© 1999Jessica Nathanson
#1, early 1970s: I was very young, maybe five or six, an age when
I was still occasionally wetting the bed. We had gone to stay overnight
at my grandparents' house, which Grandma kept so fastidiously neat that
I was not allowed to lie down on the bed without first pulling down the
bedspread so that it would not get rumpled. Mom and Dad were concerned that
I might have "an accident," and protected Grandma's sheets by
convincing me to wear one of my mother's maxi-pads to bed at night. I cried
and pouted, afraid that if I wore it, it would somehow change me. In actuality,
it was soft and sensuous, and gave me a delicious, cozy feeling. I did not
wet the bed that night.
My parents were older than the parents of most of my friends and were
generally stricter with my brother and me. In their house, my period, along
with anything else suggestive of sex, was accompanied by a subtle sense
of shame. Discarded pads were to be wrapped well in toilet paper, so that
the contents of these bulky white packages could not be discerned: tell-tale
spots of watery pink and deep purple might force the acknowledgement of
puberty and sexuality on the observer (especially my father and younger
brother). Only the bathroom wastebaskets, emptied frequently, were suitable
receptacles; the kitchen garbage can, full of rotting potato and carrot
skins, chicken bones, and coffee grounds, was too pristine. I always supposed
that the presence of a used pad, no matter how completely and deceivingly
wrapped, would threaten the delicate ecosystem of the kitchen: even the
botulism and E. coli that no doubt thrived in the sink drain would be no
match for two teaspoons full of my uterine lining.
#2, early 1980s: The first time I got my period I was wearing tight
purple designer jeans. I was home, babysitting my nine- year-old brother
while my parents were out. I remember feeling like I had to pee, and going
into the bathroom to find a rusty stain on my underpants that smelled of
vinegar. I knew what to do -- I'd seen the films in class and read the books
(borrowed from friends) on "becoming a woman." I was oddly excited
and saddened at once: I had "joined the club" of menstruating
women worldwide, but I felt that I had also severed the line between myself
and childhood. For weeks, every time I saw a pregnant I felt a strange kinship
to her, as I was now officially "fertile," too.
For the first year or two, I only got my period every other month, and
very irregularly. Then, it came every month, accompanied by heavy cramping.
The pads became less and less cozy as the months passed, and I began to
feel more and more like I was walking around with a sofa cushion between
my legs. Since Mom had never suggested that I try using a tampon or taking
Midol, I began to feel that becoming a woman had its down side. Once I realized
that tampons and painkillers were options, however, my feelings about menstruating
changed drastically: I forgot I was doing it.
#3, 1992: I saw an ad in a magazine for "The Keeper," a
rubber cup that collects the menstrual flow. I sent away for one, and used
it for a while. It was the first time since I had stopped using pads in
high school that I had been this intimate with my menstrual blood. The Keeper
needed a lot of positioning that sometimes required both hands, and this
tended to be very messy. It also leaked, especially on days of heavier flow.
Still, I derived a lot of satisfaction from being able to examine its contents,
and from watching the rainbow streaks of red, pink, and purple color the
water in the toilet. It felt good to demystify the whole process, and to
take pleasure in it. (I know I wasn't the only one enjoying my period: one
acquaintance told me that she marked her flow every month by tasting and
then smearing some of her menstrual blood on a page of her journal.)
Since my first period, my cycle has changed radically every few years.
Doctors have tried to convince me that these changes -- irregular timing,
heavy spotting at mid-month, cramps that became worse and worse each month,
cramps that went away almost completely -- signaled eventual disaster. Though
they have never been able to find anything actually wrong with me, if I
complain or ask questions about why my body is behaving in this way, I am
offered the pill the way one might offer candy to a crying child. Each time
I've refused, and so far, my body has seemed to take care of itself and
correct the problem. Now, however, as I approach thirty, my womb has begun
a new betrayal: each month, I experience drastic mood swings that send me
home to bed, weeping.
#4, 1993: Once, my period didn't come. After days and days of waiting
that became weeks and weeks, I began to panic. Though my(male) partner and
I had always been careful, I became convinced I was pregnant. After a home
pregnancy kit tested negative, I called my gynecologist back in Schenectady;
he suggested I get an exam to rule out an ectopic pregnancy. In near hysteria,
I rushed to Geneva B. Scruggs only to find when I got there that my period,
delayed by a urinary tract infection (caused by my diaphragm and spermicidal
jelly), had finally made its welcome appearance.
These days, I've given up "The Keeper" in favor of "natural,"
non-chlorine bleached tampons, which I can only find at my local co-op.
They don't have applicators, so I am more involved in this process than
I might be, but I like that. They stay hidden in a bathroom drawer -- perhaps
as a holdover of my parents' discomfort -- but I always thrill to the sight
of a box out on the toilet tank, in plain view, in friends' apartments.
#5, mid-1990s: My parents and their inquisitive dog were visiting,
and I had forgotten to place the garbage cans out of the dog's reach. At
some point, he snuck into the bathroom and made off with a used tampon I'd
thrown out. I chased him, but it was too late: I had the humiliating task
of informing Mom and Dad that the dog had swallowed the tampon. After a
frantic call to the vet, we induced the poor dog to vomit. The three of
us stood together, mortified, bent over the dog and the pool on the floor,
looking for the tampon. Fortunately, the dog was fine, but I'm not sure
that the rest of us recovered as well.
In junior high, the code we used to signify our periods was "my
friend is visiting" (we were fortunate enough to escape "the curse"
of our parents' generation). Perhaps ours was an apt name: the ritual attendance
that my menstruation requires serves to root me, to help me recognize time
as it passes, to keep me aware of my body, and to constantly renew me through
its connection to the moon and the earth. And I think that, when it leaves,
I will miss it.
Copyright 1999 Jessica Nathanson