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What It Feels Like to be a Woman

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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 a while.

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 them 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. I shoved a bit of toilet paper into my underwear and dashed from the bathroom.

“Mom!” I cried as I rushed down the hall.

I bit my lip, hesitating outside of her bedroom door. It was only 7:30 a.m. 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.

“Mom?” I ventured, cracking open her door.

“Let me sleep, you little brat!” she moaned, rolling over on her mattress so her back faced me and burrowing her head in her pillow.

“But Mom,” I persisted, knowing I had no one else but her to ask about the blood dripping from my body and simultaneously hating the idea that the only person available to me for help was the same person who laughed as she whipped me with forsythia branches.

“Th-there’s blood in my pants,” I whispered, misery filling my throat.

“What?” she gasped, turning to me, her bloodshot sea foam-colored eyes pulsing with panic.

I remembered when I’d been swinging and the chain had broken. I’d flown up; hitting an exposed bolt and ripping open my scalp. I’d landed hard. The locust trees above the swing set were spinning as if I’d just gotten off a merry-go-round.

When I’d touched my head, my hands came away covered with blood. I’d run through the house, looking for Mom. She’d been in the front yard, watering her peonies. I’d placed my bloody hands on the glass part of the storm door, hyperventilating so hard I couldn’t get any words out.

She’d moaned, “oh my god!” and dropped the hose.

She had the same, “Oh my God!” look on her face now, after I told her that my underwear was full of blood.

She’d called my father the day I’d cut my head on the swing set. He’d said he was at work and that he was too busy to come home. Mom didn’t have a car, so she washed my cut head with a warm washcloth and told me to sit still until my father finally got home.

The cut on my head turned out to be small. I hadn’t even had to get stitches, though my father often preferred to perform first aid himself rather than spend money on a doctor.

But now, I was bleeding from inside my body. My father was, again, at work. Would I bleed to death if he refused to come and take me to the hospital this time?

“Wait,” Mom said. “Did you say the blood is in your underpants?”

“Yes, and my stomach hurts, and—”

She waved a hand at me, cutting me off.

“It’s just your period,” she said.

“What is a ‘period’?”

No one had ever mentioned that I would get a “period” or even what one was.

“It means you’re a woman,” Mom said, sliding out of bed.

She led me to the bathroom and opened the small closet that stuck out of the wall on the far end of the tub. She took out a box with what looked like little white pillows in it and handed me one.

“Here,” she said.

“What do I do with this?”

She rolled her eyes at my ignorance.

“You use a safety pin on each end and pin it into your underpants. Take a shower first and clean yourself off. And be sure to soak your soiled underwear in cold water in the sink.”

I obeyed her even though the pains in my stomach made my knees wobble. Afterward, when I was brushing my hair in my room, she came up behind me.

“Sit down on the bed,” she said, her voice cold.

I sat, feeling dread creep over me. Her body language was stiff, as if I’d seen it moments before she started whipping me. Had I done something wrong? Was this “period” proof of my guilt?

“Women bleed every month,” she began. “It’s a curse that God put on them.”

“Why did God curse us?” I asked as my bone marrow began to produce fear to pump into my bloodstream instead of blood cells.

“Because of the Garden of Eden,” she said.

She pulled out a King James Version of the Bible and read Genesis three, where the serpent tricked Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. She read the part where God looked for Adam and Eve, and where they hid from him because they had eaten the forbidden fruit.

“Eve didn’t just sin herself,” Mom preached. “She caused her husband to sin. So God cursed her. See where it says ‘In sorrow you shall bear children?’ Well, your period is that sorrow. You’ll have it for the rest of your life, until you get too old to have children.”

It sounded to me as if being a woman was a curse. And while I was in my parents’ home, it certainly was.

But at least I knew I wasn’t going to die. There was no help for my cramps, as Mom called them, since the cult she and my father belonged to taught against using any kind of drug, even aspirin. Hot tea was allowed but for some reason that made the cramping worse.

So I spent the rest of my preteen and my teen years dreading the time of the month when crushing pains would announce the arrival of my period. I was sent to the nurse’s office numerous times. Often the nurse decided that I had a “bad attitude” and that if I really wanted to be in class that I could somehow stop the cramping.

Cramps were also no excuse for me to miss the mandatory cult services every Saturday or to cause my parents to miss out on the socializing at members’ homes afterward.

Once, on a beautiful sunny day, a church member stood over me as I writhed in agony on a couch, declaring that I was antisocial and that I had a bad attitude.

In so many ways, Mom’s words had been true for me. Having my period really was a curse.

The only way I found to lift the curse was to do the opposite of what they taught me. So after I left home for college, I put as much distance as I could between myself and them.

Though I was briefly forced to go back home when my mother chose to allow cancer to eat away her body, which is another story, I continued to set up boundaries that kept them far away.

I eventually discovered that chiropractic adjustments eased my cramps. And that what it feels like to be a woman isn’t all bad. In fact, being a woman could be fun in so many ways. Even though my childbearing years are now past and the memories of my period and the pain it caused are distant, I refuse to believe what my mother said.

I refuse to believe that being a woman is a curse. We can choose to see life’s challenges and cycles how we wish. I choose to see the pain of my menses as a blessing because it was one of the factors that eventually freed me from my parents’ tyranny.


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