I started my first period. I was at school wearing a pair of white painter’s pants. It was the early 1980s, which excuses the pants, but there was really no excuse for a 12-year-old girl to be going to school without a backpack full of personal feminine protection, and I won’t be making the same mistake with my own daughter.
I knew what periods were. I had an older sister who, at four years older than me, had surfed the crimson tide for a while before me. But my own mother never thought to prepare me with the proper protection or gentle suggestions that I hang up the white pants while I was menstruating.
I remember walking home from the bus stop, my sweater tied around my waist, mortified that a few of the other kids had noticed and teased me about it. I remember my mom hugging me and exclaiming that I “was a woman now” and letting me have my very own bottle of soda, that I didn’t have to share with either of my sisters. I also remember feeling sad, like I wasn’t quite ready to “become a woman” yet. That I still played with dolls with my younger sister on occasion and I still didn’t really like boys, in a like-like way.
Despite my Carrie-esque induction to the world of menstruation and my mortification at people seeing my first blood, I don’t remember feeling that different than I had prior to getting my period. I know I had terrible cramps and it seems like I stopped loving my own mom then. Not that I ever stopped loving her. I just became an evil raging hormonal monster who thought every single thing she said was the stupidest thing I had ever heard. Ever. My mom can attest to this. She can tell you the horror stories of my facial piercings and bad, stupid boyfriends and how I called her a “bitch” for the first time when I was 16, furious over whatever parenting law she had implemented to keep me safe from whatever bad decisions I was trying to make.
I think of my own daughter, this fiercely adorable and sweet child who hugs me so hard I feel my ribs cracking, whose face lights up like Christmas morning the moment she hears my voice. How she will hate me. How my heart will shatter into a million tiny pieces when she does.
My mom tells me that girls are supposed to hate. We are supposed to hate our mothers when we go through puberty, because if we never did, our mothers would never, ever let us go. We would live under their roofs until the end of time, never venturing into this great big world to make the mistakes we are meant to. To explore the beauty we are supposed to. To learn and love and conquer and fail and grow. If we never turned into these monsters, these sneering, cynical beasts clothed in tight t-shirts and nightclub eyeliner, our mouths reeking of Juicy Fruit gum as we screamed at our mothers and slammed our doors, we would stay young forever. Our menses and the raging hormonal changes we experience set us free. They distance us a few seconds from our mother’s hearts so we don’t wrench them from her chest when we grow up and away.
You can buy your daughters the books. The guides to changes in their bodies, the entire Judy Blume library. You can speak to them about what to expect when their bodies start to go through puberty, you can teach them how to change a tampon, or to shave their legs or the correct dosage of Midol to take to ward off menstrual cramps. But you can never teach them the sheer insanity their bodies will be subjected to during the onslaught of hormones that accompany getting older.
Not every girl will hate her mother. Some girls will hate their mothers because of other issues, abusive or negligent mothers, mothers who can be hated for a million other reasons, other than the majority of us who just fall under the “normal mother” classification. Not every girl will experience mood swings, or PMS, or even menstrual cramps. But many will. And I can remember how it felt, the end-of-the-world heartbreak over a snide remark from a classmate, the vicious joy over a boy I liked saying “Hi” to me in the hall, the almost-drunk experience of staying up past midnight, hiding under my blankets as I gossiped with my friends, my voice hushed and secret as we unraveled all the mysteries of the universe: bra sizes and pop songs and our stupid, stupid mothers.
I always loved my mother even when I hated her, and I know my own daughter will feel the same. She will lie to me and break my heart in a million different ways, and think I know nothing about being young, about boys and clothes and school and lip gloss.
I prepare myself for this. I spend my days studying the gentle curve of her shoulder as she flops down on me, wrapping her tiny arms around my neck and breathing quiet against my face as she tells me a secret about her stuffed cat. I read an extra bedtime story, luxuriating in the moments between princesses and puberty, the clock ticking at a terrifying pace because I know these moments will soon be over. I prepare her for this and confide to her as we play dolls that one day she won’t like me very much, and that it won’t be the fault of anything other than hormonal changes in her body, biology and science. My daughter laughs and suggests we bake cookies.
It won’t be enough for me to prepare her for the physical changes that will take place within her body. I will have to remember my own puberty, my own girlhood oversensitivity, my own fears and confusion about all of the feelings that were raging through my head and heart. I will have to separate my own adolescence from hers, to let her voice her frustrations and anger without taking it personally. I will have to let her slam doors and hate me on occasion. Let her feel her own personal feelings with the knowledge at times that all I will be able to do is offer to run her a bath or bring her a heating pad.
I will be able to explain the physical changes and prepare her with a backpack full of sanitary napkins. Speak to her at length about birth control and the various emotions she will feel and how her mood swings are totally normal. It’s the waiting that worries me. The time between her puberty and her growing up, when a few years after she starts bleeding and her hormone levels even out that she will stop taking out any girlhood anger issues with me.
I will remember my own adolescent fury at my mother for just being a mother, for setting boundaries, for trying to keep me warm in winter when I tried to wear a short skirt out of the house as the snow fell, for giving me rules, and guidelines, and her endless suggestions for living. I will listen to the doors slam and collect the pieces of my heart from the floor and wait for her to come back to me. Just like my own mother did.