Menarche

A journey with our daughters

I grew up in an open, "modern" family. Sex was discussed frankly and factually. We had free access to friendly, illustrated books explaining puberty, and when I turned ten, my mother gave me a giant box from a "feminine hygiene" company, filled with samples of various pads and tampons. I remember going into my room, shutting the door, and taking out the box to examine the stuff and the booklets packed with them. I remember in particular the illustrations showing a curvy, smiling girl powdering her nose, taking showers (peeking demurely over the curtain), and smiling daintily at boys. She stepped carefully on high heels past intricate diagrams of the female reproductive system and instructions for "staying fresh." This, then, was menstruation. And once it happened, as the book clearly indicated, there was no going back to carefree girlhood. Well, I didn't want any part of it.

I got my first period when I was about thirteen, while my mom was away on a trip. I was staying with neighbors I didn't know very well, and I don't really remember how I handled it. I do know that I felt distant and alone and that when my mother came back, I didn't tell her that I had begun menstruating; I didn't think it was something one announced. Today she still regrets my secrecy.

Looking back, I realize that my silence came from fear. Armed with little more than a clinical understanding of the physical nature of being female, I didn't know if I could meet the mysterious expectations of womanhood. Rather than risk public inadequacy, I figured I would just keep things to myself until I felt it was under control.

While many of us, having grown up enlightened about the plain facts of sex and puberty as I did, are prepared to talk about menstruation with our daughters directly and honestly, we are less sure of how we can make her feel safe, celebrated, and loved when she begins to menstruate. For many mothers, formal, planned ceremonies--on either a grand or small scale--can make traversing the bridge from girlhood to womanhood easier for our beloved daughters.

"It's not that we don't have rituals, it's that they aren't organized or recognized by a wide group," explains Jay Ann Cox, Ph.D., a scholar of ritual and folklore and a senior lecturer at the University of Arizona. "Often our mothers had no guidelines other than the commercials for "feminine protection" and how their mothers did it (or didn't do it). Therefore, many young women enter menarche with confusion and misinformation, or too much emphasis on the products themselves."

It is through Dr. Cox's insight that I am able to understand that I did have a menarche ritual of sorts, one focused on that big box of pads and tampons and the physicality of menstruation rather than on the broader change it would bring to my spiritual and emotional life.

Although many of us are determined to do things differently for our daughters, we may feel uncomfortably ambivalent. As Sonia Michaels of Victoria, British Columbia, mother to one daughter, explains, "Mostly, [my period is] just kind of a nuisance--I know that I'm supposed to be all into this whole goddess-woman thing and love it, but honestly it's not the most pleasant part of my life."

While Sonia echoes the feelings of many of us, she also reflects our wish for our daughters to feel differently: "I don't want her to think of it as something icky and gross, or as a curse. Even though I don't love it, I think it can be a really positive part of womanhood."

Our feelings about our daughters' physical maturity can be contradictory as well, as we are alternately proud and concerned to see the changes adolescence brings; this influences how we feel about her menarche. According to the Mayo Clinic, menstruation typically begins between nine and sixteen years old, with the average age in the United States being thirteen. Breast buds tend to appear about two years before a girl has her first period, with the result that our newly menstruating daughters may look much older than they actually are. No wonder, then, that some mothers worry and fear when their daughters enter the age of fertility.

"Because she has reproductive capabilities once she has menstruated, a girl is no longer seen as pure and innocent," explains writer Bridget Grosser, "We try to be happy for girls at menarche, but we are uneasy about the new issues that they will encounter--sexuality, pregnancy, and unspoken taboos of exclusion."

Confronting our concerns makes it easier for us to move on. As parents, we are accustomed to trepidation at each stage of development. It's natural that watching our daughters step onto the uneasy bridge between childhood and adulthood will be scary, but observing this step makes clear that they will still need us--maybe more than ever before.

Our daughters, too, may already feel overwhelmed with the bodily changes they are experiencing. Burgeoning breasts, pubic hair, body odor--not to mention the newfound self-consciousness that comes with puberty--can cause our daughters anxiety.

"I had never thought in terms of rites of passage," writes Shirley A. Landis in her article "Menarche in America." "Just puberty. Adolescence. Terms that were used as excuses for weird behavior and pimples."

Or as one mother said, remembering her own adolescence, "Menstruation was the last thing I needed to deal with!"

Our daughters may already be saddled with incorrect information shared by equally misguided friends, or they may have a limited understanding due to complicated charts or text. Because we want to share a profound understanding of the miraculous and complicated workings of the female body with them, we need to know that our own information is correct. We may know the simplified explanation for menstruation--that every twenty-eight days or thereabouts, if we are not pregnant, our uterine lining is shed--but a greater understanding of our cycles beyond the blood is essential.

We must be prepared, too, for how the nature of our daughters' questions will change. Now they will be personal--How will she handle this or that situation? What changes will menstruation bring to her life?

"My daughter had a lot of concerns about people knowing that she was menstruating," shares one woman from Portland, Oregon, mother to two daughters, "We talked about why that worried her, most of which had to do with being the first in her peer group to start."

We can share ways we handle our periods without encouraging feelings of discomfiture. We can talk about staying in tune with our bodies and keeping supplies on hand so that menstruation doesn't take us by surprise. As we demystify the physical aspects of womanhood, we give our daughters confidence in their ability to handle their lives.

Looking to menarche ceremonies in other cultures offers us insight to our own feelings and beliefs and experiences around menstruation. While details and folklore differ, most rituals focus on seclusion (isolating the menstruating girl from the rest of the clan) and purification (sometimes pleasantly taking the form of ritual baths and grooming by the other women in the tribe). Some cultures place limits on the menstruating woman's diet or activities. Emily Martin explains, in an article titled "Premenstrual Syndrome: Discipline, Work and Anger in Late Industrial Societies," that the Yurok Indians of North California believed that women were most in tune with the spiritual world during menstruation; thus they were relieved of mundane chores to allow them to better spend their time meditating.

We discover roots to these ancient rituals in our own our instincts. We wish for time alone as our period approaches or crave warm baths when we have cramps. Certain foods appeal to us more when we are menstruating, others might cause us discomfort. When we're melancholic or introspective, everyday tasks seem to take longer and we may lose interest in these activities.

Recognizing these emotional and physical changes can inspire the kind of ceremony we might like to have for our daughters.

Some of us seek to understand why it is that menstruation is often referred to as "moon time." Devi Khuit writes on her Web site, Women Who Bleed with the Moon, "A women's blood and hormonal cycle follows the ebb and flow of the moon; from new moon to full moon, estrogen increases leading to ovulation, or maximum fertility, at full moon. From full moon to new moon, the waning half of the cycle, progesterone predominates. Traditionally, women used to start bleeding right before the new moon, in the dark of the moon....In modern times, women begin their menstruation during different phases of the moon."

Even if our cycles are no longer tied to a lunar path, sharing this insight can help our daughters feel part of a greater whole.

Helynna Brooke, owner of a business called First Moon and co-creator of the menarche ceremony kit they sell, writes, "The rites of passage that girls create for themselves out of a frustrated drive to prove themselves women in turn produce many of the social ills that concern our communities. In a national study of adolescents, parental connectedness is the strongest factor in protecting against high-risk behaviors. [Menarche ceremonies] results in parental connectedness."

Our beliefs, values and expectations can be clearly and formally explained to our daughters at the ceremony as a reminder of all we hope their lives will be. Such direct honesty is something that our daughters crave even as they pull away. Some mothers write letters expressing their hopes and expectations for their daughters to treasure.

A ceremony doesn't need to be a large affair. In fact, some daughters are adamantly opposed to a big fuss.

Jennifer Moquin of State College in Pennsylvania, mother of one daughter, remembers, "I got my first period when I was twelve. I'd grown up very informed, aware of "stuff," so I was very low-key about it when it happened. My mom wanted to make a big deal out of it but I was somewhat embarrassed by that and wanted it to kind of just happen and go unnoticed. Well, not unnoticed, but I just wanted it to slip into my life without a big disruption."

A simple gift might be enough to mark her first period, perhaps a journal for personal reflection or scented bath salts so that she can care lovingly for her body (one ritual names Lady's Mantle, Heather, Rose, Jasmine, and Gardenia as being especially appropriate for menarche).

Maddi Ingersoll of Smithsburg, Maryland, mother to three daughters, plans to give jewelry. "A ring, or an engraved bracelet, or something, from me--their mother--from one woman to another." Some mothers choose to make their own jewelry using traditionally colored beads representing the three stages of womanhood: white (maiden), red (mother) and black (crone).

A special dinner might suit some daughters, perhaps at her favorite restaurant or at a more elegant place to honor her new status. "I was surprised that my daughter wanted her to dad to attend her special dinner," says Melissa Prince, mother of one daughter. "He was really moved that she asked him to be a part of it."

Some of us might choose to welcome our daughters into a sisterhood by bringing together women whom they respect or admire to talk about their first periods and how their feelings about menstruation have changed as they got older.

Many women choose elaborate rituals based in their spiritual and cultural beliefs. Such ceremonies might include formal declarations, poems or songs, such as the one that began this article. Tradition might dictate that on the event of her menarche, a daughter will be given a specific heirloom or told a family secret or legend.

"My daughters are too young yet," says Rachel Banks of Roseville, California, mother to two daughters. "But I was asked to be part of a ritual for my goddaughter. It was very moving. She wore a special gown, and there was a candle-lighting ceremony, and her mother gave her a locket that had belonged to her grandmother. I hope to give my daughters a similar welcome when they're older."

Even if we miss a daughter's first period--whether it is because of physical distance or because our daughters choose not to share it with us--we can still celebrate together. Coming of age rituals can encompass menarche instead of being centered on it.

"The Navajo have a ritual that is performed for girls coming into womanhood, but it's not marked by the physical onset of menarche only," says Dr. Cox. "The mother decides when the daughter is ready, usually around fourteen, but it can be as late as sixteen or as early as twelve, depending on the family, the daughter, and the "signs of readiness," which do include menarche but are not restricted to it."

However our ceremonies take form, our daughters will be able to look back and find assurance that their mothers see them as individuals worthy of honor. They will know that they are worth cherishing and that their bodies are worth celebrating. As they head further into adolescence, with its inevitable conflicts and struggles, we will know that we have given our daughters a sturdy base of respect on which to continue growing into the women they were meant to be.

 

Dawn Friedman is a writer living with her husband and two-year-old son in Columbus, Ohio. She is currently working on a book about pregnancy.

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