When I was in 5th grade I unknowingly brought home a note to be signed by a parent so I could attend the maturation clinic. I had no idea what maturation meant in that context and dutifully got the note signed and returned it without much thought. A few weeks later I got the scare of my young prepubescent life.
Along with the other girls in my grade I was herded into the gym, handed a small gift bag (well this is exciting) and told to sit. The boys were sent to a different room and I remember hearing uncomfortable laughter as I watched them gather in their designated area.
In the gym, the school nurse and another lady got up and began a medical presentation. They said bad words like “uterus” and “vagina” and I became increasingly confused and uncomfortable. These were words that I had only heard a handful of times and never fully understood. The nurse pulled out a chart with tables and graphs that showed the average time a girl would start her period and a woman would hit menopause (what pause?) and no longer have a period. Start time, between ages 9-12, end time, around 60 years old. The nurse then instructed us that we would need to shower every day when we were having our period.
Shower every day? This part freaked me out for two reasons. First, I was 10 and showering was more of a chore than anything else. At that age I was lucky if I showered or bathed more than twice a week. I would take the obligatory bath on Saturday night to get ready for church on Sunday but rarely thought of bathing at any other time. Secondly…from what I understood my period could start any day (I was already one year past the earliest age she told us!) and would plague me every day of my life until I was a grandma. Somehow I missed the part where it would only be once a month. I wasn’t so concerned about that bleeding every day thing because the nurses were spouting off facts like it was totally normal, but showering every day would be such a pain in the ass (or should I say butt? ass would not have been in my vocabulary when I was 10 without a lot of fear and shame).
Toward the end of the presentation the nurse pulled out some underwear and a pad. At this point I was plotting ways to quietly and discreetly leave the room or disappear and pretend like I’d never been invited to this whatever clinic. The nurse did not read my thoughts and stop the presentation. She simply slipped the paper off the pad revealing the sticky lining and skillfully slipped the pad into the underwear. “So simple girls!”
When I left that room I was more ashamed of my body than ever (what the hell just happened?) and more curious too. I suddenly realized the gift bag hanging loosely about my arm and was incredibly embarrassed to be holding it. I vowed that I would not look inside until I got home and could hide in my room. I did not want anyone to know that I knew about periods and I did not want anyone to see me open that bag.
I rushed into my room and soon as I got home and emptied the contents of the bag on my bed. There was a small booklet, a couple of pads, and a trial size stick of deodorant. I read the book while blushing and feeling like I was doing something wrong. A couple of times I heard footsteps outside my door and quickly stuffed the contraband under my pillow. Luckily no one caught me. The book was a cute cartoon story about how much girls loved their periods and were so excited to be women. When I was done reading it I threw it away. I stashed the pads and deodorant in the back of my sock drawer and promptly forgot about the whole thing.
Fast forward 2 years.
The summer before 7th grade I started to have cramping in my lower abdomen. Some days it was really bad, made it hard to stand up straight and walk normally, other days it was more endurable. I mentioned it to my mom off and on because I was sure my appendix was about to kill me. She didn’t seem worried though so I would simply lay down when it hurt intensely until the pain subsided and would continue playing when I could. I woke up one morning after a few weeks of this abdominal pain and felt much better. Yay!! Then I went to my morning bladder emptying and saw tons of weird brown stuff in my underwear. I sat on the toilet in disbelief.
A few weeks earlier I had finished reading a book about a girl who was dying of cancer. She had known she was sick because her pee had been brown. When I saw the brown stuff all over my underwear and clothes I at first thought that I had somehow pooped my pants while I slept, then I was suddenly certain that I had cancer. I was going to die. I sat on the toilet for a minute while I peed (not noticing that my pee was nice and yellow) and cried. Then, when I went to wipe I noticed blood on the tissue. And that’s when that fateful day in fifth grade came flooding back. This must be that period thing that the nurse tried to warn me about.
I was immediately mortified. I had no idea what to do. I pulled up my ruined underwear and my pajama bottoms and ran to my room. I grabbed some fresh undergarments and hurried back to the bathroom as nonchalantly as possible. I didn’t want anyone to ask what I was doing. I traded out the dirty underoos for clean ones and hid the gross pair as far down in the trash can as I could. I stuffed some tissue in my pants to catch the blood incase there was more coming out and then I sat in the bathroom with the door locked trying to figure out what to do next.
I did not want to tell my mom. But I was terrified. Should I say period to her? Would she be mad? Is period a bad word? Is there a better way to say it? Maybe I should just keep the tissue in there and it will stop soon. Wait, not it won’t…it’s going to last until I’m 60. That’s it, I want to die. Or be a boy. Because this is weird and scary and maybe it’s actually cancer. I stewed for a long time.
Then I walked out to the nearby kitchen and said, quietly, “mom, I think I have my period”
“Did you take care of it” she said.
I said “yes” and headed back into the bathroom. I opened the cupboards under the sink and pulled out the pads boxes that were under there. I had seen them in there before but never paid much attention. I sat on the floor and read the back of the box. I cried. I hated myself. I wanted to be a boy. I pulled out a pad the size of a $2000 Serta mattress, peeled it the way the nurse from the 5th grade ambush had, and stuck it in my underwear. I spent the rest of the day in my room, reading cleaning, and stressing about that pad that I was certain everyone could tell I was wearing and was super grossed out by.
Ten days later that period stopped and I made sense of the fact that I would have them once a month, not every day. Small consolation.
My periods plagued me for years after. I was not aware that tampons were a possibility until I was well into high school and I was too afraid to use them until after I was married. My flow was incredibly heavy and borderline hemorrhage and I had more accidents than I care to admit. When I would have one I would fake sick from school and go home for the day. I would NEVER tell anyone the real reason why.
If I started my period at school or away from home and had forgotten to tuck some mattresses into my backpack I would fake sick and get home as soon as possible. I would never ask for a pad from a friend or the school nurse, no one. I didn’t talk about it with my sisters or friends. I didn’t talk about it all.
I once slept over at a friends house in junior high. I woke up in the middle of the night and realized I had started my period. I had not come prepared but figured, no big deal, I’ll just find a pad in their bathroom, they should have one. There was just one box of tampons on a shelf. I was doomed. I packed my bag, told my friend I wasn’t feeling well, and walked home in the dark, alone, at 2am so I could get a pad.
Periods were constantly an area of shame and embarrassment. I would cry month after month when my period started and long to be a boy.
I do not want that for my daughters.
I do not.
Periods are a subject that is becoming more and more talked about. And thank goodness because it’s so normal and natural. In our family we talk about it at the dinner table. With all of our kids. I draw diagrams. We laugh, we ask questions. We talk about arm pit hair and cramps and we talk about boys and penises. We talk about the beauty and power in our bodies and their ability to carry children and how that wouldn’t be possible without periods. We just talk.
Because, I think it’s important that girls understand from a very young age, that periods are in fact, not cancer.