It was just another routine doctor's appointment, I told myself, just another of those check-ups a diligent mom with health insurance schedules regularly for her child. First come those precious, lovingly anticipated well-baby checks, then the should-we-or-shouldn't-we vaccination appointments, followed by school physicals, and year after year of sports and summer camp health checks. This was just another appointment. So why was this particular doctor visit so fraught with emotion for me? Why was I tight chested and weepy? Why did I need to have long latte-infused talks with my mother-of-teen-girl compatriots?
Here's why: My 17-year-old daughter and I were headed to her first appointment with a gynecologist.
This event—and, yes, I did think of it as an event—seemed so much more momentous to me than that hallowed, celebrated, today-you-are-a-woman brouhaha that accompanies a girl's first menstrual period. Maybe it's because girls are getting their periods so much earlier these days than in the past—9 or 10 is no longer uncommonly young—that this milestone no longer feels like the "Welcome to Womanhood" occasion it once was. When it happened in our household, earlier than I expected, it was noted with smiles and hugs. My daughter and I baked a cake. We shopped the feminine hygiene aisle. We moved on. Starting middle school loomed as a far more significant event (for both of us) than the onset of menstruation.
I had to wrap my brain around the notion of my daughter as a sexual being.
This first visit to the gynecologist, though, was another thing entirely. It felt big. Historic. Richly, densely, uncomfortably meaningful. Part of it was because this particular medical appointment was a formal, official recognition that my daughter could be so close to becoming sexually active that it would be a dereliction of my motherly duties not to get her protection. So I had to wrap my brain around the notion of my daughter as a sexual being. My sweet-cheeked, velvet-skinned little girl who (it seemed to me) was just yesterday playing with Polly Pockets and baking indigestible cookies in her EasyBake oven. Who (it seemed to me) was just knotting friendship bracelets and collecting Beanie Babies and giggling as I painted her toenails. That girl.
But my angst ran even deeper. I saw this appointment—with the hindsight of a woman who had now experienced decades of such appointments—as that first step toward the medicalization of female-ness. Now there would be annual exams and pap smears and results to wait for. And later there would be mammograms and ultrasounds. It was (I knew but she didn’t) the beginning of the end of that glorious, protected place of girlhood where you take your body for granted. And unlike the coming of her period—which we could celebrate and which was about life and fecundity and the promise of a yet-to-be-imagined future—this coming of age was something I had to keep to myself. This was an insight from which I wanted to protect her as long as I could, and let her dwell in that sheltered spot as long as she could. One day, maybe, she'd be taking her own daughter to her first appointment at the gynecologist, and she’d know what I was feeling now.