My eleven-year-old daughter, my youngest child, is losing her little girl look. In the last six months she’s sprouted out of her jeans and shirts, her legs suddenly long, her angles and straight lines softening into curves. She closes the door when she showers, asks me when she can start shaving her legs, and wears a training bra. She’s on the cusp of young womanhood, that moon sliver of time between childhood and adolescence. And I know it won’t be long until her cycle begins and she joins the age-old club.
I was fourteen when I started my period, the last of my group. At slumber parties, in whispers late at night, my friends lamented the discomfort of cramps, laughed over using tampons for the first time, and shared horror stories—a tell-tale red stain on the back of a skirt, an empty pad dispenser in a public bathroom—while I listened in silence and embarrassment, still an outsider. When my period finally started one night at mutual, I couldn’t wait to tell my mother when I got home, feeling shy and proud and relieved and thrilled. She retrieved the supplies she’d been saving for me in her bathroom cupboard—bulky Kotex pads and a sanitary belt (in those days before adhesive pads)—which I excitedly put on.
At school the next day I carried around my secret, my belt and pad my hidden reminders of my new womanhood. For months, each sloughing off of the uterine lining was a miraculous sign that I had matured, that my body could one day create and nourish life. Of course, the novelty eventually wore off, and my period became just another annoyance to be shared with girlfriends and roommates. Like every girl, I had the occasional accident (thank goodness for the handy sweatshirt that could be tied around the waist) and my share of comedic mishaps—used pads ending up in the mouth of the family dog, a tampon accidentally flung across the room while I retrieved something from my purse. And like every girl, long before I reached my twenties, I hardly thought about my period at all.
Until I got married, when menstruation suddenly took on renewed significance. Not only did it become part of the new intimacy my husband and I shared and a mystery for my husband to unravel, but now my cycle was finally fulfilling its purpose: I might actually GET PREGNANT. Three months after I married, I missed my period for the very first time, and this time the absence of blood was the miracle—a sign of a new life budding inside me, a tiny, vast, unfathomable secret I now carried around. Through my childbearing years I became more attuned to my cycle; I learned to read the signs of ovulation and the hormonal waning down to menstruation, and I could count on my period to start every twenty-seven days. A day or two late and I’d be excited or worried, depending on whether I wanted to be pregnant. But always, the monthly bleeding was tangible evidence of my womanhood, a comforting reminder of possibility.
Three weeks ago, at a routine checkup, I mentioned to my doctor that I hadn’t had a real period in over eight months. After years of perimenopause, which started for me at around age forty-two, I’d become used to irregular but heavy periods, hot flashes, and irritability; but I could sense that my cycle was winding down even more. A few days later a blood test confirmed that, at forty-nine, I’m officially entering menopause. Menopause. And just like that, it seems, my years of menstruating are over. Though I really feel no different inside than I did when I was forty-two, or thirty-two—or fourteen, for that matter—I have changed in some essential way. The monthly reminder is gone, my fertility ebbed away to nothing, and I’ve come back to the beginning: no red monthly stain. And although I’m not exactly sorry to see my periods end, I’m mourning the loss of something.
Meanwhile, my daughter runs on the soccer field, lithe and long-legged, long brown hair flying behind her. She bounces into the kitchen after school, teases her older brother, chatters about her day, as the miracle inside her just begins to unfold. She’s my half-sprite, my almost-woman child. At night I smooth her hair out on the pillow as I tuck her in, and she says, “I don’t want to grow up.” On her face is worry, a tinge of fear.
“Hush, my daughter,” I say, smiling, stroking her fine hair and cupping her sweet face. “Growing into a woman is a wonderful thing. Just you wait and see.”
How did you feel when you first started your period? How have you/can you prepare your daughter for this milestone? Do you think you will miss menstruation after you go through menopause? And, those of you who have already gone through menopause, what has it been like for you? Has menopause changed you? And do you have any wisdom/tips to share with the rest of us who are just beginning this new phase?