Friday, July 21, 2017

A Ritual Response to the Shame of Menopause

...I looked down at my underpants and I couldn’t believe it.  There was blood on them.  Not a lot -  but enough.  I really hollered, “Mom-  hey Mom – come quick!” 
When my mother got to the bathroom she said, “What is it? What’s the matter?”
“I got it,” I told her.
“Got what?”
I started to laugh and cry at the same time.  “My period.  I’ve got my period!” My nose started running and I reached for a tissue.
“Are you sure, Margaret?” my mother asked.
“Look-  look at this,” I said, showing her my underpants.
“My God! You’ve really got it.  My little girl!” Then her eyes filled up and she started sniffling too…
“Are you still there God? It’s me, Margaret.  I know you’re there God. I know you wouldn’t have missed this for anything!  Thank you God. Thanks an awful lot…”[1]

Written in 1970, Judy Blume’s novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret has offered countless readers insights into what it is like to be a girl transitioning from childhood to adolescence. Along with the books and pamphlets they received from parents, teachers and the school nurse, girls learned from Blume that a lot of their joys and concerns related to menarche were “normal.” Even so, starting one’s period can still be a source of embarrassment.  As a twelve-year-old girl, I was at school when my period started for the second time.  I wasn’t prepared and I was frightened that I might have an accident. (There is a ridiculous amount of shame that girls feel when their menstrual fluid leaks or when someone sees them carrying a tampon to the bathroom. It is unnecessary but it is real.)
After a whispered conversation with my teacher I was given a pass to go the Office to see the school nurse.  More whispering followed, as I did not want Mr. Donato, the principal to hear my request.  I was given the necessary supplies but when I came out of the Nurse’s Office, one of the secretaries brightly proclaimed, “Welcome to womanhood!”  I was mortified. I was not a woman! I was a twelve-year-old girl whose secret had been shared within earshot of a man!  I whispered my thanks and left as quickly as I could.
Although feminists have championed a variety of tactics in an attempt to end the taboos about menstruation, feelings of shame and embarrassment persist.   We avoid discussing our period in mixed company.  We hesitate to use the words tampons, menstruation, vagina and uterus. We worry about the mess, the smell and the inconvenience it may cause to a lover during intercourse. As civilized as we may claim to be, we continue to hold onto taboos.
“Until about fifty years ago, Italians did not allow women to enter the kitchen while menstruating.  In India, women are considered impure, sick and cursed during their period.  Nepalese traditions include banishing women during menstruation, often expelling them to unheated and unclean shelters (such as animal sheds.)” [2]
Lest North Americans start to feel superior about their attitudes towards menstruation, consider the 2015 incident when Instagram removed a photograph posted by artist Rupi Kaur of a woman in gray sweatpants whose fluid had leaked through her pants and onto her bed. [Illustration at right.][3]  A complaint was registered that the post was offensive and Instagram deleted the photograph, not once but twice..[4] Later that same year when  Apple released its Health app, “the company came under fire for omitting a woman’s menstrual cycle from the many body-related things a user can track.”[5]
 Religious taboos frequently discuss menstruation in terms of cleanliness, but it is important to remember that cleanliness, particularly in the Hebrew Bible, is not just an issue of personal hygiene.  The laws connect the physical to the religious and spiritual. Leviticus 15:19-24 says
Whenever a woman has her menstrual period, she will be ceremonially unclean for seven days. Anyone who touches her during that time will be unclean until evening. Anything on which the woman lies or sits during the time of her period will be unclean. If any of you touch her bed, you must wash your clothes and bathe yourself in water, and you will remain unclean until evening. If you touch any object she has sat on, you must wash your clothes and bathe yourself in water, and you will remain unclean until evening. This includes her bed or any other object she has sat on; you will be unclean until evening if you touch it. If a man has sexual intercourse with her and her blood touches him, her menstrual impurity will be transmitted to him. He will remain unclean for seven days, and any bed on which he lies will be unclean.[6]
One who was unclean could not fully participate in community life.  They were unable to participate in worship, commerce or fellowship. Additionally, menstruation was used as a symbol for sinful behavior.  In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet proclaims that God spoke to him saying,
… when the house of Israel lived in their own land, they defiled it by their ways and their deeds. Their ways before me were like the uncleanness of a woman in her menstrual impurity.[7]
The Christian New Testament does not specifically address healthy menstruation but the Synoptic Gospels do tell the story of Jesus coming into contact with a woman who had been suffering from an unhealthy discharge of blood for twelve years.[8]  Although the cause of her hemorrhage goes unstated, it is clear that she is seen by her community to be ritually unclean.  She has lived as “an exile among her own people.”[9] In an acknowledged act of faithfulness, she is healed by touching Jesus’ cloak.  There is no discussion of whether her actions were seen to make Jesus ritually unclean, but it is certainly not an unreasonable assumption.
Menopause gets only the briefest of nods in the Bible.  Genesis 18:11 reports that “Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years [and] the way of women had ceased to be with Sarah.”[10] Although they had tried unsuccessfully to conceive for many years, Sarah finally became pregnant at a time when Sarah described herself as being too old.[11]  This is the only mention of menopause in the Christian Bible and one of a handful of references to infertility.
Most men experience getting older with regret, apprehension. But most women experience it even more painfully: with shame. Aging is a man’s destiny, something that must happen because he is a human being. For a woman, aging is not only her destiny…  it is also her vulnerability[12]
While menopause is as common as menarche, there is far less preparatory discussion. Most women are aware before they enter perimenopause, the time when a woman transitions to menopause, that they will have hormonal changes that may result in mood swings, hot flashes and changes in sexual appetite. What is discussed less frequently are the various symptoms which may bring about the same embarrassment felt at menarche. 
All the same nonsense that comes with puberty occurs again during perimenopause—the hormone surges, the moodiness, and the hair appearing where there wasn’t hair before. Except instead of filling in under the arms and on nether regions, these coarse follicles of hate are showing up on our freaking faces. [13]
After decades of being fully tuned in to the rhythms of her body, a woman may find that nothing works quite the way she expects.  A predictable monthly cycle can change in timing, duration and intensity.  The pre-teenage fears of having an “accident” return and until a woman misses her period for a full year, she lives in that in-between land known as perimenopause.  Or as Celia Rivenbark described it, “I'm what is known as perimenopausal. Peri, some of you may know, is a Latin prefix meaning ‘SHUT YOUR FLIPPIN PIE HOLE.’”[14]
Given the stress of the months or years leading up to it, it may be surprising to know that menopause can be a source of grief. Even though a woman of fifty may not want to have another baby, the fact that “the way of women has ceased with her” is a loss.
FRANKIE:  It's just one minute, you're driving around with your kids, listening to Elmo sing I Don't Want to Live on The Moon, and the next minute, your doctor's telling you he can't find your ovaries.  And it was all just funny to him, but it's not funny.
            That moment should be marked in some way.  No, I mean it.  I mean, everybody makes a big deal when you get married and have a baby, but nobody's having a ceremony for your shriveled ovaries.  You know what I mean?
MIKE:   Like when a player retires, and they hoist his jersey into the rafters.
FRANKIE:  Yes! Exactly.  They just-  they deserve more respect.  [Sniffles] You know? I mean, they may not have been the     flashiest ovaries, but they got the job done.
MIKE:  Hey, they gave us three great kids…

FRANKIE:  They deserve something, some sort of send-off for all their years of service. They deserve more of an ending.  They deserve a goodbye.  [Sniffles, sighs]

MIKE: They had a good run.[15]
Of course, not all perimenopausal women are mothers.  Some have chosen to not have children and some have been unable. Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women, a network for childless women, describes childless menopause as
…a kind of death, one which we survive. It transforms us, whether we like it or not, whether we’re in denial about it or are prepared to face it. Childless women are perhaps more acutely aware of the ‘death in life’ nature of the menopause because they know that they’re not going to ‘live on’ in their children. They are the end point of millions of years of evolution. That shit is sobering to ponder on and you can either run from it or let it transform you.[16]
A woman’s menstrual history is not just biological. It is a core part of her identity.  Despite all the taboos that surround menstruation, its cessation at menopause is equally problematic. It has been argued in various arenas that what is needed is a framework within which women can see menopause as a time of transformation. Or as Frankie said, “our ovaries deserve…  some sort of send off…  They deserve a goodbye.”  In her book Thinking Woman, Allesandra Gillis Drage writes that
the needed framework must recognize that this is not just ‘another new beginning’ in a life that is already full of new experiences.  Menopause is a difference.  More than that, it is a difference that is anticipated by women throughout their lives in thoughts of their future.  Menopause is a long-term event that is symbolic of ending and beginnings…
[Furthermore] …menopause is something that resides in a woman’s future, something she is aware of as an upcoming event in her life.  It casts over her living a symbolic aura. Hers is a life with an immanent new beginning…  Menopause, seen as a new beginning, provides women with the opportunity for personal growth, ‘elder wisdom.’ [17]
There are certainly myriad ways that one might create a symbolic structure within which a woman could celebrate this new phase of her life.  One possibility is a Croning ceremony. For many the word crone has both sexist and ageist connotations.
Crones are assumed to be old and therefore automatically ugly and probably ill-intentioned, if not downright malevolent.  Today’s feminist spiritual tradition has rescued the word. Within this tradition, the Crone reclaims her ancient identity as one of the three aspects of the Goddess, along with the Maiden and the Mother. These three aspects also represent the three phases of a woman’s life, as she moves from childhood, through puberty and her time of fertility, and then through maturity to old age. Traditionally, the third phase has always been as important and honored as the other two…  [Crones] are the preservers of knowledge and the bearers of wisdom. They are the healers, mentors, and advisors. They are wise women.
A croning ceremony therefore celebrates the woman who has reached this new stage of her life, honors the contributions she has made… and welcomes her to the new role she will play as a wise, experienced, and valued elder. It is not about loss – loss of youth or attractiveness or fertility – but about gain and growth – in wisdom and experience and compassion and beauty that is both inward and outward.[18]
Menopause in this context becomes a blessed rite of passage, encouraging women to take their rightful role as leaders in their community.
A search of available literature results in a variety of croning ceremonies and retreats, developed primarily by Wiccan or feminist spiritual groups. There are also some fine examples of Jewish rituals which hold within them a variety of traditional Jewish symbols while embracing a feminist croning ceremony. These include the reading of scripture, the wearing of the kittel[19] and the making of a covenantal vow. In considering the development of a Christian croning liturgy, these three features were significant.
In Sacraments of Life, Life of the Sacraments, Leonardo Boff wrote “Anything can be a sacramental vehicle of divine grace.”[20] For both Catholics and Protestants, this statement may need to be untangled.  As a Lutheran, I define the two sacraments of Baptism and Communion as being instituted by Christ as a visible sign of an invisible promise.  They are a very specific means of grace through which the recipient receives the forgiveness of sin and new life in Christ. The sacraments are a means to end human disgrace but they are not the only way one can experience the love of God.  Historically the Lutheran church has lifted rites such as Ordination, Confession and Marriage as also being a source of grace.
Whether one limits the number of sacraments to seven or two, new rituals can be developed to ring deeper meaning to a community’s life of faith.  In her article, Rituals in the United States, Shulamit Magnus has said
Ritual is an act or a set of actions that employs symbols meaningful to the participants in a formal, repetitive, and stylized fashion. Ritual frames significant moments and important new realities. It is often used to effect transition from one state of being to another, as in weddings, funerals, or graduations. It is one of the most fundamental ways that human beings mark meaning in their personal lives and in the lives of their families and societies.[21]
The liturgy that is in my following post, places a feminist croning ritual within the framework of a Christian Affirmation of Baptism. It includes many of the features found in other croning ceremonies: storytelling, the giving of a gift and a connection to the abundance of creation. As a Christian ritual, it includes a Baptismal water prayer, the reading of scripture, a covenantal vow, prayer and the option to envision the Jewish kittel as a Baptismal gown.
In conclusion, for too long, women have experienced shame about the natural and life giving process of menstruation. We have been taught to believe it is unclean, which it is not, or a source of embarrassment, which it should not be. We are led to believe that we should not have public conversations about this universally female experience. We treat it like a curse, an illness and a burden. When we reach the age of menopause, rather than celebrating a new phase of our lives, (which includes the blessed end of perimenopause) women often think of themselves as being less:  dried out, shriveled, empty, old.  Through the use sacred rituals, the phases of a woman’s life including menarche, birth and menopause can be celebrated and honored. Croning ceremonies offer a significant means for framing menopause as a sign of wisdom and a transition to a new way of being.

[1] (Blume 1970)
[3] (Kaur 2015)
[4] Go to to view Kaur’s full photographic series period.
[5] (Gray 2015)
[6] Leviticus 15:19-24, New Living Translation
[7] Ezekiel 36:17, English Standard Version
[8] Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 5:25-34; Luke 8:43-48
[9] [9]
[10] Genesis 18:11, English Standard Version
[11] After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? (Genesis 18:12). 
[12] (Sontag 1972)
[13] (Lancaster 2015)
[14] (Rivenbark 2011)
[15] (Patricia Heaton 2017)
[16] (Day 2012)
[17] (Drage 2006)
[18] (Payerle 2016)
[19] A kittel is a traditional Jewish garment worn by a male at ceremonies marking life changes, at Passover, Yom Kippur finally at his burial.  Some Jewish croning ceremonies include the presentation of a kittel which the woman will wear at the time of her burial.
[20] (Boff 1975)
[21] (Magnus n.d.)


spookyrach said...

Applause!!! I love this idea.

seethroughfaith said...

Thank you.

A younger friend of mine has been saying this too ....and I love her for it.

It's not easy to accept the term crone though, because of its perjorative past. I wish there was a 'better' more empowering more feminine word to mean a wiser older woman ...

Sally said...

Wonderful, many thanks for this.