friend Marybeth.