As my mom recounted the day she got her period at her Catholic school, my eyes grew wide and my jaw sunk closer to the floor. I hung on every word as if it were the scariest campfire story I had ever heard. I was around 11 at the time, and absolutely terrified.
A lot of people are scared of clowns. For me, after that story, it was nuns.
She recalled being led down a dark hallway to a huge wooden cabinet secured with a heavy padlock. The nun had made sure that everyone knew where they were going as she was taken from class. Her head bowed down in shame, the nun rattled the old lock as she opened it with a scowl. I could be dramatizing here a bit, but, come on, I was 11.
The wretched old woman in the black robe removed a large plastic-wrapped package, handed it to my mom, and instructed her to go to the bathroom with it.
“They called it ‘Eve’s curse.’ What a load of horses**t,” my mother proclaimed as she saw the horrified look on my face.
Humiliated, her secret shame exposed, my mother took her seat back in her classroom and tried to ignore the side-eyed snickers of her classmates.
“It’s simply the lining of your uterus being shed when an egg hasn’t been fertilized. It is natural, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s beautiful,” my mom continued, emphatically as I remember.
I don’t know about beautiful, but I understood her point.
My mother’s entire education from kindergarten through college was completed in Catholic schools. My grandparents were good people, and devout Catholics. She went on to marry my father—also a Catholic—and have five kids before I was born nine years after my youngest brother.
My parents divorced shortly after I was born. And while my siblings had gone to church regularly and completed their confirmations, my indoctrination into my family’s faith ended with my baptism. I guess they figured that was enough to save me from hellfire. And if not, five out of six ain’t bad.
That became painfully obvious on the occasions I had to go to church and stay seated in the pew while everyone else stood in line for their blood and flesh. That bugged the crap out of me when I was a kid if only because I really wanted to know what they tasted like.
As a divorcee, albeit an unwilling one, my mom bounced around from church to church. She stubbornly refused to abandon her faith, despite being abandoned by the church herself.
After 18 years of marriage to my father, she got a job for the first time in her life, pursued her life-long love of music, and gasp….went out dancing with…gasp again, clutches pearls….men. That time of her life was filled with self-discovery, which included shedding the restrictions and harmful ideas of Catholicism.
So when it was time to prepare me for puberty, the nuns of her past were no longer scowling over her shoulder. The God she believed in had evolved from the brutal tyrant of the bible, to a kinder gentler “as long as you’re a good person, you’ll go to heaven” kind of God.
While she never completely lost her faith, she had freed herself from the most restrictive tenets of Catholicism.
When I was an adult, she explained to me how when she discovered that she enjoyed sex, she struggled with the guilt and shame that her religion had placed on it. And she told me that she didn’t want me to have to go through the same struggle.
She didn’t tell me how shameful my body would become, or how I was nothing but a dirty rotten sinner who must repent every time I had a dirty thought. She didn’t tell me about how painful menstrual cramps and childbirth were payback because Eve ruined everything for every human on earth as the scary clown-nuns told her.
Instead, she told me the human body was beautiful, if sometimes kind of funny looking. She thought penises were hilariously funny by the way, but that’s another story.
My mom taught me to respect my body and to demand that others, namely boys, respect it too. She taught me how it worked, the good, the bad, and the gross.
My mom told me that sex was to be enjoyed, hopefully with someone you love. And that it’s okay if it’s just for fun.
She taught me how to avoid getting STDS. She shared the joys of three kids in diapers at the same time. I was more than eager to take her advice, as neither of those sounded very appealing.
And…my Catholic mother told me masturbating was healthy.
Go ahead. Read that again. I’ll wait.
She didn’t pass down the guilt and shame of humanity as she had been taught.
My Catholic mom saved me from purity culture. And probably helped me to become a successful stripper.
When I write about stripping, one of the things I try to emphasize is the importance of being sober while dancing. That has a lot to do with the chemical abuse I witnessed from many of my colleagues. And although I can’t say how many of them developed addictions because they were ashamed of what they were doing, I do know that many grew up thinking that nudity was something to be ashamed of.
I had no guilt or shame regarding nudity or sexuality, and learned to create boundaries that kept me safe both physically and emotionally. I was, however, very worried that I didn’t know how to dance, but it was never about feeling it was wrong to be naked in front of other people. That was a fate even some nonreligious dancers couldn’t avoid.
My mother considered herself a Catholic until she passed in 2013. And as I began to write and become involved in the secular community, we had several conversations about religion. She said that she understood why I was no longer a believer, even going so far to acknowledge her own agnosticism, and that she found most of the bible ridiculous.
But Catholicism was just how she grew up. And in spite of that horrible story, she told me most of her experiences within the church were positive. She liked the people in her local congregation, and enjoyed the community it provided. She hoped that when it was her time to go, her parents would be there waiting for her.
And she was able to recognize that her religion had the capacity to cause harm when it came to almost all aspects of life.
While she wasn’t able to let it go completely, she was able to water it down enough to ensure that her own version wasn’t negatively impacting others.
When it was her time, I held hands with my siblings along with the priest as he read her the last rites. She was not conscious. But it is my hope that those words found her anyway. And that her last thought was that her parents were coming to bring her home.
She refused to let the religion she was raised with impact me in a negative way. And for that, I’m forever grateful.