– BY MARY NOVARIA –
I alternately dreaded and looked forward to the day when I could share the ancient mysteries of womanhood with my daughter, like the Old Testament women in The Red Tent, or with some kind of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood ritual. But our ‘talk’ achieved neither biblical nor ceremonial proportion. In fact, I don’t remember it at all. It’s the talk with my own mother, with its peculiar juxtaposition of perfunctory instruction and a cartoon reproductive system that overshadows all of my mother-daughter bonding fantasies.
I was so alarmed by what I’d heard from a classmate that I couldn’t wait to ask my mom if it were true. I was in Third Grade and had ridden the bus home from parochial school with my friend Kathy. Her harried mother was unpacking what seemed like dozens of bags of groceries in the kitchen and there it was: that iconic, blue cardboard, rectangular carton of… of what? Of course that box and others with various absorbencies—regular, super, super plus—would one day become a staple under my own bathroom sink, but that day its singular unfamiliarity piqued my curiosity.
‘What’s that?’ I whispered to Kathy.
‘Oh! Well… after you have a baby you bleed for the rest of your life,’ Kathy confided with the air of an expert.
I was intrigued, scared and even a little excited by this news. I mentally counted Kathy’s brothers and sisters. Six altogether. That’s an awful lot of blood. No wonder her mother was so bedraggled.
Still, the more I thought about it, Kathy’s gory news didn’t quite ring true. Once I was home, I waited until my little brothers went out to play in the backyard and walked into the kitchen where my mom was fixing dinner. I was nervous, my mouth dry and heart racing, as I worked up the courage to ask.
‘Mom, what are Tampax?’
She turned down the flame on the simmering stew, grabbed a notepad and pencil, and beckoned me to join her in the living room. My mother was unflappable. In almost any situation she had a calm demeanor that you might even call stoic – the middle of five children who had a hardscrabble New England upbringing. She shared nothing of her own menstrual experience, except to say that my grandmother had fallen down on the job. My mom’s older sister had no clue what was happening when she got her period. She was hysterical, thought she was dying, and imagined she’d inflicted a mortal wound while shaving her legs.
I learned it is pronounced men-STRU-ation, kind of like Feb-RU-ary… that my mother preferred sanitary napkins… and that we do not, in fact, bleed for the rest of our lives.
That was a relief, but this was definitely not a female bonding, Ya-Ya Sisterhood talk. It was a clinical, instructive lecture – complete with illustrations – delivered by my mother who happened to be a registered nurse and a Lamaze childbirth instructor. I thought she’d brought the pad and pencil for me to take notes. Instead, my mother, whose artistic inclinations up until then had been limited to papier mâché Easter eggs and homemade birthday party hats, began to sketch.
First the uterus, then the ovaries and fallopian tubes, and finally the vagina. Altogether it looked a bit like a moose with antlers and all I could think about was Bullwinkle. Moosestration. My mother then disclosed the divine secret of how it all worked. Womb preparing every month. Eggs dropping. Sperm. Penis. In there? Ew.
It was all very clinical as she explained that intercourse was for married couples who loved each other very much and wanted to make babies. There was no talk of pleasure, birth control or sexually transmitted diseases. I learned most of that in junior high from the book, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), which I have an inkling my mom purposely left where I could find it.
That thick, mustard-colored tome was shocking and illuminating, thrilling really, and there was nothing about it that reminded me of Bullwinkle.
About the author
Mary Novaria is a mother, wife and journalist whose work has been featured in numerous print and online publications including the Washington Post, Redbook, Country Living, Delish, Dr. Oz The Good Life, Good Housekeeping, Chicago Tribune, Kansas City Star, Huffington Post, The Good Men Project and Feminine Collective. She writes about family, friendship and everyday life on her own blog A Work in Progress. She lives in Los Angeles. You can find her on Twitter via @MaryNovaria.
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