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.