Daughters' Day

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

One year ago, instead of Mothers' Day we had Daughters' Day at our house. My girls and I made finger sandwiches and a pot of Darjeeling, adding scones and assorted delights from the bakery, and we sat down to High Tea in the dining room. But the main event wasn't just about
having a "cuppa" together. My purpose was a long-overdue feminine ritual to celebrate my daughters' passage into womanhood--about ten years after the fact. We had a little ceremony in which I placed a delicate floral wreath in their hair. Then we put a Jane Austen movie in the VCR and refilled our teacups in the family room.

On that "red-letter day" back in their early teens when each of the girls came running, crying "Mom, I got my period!!!" and pleading for help, they got no tea or sympathy from me. The one person in their world who'd "been there" herself--of which they were living proof--wasn't
there for them then. My job, I thought, was to make a hasty trip to the pharmacy, hand over the supplies, and deliver an unsentimental "get used to it" speech. This has happened to every healthy female since Eve roamed the Garden of Eden, I said. If it gets too bad, take a Midol and
lie down with the heating pad, I said. Oh, and circle today's date on the calendar, hon.

That's what passes for a coming-of-age ritual for most American girls. The closest to a celebration of womanhood we get is (was?) the Sweet Sixteen party, but has anyone been invited to one lately? The timing of the Jewish bat mitzvah, at age thirteen, is right, although the purpose of the mitzvah, or the calling of a young man or woman to the Torah, is primarily religious. The Latin American custom of the quinceañera when a girl turns fifteen is, traditionally, mostly an announcement of her readiness for marriage, and the society debut of eighteen-year-old daughters of wealthy Americans originally had the same purpose. Both events mimic a wedding in scope--and in cost.

Afternoon tea at home and a garland of herbs or flowers comes to about $10--much less if you cut them from your own garden. Adding a little keepsake--a book of poetry, perhaps-- ups the total cost of the occasion by just a few dollars.

The whole point is this: menarche is a milestone in a girl's life, and should be marked by more than furtive whisperings and embarrassment. A boy's first shave gets more respect than a girl's first period. The negative images associated with female body functions convert far too easily into girls' and women's negative images of their body, leading to eating disorders and feelings of shame and inferiority.

To the Victorians, menstruation was a curse. To today's women, it's a joke, and PMS is an excuse for behaving badly. To many Americans, menstruation is still the ultimate taboo, rather than a life-giving force that helps keep the human race--and Mothers' Day--from extinction. A mother-daughter celebration of a girl's transition to womanhood is very much in order, today or any day, to raise not only our self-esteem but also our gender-esteem.