By Amy Silverman
One morning not long ago, I found myself in the bathroom with my 10-year-old daughter, Sophie.
This is not an uncommon occurrence. We live in Tempe, Arizona, in an old house with screened porches and original hardwood floors, but only one bathroom you’d want to spend any amount of time in, and let’s just say its charm is limited. I’m pretty sure that if you tugged too hard on the soap dish in the bathtub, the entire house would come down.
But it’s all we’ve got, and my husband Ray affectionately refers to it as the “his and hers and hers and hers bathroom.”
As our daughters have gotten older, Ray’s bathroom time has shrunk considerably. Our little girls are growing up.
Well, one of them is. At nearly 13, Annabelle is a ballerina, petite and poised; she leaves behind a trail of hair nets, nail polish bottles and Instagram photos, and is appropriately modest about her changing body.
Sophie’s a little more complicated. She has Down syndrome, an extra 21st chromosome that affects every bit of her. From her straight hair to her oddly shaped toes, Sophie doesn’t look like the rest of us. I have heard that sometimes kids with Down syndrome go through puberty early. That is not the case, so far, with Sophie. She’ll soon be 11 and shows no physical signs of change.
She’s not very happy about that.
So there we were, Sophie and me, together in the bathroom one morning before school. We both needed showers, and she was up first. I turned on the water, then turned to Sophie. Much like getting Sophie to put on her shoes, or eat her dinner, or give me back the iPhone she’s snagged, this task – getting her into the shower – required a serious game plan.
I cajoled and bargained her out of her clothes, and was insisting that no, taking a shower did not deserve the reward of a shopping spree at Barnes and Noble, when Sophie stopped, grinned and held up one arm.
“I have armpit hair!” she insisted. “Feel it!”
“Oh, yeah, sure,” I said, running my fingers along her armpit, distracted by the clock and the day’s long “to do” list.
“Hey, Sophie, I’m sorry,” I said, pulling my hand back and tuning in to the conversation. “I don’t feel any armpit hair. You’ll get it, but you don’t have it yet.”
Her eyes welled with tears, her naked little chest started to heave.
Shit! I thought. At this rate, we’ll never get to school.
“I know!” I said. “Let’s check and see if you have any hair – you know where.”
“Okay!” she said, super excited.
I crouched down and squinted hard, standing up straight to report my findings. A white lie wouldn’t really hurt, right? We couldn’t afford another tardy at school.
“I see some!” I said.
You would have thought I’d told the kid we were going to live at Disneyland. She jumped up and down, squealing, her entire body shaking with the kind of pure joy most of us are lucky enough to experience once or twice in lifetime, and announced,
“IT’S MY LUCKY DAY!”
It was my lucky day the day Sophie was born, though I certainly didn’t know that then. Before Sophie, I’d never met another person with Down syndrome and had no idea what it meant, other than that this was going to seriously fuck things up. When Sophie was about two weeks old, I suddenly remembered something that made my stomach fall to my ankles: Pink Slip.
In the early 1990s, there was a VHS tape that made the rounds at certain parties in Phoenix. Ray and I had both seen it. Known as “Pink Slip,” it was an instructional video about menstruation from the 1960s or 70s, the kind the school nurse showed, but different because this one was geared toward a girl who was “slow.” That’s all I thought of her as – slow. It wasn’t until Sophie was an infant and I went back and watched the video on YouTube that I realized that, like Sophie, this girl had Down syndrome.
Since she was “slow,” it took a lot of extra explanation to teach this girl, Jill, about her period. In fact, in the video, the entire family gets in on the act. Mom and sister Susie show Jill a big calendar and explain (again and again – and again) that “every 28 days, blood will come out from an opening between your legs for three or four days.” We all thought it was hilarious. At least, I thought we all did. I know I did, a fact I owned unhappily the day I made the connection between Sophie and Pink Slip.
“I’m going to have to show that video to Sophie someday,” I thought, wincing.
Ten years later, I realized it was time to teach her about puberty. I didn’t know what I was going to do about it, but I did know one thing: No way was “Pink Slip” going to be the way Sophie learned about her period.
There had to be a better way, something less condescending. Something that hadn’t made the rounds at parties – and now on the Internet – as a big, fat joke. So when the local Down syndrome support group sent out an email advertising a puberty workshop, I signed us up.
The workshop, led by the foremost authority on Down syndrome and puberty, was split into two parts. The first day was for parents only, with a Power Point presentation and hand outs about how to teach a developmentally disabled young person about puberty. The plan was to come back the next day and separate into two groups, boys and girls, for The Talk.
“So tomorrow,” the speaker said as we were wrapping things up on the first day, “I will be showing a video about menstruation. It’s pretty out dated, I know you’ll all laugh at it, but it’s – “
I raised my hand.
“Yes?” she asked.
“Pink Slip,” was all I could get out. Ray was staring shut-the-fuck-up daggers at me.
“Oh no,” she said. “That’s not the name. I don’t recall it at the moment. You’ll love this one. It’s about two sisters -“
“Jill and Susie,” I said, my face hot.
“Well, yes,” the instructor said. “But it’s not called “Pink Slip.””
Oh God, I thought. It has a street name.
“Yes it is,” I said.
“How do you know about it?” she asked.
“Let’s talk after class,” I said.
“Okay, here’s the thing,” I told her after class. “I’m not proud of this, but we used to watch that video at parties and laugh.”
Ray chimed in: “I never thought it was funny.”
The next day, Sophie and I showed up for the girls-only meeting. We talked about safety and crushes and the girls went into the bathroom to try on pads. When the instructor drew a girl’s figure on the board and asked everyone to add a body part, Sophie added a bra.
When it came time for the video, the foremost authority on Down syndrome and puberty gave me a funny look then showed something else. Not “Pink Slip,” but instead an innocuous, modern, dumbed down explanation about getting your period.
Since the workshop, Sophie has been obsessed with puberty. And so in the morning, when she’s procrastinating, I find myself agreeing to let her wear deodorant – which she doesn’t need – if she brushes her hair first. Mascara if she takes her thyroid medicine. And always, a bra from her collection.
The other day, Sophie was about to get in the shower when she announced, “I got my period yesterday!”
“You got your what?!” I sputtered.
“My period!” she said.
“Well, okay,” I said. “Here’s the deal. If you really got your period, then there would be blood on your underwear.”
We both looked down at her crumpled Barbie panties on the floor and lunged for them at the same time. A spirited game of keep away ensued.
I held the stain-free panties aloft, victorious.
“I really did get it!” Sophie said.
“You didn’t get it yet, but you will – soon,” I said. “I promise. Now get in the shower.”
Sophie climbed carefully into the tub. I adjusted the temperature of the water, secured the shower curtain, made sure she could reach the No More Tears shampoo. As I walked down the hall to my bedroom, I could hear her singing her ABCs and was reminded that, despite the bra collection and the hair obsession, Sophie is still a very young girl. And on so many levels, despite what happens to her body, she is destined to stay that way.
Amy Silverman is managing editor of Phoenix New Times. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, on the radio show This American Life and on salon.com. She co-teaches the workshop Mothers Who Write and blogs at Girl in a Party Hat [www.girlinapartyhat.com]. Amy lives with her husband and children in Tempe, Arizona.