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The day I got my first period happened weeks before I started college

I got my period when I was sixteen and a half years old.

Why that matters to most people, I can’t tell you. But it mattered the world to me, for years.

I was seven and a half years old when I first noticed that my Mama sometimes didn’t pray with the rest of us. She was – and is – a blunt, powerful woman, unafraid of putting out her opinion or life if she felt that you needed to hear about it. Sometimes it was an opinion you didn’t want to hear, but she said it anyway. She didn’t mesh well with the other Mamas at the mosque, many of whom were taken aback at how blunt she was, and how vehemently opposed to frivolous banter she seemed.

My Mama grew up in a country where she made her way back and forth to her school on her own from six years old. She didn’t believe children had limitations, in the truest sense of the word – if you showed up and asked a question, you wanted the real answer.

So, I asked, not expecting what I would hear, but knowing that I would get the truth from her. She didn’t mince words. I found myself handed an introduction to a world, exclusive only to those who got a period.

“I got mine when I was thirteen,” Mama confided in me, “I was wearing the nicest pants when it happened.” Somehow, the reality of the experience became something I craved, the invitation to being a woman something I longed for.

Getting your period was the ultimate sign of becoming an adult for thirteen-year-old me.

You got to join a secret society, one replete with winks and the quick palming of a brightly colored pad. As a woman, you were allowed to take time off from fasting in the midst of the month, a period of time replete with sighs about how you weren’t able to fast, but a secret joy that you were a part of that club. I learned that having your period meant you could demand a little more heat for your sore joints, chocolate for those mysterious cravings, and a little more empathy from the people around you.

It was everything I wanted, and everything I didn’t have.

I was eight years old when I thought I got my period. But it was a false alarm, complete with my mother running to the bathroom and shaking her head at my enthusiasm.

“That’s not your period,” she said ruefully, “and you’re way too young for it to happen.”

I was preoccupied with the future. I would keep a diary, and each entry ended with a countdown for the number of days left until my next birthday. I don’t know when I started keeping track of my goal ages, but soon, the birthday entries were accompanied by excitement for my next goal age: 10 years old, then 13 years old.

Thirteen years old came and went without the arrival of my adulthood. I wondered if I was doing something wrong.

Every night, I would squeeze my hands side by side, whispering fervently under my breath to God to bring my period to me.

I just wanted to join the club. Soon, I was 14. My new goal was 15 years old. I waited day after day for the ticket to the club.

When I was 15, my mother took me to the doctor and asked whether everything was okay. The doctor was bemused by my mother’s concern, and peered over at me, swinging my legs sullenly back and forth on the examining table.

“It’s normal for girls to get their periods around this time,” she said, looking down at my charts. “And you’re perfectly normal for your age. Give it some time.”

My Mama tried to explain that in her family, this was late, but the doctor wouldn’t hear any of it. “Give it some time,” she repeated.

One evening later that year, I was leaving the kitchen, my Mama and aunt joking around about what it was to be a woman.

“Honey,” my Mama said in between laughs, “this is what your period will be like. It’s the way it is with all of our women.” She turned on both faucets, the water rushing out en-mass.

My aunt laughed, and I fled, my cheeks burning in mortification. As I swung around the banister to head up the stairs, I looked back. They were both laughing, the water still flowing.

I had given up on being a woman when I turned 16. I thought something was deeply wrong with me. I resolved to make my way forward, even if it felt like something was missing.

So the change surprised me when I was almost 17. I had given up.

It came all of a sudden, all in a rush, and in an instant, where I had been was no longer where I was. It was in the middle of a faith conference that everything happened. The cramps overwhelmed me, as though 17 years of pain were suddenly unfolding all at once. I didn’t know how to explain what it was that I was going through.

All I knew was that I had crossed over – and as terrifying as that was, I couldn’t wait to tell my little sisters what awaited them.

I had finally grown up. I was just like my mother. I had joined the club.