friendship

The bitter-sweet feelings of a mum as her daughter hits puberty.

My first memory of grappling with puberty is when mum was patting me down one evening after a bath.

I was 10, maybe younger, and beginning to sprout between my legs. I pointed to those hesitant yet conspicuous hairs and mum said something like, “well, it’s a waste because you don’t need them yet.”  She meant that in unleashing puberty on a little girl Mother Nature was inefficiently allocating resources. Hard to argue with the economic logic, but what stayed with me was the concern and fleeting sadness in her voice.

To be fair: mum bequeathed to me a healthy joy in sexuality. Yet this bathroom conversation sullied early relations between me the child and this body bent on adulthood. For the next few years, I regarded the latter with uncomfortable suspicion.

"Hair had begun to sprout between my legs."

These days I hear echoes of my mum's anxiety and regret in conversations with other parents about daughters hitting puberty early. (Male puberty barely registers in the collective consciousness.) And there’s more of those girls around - a US study two years ago found the average age of the onset of puberty in girls fell from 12.5 in 1980 to 10.5 in 2010. (In 1860, when conditions were tougher and nutrition poorer, the average was nearly 17.)

At school, I belonged to a small, self-conscious club of early developers. But scan the bodies of today’s 8 to 10 year olds at school pick-up and it’s immediately apparent the ranks of the pubescent have swelled. When my daughter was in Grade 5 the developed girls were the norm rather than the exception. She was the exception - and the fact this gives me sweet relief, indicates a wider problem.

“You see my daughter - she’s developing already,” one mother of an eight -year-old girl confided in the school yard, “and she told me, ‘It’s carbs, mum'.”

Well carbs or - more accurately - childhood obesity, is but one of a grab-bag of theories about the triggers for early puberty, each rich with possibilities for parental self-flagellation: more households with stepfathers, girls’ exposure to sexualised images, industrial hormones in chickens.

Another mother in the schoolyard told me about a discussion she’d had recently with her husband about their womanly nine year old. “We were saying, ‘What’s happened to childhood?’ Why does she get no time to be a kid?’’’

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Implicit in such remarks is the idea that puberty signals an end of childhood, a loss, the crossing of a threshold into more complicated, even dangerous, territory. And these girls do seem so tender and vulnerable, with their loom bands and bras. The experts are only starting to collect the long-term data about the impact of early puberty on mental health. There’s so much we don’t know.

Iconic coming-of-age movie, Now and Then. (L-R) Christina Ricci as Roberta, Gaby Hoffman as Samantha, Ashleigh Aston Moore as Chrissy and Thora Birch as Teeny.

But if early puberty is the new normal then we parents better get our heads around it. We should be talking about our fears and regret and how we risk passing these to our daughters, almost by osmosis. How can we expect them to feel confident and in control if we’re unwittingly passing on a message that their body is an interloper, a thief of childhood, a “waste”?

Recently my still flat-chested 11 year old started sex education at school. She brought home a list of questions to discuss with me. When and how did puberty start for me? What age did I get my first period?

I told her about the day it arrived. We were on holiday at the family beach house, and the only pad mum could find was an antiquated thick kind held in place with a plastic belt. That same day some friends of mum and dad’s visited. These friends had three teenage boys - three athletic, sun-kissed boys who I’d never met before. So there I was at the beach in my bathers, cramps in the stomach, praying the boys wouldn’t notice the surfboard between my legs.

We chuckled. “What’s one negative thing in your experience of puberty?” my daughter asked, continuing with the questionnaire.

“Sometimes you feel embarrassed or weird about your body,” I said. Flashback to mum and that evening after the bath.

“And what’s one positive thing?” One positive thing. I thought - what a confronting question. What an important question. My mind raced. It returned to that morning in the beach house; my stomach cramp, so unlike any pain I’d had before - an almost sweet sensation. I remembered the three boys playing frisbee on the beach, the seawater dropping down their backs.

“Well, you start to feel like a woman,” I said to her. “And that’s a nice feeling.”

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