The occasion of a girl's first period always brings with it a bittersweet moment in her mother's life. It is a harbinger of something she may have dreaded since her baby was born: the separation, the pulling away, the disappearance of the chatterbox little helper and the arrival of the moody, private young woman. It's the beginning of what I call Girl Land: the attenuated leave-taking each girl must undertake in adolescence, putting away the person she was as a child and coming to terms with the new identity she will assume as a woman. The mother isn't just melancholy about the loss of the antic, besotted companion, however. She may also be ambivalent--at best--about her daughter's having to confront the big, complicated reality that is female sexuality.
A little girl's life is drenched in romance. Even the most stalwartly progressive of mothers will throw up her hands at a toddler daughter's sudden and impassioned embrace of princess dolls and stories, her fascination with brides and the search for Prince Charming. All of these fantasies, of course, depend--in one way or another--on sex, but sex is the furthest thing from the mind of a little girl. She's just playing at something that enchants her, something that is in fact the soul of innocence. The grotesque way our culture continues to sexualize little girls--marketing thong underwear for school-age children and padded bikini tops for 7-year-olds--may be hideous, but it's not depraved. The reason is that little girls don't interpret these things the way adults do. They are presexual beings, and while deeply attracted to the exciting world of teenagers--one they imagine to be composed entirely of dating and fashion and telephone calls with handsome boys--they envision it as being as chaste as the Disney movies they loved when they were really small. When a little girl calls an outfit "sexy," she means that it's cute, that it's something the big girls she idolizes might wear.
This begins to change, dramatically, with the arrival of the first period. Even those girls who are thrilled to have joined the club discover something sobering: that a period has nothing to do with teen culture or fashion and everything to do with the preparation of their bodies for the rude fact of human reproduction, in all its bloody profundity. The first period is not a gentle next step into the world of teenage excitement; it's the undeniable fact that a relatively young girl is now capable of reproduction. For centuries, a mother's sadness over a daughter's period was caused by the knowledge that the closer a girl got to giving life, the closer she was to potentially losing her own. In the first world, we no longer have to contend with this reality because blessedly few women die in childbirth nowadays. But some of these dark sentiments linger on, and for all these reasons, a girl and her mother greet this marker of change with a complicated set of responses.