I grew up in a family that was very private when it came to our bodies. I don’t remember seeing my parents naked, or walking round the house in their underwear. I never heard them having sex. I was very private in the change rooms when going swimming. I can even remember being at the doctors when I was five, adamant I didn’t want to take my singlet off. This deep privacy was a subtext of my childhood, never spoken but strongly felt.
My mother was a nurse and midwife who worked with women and nakedness every day, yet it was difficult for her and I to talk about body issues. She tried to start a conversation once, walking home from the supermarket. I ran away from her, plastic shopping bags banging against my legs all the way home. She’d only gotten as far as mentioning this thing called a pituitary gland but I knew where she was heading. I’d sensed it before we even left home.
I got my period when I was thirteen and three quarters, towards the end of Year 8. I don’t remember the physicality of the experience – nothing at all about how it felt in my body. I feel sad that this special event ended up so hidden, even from myself. It is buried within me, like treasure.
What I do remember is feeling anxious beforehand, about what it would be like to bleed, and how I’d manage it – such a great Unknown. And in light of this, I have a distinct memory, walking home from school, of finally knowing what menstruation felt like. It was clear to me that it was not something to be worried about – it was definitely manageable – but I could see the experience each month stretching out over years and years, and had a sense of how this great Unknown might even feel like a hassle sometimes. I felt older, in that moment.
I never told my Mum that I’d gotten my period. I don’t know what I did to deal with my blood. Mum found out inadvertently, by seeing a pad or tampon in my room. But we never, ever talked about it.
And the silence stretched further – I didn’t talk about it with my best friend, even though she must obviously have been going through the same thing. I undertook a school assignment on pregnancy and childbirth – the best I’d ever done – in secrecy at home. Even when I was older, at a different school, I rarely talked about it. And I had no sisters to ask. I found the answers I needed in my own way and in my own time. I accepted that my body and its mysteries were easier to navigate alone.
Years later, having coffee with my mother and grandmother, I found out that Mum didn’t tell her mother when she got her period, and my grandmother didn’t tell her mother either! In that blessed moment of story-telling, I felt a great relief, understanding that this weighty body-shame, or at least the weighty silence around anything to do with the body, was not just my own.
Over the years, my period was straight-forward, occasionally painful, but this eased over time. I rarely took pain relief. I never went on the Pill.
It really wasn’t until becoming pregnant with my first child at 23 that I had to face this strong body-need for privacy and safety. Much of my anxiety about pregnancy and childbirth centred around how likely it was that my body and privacy would be invaded as part of the routine institutional processes leading up to, and including, the birth. And my usual pattern of navigating this body-mystery alone wasn’t an option, although I delayed going to the hospital until I was seventeen weeks or so!
Being pregnant was way too big for me to hold by myself, and I was pushed to seek new possibilities. At twenty weeks, I went to hear Rhea Dempsey speak on pain in labour, which seemed to me the heart of the matter. That was a transformative evening, and from then on, I was on the path of homebirth, with much more autonomy around who touched me and how, and all interactions occurring in the context of respectful, ongoing relationship, empowering me to make my own choices.
One of my midwives was present at the births of all three of my children, a rare and beautiful example of deep continuity of care. My births were a healing of the pattern: these great Unknowns don’t have to be faced alone, or in silence. My body creates, births, weeps, laughs, flows, groans, trusts, nourishes – it is a good body, beautifully functional and its mysteries don’t feel so heavy anymore.
And, I honour the threads of generational silence and shame I am holding in this lifetime, the power of weaving them together in new ways. It’s no coincidence that some of my most joyful undertakings involve creating safe, loving spaces in which we as women can talk about our lived bodily experiences, healing our wounds and rediscovering our wholeness. I know this as sacred and transformative work.
I am very conscious of my eleven-year-old daughter, growing up so fast! I am delighted whenever she comments in passing on her body changing, or sex, or any of the numerous themes I found so unwieldy. I do my best to keep the conversations open, while acknowledging that sometimes I feel awkward or like I’m operating in the dark. I feel like breaking the pattern of silence is one of the most important things we are doing together.
I trust in the power of an open dialogue and a joyful celebration of our bodies. In my family, we are quietly dispelling the cellular shame and silence woven into our bodies, for all our relations.