There Are Things That Girls Need To Know That Their Mothers Cannot Teach Them
Her period arrived when she was 11. It felt rushed somehow, brown rusty stains arriving too soon like she willed it to appear before it was ready, like it had felt her over eagerness and anxiety to fit in with the other girls at school who complained about cramps and other important period matters. Ignorant that she was kissing goodbye to her last days of childish freedom, she ran gleefully to find her mom; surely this was when she was going to receive “the talk”.
Getting your period was the ‘proposal story’ of the time; where were you when it happened? How did it happen? What did your mom say? Whichever girl had been newly minted a woman at the time would divulge the information between blushes, in hushed tones. Sometimes those with big sisters would have more interesting details and tongue in cheek advice.
Her mother was where she could often be found and where the girl had learned early to run away from; in the kitchen stirring a pot of something. She whispered the news in her ear. Her mother looked impatient, like she couldn’t hear her and so she whispered again, louder “It’s HERE.” Comprehension dawned on her mother’s face, and in a very matter of fact tone, she said, “Get a packet of pads from the trunk in my room.”
That was it, no talk.
She was disappointed.
Yes, she knew (vaguely) about sex (until she was 10 she didn’t understand the exact mechanics of what went where, and was truly horrified when she was finally privy to the details by happening upon porn), but she wanted to hear about it from her. Sure, she came from a family of minimal expression, with an expectation that certain things were unsaid yet understood, and this time was no different (similarly, years later, when she was off to University, her father would pat her on the back and look away while saying “Don’t… do.. anything, okay?” — don’t do drugs, don’t get pregnant, For the love of God don’t flunk out of school).
And so she knew that there would be things she needed to know, that her mother would not teach her.
Aunty M taught her about badly behaved women. She was that one that was often whispered about in disapproving tones; You never quite knew what she did (at some point it seemed like she sold home baked goods), and naturally, she had a child with no husband or boyfriend in sight. When she was left to watch over the children, she would often take an evening stroll down to the neighborhood “joint” to throw back some beers with her local gang. And when she got older, she often finished a bottle of wine a day or she’d ask for a ‘night cap’ (a glass of straight Vodka with 2 ice cubes) because she needed something to help her sleep. Still, she was kind and she had a sort of pureness about her, a happiness that seemed sourced from within. Her lips and nails were always scarlet, and her hair was full and long. She was slim with shiny skin that women frequently searched for inside a bottle. The last time she came over, her hair was shorn short and colored green, still self expressing in a way that few African women knew how, still with the same lust for life that was enviable, still with that devil may care attitude that allowed her to coast through life as she always had. She eventually did marry — a short, disappointing affair that ended in abuse and escape. Even at a young age, the girl that she lacked that unlubricated stiffness that was evident in so many of the women around her. Even at a young age, she knew that there was something about women like this that she admired.
As a nosy child, one learned to shrink into the shadows; it was the only way you could be unnoticeable when the women gathered and their tongues loosened. That was how you knew who was owing who money, who had recently caught her husband in a lie, who was broke, who was fighting, and who was going to be the victim of their latest intervention (Aunty E wasn’t applying herself, and yes, her latest venture would be doomed to failure if she didn’t fix up, and Aunty O was absolutely incorrigible, and why won’t she just settle down?).
The night before Aunty B’s wedding, she didn’t look excited. She looked resigned. Everyone knew she was less than enthused to be married to her fiancée, but the aunties had ganged up on her and told her she was getting too old to be that picky, and there was nothing wrong with him (she was always very vocal about her lack of interest, but he was so eager to please even the young ones that they also thought she was being a tad unreasonable. The way they were told it, he was a man like every other man, and if you were lucky to be picked by a man, then you married him). A year later, when she moved back to her old apartment, the girl was wide-eyed as her aunt described her life with him in disgust. And so she learned that a thing cannot be forced, and when it is time to go, you picked up your things, and you left. And when Aunty B sold her things and started a new life in Canada, she learned that one didn’t have to be static, and there were women who didn’t have to stay resigned to their fate.
It’s not to say she didn’t learn things from her mother: how to carefully fill in her scanty brows that so closely resembled hers, how to apply the first coat of red lipstick, dab, and apply again so it lasted longer. She knew all the places her mother hid her gold and how she removed all her favorite pieces whenever her sisters were coming to visit. She learned how to appear to be a good host; take care of people with a smile and grumble behind their backs. Her mother taught her that women could do anything. The woman never stayed in one place for too long, she was always looking for the next business that was going to make her rich. On one day, she spilled the contents of her last shopping trip to Dubai from a black suitcase (light one made of cloth because of weight restrictions) on the floor; she always knew where to get the best and cheapest bargains. I’s mom had come to pick her up after a play date, and her mother had not passed up the opportunity to show her some new skirt suits she could purchase. I’s mom, also a shopping addict, didn’t hesitate to leave with a bag full of clothing, with a promise to send the payment at a later date. Her mother would speak for years about how she never got paid for those purchases; a recurrent theme in subsequent businesses. And so she learned that constantly moving did not mean you were getting anywhere.
And the day she found herself alone in her mothers room, playing with her silk scarves that were delicately arranged in the side of her wardrobe, trying on her church hats, and piling on her precious jewelry (she of course intended to put everything right back) and her mother walked in, took in all the mess, but instead of her usual yelling and sometimes, hitting, sat on the bed and began to cry, she learned that maybe her mother could not do everything, and that some women were so, so, tired.
She began to understand her tribe: the colorful women. The women who weren’t gentle strokes of a paint brush but a violent splatter on a canvas; the women who didn’t make her feel like a strange alien thing when she couldn’t relate to inherited expectations. She heard the whispers about K when she first moved into their neighborhood, how she was a by blow of her father who her step mother grudgingly cared for but didn’t quite care to keep an eye on. How she immediately took to the neighborhood boys and the innuendos about the boys at school. Of course, they quickly became best friends, and K was the reason she spent most of the summer wrapping her hair in a scarf; due to a failed dye experiment with peroxide and washing detergent. She tried to mimic K’s swagger, the air of confidence (as confident as a 14 year old could be) that rolled off her even when hurtful things were said about her. She never talked about her family life although sometimes she had fresh pink welts on her skin that matched a flushed pink to her eyes.
K taught her about flirting with boys, and was insanely tickled by the fact that she had never kissed one. It seemed like an odd pairing — she, still a naive girl who had the privilege of innocence that came with protection, and K, pretending to be tough as nails, determined to survive careless parents; but it worked. The girl gave up trying to be like K. She knew that even though K was a member of her tribe, she was not quite like her. Although she waited with bated breath for the next installment of K’s (sometimes, made up, she later suspected) stories, she could not muster up enough interest in boys to care about flirting with or kissing them.
She had her first orgasm quite by accident. She came even before her period did, at the age of 9. She had fallen asleep with her pillow squeezed tightly between her legs and slight twist of her body had awakened her in more ways than one. At a time when she did not quite understand the rudiments of sex or that this had anything to do with it, it was a jambalaya of sensation and discovery. Instinctively, she knew it was ‘wrong’ because most things that were enjoyable were, and it involved the body parts that were taboo to talk about, yet she masturbated in secret every opportunity she had. It would be another year before she figured out the technicalities of how sex worked, and another 9 before her first of many lackluster experiences that had her depending on for her fingers and smooth, sophisticated toys to recapture the feelings she discovered so many years ago.
C taught her the relationship between her clitoris and her fingers, and how to achieve much stronger orgasms. “Go on, try it,” she encouraged over the phone, “You have to be completely at ease with your body”. At 18, confident and completely comfortable with sex, C had no idea she, as a young African girl raised in a strongly religious home, was revolutionary. Before this, humping a pillow had been the order of the day. She was too embarrassed to admit that the intimacy she lacked with her family extended to herself, that she didn’t know how to see herself, much less touch herself so knowingly. It took a few tries before she figured it out; and each time, at the end, when she was flushed and gasping for air, she breathed out euphoria and inhaled guilt and shame until her lungs felt like heavy balloons anchoring her to her mattress.
She had only ever told K about her first real brush with sex, during those sleepovers when she and her best friend at the time would play the ‘humping’ game, young female innocent bodies glued to each other, led by instinct and curiosity, and of course, pleasure, something they still never talk about today. Her first encounter with a boy was clumsy, awkward and devoid of any pleasure. But he was sweet, and they were in love and so she pretended to like it. And for a time, pretense became the blueprint of her relationships; pretending to be lady-like, pretending to soften your voice, pretending not to be hungry, pretending to be like the girl the boys wanted, pretending not to be angry.
And when she met the boy at that party on that night, and he was charming and handsome, so they flirted until they ended up at a diner at 2am, and back at his hotel room at 3am for a drink because it was one of those magical nights that one wishes would never end, and he leaned over and kissed her, she thought, finally, she understood what the books were talking about. And when his hands began to roam a little too far, and the pleasure began to ebb in lieu of alarm bells, and she told him to stop, not too harshly of course, and he paused, but continued, and she insisted again that he stop, a bit more firmly, but not in any way that could make her come across as crazy or hysterical, and he played the pause and resume game, and laughed it away when she said it was too soon for sex, and again, carried on, and she no longer told him to stop, when it was as if she came out of her self and watched it all happen to another body and not hers, she knew instantly that a light had died inside of her that night, that she knew instantly that she would never be quite the same.
So when she gathered her things and entered a taxi, and her roommate grabbed her as soon as she walked in and wanted to know all about how her night went, she switched to survival mode and pretended that she had not lost a piece of herself, however little, that night.
And in the three years that passed until she let another boy touch her, until she had the courage to call the boy and place the burden he had given her firmly back in his hands, in those years that passed, she confirmed what she already knew: that performing womanhood held no rewards for its protagonists, and so, if nothing else, she thanked him for teaching her that lesson.
The girl gave herself permission to be angry; To be pissed off at a world that lied that there was anything simple about the feminine, about women, about womanhood when there was anything but. She thought of all the women she had encountered in life; the good, the twisted, the kind, the cruel, the repressed, the free, the expressive, the conservative, who were all a tangled web of complexities forced into cages so they could be easily defined and prettied up with a pink bow, and how it was killing all the women she knew and the ones she didn’t.
She was angry at all the things her mother didn’t teach her, because her mother, like many before her, had inherited the vow of silence, the stigma of shame, and although she knew it was unfair, but she hated her a little for never standing up for herself. And she worried about what would happen, to the girls coming after her, if someone wouldn’t teach them what their mothers could not, if women didn’t tear themselves open and pour their frustrations back to a world that would rather they ate it whole.
And she wondered if this was the way women would continue to learn; in whispers and passed down warnings, in deceit and oppression camouflaged as care, shrouded in fear, when you are pretending to cook by crushing leaves with your cousins outside and you hear the screams of a woman next door being beaten because the food was cold, when you are unnoticed in a corner and you overhear the older women talking and you realize that a lot of women hate the things they insist that they want, when you befriend the ‘bad girl’ who walks you through the rudiments of girls and boys and sex, when the girl in your class who thought she couldn’t get pregnant if she had sex on her period died because she drank a potion that was meant to abort the baby because she couldn’t talk to anybody, when you are taught to feel ashamed of your body and of sex once you hit puberty, when you learn to be violent to yourself and your body, when you are browbeaten by religion into hating yourself and punishing yourself for being a woman.
And when she found herself falling into small but similar traps that she swore never to succumb to, she learned that you didn’t only learn by hearing, or by talking, but by witnessing the lived experiences of the women around you. And she learned that no matter what you believe, what you grow up seeing can sneak into your psyche and show up when you least expect it, and convince you that it is a friend that deserves to sit at your table. And she learned that she would never set herself free, like the women before her, if she did not break the cycle. And she learned that there had to be a time you stopped trusting what you learned from others, and start trusting yourself.