On initiation and fertility
Most cultures which have survived being modernized, missionized, and mobilized toward participating in this mythic global economy continue, albeit covertly, to practice the rites of human making. These are what anthropologists call rites of passage or initiatory events, and most first occur at the onset of puberty. They do not have as their goal self-actualization or self-affirmation or self-anything. Babies in these cultures are as much loved as anywhere, and their children are prized and protected as gifts from the Givers of Life. But they are just that – children – and they have no capacity for being human as they are. Their childhood is burned off in the crucible of person making during those puberty ceremonies, with the real possibility of failure and death ever present. If all goes well they emerge from those ceremonies as people whose humanity is established, and their ability to carry, defend, and maintain the village culture, deeply embedded in the soil made in every true sense of their ancestors and their deities, is the sign. In these cultures humanity is purposeful and not a goal. Humans are to serve, and their humanity is needed by their world. There is no clause for problems of personal style, preference, or inclination. They are not snowflakes.
Stephen Jenkinson - Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul
“I asked the midwife – how does the baby get out? She said, ‘same way it got in.’ And then I cried.”
When my grandmother first told me the story of how she learned she was going to have a baby, I remember finding it funny. She told it with humour, throwing up her hands at her own nativity. Now I see at it as tragic. She was seventeen years old. She’d been given no welcome to womanhood, so she had no higher understanding of the primeval drive of her teenage body. All hormones and no tempering wisdom.
The church had long since taken over the spiritual guidance of the European people, and celebrating the female was not part of the programming. The old wise women had been driven from the narrative and female characters were generally filed under three categories: virgins, wives or whores. There was no further discussion.
Today in the western world sex education is taught in schools, but I don’t know any women in my circle who underwent a spiritual ritual or ceremony to welcome their first blood. My own transition was confusing and frightening. I remember standing on the lawn, complaining to my mother about pain in my lower belly. She waved her hand and informed me that “I was probably just starting my period.” I don’t blame her for not providing me with more guidance. She’d received very little herself. Social awkwardness surrounding sex and fertility is part of the western culture we’ve been raised in.
I blossomed big, a cornucopia of curves. My periods were painful and my cycle was like a limping animal, never falling into a rhythm. I was a tomboy and hated my breasts. I refused to wear a bra until I was in grade 8.
Then I fell in love with a local boy and my body woke up like a furnace. We couldn’t get enough of each other. Neither of us had any spiritual grounding for the desires we were experiencing. There were societal “rules” knocking at the doors of our minds, telling us what we were doing was shameful, but they didn’t quell the fire between us.
My unruly cycle made me constantly worried that I was pregnant. I knew girls who got pregnant, but I never did. Eventually I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and a doctor prescribed me birth control pills to regulate me. I suffered weight gain and mood swings. Like most of the 10 % of women who suffer from PCOS, I was never told the condition is basically one of insulin resistance and can be treated with diet and exercise. The doctors just told me it was something I “had.” They always made it feel built-in and permanent.
My first love died in a skiing accident when I was 19 and he was 21. Our relationship had been both passionate and tumultuous from the start. We broke up, got back together, broke up, got back together. When he died we were both in other relationships, but there had always been an invisible line between us, a spark that ran back and forth like a promise. Suddenly the promise was broken and I was adrift.
I remember the delirious strangeness of that first grief. The image that ran through my mind was a hand violently stripping a young branch of its leaves. My senses were pure, raw. I could feel rainfall in a puddle, the twitching muscles of a squirrel. Cracked open like an egg, I managed to finish my last two years of university, losing myself in the literary wing of liberal arts academia. I was the first in my family to earn a university degree.
When I fell in love again, and again, and again...I was no wiser. There was a little bitter black ball in my belly that had replaced my desire for children. I was impulsive, flighty, emotional, and endlessly curious. I was never able to maintain stability and longevity in my relationships.
It’s not that I squandered my fertile years intentionally. I lived a busy modern life. I worked hard, I held down jobs, participated in my communities, tried to contribute and to be kind. But I also consumed far more than I created, failed to nurture important relationships and took no true care of the earth.
Now I’m 45, twice divorced, with eggs too old to make babies, and wouldn’t you know it, my cycle is a regular as clockwork. I wonder what my life would have been like if at 12 years old I’d been told soulful, ancestral tales of fertility and womanhood, rather than the compartmentalized scientific functions of my body. How would I have looked at the young man I first shared my body with? Would I have paid better attention to my health, watched my cycle more carefully, been kinder to myself? Would I have been a better wife?
Everyday I miss the babies I never had. I would do anything to go back, change the course of my life and do things differently. To know them, hold them, help them to grow. The grief is physical. Where the black ball in my belly once was now feels hollow. Sometimes I feel full of ghosts.
I don’t pretend to speak for every childless western woman. Many lead extremely fulfilling lives. But I’ve seen the grief of women older than me who are desperate to be grandmothers and whose children have informed them they don’t want children of their own. These should-be-grandmothers emit the same energy of confusion and loss as I do. We’re filled with nurturing impulses we don’t know what to do with. We feel out of place in the world. The loneliness is maddening.
There is an epidemic of grief among western women in their early crone years. Between 2000 and 2016, the USA suicide rate for women aged 45-64 rose by 60 per cent, more than any other demographic. The men are still well in the lead, but we seem to be catching up. Some more cynical types would call that equality.
My grief has been my initiatory event. Now I read about fertility deities and old earth-centred rituals and I seek out storytellers to help lend me clarity. These old stories, rooted in the cycle of birth and death, make so much sense to me. There are so many more female characters than the few I was presented with growing up in the west. They are powerful, sassy and imperfect. Since the path of wife and mother is no longer available to me as it once was, I tend to focus on the stories featuring old women of the forest, the solitary witches living in little huts who people seek out to ask for counsel. They’re not part of the larger community but they’re still important. They still have value, still serve a purpose.
I continue to be emotional, passionate and curious, but my impulsiveness is slowly waning, replaced by a more grounded understanding of who I am and what assistance I can lend to the world. I hope to find ways to inspire other women (and men!) to tend to their fertility, both physically and spiritually. Perhaps that’s my purpose.
With love and a big cuddle,