by Karen Tinner
I wish that I could say my first blood was an encouraging departure from how menstruation is treated in Western cultures, but sadly, it wasn’t. Rather, it embodied every negative association. I had just turned 11 years old less than a week before, and had never been informed about menstruation. Although I was well-read for an adolescent, I was not yet interested in anything to do with maturation, reproduction or sexuality and no one, either at home or in school, had shared any information with me. Further, although I knew of one or two girls who had “gotten their period,” they were 2-3 years older than me. When I started bleeding, I remember running to my mother and telling her that something was terribly wrong, that I was afraid I was dying. She simply scoffed at me, took me to the bathroom and showed me the sanitary napkins. Still shaken, I remember telling her that I was “too young to go through this,” that I “wasn’t ready,” and that I was “afraid.” All of this fell on deaf ears. There was only the inference that menstruation was a dirty, distasteful fact of a woman’s life, an inconvenient reality to be endured as tidily as possible. The home I grew up in consisted of my mother (born in 1946) and her parents, and as an isolated only child, there were no other women in whom I could confide my feelings. This theme of isolation would be carried over into all of my journey to adult womanhood. Matters of romantic love and sexuality were never addressed, and my isolation was greatly compounded due to my mother and grandmother’s activities in the pseudo-Christian cult of Jehovah’s Witnesses. My grandfather was an emotionally cool, somewhat dictatorial man who demanded respect but never communicated with me with any degree of warmth or positivity. My mother and grandmother lived up to his expectation that women be uncomplaining and subservient. And my father was absent, divorced from my mother due to alcoholism when I was two years of age. Needless to say, I grew up feeling as if being female was an unfortunate accident. In the years since, I have been caregiver to all of my family of origin, saying goodbye to all of them within a five year span (my mother succumbed to terminal cancer in 1997, my grandfather to terminal cancer in 1998 and my grandmother to autoimmune disease in 2002); was married; birthed a son and a daughter; was widowed; remarried; birthed a second daughter; and have returned to school to complete my undergraduate education, switching from English (and Philosophy and Women’s Studies) to Psychology with an eye to obtaining a Master’s in Counseling. All of these experiences have helped me to replace the ambivalence, misogyny and emotional vacancies of my upbringing with healthy, positive and empowered images and narratives. My awareness of and appreciation for the unique emotional, intellectual and physical capacities of women grows with each day, and I am happy to say that I have embraced my good fortune to have been born female! My older daughter has just turned 7 and my younger daughter is 2 1/2. Even before I conceived my older daughter, I resolved to ensure any daughter I might birth would have a very different experience in growing into her womanhood. Both my daughers will be well-prepared to celebrate their first blood. Even now, they are aware that being female is a gift. Further, my son, who is 9, is being raised to appreciate the contributions of women, not least of which is the fact that all man- (and woman-) kind comes into this world by way of a woman’s love and physiology. In part through my children — and also through the career I am preparing for — I hope to make a meaningful contribution in effecting positive change in the way women experience their rites of passage, view themselves and their life experiences, and in the way women and men value one another.