Menarche

A journey with our daughters

I grew up in an open, "modern" family. Sex was discussed frankly and factually. We had free access to friendly, illustrated books explaining puberty, and when I turned ten, my mother gave me a giant box from a "feminine hygiene" company, filled with samples of various pads and tampons. I remember going into my room, shutting the door, and taking out the box to examine the stuff and the booklets packed with them. I remember in particular the illustrations showing a curvy, smiling girl powdering her nose, taking showers (peeking demurely over the curtain), and smiling daintily at boys. She stepped carefully on high heels past intricate diagrams of the female reproductive system and instructions for "staying fresh." This, then, was menstruation. And once it happened, as the book clearly indicated, there was no going back to carefree girlhood. Well, I didn't want any part of it.

I got my first period when I was about thirteen, while my mom was away on a trip. I was staying with neighbors I didn't know very well, and I don't really remember how I handled it. I do know that I felt distant and alone and that when my mother came back, I didn't tell her that I had begun menstruating; I didn't think it was something one announced. Today she still regrets my secrecy.

Looking back, I realize that my silence came from fear. Armed with little more than a clinical understanding of the physical nature of being female, I didn't know if I could meet the mysterious expectations of womanhood. Rather than risk public inadequacy, I figured I would just keep things to myself until I felt it was under control.

While many of us, having grown up enlightened about the plain facts of sex and puberty as I did, are prepared to talk about menstruation with our daughters directly and honestly, we are less sure of how we can make her feel safe, celebrated, and loved when she begins to menstruate. For many mothers, formal, planned ceremonies--on either a grand or small scale--can make traversing the bridge from girlhood to womanhood easier for our beloved daughters.

"It's not that we don't have rituals, it's that they aren't organized or recognized by a wide group," explains Jay Ann Cox, Ph.D., a scholar of ritual and folklore and a senior lecturer at the University of Arizona. "Often our mothers had no guidelines other than the commercials for "feminine protection" and how their mothers did it (or didn't do it). Therefore, many young women enter menarche with confusion and misinformation, or too much emphasis on the products themselves."

It is through Dr. Cox's insight that I am able to understand that I did have a menarche ritual of sorts, one focused on that big box of pads and tampons and the physicality of menstruation rather than on the broader change it would bring to my spiritual and emotional life.

Although many of us are determined to do things differently for our daughters, we may feel uncomfortably ambivalent. As Sonia Michaels of Victoria, British Columbia, mother to one daughter, explains, "Mostly, [my period is] just kind of a nuisance--I know that I'm supposed to be all into this whole goddess-woman thing and love it, but honestly it's not the most pleasant part of my life."

While Sonia echoes the feelings of many of us, she also reflects our wish for our daughters to feel differently: "I don't want her to think of it as something icky and gross, or as a curse. Even though I don't love it, I think it can be a really positive part of womanhood."

Our feelings about our daughters' physical maturity can be contradictory as well, as we are alternately proud and concerned to see the changes adolescence brings; this influences how we feel about her menarche. According to the Mayo Clinic, menstruation typically begins between nine and sixteen years old, with the average age in the United States being thirteen. Breast buds tend to appear about two years before a girl has her first period, with the result that our newly menstruating daughters may look much older than they actually are. No wonder, then, that some mothers worry and fear when their daughters enter the age of fertility.

"Because she has reproductive capabilities once she has menstruated, a girl is no longer seen as pure and innocent," explains writer Bridget Grosser, "We try to be happy for girls at menarche, but we are uneasy about the new issues that they will encounter--sexuality, pregnancy, and unspoken taboos of exclusion."

Confronting our concerns makes it easier for us to move on. As parents, we are accustomed to trepidation at each stage of development. It's natural that watching our daughters step onto the uneasy bridge between childhood and adulthood will be scary, but observing this step makes clear that they will still need us--maybe more than ever before.

Our daughters, too, may already feel overwhelmed with the bodily changes they are experiencing. Burgeoning breasts, pubic hair, body odor--not to mention the newfound self-consciousness that comes with puberty--can cause our daughters anxiety.

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