Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
My Daughter, My Self

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My baby, my first born, has breast buds.

She is four months shy of her 8th birthday.

I do what I always do when I'm not sure what to do: I turn to books. Books for parents on how to talk to young children about puberty and sex, books written for young children about puberty and sex. Books whose anatomically correct drawings and lack of moralizing land them on the ACLU's list of books banned and/or challenged in Texas Public Schools. Books which continue a conversation that started when Taylor, a preschooler, asked how the baby gets into the mommy's tummy, and how to use the tampons she found in the cabinet beneath the sink. For us, The Talk has been an on-going, casual dialogue, not a single, awkward moment in time.

Taylor, being the precocious reader she is, gobbles up the puberty books she's allowed to read independently, and is full of questions as we read other books together. At times, her naïveté makes for a surreal experience: imagine discussing womanhood with a child who quips, "What if babies really did come out of your butt?"

According to recent statistics, the surreal is sometimes the norm: One in seven white girls will start their period before age 10; black girls, one of every two. Researchers believe this early menarche is attributable possibly to diet, possibly to genetics. The former, I can and have controlled somewhat in Taylor's life. The latter, I can't control at all. With me as her mother, Taylor is predisposed to early puberty.

When I was in sixth grade, my friends got to play at being grown up, enjoying the rite of passage of shaving their legs and the novelty of growing breasts, unburdened by the bloodiness and embarrassment of a period. Meanwhile, I was a two-year veteran of menstruation and a world-weary wearer of training bras since the age of 8. I envied those girls their innocence...and their hairy legs. I wanted to belong to that club, so I bought a razor and shaving cream and snuck into the bathroom and shaved too. Once. And bled all over the bathtub for my efforts. Turns out, the women in my family just don't grow hair on their legs.

I had already learned, during my period, how to navigate the risky world of the girls' bathroom every couple of hours so that I could change my pad. On the first day of fifth grade my mother sent a note to my teacher explaining that, "Deesha should be allowed to go to the bathroom as needed because SHE HAS STARTED HER PERIOD"--that's how I saw the words, huge, red block letters bleeding through the paper for the whole class to see. Certainly the other kids would notice my frequent trips to the bathroom and figure out my secret, so I decided I had to go undercover.

I took the girls' hall pass from the chalkboard, and it became a decoder used by Special Agents on dangerous missions. I made my face as solemn as possible, to communicate to my classmates that, No, this isn't some mundane trip to the girls' bathroom. This is a top secret mission. I walked briskly down the hall, clutching my purse (aka "the secret stash"), looking neither left nor right. The hallway was almost always empty, and I leaned against the outer wall of the bathroom for a minute before darting inside. Once inside, I would bolt into one of the stalls, slam the door, and whisper, The coast is clear! And afterwards, the old pad discarded without detection from any civilians who happened to be at the sink near the garbage can, I would sigh--Mission accomplished!--push open the bathroom door, and return to headquarters.

Taylor has inherited my active imagination, but she won't be forced to use it to create mental ruses to hide her period. Taylor views the impending period as an event imbued with even less drama than her recent first bra purchase. I had mentioned a bra to Taylor, and the next time we were in the girls' section at Target, she noticed some sports bras and asked if she could get one. We just eyeballed it for the size. Small. She thinks of the period matter-of-factly, just something that happens when you grow up, like getting taller or being able to read longer books.

But Taylor also thinks that marriage and motherhood, like menstruation, are inevitable and biologically predetermined. I tread lightly here. I explain that all girls grow up to be women, but not all women choose to become wives or mothers, and some women are unable to bear children. We talk about single aunts and family friends who choose not to have children, and others who have struggled with infertility. We don't talk about my belief that women, if they marry, should not do so before age 30 and only with prior unanimous approval of a sister-circle of women friends, median age 35.

Instead, we go back to talking about periods. I tell Taylor that I hid my period from my mother because she told me that I would start my period when I was thirteen, but instead it started when I was nine. I didn't tell anyone for many months because I thought I'd done something wrong. And then one Sunday, a few weeks before my tenth birthday, I lost a tooth. My uncle's girlfriend, noticing blood on the back of my dress, said, "Deesha, I sure hope that's blood from your tooth." And my secret was out.

"And what did your mom say?" Taylor asks.

"She rocked me in her arms and said, 'I'm sorry, baby. I just didn't know.'"

"Maybe they didn't have books like these when you were a little girl."

"They did. And I went to the library and read them all!" I laughed, remembering entire summer days spent lying on the floor between the shelves in the public library, reading books about puberty, books by Judy Blume, and the occasional Jackie Collins novel I smuggled into the children's department.

I was a woman trapped inside a child's body. Or perhaps it was the other way around. I've never been sure. I definitely felt swept along by my body, resigned to the inevitability of change.

Every night, without having to be reminded, Taylor embraces change, diligently washing out one of the two sports bras she owns and hanging it to dry. Fortunately, our genetic connection does not destine her to be swept along. After reading a book from the AmericanGirl Library series about the care and feeding of her growing body, she announces, "I know what to do if my period starts and you aren't around. I'll go to my teacher or the school nurse or another woman that I trust, and I'll say, 'My period just started. Do you have something I can use?'"

I tell her that I think it's a great plan. And then I tell her about my Secret Agent missions in 5th grade, and she rolls her eyes and laughs and laughs at my once childish ways.


Deesha Philyaw is a Pittsburgh-based writer and the co-author, with her ex-husband, of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce. Her fiction and nonfiction writing on race, gender, sex and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Family Circle, Brevity, The Cheat River Review, The Baltimore Review, dead housekeeping, Bitch, Apogee Journal, Slush Pile and other publications. She’s a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a native Floridian.


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God was it amazing how and when I started my periods!!! Well, this is what happened, I have two friends called Lottie and Lydia who are sisters Lydia is 4.5yrs younger than me and Lottie is 7/8.5yrs younger than me. We were out shopping together. I was 15, Lydia was 10 and Lottie was 7. Lydia and Lottie's mum had decided that it was time for Lydia to get her first bra because she had just learnt about puberty and really needed one but the trouble was Lydia and Lottie's mum was rubbish at talking to Lydia about that type of thing so she sent me to do it! Their mum didn't want Lottie to come with us really because she said that it might put Lydia off because she might not want to discuss it with Lottie around but the night before Lottie insisted that she too came and Lydia said it was alright (she didn't yet know that they were going first bra shopping) So their mum gave in. But later that evening their mum accidently went into Lottie's bedroom whilst Lottie was getting changed and saw that even though she was only 7 she sorta desparatly needed a bra too. So the next morning I arrived at their house at 8.30 their mum was up but the girls were still in bed before she woke them up she explained to me what she needed them to have and how she now realied that Lottie too needed a bra. So we were all set by 9.30 me, Lottie and Lydia were sitting on a bus together talking about what shops we needed to go to when I dropped a hint that I needed to look in department store at the clothes so they said ok but before we went in the store we went to the loos because Lottie said she had a bad stomach pain in her lower stomach. In that paticular ladies room there were three toilets and we were lucky because it was completely empty, I remember this so clearly, I went in the middle one and Lydia went in the one on the left leaving Lottie to go in the one on the right. I pulled down my trousers and knickers, at excatly the same time as I saw blood in my knickers (my first period and I was aged 15!) I heard two voices one from either side of me call 'Natasha'. 'What?' I said. Two voices called back simultaneously ' Could you come here a minute?' I replied ' Yes, I'll be two minutes' I dealt with myself first, I wiped my vagina over and over again! getting of all the blood I could then I got a whoole load of tissue and made it into a sorta make-shift pad and put it in my stained knickers! It was sorta lucky I put on black trousers not white or blue that morning. I then went into Lydia's cubicle. She was sitting there with her knickers down and her trousers staring at the blood in her knickers. 'Oh, you've gotten your period' I whispered so as Lottie wouldn't hear but it was too bad Lottie had heard ' What's a period' she asked 'I'll explain later' I said what? I needed to help Lydia here. 'Is it where you get blood in your knickers?' came a voice from two cubicles away. 'Well yes, I guess that's part of it' I answered. 'Oh, I've gotten my period!' said Lottie. I went to check and so she had. That makes three of us. I put a wad of tissues in both their knickers (Imagine starting at 7+10) and then we all three washed our hands as we left I started to explain that I too had just gotten my FIRST period like them and what a period was and what a pad was. Next we went into Boots, I bought one pack of pads and a drink of water. Next we went into Bhs, we bought some knickers and other trousers for Lottie whose lilac ones had turned Browny-red around the area. We went back to the same loos and I took them both into the baby changing cubicle and I put a pad in a pair of knickers we had just bought and gave it to Lydia who was almost in tears because of the whole situation, then I did the same for Lottie and gave her the new trousers! Finally I did it for myself. Then we went and bought Lydi and Lotti 3 bras each and after that we went straight back to their house. As soon as we were through the door Lottie said 'Mum I've gotten my firstest period and so has Lydia and so has Natasha' Her mum called me aside and asked me whether this was right. I said yes but it was like she didn't beleive me because she then took her two daughters into the bathroom in turn before taking me! She had no idea how to speak to Lottie about periods and bras and womenhood, Lydia knew a bit but she really needed to her a bit more 'first hand' information she asked me whether I'd explain to her kids, but I just said 'Look I know little more than them it's my first one too' so I gave her the courage to tell her kids and me. I completely forgot about telling my mum! She'd took me to the doctors several times before: age 13- No development whatsoever not even hair on my arms/ legs let alone under! age 14- Same as 13 yrs old 15th Bday- Only size 28aaa and no hair around my area. So, my mum came up to me a week after my 16th birthday and said I need to take you to the doctors again. Because you still haven't started your period and you're 16 now. So then I told her everything that had happened the day of such an amazing coincidence!!!!! Natasha x x x On my 2nd period and proud!
that is so cooincidental... hope your all ok. i cant stand periods :( lol
this is a very good story and so are the other comments im really scared of having my period at school and i want to start it now it says 18 months to 2 years that you have to have developed breast and i have there going to be about meduim sized in 2008.Most of my frends have started theirs and im nervoulsy awaiting mine im 1 years old this is the average age that most girls start their periods and i dont wanna be like natasha who started hers at the age of 15 i want to be younger. The only reason it finally came for natasha was because she wasnt even thinking about it but now that tought of having blood come out of my private isnt to convient and i dont wanna tell my grandma about the research i been doing because my grandma lets everyone know every single thing thats why i d ont want to tell her when i start my period its really scary and i have 2 brothers and 1 nosey grandpa and they will go and tell everyone and i dont wanna be embarrased. (shyly speaking)
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