By: Kristine Madera
As a rite of passage for a girl to a woman, the process doesn’t get any more literal than her first menstrual period. The run-up, I recall, started in the 5th grade, when, after an inciting incident that to this day remains a mystery, the three teachers (all women) in our grade let the boys out to play football, herded us into a classroom, and, under pain of suspension, warned us not to tell the boys what they were about to say. It seemed like we were about to be initiated into some secret society or, at least, receive a profound insight channeled from the goddess Athena.
But no, we got a scolding talk on menstruation and why it was a private, borderline shameful thing that should never be discussed with a boy and only whispered about as we commiserated over cramps during PE class. There was a hurried demonstration of how pads worked, with the performing teacher sneaking glances over her shoulder as if the principal might burst in any second and cuff her. There was a mumbled implication that “the curse” was connected to pregnancy, but that made most of us roll our eyes because a few of the girls with hippie parents had already spilled the beans on how babies were made. Then they rushed us back to our various classrooms with another warning to keep our mouths closed, before letting the boys in. Who, by the way, didn’t give a wit about what we learned. Did I mention that they let them all go outside to play football?
The actual Event was a non-event as well. My mom, being responsible, had all the supplies on hand, and I suffered the cramps in silence like the daughter of Athena, goddess warrior, all the while wondering what was supposed to happen next. There was an aural shift in my future, or at least a bump up in bra size, but for all the energy expended to prepare a girl for The Event, most of us, who compared stories, agreed it was a let down.
Years later, when I was a Peace Corps’ Volunteer in Papua, New Guinea, we learned about the traditional initiation rites of girls into womanhood. They varied from tribe to tribe, but, at her first menses the girl, much like my fifth grade class, was told of the tribal taboos and restrictions surrounding menstruation. Generally, she was required to recuse herself to a private shelter away from family and village. Food might be delivered or she might cook for herself, but she could never cook for men. Older women staying with her, at least that first time, told her stories from the ancients and taught her about the magic of women, the secret songs that helped plants grow and babies thrive, and love spells that tamed a warrior’s heart. A formal initiation might involve ritual tattooing or piercing and included a feast by the family or even the whole village to commemorate The Event. Some of the other female volunteers denounced this ritual separation as a restriction imposed by men fearful of a perfectly natural bodily function. I think it was the brainchild of a very wise woman; who wouldn’t want a monthly week off to catch up on sleep and have food delivered? It’s like having a regular personal retreat.
The difference between this instruction and mine, besides the opportunity to camp out, was that the traditional method is a true initiation, while mine was a rite of passage or coming of age. There is a key difference between them. All mark the passage from one stage of maturity to the next, from the freedoms and restrictions of one age to the privileges and responsibilities of another and the matriculation from a particular social group into a different relationship with the world. This last little bit, movement into a different wordly relationship marks the difference.
Traditional initiation moves from one cohesive social group into the embrace of another. Think of the Jewish Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah, the achievement of which marks an adolescent leaving the ways of a child and being enfolded into the community of adults waiting to support her or him. Initiation is also applied to things such as sororities, fraternities, and societies like the Freemasons, where a person moves from being an outsider to belonging to the community. Rites of passage in our society are movement away from the fold—a protected, naïve, and childlike state—toward separation to hone the skills of independence and self-reliance so prized in American culture.
I’m not dissing independence and self-reliance. But there are consequences to promoting the separation of coming-of-age at the expense of the inclusiveness and community building of initiation. National values aside, people, especially adolescents and children, hunger for community and the challenge of proving themselves worthy of inclusion. If you doubt this, look at the activities that kids initiate themselves into when they are old enough to self-select: drugs, alcohol, gangs, tattooing and piercings, bullying, sex and pregnancy, and the list goes on.
In the Babemba tribe of South Africa, when a person acts out irresponsibly or unjustly, she is placed in the center of the village. All work stops, and village members encircle her and tell her all the kind, thoughtful things she has done, all her good qualities, her strengths, and the positive ways she has impacted them. This may continue for days until all that can be said has been said and they welcome the accused back into the tribe with a feast in her honor. This intervention is rarely needed, I would guess, because telling the tribal members what is right about them is a regular part of life.
Imagine how a rite of passage like a girl’s first period would be if, rather than general commiseration and a discussion about which pain medication is best for cramps, the girl was surrounded by her mother, older sisters, cousins, family friends, and all the older women in her life who told her about the beautiful qualities already seeded within her, and that they will support her in blossoming into a woman. Then, a girl’s day out for lunch or a mani-pedi or the chance to find their personal and collective rhythms in an all-women’s drum circle.
Transitions such as the death of a pet, learning how to lose (and win) gracefully, switching schools, surviving a divorce, watching a best friend move away, all the bumps and bruises of childhood, through the big markers of teens—driving, dating, graduating— may comprise the adolescent’s journey. Here are four things we can do to add supportive kernels of initiation to empower our children to find their strengths, embrace the risks of growing up, and find those elders in their lives to provide a soft, supportive place to land.
Witness their strengths: If you’ve been paying attention to your child, you have seen amazing moments of wisdom, compassion, strength and qualities like friendliness, courage, selflessness, and so on. Remember these, and use them to show your child that she already has the ability to survive her passage. If your child has impulse or anger issues, or is prone to bullying, don’t be afraid to call them out, and prove that such behavior is not who they really are.
Let them feel what’s real: Grief, disappointment, fear, and such are hard emotions for anyone, and no one likes to see their child hurting. Helping your child to recognize hard feelings, to feel them, breathe through them (remember Grandmother’s sage advice of ten breaths to cool the flare of anger?) and let them go, teaches kids not to be afraid of them. Felt emotions pass, but those same emotions denied or unfelt turn into helplessness and powerlessness. Let them feel the highs of victory, too. Don’t dampen natural exuberance by warning them that greater joys bring deeper sorrows or that their joy will make someone else feel bad.
Be honest: Nothing kills trust (or self-confidence) like a lie. Santa Claus aside, kids know when you are lying. You don’t have to spill all the details of a serious illness, but to say Mom’s on vacation when she’s really in the hospital makes it appear that you don’t feel the child is strong enough to handle real life. Be age appropriate in what you disclose, but be honest.
Build the tribe: The nuclear family is a relatively new social convention, as is the tendency to live isolated from extended family. Build a network of trustworthy elders—friends, relatives, babysitters, and others—that your child knows is part of her extended support system. Children and teens need elders who have no direct authority over them to help sort through things that they don’t want on their permanent record of family history. You can build this tribe early in your child’s mind. As a friend puts her wee ones to bed each night, she lists all the people who love them—family, friends, and even people living far away who the kids rarely see—so they grow up with a network of available love spanning much farther than their everyday world.
As a last note, if an intervention is necessary for a child who has forgotten her core beauty and strength and has initiated herself into a path of self-destruction, try the intensive Babemba method. Ask all of the people in her circle of love to remind her of her kindness, her courage, the magnificent qualities that make up who she truly is beneath the behavior, and then feast her with pizza back into the fold.
If this is counterintuitive as a parenting strategy, then consider these words of Nelson Mandela, a man who sought to live a grand peace when so many were advocating a grand war: Thinking too well of people allows them to behave better than they otherwise would.
Kristine Madera is an Asheville-based speaker, writer and Certified Clinical Hypnotist & Hypno-Coach who helps people get out of their own way and on to the life of their dreams. Find out more at www.MindWiseHypnosis.com. She is also the co-author of How to Meditate with Your Dog: An Introduction to Meditation for Dog Lovers.