used to fantasize about holding a ritual for my daughters when they got their first periods. Out of my hazy knowledge of indigenous rites of passage, hushed rumors of mothers who blessed their girls with special scrapbooks/women’s circles, and the burning desire to redress the shame of my own sixth-grade menarche, I imagined a rural red tent soiree. We’d build a bonfire. The girls would swim across a pond to meet us. We’d share a feast of crimson-hued foods and joyfully sing and dance under the stars.
But it was not to be. By the time puberty loomed like a storm system, my kids were mortified by the thought of any public period celebration.
“You can’t make me do a weird ritual, Mom,” Carmen said. I didn’t press the point, assuming we’d figure it out later.
She got her period on the full moon on the spring equinox. I was at the dentist early that morning when I read the text:
Mom there was blood when I wiped where r u
Then — nothing. Confused, I tried to reach her, called the school, called her dad — it went straight to voicemail — but I finally got through to the office, where they summoned her out of class.
“Mom, I’m fine. Just chill.”
“But honey, did you get your period?”
“I don’t know. It’s fine. I have to go back to social studies.” Click.
I hemmed and hawed then decided to take action. I drove to her school with some period panties in a little bag and a fancy vanilla cupcake from the best bakery in town. The secretary called her to the office again and we walked outside together into the cold sunlight. She broke into a grin when she saw the lavish swirl of buttercream, then grudgingly accepted a hug.
“So do you think you got it?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she shrugged.
“Honey! I’m so proud of you!” I blinked back a few tears.
“Mom, stop it!” she hissed, looking around, afraid some middle schoolers might see us. But I could tell she was glad I was there.
That evening, her father was out sugaring in the backyard. Late March in Vermont still looked like midwinter, but the veins of spring were coursing, all the maple trees flooded with sap. Carmen and I walked together over the snowpack, dragging a sled and buckets down to the lower woodlot to collect sap. Warm pink light suffused the sky, a promise of the changing season. As we filled the buckets and dragged them sloshing back to the boil, the gold moon rose like a lucky coin. Rather than her usual moody aggression, she seemed content to be with us, at peace with herself.
“Look at that moon,” I said. “It’s an auspicious time to start bleeding. The moon influences the tides and our cycles too.”
She looked at me, intrigued, but didn’t ask questions. Though science is still unclear on the link between the lunar cycle and the menstrual cycle, I know the truth of my body — I had discovered it in my 20s when I lived in Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom, in a wood-fired cabin beside a frozen lake.
The moon affected my moods and my flow, if only I could slow down and attune to those rhythms. Back then I was reading Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom, faithfully tracking my cycle, noticing how my energy shifted with the lunar calendar:
“When women live together in natural settings,” wrote Dr. Christiane Northrup, “their ovulations tend to occur at the time of the full moon, with menses and self-reflection at the dark of the moon.”
This alignment had been true for me back then, though I’d gotten out of sync through years of pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, medication, the IUD, the Internet, the perpetual demands of mid-life motherhood.
Now, standing with my child beneath the full sap moon, I sensed some primal reconnection.
Clouds of sweet steam rose into the twilight. Remember this, I told myself. Remember. No matter what else you’ve gotten wrong, you got this day right.
In junior high we passed around a horror story. Back in the early 60s, someone’s mom had been joy-riding in a convertible with a crew of popular boys. She was sitting on the lap of the football captain when she got her period all over his white pants. At 13, we could imagine nothing more humiliating. Even walking naked through the school cafeteria would be better than publicly bleeding on your crush.
I’d grown up in a tradition of female shame. What I wanted was to reclaim menstruation for my daughters, frame it not as a curse or a bloody mess, but something natural as breathing, powerful as the seasons.
In lieu of a ritual, I took Carmen out to her favorite Chinese restaurant for a celebratory mother-daughter dinner. I got her a pack of cute period panties — a creative innovation to prevent leaking and worry — and filled the bathroom drawer with assorted pads and panti-liners.
A few moon-cycles after the first period, our family was sweltering in high midsummer. Carmen was heading off to camp the next day and wanted to go swimming in the river with a friend. But she was bleeding again, a heavy flow. I’d ordered some allegedly period-proof bikini bottoms, but she was skeptical.
“I want to use tampons,” she told me.
“Okay,” I said. “But maybe you should wait till you’re a little older? I don’t want you to have a bad experience.”
I think it was eighth grade when I tried in secrecy to insert my first tampon. I snagged a box from my mom’s closet, locked myself in the bathroom, and unfolded the directions with their microscopic print. A diagram showed a bewildering cross-section of the female reproductive tract — a bisected uterus, cervix, and vaginal canal, stoppered with a lozenge-shaped thing.
The image bore no relationship to my own body. Still I studied it as I put one foot up on the toilet: the recommended position from which to make an attempt. I peeled off the paper wrapping and removed the long white device with its cardboard applicator.
“Riding the cotton pony” was period slang I’d heard at school and always been disgusted by. Now here I was, preparing to mount up. I knew what kids said — that if you used tampons you were no longer a virgin. That girls who wore Super Plus were loose and slutty. But I hated the bulky maxi-pads that felt like wearing diapers. I ran track and played soccer, loved swimming and biking. I wanted to be free.
Where was my mother during this ordeal? Probably downstairs with my younger siblings, not standing nearby to offer guidance as I struggled to work the cotton nub inside me and depress the mysterious applicator. After 3 or 4 wasted tampons, I succeeded, and chucked the cardboard sleeve into the trash.
Within an hour, waves of crippling menstrual cramps sent me to bed. Worry set in. I’d never felt pain like this before — a repetitive gnawing in my gut. Something had to have triggered it — possibly the cotton pony — or worse, a mis-inserted piece of applicator, now lost somewhere in my interior. As the cramps intensified, so did my fear.
Eventually I confessed to my mother what I’d done. She took me seriously and brought me to her gynecologist that same day.
Dr. Yates was no-nonsense as she listened to my story. She did a thorough pelvic exam while I braced in the stirrups, mortified, squeezing my eyes shut. After I was dressed, she came back in and told me she hadn’t found anything at all. She informed me that there was, in fact, nowhere for missing cardboard to go inside a vagina. It simply couldn’t get through the cervix and enter the uterus, an anatomical fact I hadn’t understood until that moment.
Was it possible that I’d made a mistake? the doctor asked. Maybe the 2-piece applicator had collapsed into one after I’d removed it. She told me to check the bathroom trash when I got home. In the meantime, I could take 400 mg of ibuprofen for cramps.
As soon as she said it, I knew it was true. Shame flushed my skin like a fever. I’d wasted everyone’s time — my mother’s, the doctor’s. Their pitying smiles made everything worse.
July sun blazed over the hayfields as we packed for the river. Paddleboards, floaties, snacks, the dog. Carmen’s friend (a boy) was joining us. She wanted to swim unencumbered, refused to let her period define the day. So we headed up to my bathroom and I dug out a box of Tampax. Unfolded the instructions — all fine print, no diagrams. It was on me.
“I’ll show you how to do it, then I’ll wait outside if you have questions.”
She sighed, impatient but willing to tolerate my lesson.
I lay down on the floor in my sundress and undies, knees up, shunning that awkward toilet stance from eighth grade. Opened up the plastic wrapper and coated the tip of the tampon in coconut oil — a suggestion from a local midwife.
I showed her how to hold it in one hand — then mimed parting the labia with the other. Demo-ed how to depress the applicator and insert. Offered her a fresh tampon to try.
“Got it, Mom,” she said. “Now go away.”
I hovered outside the door, pacing a bit. No matter what, I wanted to be there. Wanted to provide all information, prevent humiliation and pain.
“Let me know if you have any questions,” I called cheerfully.
“Shut up, Mom,” she called back.
Eventually she opened the door, told me she’d pushed and pushed but the cotton part wouldn’t come out.
“Yeah, it’s tricky. You have to hold tight with two fingers and then press the bottom with another. You’ll know you’ve got it right when you can’t feel it in there.”
“Okay,” she nodded and lay back down. I stayed in the bathroom, just around the corner, present but allowing space. In a few seconds, she hopped up.
“Wow!” I said. “You’re awesome!” We high-fived.
“Told you I was a boss-ass bitch.” She pulled on her pink bikini and charged down the stairs.
At the river, my girl swam and played for hours. She dove underwater, held her breath, scrambled up the rocky bank and grabbed the highest rope swing. She launched herself off the cliff, her body arcing up in the blue before an infinitesimal pause at the zenith where she let go, twisted free of the rope, and plummeted straight down into the water, her body slicing like an arrow.
Was this what it felt like to be free of shame?
Watching her, I felt some generational cycle broken — my own body trauma released a little. Our biology would not limit us. We would make things better for the next generation.