It was a hot summer day in 1978. All of the kids from the block were there. In Ms DelTufo’s pool. She was such a nice neighbor.
We would all gather and sit across the street from her house on my grandmother’s front lawn, waiting to see her coming or going or walking around the yard. When she appeared we’d do our best to look bored.
If she wasn’t coming outside and we really wanted her to notice us, we’d play touch football right on her lawn. When she looked out the window, we’d do our best to appear overheated.
She would come out and say ‘Do you kids want to swim today?’
We would all scatter like roaches, run to our houses, throw on our bathing suits, grab our towels.
Within moments all of the kids on the block would be in the pool jumping, laughing splashing.
But on this particular day I was sitting on the concrete around the pool with only my feet in the water while everyone else swam.
I had just gotten my period for the first time.
My grandmother had proudly proclaimed to my uncles who were eating lunch, ‘Kim became a woman today!’ much to my great embarrassment. I was a 10 year old tomboy who didn’t even want to be a girl! There was no way I was ready for womanhood!
She had also broken some other horrible life-altering news.
Grandma: You can’t go swimming now.
Me: Ever? I can’t go swimming ever again?
G: Just for a week or so.
M: A week or so?! That’s like forever!
G: And it will happen every month.
M: Every month? Every month I can’t go swimming?!
This was terrible. A whole week of long, hot, sunny summer days. A whole week of listening to all of my friends while I sat in the house. Sequestered like some sort of cave woman.
My grandmother obviously didn’t know about tampons. So I was left, calculating. This could be 21 whole entire summer days of missed swimming opportunities.
It would mean more of these conversations that I was about to have right now.
All of Them: Come swimming!
Me: I can’t.
Them: Why not?
M: I just can’t.
T: Why not ?
M: Because I’m sick.
T: You don’t look sick.
M: But I am.
T: Then why can you sit here by the pool, but you can’t swim?
M: Because I can’t.
T: Why? Tell me why?
M: I just can’t, alright?! Jeez, shut up!
Then I stood up and stormed off.
I went back in to my grandmother’s house. I laid down on the couch and stewed. I could hear the splashing of cannonballs and squeals of joy from across the street. This was not going to be easy.
To this day, I’m not exactly sure what it was that kept me from simply saying,
‘I have my period.’
My grandmother had just declared my womanhood to everyone in the house with pride! And here I was wallowing in sadness and shame.
All of the women in my family had been waiting for this. Aunts asked out loud over coffee and wine ‘Did she get her period yet?’ They speculated about when it would happen like they were taking bets. It was a rite of passage that they were all anticipating (aunt-icpating?). They spoke a bit too loudly and proudly about my developing body, but they whispered whenever a man walked into the room.
Uncle: What are you ladies laughing about?
Chorus of Aunts: Nothing!
So an hour later, I sat in silence, back at the edge of the pool. I sat there slouched over, holding onto the leftover genetic shame from caveman days, waiting for my friends to tire of swimming.
It was a long, hot summer.
Luckily, times have changed since 1978! Right?
I’m wondering if things have really changed all that much? The regular use of tampons has helped, I’m sure, but tampons aren’t for everyone.
Are we still having theses types of conversations? Are we still unintentionally shaming our girls by keeping our boys in the dark?
My 15 year old informs me that she would proclaim it without shame should the situation arise. She thinks it would embarrass most boys. She said even at a girls-only party, there would be girls who cringe at the mere mention of menses.
My 13 year old, for instance, didn’t even want to answer my questions. She told me not to write this blog post. She told me not to discuss such things with anyone. Ever. ‘Mommm! Reallly?’
Recently at a public pool, I overheard a conversation that went something like this:
Girl: I can’t go swimming.
An intercepting Mom: She’s sick.
Boy: What kind of sick? Can I catch it?
Mom: No just girls get this kind of sick.
Boy: Swims away confused.
Girl: Sits and sulks.
Now, the girl is not only unable to swim, she is also a liar. She has been shamed by her well-meaning mother for something that will be happening to her every month for the rest of her life.
She will continue to feel the shame of it in varying degrees for perhaps, her entire life.
This boy will grow up to one day realize what was happening at all of the pool parties when the girls were sitting out. And he’ll hold on to the seed that was planted in his young brain; the idea of periods as sickness, as something that keeps women from doing things, as weakness.
I have taught my girls from the time they were young that our periods are a part of our power. They connect us to the universe. Deep down inside of us there is an atomic clock that connects us to the gravity of the moon and the flow of the tides. It is the thing that allows us to bear children, perpetuate the species and form bonds of unconditional love. It is one of the things that makes this world possible and beautiful.
One of my kids grasps the scientific shameless nature of it. The other wants no part of the conversation.
How can there still be so much deep rooted shame in a biological process?
Why can’t the conversation always be simple?
We have to stop shouting about power to our girls, and whispering about biology around our boys.
I like to think that if I had sons I would teach them about menstruation before their peers were about to come of age. I hope I would.
The summer of 1978 would’ve been much more bearable if the conversation were just a little different.