Menstruality is a term that encompasses the female rites of passage and process of menarche, the menstrual cycle, menopause and the post-menopausal years. It was coined by New Zealand psychotherapist Jane Catherine Severn because she was concerned that we did not have one word to describe this process and without it, the power of menstruality could be undermined or totally ignored. Alexandra Pope has taken this work to a whole new level through her deep attention to her own menstrual cycle and menopause over a 30-year period, which has led to an incredible body of work to give women a language to understand the insight that their cycles (and menstrual pain, PMT and so on) can provide.
During the menstrual years, many women also experience the initiation of birth and motherhood. I want to share with you how awareness of the menstrual cycle can support pregnancy, birth and parenting. There are four key phases to the cycle: Pre-ovulatory phase or Inner Spring (approximately days 5 to 12), Ovulatory phase or Inner Summer (approx. days 12 to 19), Premenstrual phase or Inner Autumn (approx. days 19 to 26) and the Menstrual phase or Inner Winter (approx. days 26 to day 5 of next cycle), where Day 1 is the first day that you start bleeding. Women may experience shorter or longer cycles and through charting your cycle you can become familiar with own unique way of journeying through the seasons.
If you are not currently cycling due to pregnancy, breastfeeding or are post-menopausal, you can chart how you feel according to the lunar calendar, with the New Moon being Day 1. The crossovers between the seasons are worth paying particular attention to. For example, prior to the bleed starting, many women experience ‘The Void’, as Alexandra terms it, where there is a feeling or need for separation from the world. Personally, I become extremely sensitive to noise at this time and the hustle and bustle of family life can feel overwhelming.
Saying Yes to Yourself
There are different qualities and tasks associated with the four seasons. The Inner Spring and Summer are all about saying ‘YES’ to yourself, in Spring cherishing yourself and protecting the innocence (of ideas, creative projects, playfulness) and in Summer showing and celebrating yourself. The Inner Autumn and Winter are about saying ‘NO’ (how did it feel to read that?!), in Autumn facing yourself and being discerning about what you take on and in Winter, letting go and resting. It may be that you can only fit in a token rest during your Winter, but as Alexandra would say a homeopathic dose of 1% goes a long, long way. I would thoroughly recommend her Women’s Quest workbook as a place to start with deepening your awareness.
There are also two energy dynamics of the cycle, which are important for understanding how we relate to the world: the Via Positiva (from menstruation to ovulation) and Via Negativa (from ovulation to menstruation). Very simply put, the Via Positiva is about acting and showing yourself in the world, and is the dominant and valued way of being
in our Western culture. In contrast, the Via Negativa is concerned with looking inwards and being rather than doing. However, with our patriarchal culture telling us that we should be all things to all people, all of the time, the experience of moving into and along the Via Negativa can be challenging and women’s difficulty in holding the tension is frequently denigrated as moodiness. (A comprehensive description will be available in the eagerly-awaited new book by Red School founders Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo Wurlitzer in Spring 2017.)
The Cycle of Pregnancy and Birth
The path of pregnancy, birth and parenthood can be overlaid on the model of the four seasons and two currents of energy. If conception occurs where ovulation is marked (see image), the pregnancy progresses along the Via Negativa and culminates in birth where menstruation is shown. ‘The Void’ that I described above may be experienced as the transition between the first and second stage of the labour, where a woman on some level understands that the separation of her baby from her body is about to occur. If we understand the journey of pregnancy within the whole cycle, we get a very strong message of how tenderly to look after ourselves and other women as we move towards the
rite of passage of birth and afterwards.
Many women become very discerning during their pregnancy, perhaps changing the foods that they eat in order to minimise any risk to their unborn baby or choosing to start an activity like pregnancy yoga that they feel will support their journey. Often it is a time of reflection, of feeling more vulnerable and sensitive to World crises (I know so many women who gave more to charity during their pregnancy than at any time previous!). In our Western culture, pregnant women are not usually encouraged to slow down, but instead feel that they must get everything done before the baby arrives and maximise maternity leave with the baby, leaving little time to rest and prepare for the physical journey ahead, and the psychological transition into motherhood. Pregnancy can be an incredible time for facing yourself and seeking insight into how you are to parent, but support is crucial because many women find it difficult to make space for this internal process and haven’t had the practice of menstrual cycle awareness beforehand in order to confidently travel this liminal time.
Activities such as pregnancy yoga classes or hypnobirthing courses (with the right teachers!), Positive Birth Group meetings, and mother blessings provide a container to engage with this process.
Resting After Birth
At the point of birth, a woman is still within the Winter phase and knowing this, she can take her time to surrender into the intimacy of caring for a newborn and the rest that is required in the postpartum period to build up her energy again. In the early days of breastfeeding my first daughter, I sometimes experienced the intensity of her need for me as claustrophobic and needed to hand her over to dad to breathe freely again. With my second daughter, it was much easier to let go into the hugeness of unconditional love and existing in the moment (despite the demands of having a toddler too). Hopefully this recognition of being in the Winter phase also gives a postnatal woman the permission to take her time to know what works for her family, rather than the tender, instinctive shoots of motherhood being battered by (largely) unsolicited advice about what methods are needed to mould their infant into a ‘good baby’.
There are overlapping cycles: of the menstrual, parenting and life. I feel that I am only just completing the Winter phase of parenthood with my older child. My girls are now 3 and almost 6, and I have recently felt a consistency in my energy levels, after the physical tiredness of prolonged broken nights. I also am more confident in my choices about how to raise my daughters and what kind of mother I am, even as the seed of the idea of unschooling takes root. The tasks of Spring include cherishing and protecting innocence, and never has this seemed more essential as my older daughter interacts more and more with the world beyond the womb of our home. I can see how awareness of my menstrual cycle will guide me through the transition into the Summer of parenting, guiding how as teenagers they show and manifest themselves in the world. Working deeply with the Inner Summer of my menstrual cycle has made me realise that I rush to put my ideas into reality, from a place of fulfilling others’ expectations rather than from my own strengths and beliefs. I hope I can pass on the cycle awareness to my daughters so they have their own inner compass. I will have the challenge of balancing my children’s transition into the Summer phase of their lives as I move into my Autumn; the perimenopausal years. In contemplating these overlapping cycles, the complexity of what we women have to hold is immediately apparent.
Alexandra has said that if you do not have time for anything else, practice menstrual cycle awareness. My experience is that as soon as you shine a light on this inner guide, you develop a gentle kindness towards yourself. A great place to start is with the Red School’s online Hormone Harmony course. My hope is to offer workshops on using the menstrual cycle to support pregnancy, birth and parenthood, and to get all the wonderful men involved too. Not only does it provide insight into the inner lives of their loved ones, but also their own creative process. It is time to sing about menstruality out loud!
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Tessa Venuti Sanderson is a Pregnancy and Mother & Baby Yoga teacher in Caversham, Berkshire, and has created The Pregnancy & Birth Colouring Book to enable women to find space during their pregnancies to reflect on the amazing journey. She also hosts the Caversham Red Tent. Full details at www.tessayoga.co.uk