Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access
March 2023 Issue [Readings]

First Time for Everything


From Our Red Book, a collection of essays and interviews about menstruation, edited by Rachel Kauder Nalebuff. The book was published in November by Simon & Schuster.

rachel kauder nalebuff: I asked everyone—artists, mentors, writers, friends: “Do you have a meaningful memory related to menstruation? It could be about a first period, it could be about missing a period, or learning about periods, or any moment that a period marked a transition in your life.” I also asked: “Is there someone else’s story about menstruation and growing up and growing older that you’d like to hear? Or wish you had heard?” In answer to this second question, many, many people said Judy Blume.

judy blume: In April, my bunkmate from summer camp, Stellie, invites me and another camp friend to spend the weekend at her family’s lake house. We meet in New York, where Stellie’s parents take us to dinner at a swanky restaurant, Danny’s Hide-A-Way. After dinner, Stellie’s father drives us to the house on the lake. It’s late by then, so we get ready for bed. When I pull down my underpants I see a sticky brownish stain. I have no idea what this could be. I’ve had discharges before but they’ve been white or yellowish. Nothing like this.

The following night, the sticky brown stain is back. Again, I ball up my underpants and hide them with the others. You’d think that a fourteen-year-old girl, desperate to get her period, would have a clue what this is. But I don’t. It doesn’t even cross my mind. Not until Sunday morning when I sit on the toilet, feel something ooze out of me, and look down into the bowl, do I understand. It’s unmistakable. It’s blood—it’s my period! I’m overjoyed. I’m ecstatic. I want to jump and shout and tell the whole world, I’ve got it! But I can’t. I can’t say anything, because then Stellie will know this is my first time and I’ve been lying since sixth grade, when I pretended I had it just like my other friends.

I nonchalantly ask Stellie for a pad. She doesn’t have one, but she asks her mother, who sweetly asks, “Is this your first time?”

“Oh no,” I tell her, “but I didn’t expect it because I’m irregular.” I know to say this because my mother is irregular, even after having two children, and though I don’t know it then, I will be irregular until I’m forty.

It’s not the first time I’ve worn sanitary pads. I’ve been trying them on in secret for two years. I even wore one to school, to prove to my friend, Rozzy, who didn’t believe me, that I had my period just like she did. I proved it by letting her feel the bulk of the pad through my clothes. That morning I’d pricked my finger and squeezed some blood onto the pad, in case I had to prove it for real.

When I get home from my weekend with Stellie, I tell my mother my news. I’m not sure she believes me. I think she knows I’ve been secretly practicing, though she’s never said anything. “I got it for real!” I say. (I honestly don’t remember my mother’s reaction. I like to think she gave me a hug, though she wasn’t a huggy mom.) I’m embarrassed about those messed-up underpants, but I throw them into the laundry basket anyway. I have all the equipment in my closet: the pink belt, the box of Modess (the same brand my mother uses).

My mother tells my father, who congratulates me. I feel like the luckiest girl alive. It’s not so much that I’m a woman, as that I’m normal. And maybe now I’ll finally grow breasts.

Years later, I’ll write a book about a girl who is as desperate for her period as I was for mine. And when my fourteen-year-old daughter gets her first period, we’ll celebrate big-time.

sarah rosen: I was not going to be caught off guard. I first read Judy Blume’s book Just as Long as We’re Together when I was eleven. In it, the main character gets her first period on her thirteenth birthday. From then on, I prepared to get my period when I least expected it.

By twelve and three months, I had survived many milestones without disaster striking. Then came the day of my bat mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony I’d spent years studying and preparing for. That morning I woke up at the crack of dawn from nerves. I sneaked downstairs and watched the Friends Thanksgiving episode with Brad Pitt on VHS to distract myself.

A few hours later, the ceremony went off without a hitch. I led the prayer service; chanted in Hebrew from the Torah; gave a speech about community and divinity; chanted the whole haftarah portion; and chanted sections from the Book of Ruth, singing Ruth’s famous lines to Naomi: “Wherever you go I will go . . . Your people will be my people and your God my God.” It was a lot. When the ceremony concluded, people cheered and threw Starbursts and mini Snickers exuberantly in my direction. I had become a woman.

Victorious and exhausted, I went home to take a nap and change before the party that evening. And that’s when I discovered that at some point between Brad Pitt and the Book of Ruth, I had become a woman all over my underwear. And man, was I caught off guard. What kind of sick joke was this? There’s a Yiddish saying: “Man plans; God laughs.” The Judy Blume version is: “Girl plans; God gives first period on bat mitzvah.”

I went into my mom’s room and, blessedly, I found her alone. “I think I just got my period,” I said glumly. She looked at me, dumbfounded, but recovered quickly. “Mazel tov!” she said, and handed me a pad.

When I came downstairs, I felt strange. Uncomfortable. Jet-lagged, like everything had changed but I was still stuck in the earlier time zone. The joyful transition into womanhood—the ceremony, the candy thrown at my head, the party with a DJ—had been amended by reality. Blood at inconvenient times. Uncomfortable conversations. Adulthood kind of seemed like a burden, but there was no going back. So like the Jewish women before me—from Ruth and Naomi to my mother and my friends—I prepared to bleed for the next forty years at inconvenient times. With this new weight upon my shoulders, I stuck the pad to my underwear and went to my bat mitzvah party, where I danced until ten to Christina Aguilera.

| View All Issues |

March 2023

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now