There is a great poem by Rudyard Kipling, “If”, it’s about the qualities of a man, a checklist of the things a man should be. I have never come across anything similar for women, and it has always made wonder, what are the qualities or experiences that mark the journey from girl to woman? There are a few generally recognized milestones but I have never felt that any of these were significant in my development towards womanhood.
When I first started to grow boobs, they came out in hard little lumps that frightened me and prompted me to ask my mother a few carefully worded and inconspicuous questions about whether people of any age could get breast cancer. Once I’d stewed over the lump situation for several weeks, and on more than one occasion imagined my own horrific struggle with breast cancer and eventual death, I realized that I had to raise the concern with my mother openly. She too was shocked and worried about the unusual growths on my chest, which led to my father and our family doctor being brought into the horror. After a medical examination and what felt like a million awkward moments and conversations it was concluded that this was really just my entry into puberty.
When I first got my period, it shocked me to the core, and I waited almost an entire day before hurriedly spurting the news out to mom in a panic. I was the first of my friends to experience this and so felt quite alone, irritated and generally unimpressed with the whole saga.
Through all of high school and the first few years of university I was grateful that I did not have to endure any more of these monumental milestones that everyone told me were the stepping-stones to womanhood, but which for me were nothing more than horrific and awkward inconveniences in my otherwise confident and happy life. Then I met him, the guy who for the first time, I wanted to have sex with. I trusted him implicitly and we were in love – what better combination for my first sexual experience? However being the belt and braces girl who I always have been, I knew I had to go on the pill and this prompted yet another horribly awkward conversation (thankfully over the phone this time) with my mom; a trip to the local Grahamstown doctor and a visit to the san to collect my prescription. The first time sex itself was good, not the perfect experience that Hollywood movies always depict though. I learnt that sex can be awkward too and requires a significant amount of communication and practice. He was sensitive and caring though and always more concerned with my satisfaction than his own. But still, I did not feel any more of woman than I had the day before.
All these milestones that I had heard people discuss and seen depicted in movies had for me ranged from slightly to heart-wrenchingly awkward and I did not feel anymore womanly than that lumpy-chested 11-year-old girl imagining her own imminent death through cancer.
Today I pay my own rent, I have a job and pay taxes, I was asked to contribute to a first time writing project for WOMEN, but most of the time I don’t feel like a woman at all. It really hit me though when the editor and originator of this writing group sent out the story suggestions she had received from the contributors: “the first time I lost a child”, “the first time I realized that I was going to be a single mother”, “the first time I gave birth”. These women that I have never met have experienced so much that I have not yet even begun to touch on in my short life, and I realized how much I still don’t know. Can I claim to be part of the same group as these fiercely brave individuals who know things and have done things that I cannot yet begin to grasp?
Things still shock me, people still shock me, all the time. I am not yet the woman I want to be, and sometimes I’m not even sure that I know who that woman is. This story will have to be a “to be continued” as being a woman is so much more than having boobs or having sex. It’s more than being grown up and paying bills. It comes from experience and confidence that can only be achieved through living life and coping through all the shit and heartache that life throws at you.