All indigenous people on earth provide their young people with specific rites of passage to signify their change in status from child to young adult. This is because the explosive energies of individuation that are released at puberty require some kind of container in which they can be channeled constructively. Not only is your daughter’s body changing from that of a girl to that of a sexually mature woman, her brain and emotions are also changing rapidly. In short, she is preparing to become a more independent member of her family and society. This is the time when her unique, inborn gifts and talents are ripe for recognition and in-depth development.
Here are a few of many examples of indigenous cultures who had (or still have) positive coming-of-age rites, ranging from tattooing and changes in hairstyle and clothing, to ceremonies involving the entire tribal group, to solitary vision quests:
- The Nootka people of Canada had a big party right after a girl’s first period. Then she underwent an endurance ritual in which she was taken far out to sea and left to make her way home by swimming back to land. When she arrived onshore, she was greeted by her entire village. After that, she was recognized as a woman who had demonstrated her capacity for patience and perseverance. Cameron1
- Among the Dagara people of West Africa, the initiation of girls is performed once per year for all the girls who have started to menstruate in the preceding year. This ceremony is the beginning of a long period of mentoring that includes information about sex, intimacy, and the special healing powers of the menstruating woman. Owen2
- Many Navaho people still practice their puberty ritual for girls, the kinaalda. According to menstrual researcher Lara Owen, this is considered to be the most important of all their rituals because it brings new life to the tribe. In the month after a girl gets her first period, her entire extended family gathers together for a ceremony that takes place over four days. During this time the girl wears a traditional buckskin dress and her hair is braided in a special way. Each morning she gets up at sunrise and runs toward the rising sun. She is expected to run farther and faster each day. When she returns, an older female relative, taking the role of Ideal Woman, teaches her the Beauty Way, massages her body, and also instructs her in tribal wisdom about male-female relationships. Together the girl and her family, including the men, prepare an enormous corn cake, which they cook in an earth oven constructed especially for the occasion. Throughout the ceremony, the girl is expected to take on a new level of responsibility for herself and others. On the last night, all the people, led by their shaman, stay up all night praying for the girl and her family. The emphasis of this ritual is on both physical strength and character. Owen3
In general, puberty rites are less physically challenging for girls than for boys, perhaps because every culture recognizes that men will never go through the arduous initiation represented by childbirth. However, all provide a clear boundary between childhood and adulthood, and represent the moment when the child assumes his or her responsibilities to the rest of the community.
Our own society’s rites of passage seem superficial in comparison. Getting a driver’s license, being able to vote, or consuming alcoholic beverages legally come too late chronologically to mark puberty, and they are not accompanied by the goodwill and instruction of the entire community. No matter how much our children look forward to them, they don’t begin to acknowledge or honor the power available when your biology gives you a renewed brain, a new body, and new feelings! In the absence of culturally approved vision quests, meaningful coming-of-age ceremonies, or genuine tests of physical and psychological strength, too many young teens fill the void with drugs, alcohol, dangerous relationships, or compulsive consumerism.
If your daughter agrees and is enthusiastic about it, I recommend some kind of planned coming-of-age celebration for her (although some girls won’t want this coming-of-age ceremony to have anything to do with menarche). You can plan this ceremony—or a special mother-daughter trip or event—anytime between the ages of eleven and fourteen—you don’t have to wait until she gets her first period. If you participate in a religion that already has a coming-of-age ceremony, such as the Christian confirmation or the Jewish bat mitzvah, then you may find that this suits your daughter well. But others will want to create a more female-focused ceremony that might include more Goddess energy.
When I asked my newsletter readers for coming-of-age memories, the responses I received were a wonderful testament to the mother-daughter bond at menarche. Here are just a few:
- When my older daughter (now sixteen) turned eleven, I started thinking about how we would punctuate her coming of age. I remembered my own first period as traumatic, coming the day before entering a new school in a new state, so I wanted Molly’s to be far more natural and uplifting. I wrote to my circle of female friends and family, asking them each to help me celebrate Molly from afar by sending a card, note, or reading that they would want to share with her whenever the day came. I planned to keep them all in a special envelope or booklet and wait for the time to share them.
These women, including my college roommate, sisters-in-law, and childhood friend, all seized the opportunity to do something very special. What came back over the next few months were boxes filled with gifts, books, writings. I found a beautiful storage box covered in a floral fabric in which I would present these gifts, rather than the planned envelope or scrapbook. The box was filled with a series of butterfly objects—a butterfly necklace, trinket box, and hairclips to signify her transformation; a Celtic plaque depicting the maiden, mother, and crone to educate her about the cycles of life; photos of one of her aunts in “stylish” cat-eye glasses at the age she first menstruated; a book of teen wisdom; a big box of gourmet chocolates from a grown cousin who said this would always make her feel better at “that time of the month.” And there were many, many written words of wisdom and memory from these wonderful women, including an awkward note from her grandmother (my mom), who simply didn’t know what to say to acknowledge an event that was so very private when she was a girl.
The day Molly got her period, she was very matter-of-fact, as she often is about life. Before she got into bed, I took her into our guest room and pulled out the celebration box. She first read the card from me, which explained what she was about to receive, and then together we opened the large fabric box and all the beautifully wrapped gifts from her “sisters” inside. For that hour, it was as if all of the women we knew were right there in the room with us, a circle of women drawn together across distance and time. Together we shared what women are all about—memories, advice, and deeply held feelings.
- Getting your first period was a big day in our house. It was the only time my mom allowed me and my two sisters to take the day off of school. We would start out with a special morning together at the house, lounging around and taking our time getting ready. We then went out to lunch to a fancy restaurant and proceeded to an afternoon of shopping to buy a new outfit for the new young woman. (Again, this was a luxury, as we weren’t the type of family to buy everything we wanted.) What I cherish most about the day, though, was spending time with my mom and her talking about how this was a special time that should be celebrated.
- Before Marina’s first period arrived, I contacted all the people who cared deeply for her and requested that they write a few sentences about what they wished they had known at her age. What ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and awarenesses could have made a big difference to their adolescence? What tools and strategies had they learned from life? The outpouring of loving, gentle, wise advice was immensely touching.
I printed and bound these treasures into a book, which I presented to Marina in a small ceremony with her best friend and her best friend’s mom. Not only did we mark her transition with meaning but she now has a valuable resource to help guide her during times of challenge. She also has the experience of a deep, loving support network—so rare for a teen to know and realize.
Learn More — Additional Resources
- The Red Web, www.theredweb.org , is a collaborative dedicated to providing information on celebrating the menstrual cycle and creating lifelong menstrual health.
- Cameron, A. (1981). Daughters of copper woman. (Vancouver, BC: Press Gang Publishers).
- Owen, L. (1998). Honoring menstruation: a time of self-renewal. (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press), 35.
- Owen,L. (1998). Honoring menstruation: a time of self-renewal. (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press), 33-34.