The older man stood idly beside our table while his wife fumbled for keys in her oversize purse. He was in his late 60s and seemed thoroughly amused by a table full of women.
“What’s the occasion?” he said.
We looked up from our coffees and iced lattes. Then everyone looked at me (I’d called this little gathering, after all).
“Menstruation. We’re celebrating menstruation.”
It’s what I could have said. What I seriously considered saying. Because buried not so deep inside of me is a sociologist who loves to surprise strangers.
But it also happened to be the truth. We were in midstream (pun intended) of a full-blown period party. Seated around the corner table of a small restaurant was a group of women and young ladies who had gathered to celebrate my daughter’s entrance into womanhood.
“Womanhood,” I said after a significant delay. “We’re celebrating womanhood.” The younger girls deflated with relief as the man shuffled off, stumped for a reply and mumbling under his breath. His wife offered us a smile before she followed him out, keys dangling from her index finger.
When I was 14 years old, I was the only dried-up girl child in the entire junior high (so it seemed to me). I’d spent three years listening to my female cousins discuss the burdens of being a proper woman while checking the toilet paper with great anticipation at every bathroom break. Most of my cousins were a year or two ahead of me, but they were kind enough to share their wisdom. From under the cover of my Strawberry Shortcake sleeping bag, I received all the gritty details directly from the front lines. I faked disinterest while taking rigorous mental notes.
I assumed my daughter would follow in my late-blooming footsteps, so when she ran into my bedroom just a few weeks after her 11th birthday (now the national norm, says Google) I wasn’t ready. Despite my hoping, and in direct contradiction to the little girl softness that still hung around her cheekbones, my daughter had officially entered adolescence.
In such cases as these, a mother can use the support of a village (something, on more than one occasion, I’ve mourned the modern-day loss of). Even at middle age, I find myself frequently looking over one shoulder for someone more experienced. Someone who will tell me what to do.
Clair Huxtable served that purpose for my mother. And so, just as Clair had done with Rudy, my mother took me on a Women’s Day: A trip to the local grocery store where we purchased maxi pads, nail polish and a shiny Vogue magazine (no more Teen Bops for me, thank you very much).
Twenty-five years later, when faced with the same conundrum, I also looked around for someone more experienced. Someone to help me not screw it up or, at the very least, another person to help shoulder the blame in case I did.
So I asked my modern-day village to meet me at the local Panera Bread — mothers and grandmothers, recent college graduates and a collection of my daughter’s closest friends — and I asked each woman to bring a letter. In it, they addressed two things: something positive they saw in my daughter, and a piece of advice they wish they had received when they were her age.
I listened as people read their letters aloud. Each one contained some truth that deeply resonated, a thread that, when pulled just the smallest fraction, drew us closer together as women. We nodded and laughed, remembering what it was like to be young and unsure, sharing all the ways we’d done it wrong when we were young, hoping desperately to ease the way for another. And as they spoke, I watched my daughter’s face change. By the end, she was her own sun, run through with confidence.
I read my letter last. It’s impossible to cover everything, of course. To encapsulate it — the entirety of what it means to be a woman, all the inconsistencies. Perhaps it’s best to start, as the mothers before us did, with some of the rules, and all their exceptions. The laundry list of incongruities that have been passed down for centuries:
Be strong, but also afraid
Be open, not guarded
Seek justice, but don’t be a bully
Trust your instincts, unless they’re wrong
Instincts are so very often wrong
Remember you’re as valuable as a man,
But do everything you can to please him
Give of yourself freely, but not too freely.
Hold your center.
But other bits are harder to pin down. Because being a woman is more than having ovaries or a pink hat. More than our stories of victimization and pain, which are valid and important (and I hope someday obsolete). Womanhood is also survival and triumph. A communal experience and a singular one. For too long, being a woman has meant some form of isolation. It’s time to take back our community.
One way to participate in this community is to support the young women of our village, to celebrate them, encourage them. To build their confidence. It’s true, there’s not always much to celebrate, particularly when faced with such widespread disparity. Though I have great hope.
But maybe for that reason alone, it might be good for us to take something traditionally seen as a burden, something to merely be endured, and reclaim it. We’re celebrating menstruation, by god, because what else is there to celebrate?
So, I offered my daughter what advice I could, told her I was proud of her, delighted with her. Said that I see both her strength and her vulnerability. That both of these things are necessary. And then, because I remember too well the days when my mother transformed from friend to enemy, I asked my daughter to look around the table.
“These are your people,” I said. “They will be here for you, when you need them, whenever you have a question. And so will I. You will never, ever have to feel like you’re alone.”
Maybe I’m just a celebration junkie. It’s true, I celebrate all the holidays, even the little ones. I like the fanfare, the decorating, the movement of one season to the next.
But it seems there’s something significant about marking the transition from girlhood into womanhood. Something more than nail polish and hair supplies. It’s an opportunity for us, the women who have gone before, to peel back the curtain and say, welcome.
Here you will find women who will walk beside you as you attempt to make impossible choices. As you face obstacles and inequalities. As you choose between kindness and justice, between being pleasing and being honest. Here is a group of women who have gone before you, who have made some good decisions and many, many bad ones. And we vow to walk beside you as you make yours.
Kelly Fig Smith is a freelance writer and award-winning essayist living in Gambier, Ohio. She is working on her first book, “Whale Lines: A Memoir in Essays.” Find her on Twitter @whaleletters.