When I got my period, I was only nine. My daughter is eight, and she doesn’t know what a period is. I wonder if I need to tell her, in case she is early, too.
Premature puberty is partly (some studies say 48 percent) hereditary, with an especially strong link between mothers and daughters. My brother sprouted sideburns years before his peers. At age eleven, my son’s face darkened with a mustache, and now, at seventeen, he has the beard of a rabbi. The other day my daughter said, “I have hair under my arms!” I couldn’t look. I just said, “No you don’t.”
My daughter, who is skinny and flat as the Midwestern plains of her inheritance, unselfconsciously calls herself a little girl. She prefers “Annie” to “High School Musical;” sleeps with a bevy of stuffed unicorns; and doesn’t question, as some of the boys at school did during show and tell, why her hamster has both a girl’s name and testicles. So why am I so worried about a wisp of underarm hair?
It’s not as if my early onset menarche catapulted me to nine-year-old teendom. I still hadn’t grown noticeable breasts and wouldn’t have been able to swagger my hips if it had been required for gym credit to graduate. When I told other girls in my fourth grade class that I couldn’t swim one day because I was wearing a sanitary napkin, they said, “You?” If there had been a vote in the yearbook for the girl least likely to enter puberty first, I would have won.
I paid little attention to boys, even after I was capable of being fertilized by them. I had a brother a year older than me, and we were close, listening to Wagnerian opera on his turntable and watching “Monty Python” re-runs together, so maybe that was as much boy company as a nine-year-old girl needed.
I didn’t try hard to lure boys into chasing me at recess, either before or after I “became a woman.” I wore whatever clothes my mother bought on sale at Kmart, even the pink polyester slacks with the rainbow belt that made me look more like a premature grandmother than a premature pubescent. My hair was too flyaway to feather in the 1970s style of “Charlie’s Angels.”
I wasn’t like Susan, with her naturally wavy black hair that she twisted so it bounced like a vertical Slinky at the side of her face. I wasn’t like Laura, with her long blonde hair down to her behind, her brown suede boots and rabbit fur jacket and beckoning index finger. Everyone thought those two would be first to get “the dot.”
That’s what Jenny Alexander, my best friend since I was four years old and she was seven, called it. My mother hadn’t explained menstruation before its plague hit me, so I was lucky Jenny had.
It didn’t feel lucky at the time, though. Jenny was twelve, and I still hovered on the childish side of nine when she told me something big had happened to her.
“Give me a hint.” Guessing games were one of our favorite time wasters during those long, boring Michigan summers. We both had single mothers who worked full time, mine as a bank secretary in the Renaissance Center in Downtown Detroit, and hers as a Frito Lay packer on the assembly line. Most days we spent at Jenny’s more lenient house, eating the never-ending twelve packs of Cheetos her mother filched from her shift.
We whiled away unair-conditioned, unsupervised Julys squirting Jenny’s mutt Rusty with the hose and letting the water drip down our cut-off shorts, transcribing the lyrics into a spiral notebook to memorize, singing along, “Afternoon Delight” and “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?” I had no idea.
“It’s the thing after a sentence. That’s what it’s called because it’s also the end,” Jenny said. Under the dark of our makeshift fort–a blanket covering a card table on Jenny’s front porch–we pressed Ken and Barbie into each other’s naked plastic bodies.
“The end of what?” I asked.
“Of being a kid,” she said.
“Does it hurt?”
“That’s why they call it Eve’s curse.”
“You mean like Original Sin?” Jenny didn’t go to Sunday School like I did, so I wasn’t sure how she knew that phrase. Probably from a TV commercial about Summer’s Eve, a feminine cleanser that came in a box with a woman wearing gauzy clothes. She floated as if she didn’t even have a body, let alone one with dirt so different from a man’s it required a separate product to clean it.
“No!” Jenny let out a puff of air the way she always did when she got impatient with me.
“Can we just play The Game of Life?” With its tiny plastic cars and stick people, its tidy path from career to retirement, Life was my favorite game.
“All right, crybaby, I’ll tell you.” Jenny cupped her hip. “I got my period. You know what that is? Blood on my underwear. Want to see?”
I shut my eyes.
“Like a dot at the end of the sentence,” Jenny said. “I got my dot!”
I didn’t want to tell her how afraid I was. Of the unknown, of adult responsibility, of losing control. But mostly I was afraid of the dot dragging Jenny away from me. Three years is a large gap at that age.
“Do you know where you’re going to?” Diana Ross sang through the window on the radio and, like that sentence, all mine ended with question marks, not periods: Would Jenny become a boy-crazy mean-girl? When it happened to me, would I become more like a vampire or a werewolf? Wonder Woman or the Incredible Hulk?
I didn’t have to wait long to find out. Soon after Jenny announced her “dot,” I got mine.
Besides my mother, I barely told anyone. Jenny was normal, a twelve-year-old pubescent. At nine, I was a freak.
Plus, Jenny was right: it hurt. It was also messy, inconvenient, and confusing. Why was my body preparing to have babies, when I still slept with a blankie?
Jenny didn’t dump me for boys or friends her age. At least not that day or even that year. But by the time I went to junior high and she went to high school, she talked to me only when her friends weren’t around. She got a job in the summer, and her sweet sixteen sleepover was for sixteen year olds only. I couldn’t blame her, though I spent my summer biking to the library, reading Oliver Twist, and pretending I was an orphan.
My premature period didn’t rob me of my childhood. If anything, it made me cling harder to it, since adulthood was a bloody mess.
Then why am I afraid for my daughter? Parents obsess at doctor’s visits and playdates about standard developmental milestones. It seems strange, though, to fret about being early.
Maybe the conversation I need to have with my daughter is one about behavior, not biology. Once she becomes attractive to men, she needs to be able to say no. I don’t want her to be like the narrator in Deborah Eisenberg’s story, “Days,” who remembers when she was thirteen and a stranger put his hand up her skirt on the train. She “just sat there, afraid of hurting his feelings in case he hadn’t noticed where his hand was, or had a good reason for having put it there.”
I don’t want my daughter to give herself up too easily, like the teenage Margo in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s new novel, Once Upon a River, who climbs into bed with the first man who gives her shelter because “she did not know if Brian would force a girl, but he couldn’t force her if she went to him on her own.”
I’m not ready for my daughter to become vulnerable, the way I was, pinned to the wall of a viaduct at age ten; jumped by a stranger hidden in an alley at thirteen; and at fourteen, stalked by a man who wanted nothing more than to lay flowers at my feet, or so he said, before I ran. Maybe it is the rush of hormones I fear, the ones that make teenagers feel invulnerable, like the extra estrogen that talked me into taking the inner-city buses home at night in Detroit.
My breath shortens as I think about what my daughter will do with her sexual maturity and even more what will be done to her. I can’t arrest her development, but I wish I it wouldn’t happen early.
Maybe it won’t. If heredity accounts for 48 percent of early menarche, what about the other 52 percent? Some predictors of early onset menarche are family stress (such as divorce or death or child abuse in the family), absence of a biological father, and the presence of non-related men. African American girls are also more likely than Caucasians like my daughter to menstruate early.
My daughter lives in a stable family with her biological father. Perhaps my milestone was triggered by my father’s death when I was seven or by my mother’s boyfriends. Or maybe my body just reached out to Jenny’s in biological sympathy, a phenomenon that occurs when girls in the same college dorms menstruate at the same time.
I hope my daughter doesn’t start her menses in less than a year, but if she does, I’ll tell her it’s not like the period at the end of a sentence. It’s not the end of anything, just a bodily function like losing a tooth. With today’s improved products, she won’t miss a day of swim team, and I’ll slip her an extra slice of rare steak at dinner to keep her iron count up. She won’t be the anomaly I was because she doesn’t listen to opera and wear old-lady pink polyester pants; and the straight, fine hair she inherited from me has even become fashionable.
We all wish we could protect our children from the battlefield of adolescence, but we can’t. So let the bloodshed begin.