My four-year-old daughter walked in on me (as usual) while I was going to the bathroom. She hopped from her right foot to her left in a little potty dance while she waited for me to finish.
I wiped and instinctively looked down at the toilet paper before flushing it, unsurprised by what I saw. Pulling my pants halfway up, I waddled over to the cabinet and pulled out a box of tampons.
“Are you having the blood?” my daughter asked as she settled herself on the toilet. That’s what she calls menstruation: the blood. I nodded, tossed the tampon wrapper in the trashcan, and turned to wash my hands. In the mirror, I could see my daughter bending forward to look between her legs and into the toilet. “Am I having the blood? Does it come out when I pee?”
“No, sweetie. You won’t have any blood until you’re much older, like 13. You don’t have anything to worry about right now.” I turned and leaned against the bathroom counter while I dried my hands.
“Does it hurt when you bleed?” she asked. She opened her eyes wide and gave me her most concerned face.
She kept staring at me as she swung her legs. She’s gotten so lanky in the last year; her thighs are probably the same size around as her calves—two little twigs connected by knobby skinned knee caps. Scabs from when she had taken off down the sidewalk on her scooter and hit an uneven patch—she ripped the knees of her pink patterned leggings, blood streaming down both shins. The skin on her palms red and raw from where she tried to catch herself.
This was the kind of pain she was asking about—the pain associated with falling and bleeding, peroxide and Band-aids.
I pulled on the towel still in my hands. This seemed like a sort of mothering crossroads. I can tell she wants me to say that it doesn’t hurt. Her worried expression signifying that she wants me to brush this off and tell her it’s no big deal. I could lie, I thought. I could talk about the gift of becoming a woman and wax on about moon cycles and maybe even throw in some magical nonsense about fairies. She really likes fairies … and princesses. She still genuinely believes that she will grow up to be Rapunzel if she never gets a haircut. Do princesses have periods? Is there a way to Disney this up and give our whole conversation a happy ending?
I bite my lip. There has to be a princess story in here somewhere ...
My daughter widened her eyes at me again. “Mo-om? Tell me about the blood—does it hurt?”
“Well …” I tried to conjure up the words for this fantasy period tale, but all I could think of was the time during my sophomore year of high school when my cramps were so bad I excused myself from Health class and leaned against the wall of the wide, empty hallway wishing that I could crawl to the nurse’s office, but worried that someone would see me.
“Yes,” I said slowly, remembering the hours I’d spent curled up with a heating pad, all the times I’d stood in front of the bathroom sink scrubbing blood out of my underwear, pain vibrating through my abdomen and around my lower back. “It hurts.”
Her eyes widened, and she peered between her legs again.
“But you can take some medicine, and then it’s fine. You’ll be so fine. And 13 is a long time away. You don’t have anything to worry about.” I tried to keep my voice light, the same way I had tried to be light about her skinned knees. We can clean up anything and put a bandage on it. No big deal.
My daughter took a deep breath. “Okay.”
She flushed and walked over to the sink to wash her hands. When she was finished she turned to look at me, and I could see that she had tears in her eyes.
“Mom,” she whispered. “I don’t want to be 13. I just want to be a little girl. Please. Let me stay four.”
She put out her arms for me to hold her. I bent down and picked her up and carried her back to the toilet. I sat on the seat while she buried her head in my chest.
The fears she whispered in her tiny voice echoed those in my heart.
You don’t even know the half of it.
It’s not just periods, and sure that was an extra level of terrible, but turning 13 is more than menstruation or bras or braces; the physical aspect is only an external reminder of all the changes happening inside. As I rubbed her back, I thought of all the stories I wasn’t telling her about being 13.
I was running from my locker to my 8th grade Social Studies room, arriving just seconds before the bell rang, but the girl who entered the class just before me shut the door and leaned against it. I knocked on the slim glass window above the doorknob, and she slyly turned her head and stuck her tongue out at me. But we’re friends, I thought … except maybe we weren’t? So I was embarrassed. And confused. Fighting back tears and late for class on top of it. When I finally collected myself and walked into the room, the teacher threatened to give me a detention if I was late again. I opened my mouth to defend myself and caught the eye of the girl who had shut the door in my face. I closed my mouth because, well, defending myself was scarier than detention. There were so many meaner things that girl and the other so-called friends could do. I took my seat and stayed quiet.
My friends and I were at a co-ed birthday party the summer before 8th grade, and we were all playing a game with water balloons. The line between adolescence and childhood was still so blurry, and even though we mostly wanted to run around and play games the dynamic had shifted, our bodies and our brains were changing. Everything was out of sync. Thus, the water balloon game was short lived, and my girlfriends and I stood around near the food table trying to look cooler than we felt.
From across the lawn I saw one of the boys hold two of the remaining water balloons up to his chest, and I heard him laugh and say my name.
I ran into the bathroom to hide my tears. My girlfriends came to check on me, as girlfriends do. I wasn’t the only one who had seen the boy across the lawn.
We think you’re really pretty, they said.
He probably just likes you, they said.
But I didn’t feel pretty, and I certainly didn’t feel liked.
Maybe that’s why I couldn’t come up with a story about fairies or princesses. Why I couldn’t look into the tear-filled eyes of my four-year-old and tell her that being 13 is magic.
Because it isn’t.
I thought of all the times I curled my awkward 13-year-old body up on my mother’s lap, and we sat in the rocking chair in the kitchen while I cried. She would stroke my hair and say everything that was true.
You really like that boy, and he doesn’t like you back, she said.
Friendship can be confusing, and sometimes girls are mean, she said.
You’re going to get through this, I promise, she said
I love you.
My daughter looked up at me and smiled. Not a happy smile, not the smile of a little girl who had already forgotten what she was crying about in the first place, but a closed-lipped brave smile. A smile that covered the deep breath hiding behind it. A smile that acknowledged the watery eyes it partnered with, but chose to be there anyway.
I kissed her on the forehead.
She hopped off my lap and asked if she could go get a snack from the pantry. I nodded and watched her slowly skip down the hallway to the kitchen.
I know my daughter is still very much a little girl. Thirteen is a long way off, and honestly, I haven’t spent much time imagining what she will be like as she grows up, maybe she hasn’t either. I think this was the first time, for both of us, to sit with the weight of the future.
My daughter will experience many more moments of fear and crying, probably more than I would ever want for her. I hope she continues to come to me, to crawl into my lap and let me rub her back. I hope that when I come to these crossroads again, I can look her in the eyes and remember the magic is in the truth: sometimes we get hurt, sometimes we’re scared, sometimes we don’t understand, but I’m here. I love you.
Photo by Ashlee Gadd.