Joanne Callan reflects on whether ancient wisdom and connection to our cyclical feminine nature is the solution that many of today’s stressed ‘strong women’ have been seeking
Guided by ancient wisdom and led by modern-day revolutionaries, there is a new and emerging world of women daring enough to suggest that connecting to our cycles could be the key to transforming our lives. Menstruation is our superpower.
In recent years, more and more women have been having this conversation: writing books, releasing podcasts, teaching workshops, organising Red Tents, sharing the knowledge that has changed their lives and the lives of the women who have been lucky enough to stumble upon their work.
Can we learn to come to a deeper understanding of our cyclical nature, working with rather than against ourselves? Can we learn to live in flow and to embrace our unique and powerful feminine energies? By embracing this movement, we get to write a different story, to share with the next generation information, wisdom and knowledge that will help them to navigate life in the best possible way, experiencing optimum success, fulfilment, pleasure and a sense of overall health and wellbeing.
The world-renowned midwife Ina May Gaskin said, “There is no other organ quite like the uterus. If men had such an organ, they would brag about it. So should we.” The uterus is indeed an incredible organ, and yet many women experience periods and all things female-body related as embarrassing, painful, messy and to be hidden. How can we brag about something that we don’t understand, we can’t touch or see, and, for many, is a source of great pain? That pain may be personal, transpersonal or transgenerational.
In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle speaks of “the collective female pain-body”. The first time I read the chapter, many emotions and thoughts came to the surface, the main one being, why do we not talk about this? I wanted to know how it could be healed. If any other function of the human body was painful, we would question it. We would want answers. Yet, when it comes to anything menstrual, women tend to put up with it, accepting it as a ‘normal’ part of being a woman. I have realised on my journey as a holistic therapist and a Moon Mother that there is a distinct difference between what is common and what is physiologically ‘normal’.
Many women suffer with menstrual issues from their early teens and these issues can continue to affect them throughout their lives. In many cases, the only solutions offered are hormonal contraceptives or, in severe cases, surgery. Often, neither solution brings the relief needed.
Mental health or menstrual health?
The question, ‘Is it a mental health issue or a menstrual health issue?’ resonates with many women. A light bulb is switched on. They have a road to go down that they have never, on a conscious level, looked at before. While focusing on the symptoms, many women don’t see the root of the problem. Many others have been dismissed by family, friends, employers and health professionals. When we explore menstrual issues from this angle, many women, for the first time, feel heard, understood and connected to a solution.
Women often have little or no understanding of the power of their menstrual cycles. The only information they received during puberty was a very basic biology lesson with no information on the physical, emotional and energetic aspects, or indeed how to use the phases of their cycle to their advantage.
Illustration by Samjhana Moon
The four phases of a menstrual cycle
These phases can be represented as the four seasons. We can feel different during each phase, like the changing seasons:
Menstruation phase – winter
Follicular phase – spring
Ovulatory phase – summer
Luteal phase – autumn
We have a prehistoric body living in a 21st-century world. The impact of this is very real, and we feel it physically, mentally, emotionally and energetically. Women’s lives have changed so much in the last 50 years. The 40-hour working week was designed for the industrial era: a time when someone else would have been taking care of all the household and childcare tasks.
Fast-forward to 2021 and many women now work those 40 hours (and more), and responsibility for carrying out the other roles often still lies at their feet. As a result, women are overworked, underpaid, stressed, reaching burnout, as they struggle with the expectation of being everything to everyone.
Our lives have become busier and we are expected to operate in a linear way, disconnected from our natural cycles and rhythms. If the adverts are anything to go by, we should be wearing skintight white leggings and be ready to go skydiving when our bleeds arrive: a far cry from what most women feel like doing on day one of their cycles. On a physical level, everything from electric lighting to hormonal contraceptives have impacted our endocrine systems and we are feeling it.
We deserve better. The next generation deserves better. Knowledge is the key to change.
Being a strong woman
On 8 March 2020, International Women’s Day, I facilitated at an event called the Women Who Shaped Us – Their Wounds and Their Wisdom. This was the week before the world as we knew it changed.
The significance and importance wasn’t lost on me. Surrounded by messages that were focused on celebrating ‘strong women’, we explored what it means to be a strong woman, and how the stereotypical image of a strong women created by marketing and the media has impacted women in the last couple of decades.
Over the past few years, I have come to a space where, for me, along with many of the ‘normal’ things, being a strong woman means being vulnerable, being gentle with myself, honouring my feminine cycles, slowing down when I need to, asking for help, offering help, seeing the other side of situations and being compassionate and kind to myself and others.
My path to being a strong woman is one I am still walking.
It involves knowing that I can be equal to and different from men.
It means embracing and understanding feminine qualities.
It means attempting to challenge my patriarchal conditioning.
It means crying when I need to.
It means accepting help when it is offered, even if it is to lift a box that I could carry myself.
Societal messages calling on us to be a strong woman can add to feelings of not being enough, doing enough or having enough.
How do we make these changes?
The first and often only experience that women have of charting their cycles is usually connected to family planning or a fertility journey. Charting for wellness is for everyone, whether they have a bleeding cycle or not. For those that don’t bleed or who have an irregular cycle, using the moon and the lunar cycle as your point of reference can be really helpful.
As a Moon Mother, much of my knowledge comes from the teachings of Miranda Gray. In Miranda’s book The Optimised Woman, she details the key stages to understanding and optimising your cycle and learning to live in flow.
Many women will stay in Awareness for quite some time before progressing through the next stages. In fact, most women are already in Awareness; they know that there are days when certain tasks require little or no effort and other days when the same task feels like climbing Everest. It is learning to connect with these phases: resting when we need to rest; batch cooking when we are in our productive and nurturing phase. For me, it means scheduling presentations, if I can, for when I am in my summer ovulation phase, rather than my premenstrual or menstrual phase. If I prepare in summer and autumn, then I have some space to rest and hibernate in my winter menstrual phase. Resting with a hot water bottle and having an early night because I choose to nurture my body is very different from having to rest because I am in pain or exhausted. Prevention is always easier than cure.
When I was new to all this, I started by acknowledging my menstruation phase. On the first day of my bleed, I buy myself my favourite bar of organic dark chocolate and a bunch of flowers. It’s my own little celebration and ritual, and a message to my body that I hear her. I am supporting, honouring and nurturing her. I give myself the time to enjoy it mindfully. I have an early night and nourish myself with the extra nutrients needed to support my body. These simple actions make such a difference to my life and they were the beginning point of my living in flow journey: a journey that brought a sense of balance and greater physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
We are all on a journey of learning and unlearning. Life can and should be so much easier for us all. If we want our young people to experience menstruation differently, to navigate life with ease and flow, then a key part of this is educating, empowering and supporting parents, caregivers and all those involved in the lives of young people to understand menstruation and feminine energy in a way that empowers and enhances the life experience of all women, regardless of age and life stage.
Supporting young people
“If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.” Jessie Potter, the featured speaker at the Woman to Woman conference in 1981.
For many, menstruation is starting at a younger age than it would have for previous generations. Ensuring that young people aren’t overwhelmed by the changes is key.
When I speak with adults, the majority wish they had known more about their bodies, their cyclical nature, and how to flow with the weekly changes that come with a menstrual cycle.
If we want things to be different, we need to do things differently.
Age-appropriate conversations from a young age are key to empowering children to have a positive experience of menstruation, and indeed a healthy and positive relationship with their bodies. Often parents will wait to have these conversations until they feel that their children are ready. Research tells us that by the time we believe children are ‘ready’, they will already know more than we think they do, and the information they have received may not be accurate or positive.
For those aged 8 and up, it is helpful to become familiar with menstrual products. Period pants are a great option for young girls and indeed people of all ages. Ensuring that they know where to get products, or that they have menstrual products with them or they feel confident to ask for them if they are spending time away from the parents or primary carers, is really important. Having products is one thing, but knowing how to use them is key. We need to have these conversations, or role model how we use the products ourselves.
The most important thing that adults can do is look at their own beliefs around menstruation and explore what story or experience they want to pass on to their children. Conversation is important and so is leading by example. Much of our knowledge comes from what we see as well as what we are told. We owe it to the next generation to have conversations about menstruation and all things puberty related that go beyond basic biology. This may mean that we need to educate and empower ourselves first. This is a win–win. When women share their knowledge with those they live and work with, we feel more supported to navigate the different phases of our cycles, and so being able to slow down in the winter phase becomes more likely.
Lorraine Turley explains how she started the conversation with her childrenMy 3- and 4-year-old (a boy and a girl) follow me everywhere – including the bathroom – and they began to ask me questions. I really didn’t want to make up some fairytale-type story and so I got in touch with Joanne for advice. She suggested Rachael Crow’s book Why Does Mummy Bleed. The three of us snuggled up on the sofa to read it and they weren’t fazed one bit! They simply said, “OK,” and hopped off the sofa back to their play. It was so matter-of-fact to them. They just accepted it. They have both since chosen it one or two times as their bedtime story, and will occasionally mention my eggs and my bleed. I feel more comfortable and confident in talking to my children about my cycle. I’ll tell them when I’m feeling tired or have sore ‘boobies’, or when I have loads of energy and start rearranging the furniture in the house! I hope to continue my journey with my children in giving them the facts and information about their bodies, and any other topics, in a child-friendly way.
Joanne Callan lives in the beautiful Ring of Gullion, County Armagh in the North of Ireland. She loves spending time in nature; enjoys food, both cooking and eating and is passionate about educating, empowering and supporting people to be the healthiest they can be. Joanne is a holistic therapist and wellbeing coach, a Moon Mother and a menstrual educator working in schools and for community and private organisations. She is the owner and founder of Moon Times and Changing Cycles community interest company. changingcyclescommunity.com
Illustration by Isobel Higley
First published in Issue 73 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.