You will remember better than I do, God, whether the conversations or the book came first. At a distance of three decades, it’s no longer clear to me quite when I started to think about the holy trinity of faith, identity and periods in any detail, but I do remember that the last of them was for some years the most important thing in my life.
It was all such a big deal, though it seems hard to believe it now. As we all gradually absorbed the Facts of Life, in more or less detail, the outward signs of growing up became our main currency of social interaction. And periods were the first, and for a long time the biggest, denomination.
We knew who had “started”, because they were party to a mysterious monthly ritutal of “coming on”: hurriedly being excused from classrooms and suddenly becoming umbilically attached to their schoolbag. To those of us who hadn’t, It felt like a club to which only the elect were admitted (though the glamour wore off pretty damn quickly once we were members). We passed around a few, dog-eared, books, which felt like the only things ever written to capture this terrifying, perennial adventure we had all embarked on.
From the perspective of forty, it all seems achingly innocent, somehow. Growing up seems like no biggie. Every adult has done it, after all. I know the worries and the fears, in a theoretical kind of way, but I can’t feel them any more, knowing how most of them resolved themselves in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I can laugh, now, at those conversations so many years ago.
But, God, I have to do it all over again. I have to help my daughter grow up, and although I know that my mother and her mother before her back into the misty Irish bogs of our ancestry have all been doing it, I feel as lost as I did when I started doing it for myself.
I read, perhaps, too much about the helping-to-grow-up thing. Perhaps my foremothers had it easier, after all, when they had a hidden code of womanhood to pass on in a semi-shamedway. There were accepted standards of behaviour; unchangeable ways of Doing Things Right, that I can look at now with horror, but with a small degree of envy at the sheer certainty.
It isn’t that I don’t know what I want my daughter to learn, just that it seems, in many ways, an impossible task.
I want to teach her how her body works, while helping her learn not to feel limited by her biology.
I want to teach her to cope with the way her body changes, while making it clear to her that it is hers alone.
I want to find a way to convey to her that her body is for her to live in, not for others to enjoy.
It is my job, it seems, to show my daughter how to be ambitious and how to identify what she truly wants from life.
To enjoy food but not to be be governed by thinking about its effects.
To accept herself entirely as she is and to expect the same from those she chooses to surround her.
To say yes, and mean it, but to know when to say no, and to mean that too.
Don’t get me wrong, God. I think these are good things to aim for for my daughter. But they aren’t things I have managed to achieve yet for myself, and I am, if not over the hill, pretty much cresting the bump.
I have grown out of worrying about my own body, at least in terms of how it looks. I seem, thankfully, to be beyond the stage of delusion that I can mould it into something it was never going to be. I just wonder if, perhaps, that pressure has now transferred itself onto another target. I can love my daughter, and I can do my best to show her by example the things I want her to be, to have, to do. It isn’t in my gift, though, to ensure that all I wish for her comes to pass.
Perhaps there are too many successors to July Blume, all clamouring to tell me how to do this. They are helpful, to a point, in suggesting ambitions and techniques. In my grumpier moments, though, I wonder if they aren’t just new versions of the “drop a dress size” diets, the instant tips to success or love or a brighter complexion that I’ve been absorbing in magazines and adverts since about the same time I started reading about how to navigate leaving childhood behind.
I am not aware of anything similar, or at least not in anything like the same volume, aimed at men raising sons. It’s almost as if, after all, it’s another way for women to spend their lives feeling that they’re failing to achieve something they’re told they could manage if only they did it right. It’s almost as if we’re projects, rather than people. And maybe countering that is the hardest thing I need to teach.