It seems that with every passing period, women are reminded of the incredible female capacity for childbearing. At the same time, we are also reminded of the grittier realities of our embodied lives. Our relationship with our monthly cycle is complex.
Years ago, I remember watching an episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, the frontier-era American drama that first aired in the early 1990s. Growing up, it was my favorite TV show; I never missed an episode. This particular plot centered on a character named Dorothy, who becomes convinced that she is pregnant despite her advanced age. After Dorothy experiences a hemorrhage, Dr. Quinn diagnoses her as beginning menopause, a reality that Dorothy is reluctant to accept.
This episode left a strong impression on me, mainly because the topic somehow felt embarrassing. I remember talking with my mother about it afterwards. Dorothy seemed to be experiencing denial and shame about something that Dr. Quinn reassured her was a natural life transition. It also left an impression because the episode aired only a few months after my own rite of passage: the beginning of a monthly cycle that felt, well, embarrassing.
I still recall every detail of the morning when I discovered my own unpleasant predicament. I awoke wearing my “Hard Rock Café: Orlando” tank top (a souvenir from a trip to Disney World) and flowered underwear. Pink pen in hand, I promptly penned a note for my mother down the hall, alerting her to the situation, which felt too humiliating for audible words. With compassion, my mother calmed my fears.
Looking back now, especially from this contemporary cultural moment of female empowerment and the allaying of shame, it seems that women suffer from embarrassment for no good reason at all.
From the first time that we have to sit-out the swimming pool during gym class because of our “womanhood,” to the day, decades later, when the whole ordeal is finally over and done, our monthly cycle keeps us on a rollercoaster much of our lives.
Women seek wisdom and empowerment at every age, but perhaps never more so than at mid-life. A span of 40 years—that is to say, four decades of life—was once called “two score.” I think there is something about this antiquated way of marking time that feels oddly on point. From traditional hopes and dreams such as motherhood and family to career goals and professional achievements, it can feel as though we are tallying two scores pulling us in opposite directions. A question lingers: “Are we doing all that we are called to do?” Meanwhile, we find ourselves wondering how we can feel more whole.
My maternal great-grandmother, Regina, and also her mother before her worked as mid-wives in New Haven, Connecticut. Regina was among the first generation of mid-wives to be licensed by the state in 1921. At a time when women were entering new professions and pressing for the ability to earn a living, they were also becoming mothers and mothering to others in many different ways. Mothering is in our genes.
However, I am not a mother. There are times when I have found myself wishing for menopause, if only as a cessation of the uncomfortable monthly reminder of this fact.
But another part of me knows that every female contains a life-giving capacity that transcends the quantity of love her uterus can hold.
This generative power takes shape within us throughout our lives and finds expression through the care we give to others and to the world, through our creative receptivity to life as it unfolds.
My maternal grandmother loved mothering and also struggled with mothering. In her life, she had three healthy children, suffered two miscarriages, and endured a hysterectomy. During the 1970s, she started a girls’ empowerment program in her community called the “Me” program. Her desire to spread love was not limited by a lack of hormones; her creative power extended well beyond her womb.
Fertility has many forms of self-expression. Whether someone is a biological, adoptive, or foster mother, a mother-to-be, or a mother who has suffered a miscarriage or other deep loss of a child, women of all kinds can and do act in life-giving ways each day by honoring their commitments to family, work, and community. This might mean caring for an ill neighbor or elderly relative, running a company, looking after a pet, standing up for social justice, planting a garden, or nurturing the earth as a whole.
Can we truly nurture others if we do not know how to nurture ourselves?
Based on my own experiences and ongoing conversations with my mother, I know that self-care is one of the most necessary things that I can do. Pausing to attend to my own needs enables me to give more of myself to others, to my work, and to the world. There should not be any shame in this, but in actuality, women often prioritize themselves last.
Allowing ourselves to pause and reflect helps us reconnect with a wellspring of creative power, regardless of our age or life stage. For me, this can be as simple as taking a moment to notice the sunrise or going for a walk in the evening to clear my head and renew my commitments. Learning to pause, we also honor the life transitions that time inevitably holds in store for each of us.