The Rites of Passage in a Woman’s Life by Jane Hardwicke Collings

When viewed as a whole, a Woman’s life is divided into four phases and these phases or seasons are related to and defined by the expression of her fertility and sexuality.

Maiden – birth to childbirth

Mother – childbirth to menopause

Maga – menopause to retirement

Crone – retirement to death

With each life season there is a rite of passage or initiation that marks the end of one season and the beginning of the next. It is a time of transformation, the woman transforms from one way of being to another, never to return again to her previous life season. What happens during and around this transition, whether by conscious creation or by default, sets the theme for a woman’s experience of herself in her new role, in her next life season.

During the season of the Maiden there are two rites of passage. Her own birth, which begins her life and the Menarche, the initiation of menstruation. How a person is born, what happens during and around this time greatly influences their life ahead. The menarche transforms the Girl to a Woman, her fertility and sexuality become the rhythm of her life. This is the life season of Spring.

Childbirth heralds the entry to the next season– Mother, the Summer of a Woman’s life. Each time a woman gives birth is another rite of passage as she deepens her experience as Mother.

Menopause, the cessation of menstruation or “change of life” marks the beginning of the season of Maga, the Autumn of a Woman’s life.

Retirement or withdrawal from the busy-ness of life marks the beginning of, the time of the Crone, the Winter of a woman’s life.

Rites of passage or initiations, as they may also be referred to, serve to prepare and send the ‘initiate’ into their new phase or role. Following the rite of passage and in the new role, the initiate is transformed, never to return to the way of life lead before.

There are many rites of passage in our lives, starting school, birthdays, barmitzvas, graduations, weddings, to name a few. In the process, what happens around the event, how one is treated, what one is taught, consciously and unconsciously, introduces, instructs, even brainwashes the ‘initiate’ with the values and beliefs the culture holds about their expected behaviour in their new role. This process gives the ‘initiate’ information on a deep level about their new role and the value they will have in society. This information then defines the mind-set or beliefs of how the new phase will be lived out.

In most traditional cultures, cultures that our modern, tradition lacking cultures turn to in search of meaning and understanding, the rite of passage is enacted with the seriousness and reverence is deserves. The Vision Quest is an example of that. An individual goes on retreat in nature, and “cries for a vision” to give deeper meaning to one’s existence and to highlight one’s life purpose. Prior to the retreat there is preparation by way of sweatlodges to purify and cleanse and during the retreat, usually 3 days and 3 nights, the initiate fasts.

 

The rites of passage of birth, menarche, childbirth and menopause serve the purpose of educating us of our value in our new role and our society’s expectations of us, they give us information about how we are to behave.

The way the menarche and menstruation are dealt with in our culture, our families and our communities, influences how a young woman understands what it “means” to be a Woman, a cyclical sexual fertile female human being.  In many traditional cultures in which Women were respected and honoured, the Menarche of a girl was celebrated with a ceremony of huge significance. The Apache Native Americans held ceremonies for days, with the whole tribe present, to celebrate girls entering their Womanhood.

In the Nootka tribe, after a party to honour her menarche, the young woman was taken far out to sea and left to swim back to the land. Once she had done this she was recognised by her community as a woman, strong and brave and ready for the responsibilities of womanhood – marriage and rearing children.

In modern times, some families acknowledge the menarche with a gift for the young woman, a celebratory dinner, even a party. Sometimes this happens within a circle of women who welcome the newly fertile woman, the initiate, to their sisterhood. They share stories of their own experiences of menstruation and make wishes and blessings for the new woman’s future life.

Few of us were treated with celebration and honouring to welcome us to our next phase – Woman. At best it was ignored, at worst it was a source of shame and embarrassment.  Few of us were lead to believe that being a woman was wonderful. Mostly, our rite of passage, our initiation to womanhood, told us not that that something really special had happened, but rather that we had entered a phase in our lives where we would be dictated to by something that we could not control (unless we took the magic pill), something that is an inconvenience and usually painful. The best we could do is plug ourselves up, pretend nothing is happening and just get on with it, and most of all don’t make a fuss. We were told we had entered the phase of our lives dominated by ‘the curse’ and then when we became sexually active we lived with the fear of pregnancy.

When women remember the details around their menarche they can see the theme that was created, the theme that they were to live out as a woman. It’s like the opening scene in your story as a woman that develops as you do.  Honouring the cycle relieves symptoms and reveals opportunities for deep understanding of what it is to be a woman, a cyclical being. There is much transformational magic available to women through their cycles. Each month when she bleeds she can consciously let go of old ways, patterns, beliefs etc that no longer serve her. She can do this for herself and also “for all her relations”, the collective feminine.

She is reborn each cycle. Honouring the menstrual cycle like this, brings profound healing and opportunity for enlightenment for the individual and the culture.   Understanding the way of cycles brings with it a most important awareness and wisdom. Everything and every process has a cycle;  birth, growth, fruit, harvest, decay, death, rebirth, growth and on and on, over and over. The cycle is easily recognised in the vegetation cycle, the cycle of the seasons of the Earth, and the same cycle is reflected to us every 29.5 days by the moon, the lunation cycle. These are feminine cycles. If the cycles, especially the monthly menstrual cycle, are not acknowledged, then what is prevalent perpetuates, what is reborn each month is the same, reinforced.

Pregnancy and childbirth are the next rite of passage in a Woman’s life, the initiation into Motherhood.  The way the rite of passage of birth is managed dictates to a woman her role and value as a Mother in the society.  A culture’s attitude to and value of Mothers are reflected in the practices used for birth. A big clue of a culture’s attitudes to Mothers, is how they treat the Earth.

With the rite of passage of birth, the mother and the baby are both affected. Babies remember birth, this is well known by those who investigate this area. Babies imprint on everything that occurs during their time in the womb, their birth and beyond. Imprinting is the process by which humans and animals survive, we learn and file the reaction to stimuli and recall that to use as our learned behaviour the next time that stimulus occurs. Pregnancy and Birth are a journey deeper into womanhood.

Traditionally, Menopause, the cessation of menstruation was the rite of passage from Mother to Crone. However, we now live longer than our ancestors. In the time of the ancient Triple Goddess – Maiden, Mother, Crone – we had babies at 14, were grandmothers at 30 and dead at 45. Many women died even before reaching menopause. Now if we are well, we can live to 100 plus years. The ancient Triple Goddess – Maiden, Mother, Crone – can now be extended to the Four Phase Feminine Way – Maiden, Mother, Maga, Crone – including the fourth season of autumn, Maga, between Mother and Crone.

So menopause is the rite of passage from Mother to Maga, the autumn season of our life.  Today menopause is treated as a hormonal imbalance, corrected by the medical profession with drugs that so often prove to be very dangerous after enough women take them for long enough to see the effects! The peri-menopause is the period of time from the first changes in a woman’s cycle to when she finishes bleeding all together. She is said to be post-menopausal when she has finished bleeding for 2 years.

Our culture wants to eradicate peri-menopause with hormone replacement therapy, it’s seen as a dangerous set of symptoms to avoid. What message does this give peri-menopausal women? Maybe something like at your age ‘you are not valued’,’ better avoided’, or even done away with altogether. You can see these attitudes reflected in the amount of plastic surgery used and promoted to prolong youthful looks.

The peri-menopausal time of a woman’s life is probably also ‘complicated’ with her teenagers special needs and her aging parents reaching their needy time as well. So, peri-menopausal women need all the support and encouragement possible. They need to know that they are highly capable and hugely resourceful women otherwise if they didn’t realise that, they would probably need lots of prescription drugs to numb themselves.  Peri-menopausal women may have grown up children and be grandmothers or they may have younger children, or both.

And then there’s the rite of passage of retirement marking the transition from Maga to Crone. Where’s the ‘gold watch’ for our old grandmothers when they decide they want to stay home?  Crone-hood is not valued in the same way in our modern culture as it was in traditional cultures. Not too long ago, the Crones were respected and valued. In some traditional Native American cultures it was the Crones that chose the Chiefs and the Crones that gave the final say on whether to go to war or not.  Our culture is ‘age-ist’ and our wise women can often be found sequestered into ‘old people’s homes’. Why aren’t they sitting with the children and telling them their stories?

Our rites of passage happen whether we pay attention to them or not.  What a difference there would be in the world if we did pay attention and gave women honour in every season of her life.

Jane Hardwicke Collings is an independent midwife from Australia, who has been attending homebirths since 1984. She is herself a homebirth mother of four, a grandmother and a teacher of the Women’s Mysteries. She gives workshops, writes books and has founded The School of Shamanic Midwifery.  Find out more about Jane and her work at www.moonsong.com.au

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