By Kasiemobi Udo-okoye
One morning when I was 11, I woke up, switched on PBS Kids, and sleepily walked to the bathroom to brush my teeth. As usual, I was home alone, my mom on a shift at the local hospital. My eyes were barely open as I wondered whether I’d eat toaster waffles or Cornflakes for breakfast.
I shifted my legs, feeling a little cold, and that’s when I looked down to find the bottom half of my cat-printed nightgown covered in blood. It was almost impressively gnarly, like something out of a ‘70s horror movie. A scream rang through the apartment, and it took a moment to realize that it was me, yelling my head off.
Clearly I was dying. I’d never even heard of a period before. I lived with my single, immigrant mom in our tiny apartment in Oklahoma, and she had just… never brought it up.
Periods don’t just fall out of the sky and smack you in the head. But mine did.
After making my peace with death (I could be pretty stoic for a preteen), I called my mother to let her know that I was bleeding out.
“Ohhhh, well does it hurt?”
I sniffed and paused. I assumed she was asking whether it hurt the way a large cut would hurt. “No....” Why didn’t it hurt?
Given the fact that she was about to lose a daughter, her reaction felt insultingly calm.
“Okay, baby doll, just change and put some toilet paper there and I’ll bring you some stuff when I get back.” By the time she had come home, I was moaning with the pain of cramps, although I didn’t know that’s what those were either.
“I asked you if it was hurting!” Mom said. I squinted at her. What does a stomachache have to do with bleeding between my legs?
Needless to say, I eventually figured it out.
It’s wild, in retrospect, that a person can go so long without knowing such a basic biological process will happen to them. I can’t entirely fault my mother, looking back with the sympathetic eye of an adult. She was a widowed Nigerian immigrant, who came to the United States in her early twenties. She was in the process of figuring her shit out. I don’t know if and how she ever got the Period Talk™, but I imagine she just wasn’t prepared to be giving said talk to anybody.
We’ve briefly talked about it in the years since, and in a way typical of shared memories between parents and their kids: What I remember as traumatic, she remembers as funny. She had assumed I would just… figure it out. After all, I’d occasionally seen her change her pads, right?
I had seen her use pads when she took them off in the bathroom, but I never really understood what they were. She never brought it up, and I didn’t think to ask. They were quickly pulled off and stashed out of sight. I didn’t know that brownish substance on those white cotton things was dried blood that had come out of her body, and I definitely didn’t understand that it was going to happen to ME.
Why would I? All the commercials for pads and tampons were filled with cutesy euphemisms and shots of blue Kool-Aid being poured everywhere by manicured Caucasian hands. I had no idea what those commercials were even for. NASA sponges for white people? I just knew that they sometimes interrupted my Looney Tunes reruns. There was no kind of health or puberty education in my evangelical Christian school. The word “period” in those halls only ever referred to punctuation.
I slowly educated myself more about how to handle my period, but it definitely took longer than I would have liked to get the hang of it. I was never good at preventing leaks, not unless I wore two huge pads that basically made me feel like I was wearing a diaper. It wasn’t until I started using a Diva Cup in college that I didn’t get the shudders every time I thought about navigating my period.
Conversations about things like this have certainly brought my mom and I closer, and now I can laugh about it with her: My cluelessness, and her newness as a parent from a conservative culture. But it makes me wonder.
Ideally, widespread information on the Internet makes this situation a lot less likely to happen to your average girl today, but it would be interesting to imagine a world where basic biological education didn’t depend on an adult “getting around to it.” Especially if there’s a risk of ruining your favorite pajamas.
Got a crazy or cringeworthy first period story of your own? I wanna hear it! Share in the comments below.
Kasiemobi Udo-okoye is a Nigerian-American writer, video producer, and card-carrying hot mess based in Los Angeles. When she’s not telling stories, she enjoys eating froyo, avoiding beaches, and reading about Genghis Khan. To see more of her work, visit her website or follow her on Instagram.