Saturday, the 5th of March, 2001.
An eleven-year-old girl is staying at her mom’s- well, her grandparents’ (mother’s parents)- house, where they have lived for a number of years since her parents split up, and later, divorced. I think it was four years in total- mom moved into her house, if I recall correctly, in the Summer of 2001. I’m not sure whether I had stayed there the week (as part of the week with mom, week with dad agreement, which is how I lived until the age of sixteen, definitely before I started sixth form; the ‘rules’ became more lax as I got older, but they were subject to change even before then, depending on where it was more convenient for me to be- not necessarily based on where it was better for me to be, I might add), or whether it was one of those times where I was just there for the weekend, for some reason(s) that resulted in it being so.
We had just had chips, homemade, of course, which was routine for Saturday nights at my maternal grandparents’: I always looked forward to them. I don’t remember eating them, or much else of what I/we did, but, some time later in the evening, I had a bad stomach ache. I thought it was because of the chips- I hadn’t eaten to excess, I rarely did, but the pain was palpable, and became more so. I remember lying, writhing, on the sofa, across the seats where my grandfather usually sat- at this point, he had temporarily relocated. I remember the living room feeling overheated, oppressively so, and feeling abnormally hot and sweaty- but then, I must have also felt cold, as someone put my grandfather’s shawl over me; I must have asked for it. My mom and grandma thought I was coming down with something, I did too. At this point, I am still at primary school, in Year 6- I didn’t start secondary school until September that year.
I, somehow, made my way to bed; I don’t remember going up, myself. I got up in the night to go to the loo and had some uncomfortable poos. Diarrhoea- lovely. When I took my pants down, I noticed some brown stuff on the gusset, it was dry- I did wonder whether I had had a leak, in light of the stomach ache, but it didn’t seem like it. I didn’t really know what it was, so I ignored it and cleaned myself up- extra-thoroughly, to make sure- and went back to bed- no recollection of stomach pain, at this point, so it must have subsided.
The next day, I went back to my dad’s, where I lived with my aunt (his younger sister) and grandparents; mom dropped me off in the morning. I considered this place my permanent home. It was my dad’s 36th birthday- I can’t imagine him having ever been 36- which is probably why I came back here in the middle of my week with mom: my grandma had made a special lunch to celebrate. It was the usual, but by no means ordinary, birthday spread- samosas, bhajia, spring rolls, with a selection of my grandma’s homemade chutneys. My dad wasn’t there; he was on his way back from a work trip to Spain, so we were waiting for him. He didn’t arrive on time, so we started eating. It was a sunny afternoon- unseasonably warm, but, again, that sensation could have been my fluctuating temperature. I had little to eat- some spring rolls, my favourite- but I couldn’t enjoy them as I felt the stomach pain creeping back. I wanted to get up during the meal, but I sat it out. Shortly after, I went to the loo, the little one downstairs. I don’t recall doing anything, but standing inside, just near the door, looking over my pants to see a pool of the brown stuff again. This time, I panicked, as it looked more like blood. I was absolutely terrified, I recall the feeling of fright shimmering through my body. I pushed open the door and shouted for my grandmother from inside- “MAMA!!!”. She came downstairs and looked at me, I was crying, whimpering and trembling. She looked at my underwear and shouted up to my aunt, “Maneh,”- her nickname- “oh ho gaya!!”- “It’s happened”.
My aunt took me upstairs to the bathroom. I sat on the toilet, feeling odd, and she returned with a sanitary towel. She sat on the stool between the bath and the sink and waited with me. I don’t remember much dialogue between the two of us, she seemed to sit with me in quiet support and thoughtfulness. I, of course, had not before experienced anything like this, this new circumstance, but, even as I sat there, I had an innate feeling that this was normal, a sense that exceeded reason: it was like my biology reassured me about something I couldn’t yet rationalise, a primordial knowledge bypassed my worry. My aunt’s outer calm and knowing what to do helped greatly, for sure. She showed me how to put on the towel, the pad, I finished up and we left the bathroom. A short while later, likely shorter than I recall, as it was already the afternoon and a Sunday, so the shops would be closing at 5pm, we got in her car and drove to town. I remember sunshine on the drive, feeling self-conscious about how I was walking, as I was not familiar with the feeling of a sanitary towel, and worrying about whether there was blood on my jeans as we walked through Snow Hill car park- the sensations of the latter two linger, as I still experience them during the first couple of days of my period. We went to Boots to buy pads, my own- so came my first encounter of navigating the terrain of corporal womanhood.
* * * * * *
It is strange recalling and contemplating this experience after eighteen years of periods; I’m sure I could calculate the number I’ve had so far. I am currently five days into March’s flow, excluding the day I came on- it is easing off and will be stopping in a couple of days. I just think about how little I knew then. That is mad to say: of course, I know that I wouldn’t have known what I do now and have learned over almost two decades of menstruation- let me tell you, you never stop learning about yourself and your body, it changes more frequently than you think you can keep up with, but you do, and you learn to recognise what’s normal for you. What I mean by musing on how little I knew is a comment on the complete absence, at the time, of any information that would have been overwhelmingly useful to me, and, I’m sure, numerous others, about the changes in our bodies and what to expect going forward, and growing, with them.
I grew up in a house, a family environment, where women’s issues weren’t even considered a thing, much less anything anyone, including the females, was supposed to know about, even if it was vital for them to for their own knowledge and safety. But, this was also a family that didn’t talk about anything, for varied reasons, so it’s no surprise- at least, not now- to the number of things that were made to appear as though they didn’t exist, let alone be up for open discussion, even between those affected. I’m not going to go into the complex, involved reasons behind this- not in this piece, anyway- but I know my life and, undoubtedly, others’ lives would have been so much easier if we had been allowed to talk about things, honestly and openly, and be received from a place of support and innate understanding. In terms of learning about women’s health and anatomy at school, my assessment of the attempts to convey this information is diabolical, paltry, and almost comically lacking in communicating fundamental information.
I was in Year 6 when I started my period, so I can forgive the school for not providing us an in-depth, personal account of the journey of biological womanhood and adult female sexual maturity at primary level. We did indeed have a sexual health lesson in that year, but all I remember of that is a short talk from some people- likely sexual health experts/teachers from elsewhere- who were invited to speak to us, a group of ten and eleven-year-olds- that was us- half-sat, hovering, huddled around some chairs and desks in Mr Church’s classroom, before the girls and boys were separated into different rooms to watch gender-specific videos about the male and female reproductive systems. I still don’t agree with the purpose of showing the girls a video about ‘their parts’, but not the boys’, and vice versa, but it was something and, again, at primary level. I remember, days before this class, we got a letter from the school to take home asking for attendance permission from our parents/guardians- I reiterate, I had no experience or knowledge of what this meant, but, again, something intrinsic made me not show them: innately, my better judgement knew. I wasn’t at my mom’s at the time and my dad was rarely there- I wouldn’t have asked him even if he had been- and my (in this regard) conservative Panjabi grandparents sure wouldn’t have allowed me to go, so I made the decision to fill out the slip myself: I forged my grandad’s signature and handed it in.
My memory, my report, whatever you want to call it, of my primary school experience of barely surface-level sex education is not glowing, but, taking my whole time at that school, a state primary school in Smethwick, including the anomaly-class, into account, overall, the quality of education I received, from age four to eleven, far exceeds the one I received at my private- sorry, “independent”- secondary school in Edgbaston, in regard to the vital life lessons I learned that were part of the school’s- and individual teachers’- ethos and curriculum. I know you can’t really compare the two, but one didn’t feel like a positive contiuation of the other, if that makes sense. A lot of the lessons I learned at secondary school weren’t related to the lessons at secondary school.
By the time I started secondary school, I had already had around seven periods. Coming from being the first one in my class at primary school to start, and the first to have started developing breasts (oh how I remember feeling so exposed when I overheard a few of the boys, some of them friends, say “Ciona’s got big ones”….), I felt a lot more mature, in certain ways, than the other girls around me. I had always been a solitary, sort of melancholy person, a seam that exists within me to this day, so being physically more developed was another thing that separated me from others at the time- I didn’t know anybody else going through these things, so they felt an all the more deeply personal experience. And, little did I know, I would also feel eye-rolling isolation in sex education classes- covered within biology lessons- at secondary school. I’m not going to recount the entire length of my experiences of this subject- we had one lesson a year, I’d say, from Year 7 to Year 11- but I do want, most significantly, to highlight the severe lacking that I mentioned, in terms of giving crucial information to those- developing children- who most need it.
Nobody told us about the pertinent presence of periods and the time that would be spent agonising, physically, mentally, over their place in our lives. Was it because the teachers, specifically female teachers, didn’t care, or were they, themselves, also products of a lack of vital information and education about their own bodies? In any case, I think the latter is a poor excuse because, as a teacher, it is your responsibility to convey vital details to your students in a way that will benefit them- but did they have all the necessary details, which leads me to question the curriculum and what was deemed as important to know by those who created it. And who was responsible for creating it? Men, who have no idea about the intimate workings of a woman’s body, let alone the authority to enforce what it is we should learn about them? Or women, who were, perhaps, much older, and just as uneducated about their own bodies for being raised in a gagged society that does not engender the questioning, or, indeed, communicating of experiences and information for the benefit and, I repeat, safety of those it concerns? There are questions in abundance- at some point, though, I do think the reponsibility falls to you, as an individual, a woman, to convey that information to those who need it: the alternative is that you become complicit in perpetuating meagre or misinformation, which is detrimental and could severely harm those who need to know, whether immediately or in delayed effect emotionally and/or physically. You could impede someone’s ability to ask for help by not offering it to them, or letting them know that it is okay to ask, and should be encouraged to.
I know each individual girl’s, woman’s experience of menstruation is different, but it is important to know of the commonalities in menstrual experiences- average cycle length, the unsettling landscape of PMS (and its, seemingly, infinite symptoms!), discharge and its various guises, body odour, colour and texture of blood, length and intensity of flow, mood fluctuations, foods and drinks that affect severity of symptoms, changes throughout the body: breast tenderness, water retention, increased appetite, decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting, hot spells, cold spells, change in smell/sensitivity to odours, change in taste of mouth and ability to sense the sweetness/saltiness of food, bloating and cyclical weight-gain due to water retention, leg ache, backache, stomach ache, headaches, menstrual migraines, dizziness, menstrual mind-fog, fluctuations in blood sugar levels, iron levels, other vitamin and mineral levels, hormone levels, cramps, menstrual disorders and fertility issues, the unity between pre-menstrual, menstrual, pregnancy and menopause symptoms, the days spent off school and work due to periods and period-related issues- the list could, and does, go on. Kids- young people today are fortunate to have a wealth of information and accounts of shared experiences on command, at their fingertips. When I started menstruating, it was not pre-internet, but pre-having-a-computer-in-your-home (wheyy internet cafés and libraries!), pre-smartphones and devices, so the ability to access information and learn anything real and honest, especially in environments of non-talkers and misinformation, was almost impossible. Everything I have learned about my body since the age of eleven has been through experiences, pieced together with things I have picked up ‘off the street’/in drips and drabs along the way- I am 29 and still learning.
I hope my sharing helps someone, or more. I have learned, and continue to find, that the most valuable way of gleaning information and progressing important conversations is by discussing and sharing experiences with others, whether they are, in this case, female or not, or whether or not they menstruate, as we all need to know what is right in order to help one another. To round off this piece with some levity, I will share with you a list of the songs that remind me of when I started my period, for being out at the time, or because they, for some reason, adhered themselves to my emotions:
Show Me The Meaning Of Being Lonely- Backstreet Boys;
Pure Shores- All Saints;
American Pie- Madonna;
Movin’ Too Fast- Artful Dodger feat. Romina Johnson;