I’d thought about this moment from the moment my first daughter entered the world, a little over 10 years ago.
Okay, it was an on-and-off sort of thinking, but it was always there, looming on the horizon of my mind, like a mountain you have to climb eventually, if only to get to the other side.
Though I put it off for as long as I could, finally, here it was. The mountain, beautiful and inspiring and awesome and frightening. But it wasn’t Everest I was contemplating. It was something far more intimidating.
It was time to sit my ten year old down and discuss bodies and periods and girl parts and everything puberty.
Part of my trepidation about broaching the subject was practical—as the oldest of four closely-aged children, and as a well-known and self-described chatterbox and boss of the littler kids, I knew that, in all likelihood, whatever knowledge I shared with Mitzi—and no matter how innocuous or small—would be passed on to all the siblings and possibly some neighbor children as well.
I wasn’t eager to be the mom of the kindergartener who used her Sharing Time to discuss tampons and training bras in excruciating details that had been provided by her overly articulate big sister.
But the other part of my hesitation had nothing to do with matters of Show and Tell or the finding the right time to bring up the subject. That part had everything to do with the surprisingly vivid memory of my own awkward talk with my mother.
It happened when I was in sixth grade. I should’ve known something was up. In totally uncharacteristic fashion, Mom let me stay home from school that day without much of a fight. She claimed to believe my fake symptoms of illness. Maybe she thought I needed a break from the bullying I’d been enduring that year. But I think she saw the perfect opportunity to bring up the subject.
She was well prepared, armed with not only a giant cardboard box of supplies (The Period Starter Kid, brought to you by Stay-Free, or something like that), but also a book. I was (and continue to be) a sucker for books. It was more like a pamphlet, to be honest, but, hey, a pamphlet is just a mini-book! With cartoon characters and everything! (Turns out, it had been anonymously written by my literary hero, Judy Blume.)
The ambush came at lunchtime, after I’d been allowed to sleep late and spend the morning cozied up in my bed reading. I shuffled downstairs, unwrapped the tin foil from my PB&J, when Mom launched in.
What did she say? I have no idea. My cheeks were burning with embarrassment, my heartbeat quickened, and the most fascinating thing in the world was the tin foil that I crumpled into a ball so I wouldn’t have to look her in the eye. All I could think was, “Ewww.” (Actually, it was1980, so what I probably thought was, “Gag me with a spoon.”) Because what Mom didn’t know was that I was already fairly well-informed, thanks to my best friend who knew everything early and told me. I really didn’t need to be sitting there talking about my vagina with my mother. Finally, she got to the box and the book, she finished what she had to say, and I scurried back upstairs. The Talk was over.
I do have to give my mom credit, though. She hung in, plowed forward, unperturbed by my preteen eye-rolling and refusal to speak.
These memories have swirled around me as I gathered my courage to approach my daughter, putting it off and off and off until finally it was time. It was clear that Mitzi—always ahead of the curve—was likely to be an early bloomer. So, despite my husband Ray’s protests that a 4th grader was too young, I got my act together.
First stop, a bookstore. (Of course it was.) I found two titles that seemed appropriate and read them thoroughly. What I liked about both was the bulk of the content was about hygiene, feelings and relationships. The embarrassing stuff was limited to a few pages at most.
But when was the right time? I waited and waited and waited, but it’s near impossible to find privacy in our busy house. The only alone time anyone ever got was on a trip to the grocery store. I didn’t think that would work. “Look, grapes are on sale. Also, girls get a monthly period. Let’s get some cheese!”
One night, just after I’d read the books I’d purchased, Ray was out for a meeting and I had managed to wrangle all the kids into bed early, eager to have a quiet night of writing all to myself. I opened up my document, already thinking about my characters and their fictitious world, and then it hit me.
Now was the right time. There was no escaping it.
I fortified myself with a glass of wine and headed upstairs, special books tucked behind my back, where Mitzi, as usual, was still awake, reading.
“Hey, honey, still up?” Excellent opener, I thought.
She craned her neck to see what I was carrying, obviously knowing what they were because her eyes bugged out. She loves books as much as I do.
I sat on the end of her bed and stretched out a little, keeping my stash hidden, if only to have her complete attention. I started my speech, which I’d hastily cobbled together in my mind as I downed a glass of Merlot fifteen minutes prior.
“… so I just thought we should talk a little about some of the changes you are going to start going through.”
“Mmm-hmmm.” She blushed a little and turned toward the wall, where she’d crookedly taped a large map of the United States.
I pressed on. “You’re just getting to that age when you start to move from being a little girl into a … well, teenager. Or, preteen. And all kinds of stuff will start to change. Not just your body, but also the way you feel about things. Like how you sometimes get really angry and irritated for no reason.”
“Mmm-hmmmm.” Her eyes scanned the map.
“But your body will change. You’ll grow hair in places you never had it before and you’ll have to start shaving your legs!” Mitzi giggled and my confidence grew. “And you’ll have to start using deodorant, for real! And …”
“Hey! Look! It’s the Rocky Mountains! They go all the way to Canada!”
So much for having her attention.
Time to bring out the big guns. I pulled the books to my lap. Suddenly, she was totally focused. “Are those for me?”
I nodded, and gave her an overview of them, and we cuddled together, scanning the pages, reading here and there. I explained what I needed to, and sat there with her for a half an hour until she ordered me to leave so she could read in peace.
As I exited her room, she said, “You know, Cooper’s going to have to learn about stuff soon, too.”
Cooper’s a year younger. I’d forgotten I’d have to face the boy mountain soon, too. Then she added, “But I think Daddy should handle that one.”
We parted in laughter, and downstairs, I treated myself to a second glass of wine. I’d survived The Talk!
I hadn’t quite scaled the dreaded mountain—after all, it’s a steep climb to the other side, traveling through all those years ahead (Preteens! Teens! Twenties!). But we had started. At least we started together.
And, The Talk wasn’t as awkward or embarrassing as I’d expected. Hopefully I widened the already open door between us. Would she always come to me with questions, deep thoughts, fears, dreams? Will all of our future talks be so comfortable, aglow with honesty and love? I have no idea, but I hope so.