Is This What It Feels Like?
What It Feels Like To Be a Woman
When I was eleven, dull, burning stomach pains signaled the onset of my first period. My mother made hot tea to soothe my stomach, and explained the difference between tampons and sanitary napkins. She hugged me and said, “You became a woman today.”
Wait. That’s not how it happened. That’s how I wished it had happened. That’s how I wrote about it happening for years because people didn’t want to hear about how it really happened.
Do you want to hear?
Well, this is how it went down.
I really was eleven. I felt burning pain in my stomach. This was similar to pains I’d felt before. Pains after my father visited my bed in the middle of the night and pains after he’d slapped his belt across my body for awhile.
There was a squishy sensation in my underwear along with the pains so I ran to the bathroom.
When I wiped, the toilet paper was tinted red.
Waves of panic crashed over me. I’d been taught since before I had language that any time I had any unusual symptoms, I had to hide them. Telling my parents when I was sick only ended up with them ordering me to go to bed and then forgetting about me. Once I went nearly two days without food. I sipped water from the bathroom sink when I used the bathroom.
I had to tell someone though. What if I was bleeding to death?
Another wave of pain burned through my abdomen.
“Mom!” I cried as I rushed from the bathroom down the hall.
I bit my lip, hesitating outside of her bedroom door. It was only 7:30. Mom never got up before I went to school. When I’d woken her in the past, she had accused me of trying to kill her.
“What are you trying to do, exhaust me to death?” she’d cry.
That was her most common descriptive term. When she had a headache, she was going to die from the pain. When my father stayed up to late she’d call out every few minutes.
“Biiiiiill,” she’d say. “When are you coming to bed? I’m dying to go to sleep.”
Whenever I was sick, she’d huff, saying, “You’re going to be the death of me!”
So I hesitated, trying to hold in my moans as another wave of pain crashed through me.
When I was fifteen, I gritted my teeth as the hair stylist teased my hair for my first formal dance. “You have such lovely, thick hair,” the stylist commented. As I carefully applied makeup while my date waited in the living room, I wondered. Is a fancy hairstyle and grown-up makeup what it means to be a woman?
At my senior prom, I molded my body into my date’s arms. As I tried to make my dance steps mirror his, I craned my neck to see to the very back of his limitless eyes. As he smiled at me, I wondered. Is knowing that I can look at another person forever and never know all there is to know about him what it means to be a woman?
After I graduated college, I leaned forward so my fiancée could wipe a dab of ketchup off my nose. A thrill ran up my spine. As I playfully ruffled his hair, I wondered. Is knowing I can spend the rest of my life with this man what it means to be a woman?
As I spent my last few moments as a single woman donning my wedding gown, my mother-in-law patted a few stray hairs into place. I thought of all the life experiences that had come together to bring me to this point. As I saw the love reflected in my mother-in-law’s eyes when she heard her son say, “I do,” I wondered. Is this what it means to be a woman?
As my husband and I twined our bodies in consummation, fulfillment seeped into the marrow of my bones. As I whispered, “I’ll lover you forever,” I wondered. Is this what it means to be a woman?
As I felt my son move in my womb, I prayed that he’d grow healthy and strong. As I measured morning sickness and weight gain against the wonderful years we’d spend together while he grew, I wondered. Is this what it means to be a woman?
As I held my baby in my arms and whispered his name, “Jason,” into his newborn ear, he gazed at me with a look that told me that though he was seeing me for the first time, he knew me in some ways better than I knew myself. As I tickled his tummy, I wondered. Is this what it means to be a woman?
As I dabbed tears from my cheeks as Jason got on the school bus for the first time, he waved and smiled as if he hadn’t a care in the world. As I smiled and waved back, I wondered. Is this what it means to be a woman?
As I listened to the psychiatrist’s assessment, that, yes, Jason did have a mild form of autism called Asperger’s Syndrome, a firm resolve grew within me. As I vowed to make sure he was given all he needed to learn and to see that he was treated with dignity and respect, I wondered. Is this what it means to be a woman?
As I heated soup for my husband, sick with the flu, I wished I could take his pain into my body. As this strong, determined man trusted me in times of vulnerability, I wondered. Is this what it means to be a woman?
As I grieved the passing of my childbearing years, and dealt with hot flashes and night sweats, I was amazed at how quickly the years had flown. As I brushed my graying hair, I wondered. Is this what it means to be a woman?
As I contemplate life’s joys and sorrows, I feel grateful for each moment. I feel a deep confidence as I realize that I finally have the answer to my question.
The answer is yes.
Yes—as moment builds upon moment, as all of them combine into what I call my life—all of that is what it means to be a woman. In the myriad tapestry that is life, who I am molds each experience, as each experience molds me more firmly, making me more comfortable within my woman’s skin.