Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

Menarche Part 2
by Beth Strout

I just did the math today and realized that I have either been pregnant or breastfeeding for the last four years. In fact I am still breastfeeding my youngest, now eighteen-months-old. And, until this week, I have been enjoying not having a period -- besides the cute kids, one of my favorite side effects of all this pregnancy and lactation. At the age of 37, I guess I was hoping to graduate straight into menopause. In fact, I had been thinking about how nice that would be for so long now that I pretty much had myself convinced that it was a sure thing. I was wrong. It came back.

I woke up Tuesday morning to a vivid stain on my white sheets. My attentive three- year-old daughter Annika noticed it immediately and, like any big sister worth her salt, blamed it on her little brother: 

"Mommy, Sammy has pooped on the bed!" 

"No, honey, that's not poop," I croaked.

I'm not at my smartest for the first few hours of the day, and trying to work out the logistics for getting the sheets off the bed and to the stain-stick were seriously taxing my faculties.

"What is it, then?" She frowned suspiciously at Sam, who had decided to join in the fun and was poking the stain with his index finger and cheerfully chirping "poop." It's one of his best words.

And, so, I was forced to attempt a rudimentary lecture on human sexuality on the fly. I rubbed my forehead. I had anticipated having just such a conversation with my children. I just hadn't anticipated having to have when they were both toddlers. And, unfortunately, pre-caffeine mental fog, sheet stripping, and the limited vocabulary choices necessitated by the age of my audience all undermined the quality of my presentation. I fumbled with an introductory comment that went something like "Well, Tweetie Bird, remember we talked about how you were in Mommy's tummy before you were born? Well, see, the place in Mommy's tummy where the baby grows is called a uterus..."  I staggered and stumbled and bored us all so badly that Annika asked if Clifford The Big Red Dog was on television yet.

One of my many I'm-going-to-do-it-better-than-my-parents-did-it resolutions was to be open with my children about the human body, especially sexuality. I planned to be casual and matter-of-fact and thereby spare them the subtext of shame and disgust that had come with my early information on the subject. My own mother really dropped the groceries on this score. Young woman of the sixties though she was, the decade's famous sexual openness failed to penetrate her fifties mentality. Her dominant memory of what most people of her age recall as a turbulent and exciting time is that "hippies were dirty." During the summer of love, she was teaching my little sister and I to refer to any body part encased in our white cotton spanky pants as our "hineys." When I started my period she handed me an ancient book and a box of monstrous sanitary pads and left me alone and confused in the bathroom, sure that I had somehow brought this damnation upon myself. It was one of those childhood disasters that was so bad that I spent a couple of decades contemplating how to avoid repeating it if I ever had a daughter of my own.

And I did have a daughter, and then a son. And they both have the most amazing, perfect little bodies.

I've done lots of reading about developing a positive body image that I thought I could implement as a parent. But learning these things from books is like learning a foreign language from books. It's all fine at the abstract, theoretical level, but you are bound to make some pronunciation errors once you try to put it into practice. And I think in my Free to be you and me fantasy of how this conversation would happen, I had envisioned a little more lead time -- time for planning. But, as you'd think I'd have learned by now about parenting, the whole concept of a "plan" is pretty flimsy. Planning is something that modern, organized, and mainly childless adults do with calendars and palm pilots. Planning in the life of the mommy, on the other hand, is more about fate and improvisation. I didn't even have any tampons in the house.

Our trip to the drugstore to load up on some feminine hygiene products provided one of many opportunities to revisit the subject. "And since Mommy doesn't have a baby in her tummy, all that stuff comes out. Yes, it is blood, but it isn't like bleeding when you get a boo-boo. It doesn't hurt. Well, no, I mean, yes, it does kind of hurt, but not like a... Hey, who wants to hear the School House Rock tape?" I don't know that the repetition improved matters.

When we got to the drug store I had to do some explaining about what exactly I was planning to do with whatever it was that came from those cheerful, festive boxes that sure did look like birthday presents. Annika wanted to know why she couldn't open them and just see if they had toys in them. She was deeply disappointed when I selected the OB brand tampons. They were not only the smallest package, but the dullest-plain white, no flowers. She had to settle for holding the bright blue plastic bag that held the panty liners. I promised her that we could check it for toys as soon as we got home.

I've always been a fan of OB brand tampons because they come with the least amount of packaging and I need that little bit of environmental absolution when I am using something once, utterly befouling it, and then sending it off to the overstuffed landfills. It's the sort of thing that I feel guilty about, but not quite enough to use those organic cotton sanitary napkins that you are supposed to launder and reuse. I know that some women are squeamish about OBs because they don't have an applicator and it seems weird or unhygienic to poke a tampon in with one's finger. However, the instructional insert in the box explains a technique for avoiding messiness, and since I used to be a tech writer, I am probably one of about ten people in the known universe who has actually read the package insert. 

You take the string that hangs out of the bottom of the tampon and yank it from side to side until the scalloped bottom edge fans out into a sort of trumpet shape leaving a space hollowed out in the interior. You stick your index finger into the indention and voila, insertion with almost no contact with the messy stuff.

So, here I am sitting on the toilet monkeying with my tampon and, as usual, two sweet-faced toddlers are watching with rapt attention about two inches from my knees. 

"Can I hold that?" Annika asks solemnly, pointing toward the tampon.

It seems a little weird but harmless. I hand her the tampon and she cradles the molded cotton in the palms of her hands like a baby bird.

"What is it for, Mommy?"

"Well," I start yet again, "when the blood and gunk comes out of Mommy's body, this thing keeps it from making a mess on Mommy's undies and clothes."

"Are you going to put it on your bottom?" she asks very seriously.

"Um, sort of. I am actually going to put it inside my vagina because that is where all that stuff comes out." Good Lord I am botching this. I know that this should be my shining Mommy moment. I should be imparting wisdom. I am absolutely stymied. I cannot preach sitting on the toilet. Would this be an appropriate time for a repeat performance of the popular "don't put anything into your ears, nose, or vagina because remember that time you put peas up your nose" monologue I wonder. Annika and Sam both study the tampon intently and Annika says in a reverent near-whisper:

"Oh, Mommy, it is so beautiful."

"Boodle," Sam echoes.

This is an unexpected twist. I lean forward on the toilet to take a look and I'll be darned if it isn't kind of pretty in its own way. With the bottom edge splayed out it looks sort of like some kind of flower. The bright white cotton is silky smooth on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside. How appropriate for a doohickey intimately associated with the vagina, a cross between a flower and a soft furry animal. It occurs to me for the first time that someone somewhere deliberately chose that sedate turquoise to be the color of the string. It was probably some bitter person thinking that choosing tampon-string colors was not at all how she had imagined her career turning out back when she was in art school, but at the moment, here in my teeny bathroom, it seems utterly inspired.

Of course, this serene moment of aesthetic appreciation had to be broken so that I could send the lovely item to its less than glamorous end. The kids maintained their attitude of scientific reverence and sobriety while watching me do so. It wasn't the beautiful soliloquy of my fantasies, but sometimes you just have to shut up and take beauty where you find it.
Beth Strout is just getting back into the writing game after more than four years of nearly continuous pregnancy and the subsequent care of two fairly demanding customers. Read her essay "From Here to Eternity: Or, Why I Spend All Day Thinking about Poo-Poo" in the Winter 2003 issue of Brain,Child magazine.