From Signorina to Mamma: GUSH, Menstruation, and Infertility Through the Lens of Culture by Lori Sebastianutti
The intricate biological system of menstruation is as complex as the cultures we are born into. I discovered this in my mid-thirties, during a simple lunchroom conversation. A colleague of mine was flabbergasted that her young student had come into school proudly displaying the gift her grandfather had bought her for getting her first period. This student, like myself, was Italian-Canadian and saw no shame in both announcing to her teacher that she had her first period and that her family was celebrating it.
"I couldn't believe it," my colleague said chuckling.
"I can," I replied. "My mother kissed me and congratulated me when I got mine."
She seemed to hold in even more laughter at my declaration, her lips pursed and her eyes wide in disbelief, but she offered no further commentary on the matter. The memory of this conversation resurfaced recently after reading the anthology GUSH: Menstrual Manifestos For Our Times, edited by Rosanna Deerchild, Ariel Gordon, and Tanis MacDonald.
A stunning book which features prose and poetry from over 100 women and nonbinary writers, GUSH showcases how a parasympathetic, biological system can affect every aspect of a menstruator's life. After spending an entire decade living by the ebb and flow of my own in my quest to become a mother, the anthology was an affirmation that this subject should be openly explored not whispered about in code, nor discussed in a strictly clinical sense by doctors who have never experienced it. The pieces that resonated with me the most, were the ones that highlighted cultural views on menstruation, and considered how these views stayed with the individuals beyond adolescence, into adulthood and even after menstruation had ceased. Stories of shame and silence, of hiding and humiliation, of curses and catastrophes. On the back cover alone author Jónína Kirton, writes "Fertile or not many of us bleed and not once was I told this was a good thing, no one said it was a gift or something special to cherish." These stories were as fascinating to me as they were foreign. I, on the other hand, had been told that my period was special, that shedding blood in this way was not bad but an incredible superpower. "A woman bleeds to give life," my mother once told me.
My shame would come much later, when month after month my period would arrive, punctual and punishing. This delicate network of checks and balances, hormones rising and falling, eggs bursting and linings ripening was failing to do the one thing that caused it to exist in the first place.
I would sit and stare, shoulders slumped, holding back tears at the few pink drops in my underwear that meant another cycle had not worked and feel such anger at her—this ally who was supposed to be working on my behalf. This partner, whose arrival had come with such celebration and fanfare, who was now deserting me when I was ready for her to work her magic.
It wasn't the immediate need for children that this grief and anger stemmed from. I had a devoted partner in my husband and a thriving teaching career. My life was full of kids between my students and my nieces and nephews. But I felt betrayed and robbed of the gift that had been promised to me decades earlier.
I got my first period two months after turning thirteen. It had been an agonizing wait. Unlike Jen Zoratti who describes reading Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and not identifying with Margaret’s yearning for her period in her essay "Say Anything" in GUSH I did. I read that book more times than I could count and stored it, like all my other personal belongings, under my twin bed in the room I shared with my older sister. Unlike Margaret, I didn't practice wearing a pad attached to a belt, but I did have an unopened box of maxi pads ready (also under my bed) just in case. I yearned for this rite of passage, this red badge of honour, and when it finally arrived, I felt that I had too.
Contrast this to Revati Upadhya's experience in "Red Alert" where she describes getting her first period, locked up in a bathroom stall in her school in Bangalore, India and feeling "inexplicable shame," while Jen Zoratti experiences "crushing disappointment" when "confronted by the tell-tale red stain" in the crotch of her white underwear. In Upadhya's case, this shame is an unfortunate byproduct of the cultural view in India that girls are considered impure, dirty or contaminated when they menstruate. For Zoratti, advertising and media, as well as sex-ed class, had led her to believe that menstruation made boys laugh, ruined lives and was something that no one ever addressed directly.
Growing up in the east end of Hamilton, Ontario in the eighties and early nineties the majority of my friends and peers were the children of immigrants from Italy, Croatia, and Portugal. We talked about our periods all the time—at recess, after school, or during the twenty-minute walk back from church to school after mass. Conversations ranged from the brands of pads we used, our zits and food cravings and whether or not our mothers would let us wear tampons. (The answer for a resounding majority of us was “No!” as tampons were "designed" for after we got married.) When I saw that first smear of copper in early March of 1988, I knew what it was but I called out to my older sister for confirmation.
"Yep, that's it," she said and went back into the family room to continue watching Much Music. When my mother got home from grocery shopping, I barely gave her the chance to put the bags down, showing her my since discarded, stained, underwear. She grasped my shoulders, kissed me on the forehead and said, "Congratulations. You're a woman now." Unlike Jackie Seidel who recalls being confronted by her mother for her deception and secrecy in her essay "some little period pieces: or, how my period, that I hid from my mother, goes missing,” mine was a joyful revelation.
I took phone calls from my mother's sisters for the rest of the week. I would twirl the long curly cord on my free hand and listen to them say auguri. I relished their best wishes and my newly-appointed title of Signorina and if I blushed it was certainly not out of shame. It was more likely out of pride.
There was no confusion about what came next. There weren't any moments akin to what the character in Meags Fitzgerald's comic "Excerpt from Long Red Hair" experienced, like when she, arms crossed and angry, chastises her mother for not telling her about periods.
Since I was a young child, my mother had told my sisters and me not to fear menstrual blood. "I'm not hurt or sick" she would inform us when we followed her into the bathroom as curious children. "A woman needs this blood to make a baby." That's all it took for me to be unafraid of what was to become of me and my body. My mother talked openly to us about pads and how often we would have to change them. She told us to always tell her if we stained our underwear as she would need to soak them in cold water right away and that even though it was uncomfortable to go swimming while on our periods, the water made the bleeding temporarily stop.
The years passed and menstruation became a natural part of my life. With five girls in the house, at least two of us would be menstruating at any given time. We talked about them freely, even in front of our father and younger brother. In high school, my friends and I would shamelessly complain about "being on the rag" while reapplying lip gloss at our lockers. Sometimes we would throw brightly-coloured maxi pads back and forth, not caring if there were boys in between us. We treated them as just another accessory to our femininity, like our hoop earrings, knee socks or Catholic schoolgirl kilts. We had no issues outing ourselves as “normally functioning females,” unlike the narrator in Carin Makuz's "How to Attend a Pool Party in the 1970's" who was "the kind of girl who doesn't say period." Menstruation did not serve as the butt of our jokes nor did we bully each other for reaching this inevitable milestone. I experienced nothing similar to Zoratti who describes being taunted and humiliated after a slumber party at her home, when a rumour was invented and circulated by her "friends" that a used pad had been found under her bed. Or Upadhya, who witnessed a group of fourteen-year old girls bully a classmate for being the first in their cohort to get her period.
Menstruation among us daughters of Southern European immigrants was not considered a source of incompetence or weakness but an honourable passage from girlhood to womanhood and a source of power. But if our power rested only in our ability to one day gestate offspring, then where did that leave someone who did not follow through with the big prize? At the age of 30, after I had been married for a year, I discovered what if felt like when menstruation didn't automatically equal fertility. With her arrival every 28 days, my period brought grief, isolation, and a fractured sense of womanhood.
No one in my family or culture made me feel bad for failing to get pregnant month after month. They were my biggest champions. "It will happen" my mother often told me. "I had six children and my mother had twelve, it will happen." Those same aunts who congratulated me twenty years earlier shared previously untold stories of their own difficulties conceiving or miscarriages. "In the Lord's time," they said.
But what if it didn't happen? Would my title of Signorina be revoked? What was it then that made you a woman, having a period or giving birth? I know that is neither of these. But the grief of that long, lonely decade haunted me, even after the arrival of my two children. When I was trying and failing to get pregnant in my thirties I saw how the signorina status progressed to mamma when my sisters and friends became pregnant and then had their first children. Congratulatory kisses were abundant, bellies were rubbed and favourite foods prepared. Events such as baptisms and first birthday parties, with grandparents grinning widely at the continuation of their legacy in a new country, seemed to celebrate not just the child but the newly minted mother as well.
La mamma è sempre la mamma. "A mother is always a mother." I heard this phrase throughout my childhood and adolescence, not just from my mother, but from many people in my family's immediate circle. Its interpretation is simple—a mother will always forgive and always be there. As long as your mother is alive, you are loved.
The role of the mother in the Italian culture is exalted. Its origin stems perhaps from the ultimate respect and reverence for the mother of Jesus, who is considered the most important of all mothers. Images of the Madonna and child were plastered throughout my home and the homes of many of my Italian-Canadian friends. Paintings depicting the young mother cradling her infant son or the grieving parent clinging to the dead Christ after he is taken down from the cross relayed to us both the inherent joy and suffering that comes with being a mother. I grew up with many Maria's in my classes in elementary and high school. She is the namesake of both my mother and mother-in-law. My mother often utters statements to the effect of "it's a shame parents don't name their daughters after the Blessed Mother anymore."
It seems then, the only mother that Italian children are taught to love as much as their own is the mother of Christ. They crown her in May wearing their white, frilly, First Communion dresses and lay lilies at the base of her statue during mass. At school, every October, they pray decades of the Hail Mary while seated at their desks, clutching rosaries gifted to the school from the local Catholic Women's League and celebrate many of her feasts: the Immaculate Conception, the Annunciation, and The Assumption into Heaven. So it came as no surprise and with no offence when a friend, a Baptist, once said to me "so what's with you Catholics and Mary?"
I never heard my mom say anything to the effect that being a mother is the most important thing a woman can do with her life. Both she and my father encouraged us to study; go to university and have careers—a dream that was just as vibrant for their five daughters as it was for their one son. What I saw was a mother who worked from home just as hard as any man who worked outside of it. I saw a life of back-breaking work and self-sacrifice, days filled with stomach flus, doctor's appointments, daily home-cooked meals, drop-offs and pick-ups, and piles and piles of laundry.
I certainly didn't aspire to this. My dreams were more of the updated, North American, equal division of labour kind. I wanted to establish my teaching career and then when my husband and I were ready, start a family. Yet month after month, year after year, when pregnancy was not happening, my grief not only persisted but ballooned into something that was at times debilitating. Why is my body failing me? became a constant internal refrain.
No one in my family discouraged us from pursuing Assisted Reproductive Technology or adoption to achieve our dreams of parenthood. They were very much in sync with society's overall stance on "doing whatever it takes" to achieve parenthood. After 50 years in Canada, they identify with the idea that all it takes is love and not biology to be a parent. Not so perhaps, in present-day Italy.
In the article, "I'm gay. And like most Italians, I oppose surrogacy," the author, Vincenzo states that he wasn't surprised that a recent survey launched to determine what Italians think about surrogacy, indicated that 48 percent of Italians oppose surrogacy in all cases. He points out that in Italy it is illegal to remove a puppy from its mother prior to its 60th day of life. So why then, he asks, does society allow surrogacy "which requires human babies to lose their mother on day one?" Vincenzo views surrogacy as a form of human trafficking and states that what sets Italy apart from other cultures is that Italians, consider the mother/child bond to be sacred. "The role of the mother is revered in almost a divine sense," he states. "We know that little babies want and need their mum in a way that they do not need their dad." It's not that he considers a father's role to be inferior but that the mother/child bond is "vital." He reiterates the famous phrase I heard growing up, La mamma è sempre la mamma, and affirms that even as a gay man, he would never have wanted to be raised by two men. (Them Before Us. Children's Needs Before Adults' Desires, 21 Dec. 2017, thembeforeus.com.)
Infertility narratives are lightly sprinkled in GUSH. Corinne L. Mason discusses the "million barriers to become pregnant" as well as a subsequent miscarriage that she faced as one half of a queer couple in "Down the Toilet." Pregnancy loss also appears in Kerry Gilbert's "Two Poems," Natalie Zina Walschots' "This Hourglass is Broken," and Paula Eisenstein's "Blood Iron Deficiency." Diseases of the reproductive organs such as endometriosis show up in Jackie Seidel's "some little period pieces: or, how my period, that I hid from my mother, goes missing" as well as Nikki Reimer's "Hysteria."
There were also some positive portrayals of menstruation in GUSH, similar to what I experienced. Despite a crippling depression, Monique Polak's mother congratulates her on the "wonderful news" of getting her period in the piece "Blood Ties" and in "Moon Teachings," Sadie-Phoenix Lavoie, like myself, is congratulated by their mom and aunties for "becoming a woman." They discuss how learning the traditional teachings of moon ceremonies made them feel like being on their moon time was something to be proud of. In Lorri Neilsen Glenn's "Ten Bloody Pieces of Advice" she points out that researcher Alma Gottlieb found, "young girls in some parts of Ghana, West Africa, are given gifts as they sit under ceremonial umbrellas" and that "she is celebrated like a queen." In co-editor Rosanna Deerchild's poem "moontime," she describes this sacred ceremony "when women came to rest" and "celebrate in fire light"; when "it was good" and how colonization and the arrival of "the Hudson Bay" changed everything. In "Life Givers," Roxanne Shuttleworth relates how after a young girl's first Fasting or Vision Quest, which takes place one year after getting her first period, she is "brought back and welcomed back into the family, into the community as a Woman. Her mother, grandmother, sister, aunties would have made her new clothing, new moccasins, new attire to represent her life as a woman, as a life giver."
I feel a compelling companion to the anthology could be a work that explores what happens when a biological system that is often stigmatized can't produce an outcome that is in turn glorified. An anthology that examines where science has taken us in its ability to manipulate this system and all the people within our society and culture who feel that they have a say. What happens on an emotional and psychological level when the reproductive system is flawed, and the human soul is left to deal with the scientific procedures trying to fill in the holes of Mother Nature's glitches?
Now in my mid-forties, my period is beginning to morph and change. She is still punctual, but the punishment she now unleashes is in what she gives—lethargy, anxiety, depression in the week leading up to her arrival—as opposed to what she doesn't.
I'd like to think that I still associate my period with power, but not solely in her power to make a life—instead, in the power of my ever-changing relationship with her. What I thought was going to be a given at age 13 was not. Instead, it was years of bantering, back and forth, compromise and concession. In a decade or so, she will leave me for good, but my power will remain for having endured our troubled relationship and for finally letting go of the once impenetrable hold that she had on my sense of womanhood. Thirty-one years after she first arrived in my life, I see our relationship more accurately reflected in the words of Africa Jackson in her exquisite poem "My Period Be Like.”
She is my ever-enduring revival, wrapping me like Chahta tapestry
My exploration of the universe is embedded in her mastery
Lori is a writer and teacher from Stoney Creek, Ontario. She is the managing editor of the Fertility Matters Canada blog. You can read more of her work at http://www.lorisebastianutti.com.
Deerchild, Rosanna, Gordon, Ariel, and MacDonald, Tanis. GUSH: Menstrual Manifestos For Our Times. 2018, Frontenac House, Calgary.