I am thirteen years old. I have just discovered blood in my underwear.
I have heard the horror stories. I have witnessed the distress in the girls’ toilets. I know this is a curse. I know that now I should not touch pickles, wash my hair, or go swimming.
I call my mother into the bathroom to tell her what has happened. She hugs me; an enormous, all enveloping hug. Her joy at the news is infectious. Her response is not what I expected. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps this isn’t a curse after all.
Taking my hand she leads me to the kitchen. It is a sunny, suburban Sunday in the early 1980’s. Uncles, aunts, cousins, all gathered together for a family feast. My mother stands with her hands on my shoulders and before I realise her intention announces, “Today is a celebration. Today my daughter has become a real woman!”
I am horrified. No one has ever mentioned this part of the curse. All eyes turn towards me and then I am engulfed by a chorus of congratulations. I hear the pop of a cork, glasses are filled, and everyone drinks to my health. This doesn’t seem like a curse. This seems like celebration. I am now a woman.
Many years later, sitting in a coffee shop with a friend, celebrating the birth of her first child she tells me how after an excruciating eight hour labour she and her partner became the proud parents of a beautiful baby girl. She also tells me that her mother, on first seeing her new grandchild, exclaimed to my friend, “Now you’re a real woman!”
I was stunned. Had I heard correctly? Yes, my friend’s mother had congratulated her on becoming a ‘real woman’ at the birth of her first child. What, I wondered to myself, was she before the birth? And for that matter, what was I? I didn’t have any children. Maybe I wasn’t a real woman after all. Maybe my mother had been wrong. Had I just imagined the mood swings, the cramps and the bloating every month?
I didn’t think about this incident for many years. Then recently I bumped into this friend again. Her daughter had just finished the HSC. She confided to me that she’d had her first hot flush just as her daughter sat her first exam.
I was shocked. My friend was experiencing menopause. We were the same age. If it could happen to her, then it could happen to me! But then I remembered my friend’s mother’s words at her grand daughter’s birth. I remembered that I wasn’t a real woman. Did that mean it wouldn’t happen to me?
Is our biology a friend or enemy? Perhaps just a firm frenemy. At birth, and sometimes before, a human child is labelled as something other than its precious self; as a boy or a girl. We travel through childhood with this label firmly pinned on our lapels. Then at puberty we begin to participate in a world that is even more definite; a world that tells us that women are like this and men are like that. A world of worry over whether we fit these new labels. A world where our sexuality and our intellects collide. And then into adulthood and the decisions about what to do with ourselves and our bodies. And what happens to us at the very other end of life? Is human life no longer precious because it is no longer biologically useful? Is this what the keepers of the curse would have us believe?
Although it was agonisingly embarrassing, I am grateful to my mother for her joyful response to my newly arrived womanhood all those years ago. It allowed me to question my expectations, the future, other people’s responses, labels. So now, with the expectation ahead of excruciating night sweats, hormonal instability and more hair on my face, I say it’s time to throw off the final remnants of the curse. Real woman or not I’m going to celebrate what lies ahead. I say bring it on. And with that I pop the cork from a mature red and drink to life in whatever form it takes.