Congratulations! You’re a Woman Now
The first time I wore a tampon, I didn’t know you were supposed to remove the cardboard applicator. So I left it in.
I was fourteen.
My friend stood outside the bathroom stall in the girls’ locker-room and coached me through the process, but she never mentioned pulling those cardboard tubes back out. Or, maybe she did, but we were trying so hard to be secretive, to go unnoticed, that I missed it.
Regardless, I pulled up my shorts and walked out to my school’s end-of-the-year party, where I limped around in agony for a few hours, unable to stand up straight.
When I finally made it home and went to the bathroom, my underwear was bloody. Stupid things, I thought. They don’t even work.
Growing up, there was no communication, no exchange of useful information, between adult women and us girls. We were on our own, to figure things out as best we could. Unfortunately, most of the time we were profoundly misinformed. For instance, we were convinced that if you were swimming, blood couldn’t come out, so there was no need to wear a tampon. We also believed you wouldn’t keep bleeding while lying down.
We weren’t just ignorant about how to manage our changing bodies—we didn’t even recognize “The Change” when it first occurred. One friend of mine, when she got her period for the first time, thought she had chocolate in her underwear.
This is so weird! she thought. How on earth did that get there?
She’s not alone. When my period started, in sixth grade, I thought I had pooped my pants. Too humiliated to tell anyone, I went home after school, did laundry, and kept quiet—until the next day, when it happened again. Still clueless but more than a little worried, I went to my mom and shamefully confessed, “I must be sick. I had an accident at school two days in a row!”
Later, when my mom brought home a stack of thick pads, each one taller than it was wide, I almost wished I hadn’t told her. I lay in bed and cried; these things felt like diapers, and you could see them even through jeans. Jeans! No woman could possibly have invented such instruments of torture; they were clearly designed to keep girls out of the picture, unable to sit comfortably in class, incapacitated by discomfort and despair.
Of course, these huge mattresses were an enormous improvement—my mother’s generation had to safety-pin long boats of cotton batting to the waistbands of their underwear. Decades before that, women had to use—and therefore wash, and hang to dry on the line—actual cloth rags.
“On the rag,” my mom even called it.
When it came to a working knowledge of the feminine mystique, my husband was a real catch, because he had three sisters growing up. While we were engaged, he passed every test I gave him, including one where he had to go into a grocery store alone to buy panty liners and tampons.
“It wasn’t that bad,” he said. “I can do it again, whenever you want.” If I needed any convincing, I now knew: this was my man.
I even had a secret agreement with myself, one Erik didn’t know about—I was determined never to let him see bloody sheets. You are rolling your eyes at me, and you’re correct; it was hopeless, like when my friend decided that she would never fart in front of her husband. Yeah, right, I thought. Good luck with that one. Are you going to let him be in the room when you’re in labor? Because guess what you’ll do then?
My little plan was similar: doomed to fail.
However, I made it five years before we woke up one morning to red sheets.
“Oh, I am so sorry! I can’t believe this happened!” I admitted everything to Erik, my years of hard work gone to waste, and he laughingly reassured me.
We laughed even harder when, on closer inspection, we discovered it wasn’t blood at all, but a cheese wrapper that had fallen into bed, where I rolled on it during the night, melting the soft red wax all over the sheets.
I was familiar with this kind of embarrassment; early adolescence was rough. On one family road trip, I was forced to wait in a gas station, frozen in horror, as my mom, dad, and both grandparents loudly discussed which kind of pad to buy for me. That’s right: I was held captive while my dad and my grandfather discussed maxis versus super maxis in front of half the population of Eastern Montana.
After what felt like an hour, the adults went up to the counter, bought a package of Maxi Pads—sized XXXXXXXXL, and then, incredibly, proceeded to make the whole situation worse.
I know. It didn’t seem possible to me, either.
With a lack of sensitivity and tact that takes my breath away even to this day, they walked over to me, handed me the package (which was noticeably not in a discreet bag, or a bag of any kind, actually), and then told me they’d wait in the car.
Who knows what compelled them to do this to me.
The ten steps from the middle of the store to the bathroom were the longest in my life—second only to the trip back through the store when I was done, pads clutched to my chest, past all the onlookers.
Thank goodness this was before cell phones. And YouTube.
All this was supposed to be a rite-of-passage of some kind. I vaguely remember women—my mom, teachers, even characters in books—parroting the quote, “You’re a woman now,” to every poor girl with blood-soaked undies. What a rip-off, we all thought. This is it? This is what separates girls from women? You can keep it!
As a college counselor at summer camp, when one of my sixth grade girls got her period for the first time, these painful experiences were useful: they had taught me gentleness, kindness, empathy. The camp nurse and I had her get into the shower, then washed her clothes for her—by hand, in the bathroom sink, under cold running water, as our mothers had taught us. Over the next few days, I checked in with her often, reminded her to change so she wouldn’t leak, provided her with the new, merciful pads with wings—oh, those brilliant inventions—and told her stories from my youth.
My daughter knows these stories; like many of her generation, she is getting her information ahead of time. Mothers tend to be much more open now. One woman I know of purposely chose a house with no master bathroom; she wanted to be forced by sheer proximity to be available to her girls as they entered puberty. It is common for girls my daughter’s age to receive gifts from older women—pretty little makeup bags—full of dainty liners, tampons, cotton undies, and friendly instructions about what to do when. Her friends carry pristine pads in their backpacks, with clear instructions on how to use them when the day finally arrives.
The stories our daughters tells their children will be different than ours: supportive, positive, hopeful. I am so glad that things have changed.
Someday, when our daughters and granddaughters and nieces hear, “Congratulations,” they may just be able to believe it.
Dawn Claflin lives in the Seattle area, and is proud to be a regular contributor to MAW. You can read her work on faith, family, and writing in Literary Mama, Sammiches and Psych Meds, and Funny Times, as well as online at https://dawnclaflin.wordpress.com.