The first time I got my period—and how I learned to stop the shame spiral

You know that moment in a horror movie where the protagonist is home alone, they hear a noise, and then trepidatiously ask, “Is anyone there?” That’s the same exact tone I used when I called out, “Mom?” I waited a few moments and when I realized she didn’t hear me, I screamed, “MARY!” I screamed as though I was trying to summon a hearing-impaired spirit from beyond the grave. It’s safe to say that she heard me this time.

“I’m here. I’m here,” she said, out of breath, from outside the bathroom door. “What’s wrong?”

“Mom, I think I got my period,” I replied, unsure, even though it looked as though a tiny creature had been murdered in my underwear.

“Okay, it’s okay,” she said, with a voice that could only belong to a mother. Then, she got nervous and stated, “I have nothing to offer you.”

“Oh, mom. Don’t worry. You’ve given me everything I could ever ask for. Please, don’t get all emotional on me now.”

“No. Anna. I literally have nothing to give you. We have no pads in the house.”

“Oh…” (Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse…) “I… I… think I maybe have some in the puberty kit I got from school. It’s downstairs in my room. If you walk in my closet, it should be in the second storage cabinet on your left, in the second drawer down, underneath a pile of old t-shirts.”

“Okay… I’ll see what I can do,” my mom answered, confused as to why I’d go to such lengths to hide the evidence of my puberty. She left me alone and returned minutes later. “So… they only gave you a panty liner. That will have to do for now. I’ll buy some pads after I pick your siblings up from school.” She then slid the liner underneath the door and waited until I came out.

“How do you feel?” she asked as I emerged.

“Promise me you won’t tell anyone,” I answered, completely ignoring her question. “I don’t want anyone to know.”

“Sure, I promise… Now, let’s go see if we can find you something else to wear in my bathroom cabinet.” Thankfully, she avoided the topic of my embarrassment and we spent the next 30 minutes pulling hair products out from underneath her bathroom sink. All the way in the back, there was a creamsicle-colored wrapper that contained the biggest maxi pad I’d ever seen.

“Here,” said my mom. “Try this!”

“You have got to be kidding,” I deadpanned. “This looks like it’s from 1975.”

“Actually, it’s from the 80s, but I doubt these things go bad.”

I begrudgingly did as I was told because the panty liner didn’t feel like a solid defense. My mom left the bathroom, I pulled down my pants, pulled out my liner, and replaced the empty spot in my underwear with the vintage pad. I then pulled my pants back up and waddled out of the bathroom.

I took two steps, realized that I essentially had an entire cotton plant between my legs, and began to cry.

“This is my life now,” I thought.

And that was it.

When I look back on that time in my life – I was 14 years old and in eighth grade – there’s one word that comes to mind: shame. I was filled with the murkiest kind of shame. I felt disconnected from my gangly, growing body. As a reserved young girl (who was uneducated in the field of the female reproductive system), I believed that my body was betraying me. It was changing without my permission, doing things I was not prepared for. My school only spent one hour showing us a puberty movie in fifth grade and that was it. They wiped their hands of the matter after sending us home with a small goodie bag, one filled with pamphlets, a mini deodorant, and the aforementioned panty liner.

As for my mom, she grew up in a cul-de-sac where parents relied on pamphlets. My grandmother was a Girl Scout leader, so she had the hookup. When it came time for my mom to learn about all things sex-related, my grandmother handed her a pamphlet, said, “Read this, Mary,” and sent my mom up to her room to obtain *~all the knowledge~*. In other words: my mom carried on this tradition and I, unfortunately, did not obtain *~all the knowledge~*.

I lived like this, in period shame, for years. My bodily mindset didn’t change until I was in college. One day, I picked up a book entitled The Birth House by Ami McKay. It chronicles the life of Dora Rare, a young girl who becomes a midwife’s apprentice. After taking on this important position in her community, she learns to take care of women and their bodies. Infertility, herbalism, pregnancy, sex, and even vibrators are discussed in detail. Author Ami McKay gave me my first glimpse at what it’s like to embrace the female body and, for that, I’m forever grateful.

After I read The Birth House, I became interested in the world of herbalism. So, naturally (get it? since herbalism involves nature?), I ordered a ton of books on the subject. My personal favorite is Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Healing for Women. This book taught me about a “First Moon Party.”

After a young woman gets her first period, the First Moon Party serves as a celebration where a small group of women gather (preferably women who the young woman has known for a long time) and eat a dinner of the young woman’s favorite foods. Once the feast comes to a close, the guests get in a circle and share stories about their “first moon cycle.” All participants bring a small gift that is symbolic of womanhood, give it to the guest of honor, and then toast with a special lunar tea. Each woman is supposed to make a wish for the young woman and drink to her womanhood.

Then again, First Moon Parties don’t have to be so elaborate. They can involve just a mother and daughter as they drink lunar tea beneath the moon and speak of their wishes for the young woman’s life.

What I love most about the First Moon Party is that it is a party for your period. It takes away the shame and, instead, makes you feel like a cool, witchy woman. You get to eat your fave foods, drink some fancy tea, and talk to the women you love most about this special time in your life. I mean, what could be better?

And for the first time in my life, I couldn’t wait to talk about menstruation with other people because, now, I had something fascinating to add to the conversation.

So… I started with my mom, my brother, and my sister (aka my A+ support system).

I then spent the next hour explaining to them everything I’d learned about menstruation. For the first time, I felt empowered. At long last, I wanted to work in harmony with my body. And my excitement totally outweighed the shame I once felt.

It’s been many years since I got period #1. During this span of time, I’ve never been to a First Moon Party, I’ve never made lunar tea, or “bled into the earth” as the book also suggests. But, unlike my 14-year-old self, I’m no longer afraid to welcome these ideas with open arms—or just talk about having my period. Because my body is mine for a reason. It’s here for me to love, to care for, and to embrace in all its complexity.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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