My first period arrived the day before my twelfth birthday.
My mother and I were at my grandparents’ house, debating how to spend my birthday itself. “Would you like to go bowling, darling?” asked my grandmother, for something like the eight-hundredth time. “No Granny,” I replied, screwing up my face. “A restaurant?” suggested my mother. “We could go somewhere with curly fries.” “No,” I moaned.
I’d done bowling and curly fries for my eleventh birthday. Why couldn’t my family understand that turning 12 was so different from being 11? When I turned 11 I was still watching cartoons in the morning, like a baby. Now I was almost 12 I had graduated to hanging out with boys (well, a boy. His name was Daniel, we talked about bikes, and he had the. Most. Amazing. Hair).
“I’m going to the loo,” I sighed. As I sat on my grandparents’ ugly yellow toilet, I felt inexplicably glum. I was itchy and irritable, my eye sockets ached and, for the last couple of days, I just hadn’t been able to rustle up a smile.
And why was I even on the loo, anyway? Did I need a wee or a poo? I needed something – the twisted, weighty feeling in the front of my lower abdomen was telling me that much – but I couldn’t tell what. I’d been feeling sort of like I needed a poo for a couple of days now – even after I had had a poo, and that morning it had been a little difficult to do up the fly of my jeans.
I could feel something wet falling into the toilet from between my legs, but it felt… gloopier than wee. I looked down at the pants pulled down between my knees, and saw a dark red line of something that looked like treacle all the way down the gusset. At first I didn’t know what it was, and then –
“Blood!” I thought, panickingly.
“Blood,” I thought, a bell of familiarity clanging somewhere in my head.
“Ohhhhhhhh, blood,” I thought, with a satisfying sense of things falling into their proper places. That’s what was happening! I’d got my period! That’s why I was bloated and tired and irritable! I’d heard about that – that was called pre-menstrual syndrome, and I’d had it! I’d been pre-menstrual! And now, well, now I guess I was mid-menstrual!
“Muuuuuum!” I called, unravelling half the loo roll in my excitement. “Muuuuuum, can you come in here please?”
Here’s what I wanted to happen: my mother would come into the bathroom, I would quietly inform her of the situation, and she would quietly take me out to buy new pants and whatever sanitary products I needed completely without fuss. This was entirely probable – my mum knew how to play pop songs on the guitar, and was everyone in my brownie troop’s favourite Brown Owl for years.
Here’s what actually happened: my mother came into the bathroom, I quietly informed her of the situation, and then she RAN AROUND THE HOUSE SHOUTING “MY BABY IS A WOMAN!!” AT THE TOP OF HER VOICE while I was still on the loo, with my pants around my knees, shouting “Mum! Mum, stop it! You’re embarrassing me.”
About five hundred years later, my mother and grandmother came into the bathroom. “I”m so sorry, my darling,” said my mother. “I wasn’t prepared for this. But your grandmother…” she trailed off.
“I’m afraid it’s been a while since I had a period, my love,” my grandmother told me. “I do have this, though!”
She held up what looked like a belt and a neck brace. “Stand up,” she told me, and – to my total horror – fixed the belt around my naked waist then slapped the foam neck-brace-thing between my legs and hooked it onto the belt in front and behind. THEN she brandished the largest, whitest, most flowery pants I had ever seen, and made me step into them. Then she pulled up my jeans and, in a satisfied voice, proclaimed, “There. Perfect.”
Flabbergasted, I looked in the mirror. I looked like I was wearing a fully-inflated paddling pool under my clothes. “What is this?” I asked.
“A sanitary towel,” my grandmother told me.
“They’ve, er, changed a bit since your day, Mum,” my mother commented, but I barely heard her. I was too busy staring at my reflection and thinking that this was the worst day of my life.
Luckily, my day improved. My mother took me out to buy sanitary products – I stayed in the car, refusing to be seen in my paddling pool – and she returned with very discreet, paper-thin pads you just pressed into your pants and no one was any the wiser. I got some new pants, too. Score.
And my birthday? I spent it bowling and eating curly fries after all. Because you can’t do all your growing up all at once.
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Image: Katie Edmunds