According to my mother, I transitioned from child to woman when I turned 12, the day I started my period.
"You're a woman now," she said, explaining that my ability to conceive conferred this new designation on me. With this induction into womanhood, she told me that I now had the potential to create another human being inside myself, to this day the most mind-boggling mystery I know. And yet everyone I knew referred to the monthly inconvenience that went along with being a woman as "the curse." That hardly made me feel like a woman. But I don't recall an "aha" moment either when I realized I'd actually become one.
When my own daughters reached puberty I didn't think about all this in the same way my mother had. We had the sex talk, of course. Thankfully, by then there were feminine products that made the monthly event feel like less of a curse, although I never referred to it like that in front of my daughters. At that age, in my mind my girls were also definitely still kids.
To my complete surprise, years later I had an actual "aha" moment with my youngest. It had nothing to do with her having reached a physical milestone. But at the moment it occurred I suddenly felt certain that I'd just witnessed her crossing over into womanhood.
She'd called from college last winter to tell me that she'd been chosen for the lead in the spring drama. To say that we were both blown away by her good news would be putting it mildly. I'd seen her tackle meaty roles in high school. But her portrayal of Martha in Lillian Hellman's play The Children's Hour would be her most challenging yet. And she was following in the steps of her older sister who coincidentally had been cast in the same role in high school!
The story is one of two young women who run a girls' boarding school which is closed down after one of their charges starts a rumor the two are lesbian lovers. The gossip isn't true, but the lies nonetheless destroy lives and careers. The play opened on Broadway in 1934, and was subsequently banned in several major cities. In 2011, it had a revival in London's West End starring Keira Knightley.
Excited to see my daughter on stage again, I bought a plane ticket and booked a hotel room.
A few days before leaving, I found an article online about the run. In the accompanying photo, my daughter appeared full-figured in a below-the-knee matronly dress, her usually long flowing hair swept off her face in a tidy demure updo. The physical transformation was so startling that one of my friends didn't recognize her. I like to think I'd have known my daughter anywhere, but even I can't be sure if I hadn't known it was her when I'd first glanced. The female in print bore scant resemblance to the one who'd slept amid a pile of clothes for a dozen or more hours at a stretch over winter break.
But nothing prepared me for my encounter with "Martha" in the flesh.
After my plane landed, I checked into my B&B, grabbed a quick bite, and headed to the theater. I took a seat several rows back in order to avoid catching my daughter's eye. My heart skipped when she made her entrance. She was poised and polished, as always, and in command. Some people find the play dated, but to me it was riveting to the end, the themes still fresh -- the betrayals and heartaches, the struggle of building a dream only to watch it fall apart, the shock of forbidden love to every character in the cast.
The play crescendos when Martha finally confesses her romantic feelings for her best friend, feelings Martha only begins to identify after the lies have been unleashed. I watched the fright and overpowering nature of this realization start to dawn in Martha's consciousness, spreading over my daughter's face and body as they stirred in her soul. And as her tears began to gently flow on stage, so did mine.
By now you're probably wondering whether this was the moment my daughter realized she was lesbian. But no, that's not it. I already knew she wasn't but, under the circumstances, of course I felt compelled to ask again. "No, Mom," she said, as we shared a moment about our preference for the male species.
"You can tell me anything but lies," I had assured her many times during high school, and again when she went to college. Indeed, my daughter had witnessed the crippling power of betrayal in my own life when I discovered my ex-husband's affair. I only wanted honesty between us no matter what the subject. And indeed, after giving her the go-ahead, my daughter has told me things I wasn't always happy to hear. But the unloading was usually a relief and undoubtedly brought us closer.
As I sat in the theater a few months ago, viewing my daughter through the lens of the imaginary character she was portraying, I no longer saw the child she'd once been. Instead, I saw and heard the woman my daughter had become, a person of empathy who so understood the power of truth deep within her own soul that she could convey the real life beating of the heart of another, even an imaginary character, as only a woman who possessed compassion could so convincingly do. And that was the moment it struck me that my daughter had gone from childhood to womanhood. That I had been there to witness it, in all its splendor and glory. And could be proud of the woman my daughter had become.
"The Day My Daughter Became A Woman," first appeared in Brain, Child, The Magazine for Thinking Mothers.