Dawn Corrigan has published poems and prose in a number of journals and anthologies, and her debut novel, an environmental mystery, was published in 2014. "Vanity Card" is a loose companion piece to her essay The Mystery of Titian Hair, which appeared at The Good Men Project in August. She works in the affordable housing industry and lives in Myrtle Grove, Florida.
In fourth grade, I went from being a shy but essentially cheerful girl to a moody and unpredictable one, practically overnight. My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Safer, was alarmed enough by this sudden change in disposition to phone my mother at home.
Mom, though, was taking the situation in stride. She knew what was up.
“She’s pre-menstrual,” Mom calmly informed the teacher.
It was 1976. “I haven’t seen it in them this young,” Mrs. Safer protested.
“Well, you’re seeing it now,” Mom said. Get used to it, she might have added.
Mrs. Safer was a sweet and conscientious woman. Once she’d digested my mother’s words, she decided to do something about them. She ordered a movie about the menstrual cycle and scheduled an after-school viewing. Permission slips were sent home with all the girls in class. But my friend Pam and I, our mothers in tow, were the only students who attended.
My powers of attention were not what they might have been just then, and I didn’t absorb much about the movie. Plus, I refused to wear my glasses, so it was all a sort of muddled blur anyway.
Nor did I have any idea the movie was being screened primarily for my benefit, information Mom didn’t share until much later.
At the time, all I knew was I felt grumpy. And watching the movie just made me grumpier.
Afterward, Mom tried to engage me in conversation about it. “What did you think?” she asked.
“I thought the script was weak and the performances overacted,” I answered.
No, not really. I probably said, “I thought it was sort of dumb.” But I meant the other thing.
Mom had been hoping to use the movie as a way of starting a dialogue. Thwarted by my sulkiness, she decided to turn to a book. This should have been a good move, since there was nothing I loved more than reading. The book she selected was one of the Peter Mayle titles, I think either Where Did I Come From? or What’s Happening to Me?
Mom worked as a secretary in a school district a few towns over, so on most weekdays I got home before she did. One afternoon when I arrived home there was a paper bag resting on the kitchen table.
I could tell at once there was a book inside the bag. I was an omnivorous reader, and no book had ever been denied to me. I unwrapped it and read it cover to cover.
A fast reader, I finished quickly. It was all right, but Nancy Drew was better. I got an apple and settled on the couch with The Spider Sapphire Mystery.
When my mother got home and saw the book out of the bag, she became flustered. She’d been working herself up for a big conversation, and I’d messed with the script.
“Um, you read that book?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, not looking up from my mystery.
“What did you think?”
“It was okay.”
“Do you have any questions?”
But when, right on schedule with Mom’s prediction, I got my first period a few months later, I was somewhat taken aback. I hadn’t really put together any of the things I’d seen in the movie, or read in the book, with my own body. In fact, it would be years before I was able to do so.
At the time, I mostly tried to pretend I didn’t have a body. Therefore I made as little fuss about my first period as possible, not discussing it with Pam or my other friends. I just pretended it didn’t happen.
My body, however, had other ideas. By the time I reached 13, it was clanging like a bell. Although I still spent most of my time up in my head, my body began to demand that I pay it the occasional visit—always after securing the attentions of a boy.
Fortunately, my mother was just as equanimous about my burgeoning sexuality as she’d been about my incipient adolescence. As long as I kept my grades up, and appeared to stay focused on the long game—which, we silently agreed, would involve me delaying or even skipping marriage and child-rearing, leaving South Jersey, and doing something interesting with my life—she wasn’t fussed about me running around with boys, and didn’t allow our small town’s Puritanical judgments to penetrate my psyche.
The closest description I’ve ever found to this parenting model came from, of all people, Chuck Lorre. On a vanity card for the series Dharma & Greg, he wrote that he and Dottie Dartland Zicklin conceived of the character Dharma Montgomery as “a woman whose personality is not a neurotic product of societal and parental conditioning, but of her own free-flowing, compassionate mind.”
I’m not sure Mom would have phrased it that way, but I think it’s in the ballpark of what she was after for me.
My compassion, however, has its limits. Particularly when confronted with women who hit puberty at 15 or 16, became sexually active a few years later, and then are judgy about girls who menstruate at 10 or 11 and also become sexually active a few years later. It reeks of Puritanism, even when expressed from supposedly progressive quarters.
Rather than protesting the sexualization of children, I prefer to protest their commodification, which is truly detestable. But their bodies and libidos will develop, at different rates and in different ways for different individuals, no matter how much their parents object. If we could provide a protected space for that to occur—free from predation, pressure, and judgment—wouldn’t that be something to put on our vanity card?