I’m a bit behind. My apologies.
Warmly & Enjoy,
Learning to Bleed
My mother was confused by the way I chose to alert her that I started my period in December. I’d recently turned eleven, and when I woke up with red stuff in my underpants, I changed them, put a pad in there—I’d seen Mom do this a thousand times—and put my bloody panties in a green Christmas box that I’d gotten from the Santa’s Workshop junk store my elementary school hosted each year, where we children purchased ugly mugs and paperweights and penlights for our parents.
I arranged the offending garment in the box so that the crotch faced upward and would be the first thing my mother saw when she opened it. She would surely wonder why I gave her my panties in a box if I did otherwise. I had the distinct impression that my mother was very excited for me to become a woman, which was a term that confused me deeply. I knew what “making sex” was, but I had no clue how menstruation figured into that. I didn’t want to know why women had to bleed. The Bible only said that Eve’s punishment for the deception was that birthing children would be painful. There was nothing about this other bleeding.
Still, I thought one of us should be happy. I was horrified, but I hoped maybe Mom’s excitement would be contagious somehow.
I laid the box in her room, and when she woke up, I heard her in the bathroom, so after the toilet flushed, I went to her and laid in her bed and wept.
“What’s wrong, honey?”
“D-didn’t you get your present?” I blubbered.
Silence. She looked. It seemed to take forever.
“Oh, Sweetie,” she said. She rubbed my back in long lines, from the nape of my neck to my bottom.
The official story became, quickly, that my mother was as messed up over my uterus shedding as I was.
I wonder now if she knew she would not be happy about it. If she was, as I sometimes am, swept up in the energy of those summer afternoons on the porch with my aunt, talking as their children swam, tiffing along because her sister-in-law was certainly excited for my cousin’s menarche. Being competitive because that is what people do. Knowing that there was no point, that it didn’t matter, because of course I wouldn’t menstruate first—my cousin was two years older.
The whole thing struck me as horribly unfair. I was in grade school, for crying out loud! And I did. Cry that is. Often. Still do. Though my mother says my moods were much more predictable after that holiday season in 1991. So it began that I thought of myself as a slave to my hormones, and internalized lessons that included generalizations about women, though I did not yet think of myself as a woman, which turns out to be a good thing.
My mother became insufferably impatient around her period, slamming cabinets, drawers, throwing things, going through the house with big, black garbage bags, collecting loot, never her own, and rushing it to the garbage, before, she hoped, anybody would notice and begin asking about their McDonalds Happy Meal toy, or their raggedy T-shirt they’d slept in for years, despite growth. I remember a few times frantically chasing after her, grabbing for things she’d put in the bag. When she let me capture them she would roar, “Put it in your room, then!”
Of course, though this strikes me now as one of the hypocritical, short-sighted things parents say to their children, it turned out to be advice from which I could extrapolate that it’s a lie that women have no influence over their own monthly hormones. Whenever I was behaving poorly because I had my period, I was admonished to knock it off. I was told that my period was no reason to act that way. I was told that I should learn to control myself.
None of this is to say that at thirty-two, as a mother, I have perfect control of everything that leaps into my mind during the days surrounding my period, or every heightened sense of annoyance or injustice; but awareness is everything. I can have saner ideas about these feelings, I can sort out what is reasonable, most of the time, and I have learned to force myself to table decisions until after the flow. Were I a richer woman, or had I health insurance, I could probably medicate myself. But that is a set of injustices to discuss another day.