When I was 12, I found my mother out. She’d lied to me.
No, it wasn’t about the brown stain on my pyjamas or the pain in my stomach. I knew very well that I had just ‘become a woman’. This was my period.
But I told her not to tell Dad. And what did she do? Go straight out into the kitchen and tell him. I heard her. He said nothing at all to me, but I knew he knew and I didn’t think periods were anything that men or boys should know about.
My period was evidence that I really was growing up. It was expected and natural and normal. But why just yet?
I didn’t go to school that day – I was still in primary school, but it was the end of the year and I’d finished my tests and would be going to high school next year.
My breasts were swelling and while I was not encouraged to show off, I thought they were quite nice – if only mum would let me have a bra. Joy Richards’ breasts jiggled when she ran and the boys laughed at her. I didn’t want to be laughed at.
Mum took me into the bathroom and showed me an unbelievable elastic contraption that you wore around your waist and under your pants. At the front and back were pieces of elastic material hanging down with safety pins at the ends.
Then she opened the cupboard and took out a huge nappy-like piece of material and began folding it into a long bandage shape with many layers of material making it thick and ‘absorbent’.
She attached one end to the back safety pin and showed me how to bring the nappy through my legs and attach the other end to the front safety pin.
It felt awful. It was hard not to walk bow-legged. What was this ridiculous nappy-like stuff I now had to carry between my legs?
‘How long will I have to do this?’ I asked.
‘For about a week,’ was the reply.
A week? I couldn’t go to school like this! I couldn’t go around walking like a tentative cowboy.
As the day dragged on I hated those nappies even more. I’d seen buckets of bloody rags soaking in the laundry, and had been disgusted. I wouldn’t be doing that, I thought. Now I was doing precisely that.
The period smelt funny and I would walk around sniffing the air, wondering if I gave off that strange, sweet-metallic smell. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t swim. Mum even said it was best not to wash my hair. This was horrible and nothing like all those books described.
Worst of all was the pain.
I spent two days doubled up in dad’s old football presentation chair in our playhouse. I told no-one. I hated other people to see me sick, but the pain was excruciating. I didn’t know what to do. Mum never seemed to suffer much pain, though she told me she got anaemic with blood loss when she was a teenager. Great! Just what I wanted to hear.
I grew to hate those nappies. I had to soak them in cold water at night, then mum made me wash them out by hand and hang them on the line – for dad to see – I blushed at the thought of it. What began as an adventure became a painful burden in so many ways.
Meg and Sue teased me about my big breasts. They teased me for the sprinkling of hairs under my arms. They teased me even more when a curly pubic hair escaped from my bathers. I hated my thin little hairless sisters.
The nappies had no ‘flow retardant’, so unless you changed them often, the blood would seep through the layers and onto my pants and in extreme cases, down my legs. I remember making desperate dashes to the toilet block as I felt a clot or a surge of blood escaping. Then I had to carry the wretched soiled nappies around with me and tuck them into my school bag, so I could take them home, wash them out and recycle them.
My friend Margaret had started her period months before. She used a bought pad called Kotex that didn’t leak like my awful nappies. I asked mum if I could have some Kotex. She said, ‘What for, dear? They’re very bulky and you have to throw them away once you’ve used them.’
The throw-away part was what appealed to me, but our family had to look after the pennies.
I became so desperate, that I would sneak money from mum’s purse, which she left inside the kitchen cupboard. When I got enough for a packet of Kotex, I would be faced with another crisis. How could I front up to the girls at the chemist – or worse still, Mr Utber himself, and ask for Kotex? How could I possibly walk home when my friends – or worse still, boys – might see the distinctive square parcel I was carrying?
Leaky nappies, blood and despair eventually drove me to whisper the word ‘Kotex’ and come away with my purchase.
To be honest, they weren’t much better. By the time I was 13 or 14, I was sick of my inner thighs being chafed by the edge of the Kotex pad made sharp with dried blood, scraping against me with every step I took. I thought if this is what the rest of my life will be like each month, I might as well not be here.
Then I read a Woman’s Day. There was a story about Audrey Hepburn, who was so beautiful. I liked her because I had heavy eyebrows too. On the opposite page was an advertisement for Meds. Internal protection. What on earth was that? You can run and jump and play and swim during your period, it said. Not likely, I thought. But I was curious. I wondered if these Meds would help my monthly crisis.
‘Mum, what are Meds?’
Mum was loading the washing machine.
‘You wear them up inside yourself,’ she replied. ‘I’ve never found them any good.’
Up inside yourself? I didn’t know what she meant. I wasn’t ignorant – I knew where babies came from, and even though she hadn’t explained specifically, I knew how the seed got inside to meet the egg, too. But how could you put one of those pads up inside yourself?
My next scavenge for money saw me whisper the Meds word to the chemist.
Tiny! They were far too tiny to cope with all my blood loss. I almost laughed. I thought I’d been tricked and I would have taken the packet back if I could have thought of some way to have my money returned without further humiliation from Mr Utber’s knowing eye.
So I tried. I put them underneath me and pushed. It hurt – really hurt. I used my finger and found a space where I thought they would probably go. I pushed it against that space and it hurt some more, a burning, tearing feeling. I thought if I wasn’t already bleeding, I would have made myself bleed by now.
But the little diagram in the box and the statement that wearing Meds made you feel as if you didn’t have a period, urged me on.
I left our outside toilet and went to the garden tap. If I wet it a bit, it might go in more smoothly. The Med just swelled up and opened like a flower to a huge handful of cottonwool. I couldn’t believe my eyes – it really was big enough!
I went back into the toilet, took out a new Med and with brute force, poked it in. I had to sit quietly for a while until the pain eased enough for me to hobble out of the toilet.
As the pain faded, I felt great. I could walk without being conscious of a surfboard between my legs. I could stand up without the feeling of my whole undercarriage leaking out.
Every two or three hours, I underwent the painful process of changing the tampon, leaving the toilet with tears in my eyes, but it was worth it. The sheer freedom and delight of no-one knowing. The way the tiny little packages could easily be concealed – and flushed away – was brilliant.
Mum still used her nappies, right though her whole menstruating life. She’d explained much to me, but was living in the 19th century as far as sanitary requirements were concerned. We agreed to differ on a number of points over the years, but that first, all-important step out on my own, to discover what was right for me, became my first real foray into womanhood.