This just in: life does not end for women at or after menopause. For many women, transitioning into the next stage of life is reason to celebrate.
While celebrating the end of fertility might seem incongruous with a culture that prizes youth and rejects aging, for Joan O’Hara it makes perfect sense.
“We live in a society where there is a lack of honoring older women and a refusal to consider death or to look at age, the loss of fertility and even the effects of gravity,” said O’Hara, 83 of Kennebunk. “But becoming a crone is a historical part of the triple goddess maiden, mother/nurturer, and crone [a post-menopausal woman] we need to celebrate all three stages of life. I am a crone but not as the dictionary defines it.”
The word can conjure up images of a withered old woman, who appears frail and maybe even a bit scary. But that does not define O’Hara and friends Paula Moulton, 77 and Sheila Littlefield, 64 also of Kennebunk, who are active women who believe with age comes a wisdom that is worth commemorating. All three women have celebrated their passage into the post-menopausal years with the age-old tradition of the croning ceremony.
Croning ceremonies harken back to earlier cultures where aging women were recognized for their experience, wisdom and knowledge. And while the ceremony may have its roots in ancient rituals the modern experience can be anything that a woman wants it to be.
“All [ceremonies] are a little different,” said Moulton, a retired licensed clinical social worker. “At some that I’ve been to the woman being honored wears a black veil and when she becomes a crone the veil is lifted. Some women wear a crown I did and still have mine. Whatever the ritual is it’s the honoring of that woman’s life experience.”
During a croning ceremony women may form a circle around the woman being honored. Other women may offer gifts of music, poetry, jokes or whatever feels appropriate for the individual person. Although each ritual is unique the underlying theme is the same celebrating and sharing a woman’s transition into the next stage of life.
“I was in my 30s the first time I attended a ceremony,” said Littlefield, who retired last year from a career as a chiropractor. “There was something really loving about seeing a possible road stretching before you; a chance to see where you’re going and that the road doesn’t stop at 50. The ceremony is almost as valuable when you are a participant as when you are the honoree.”
So when does a woman officially become a crone? Littlefield said it depends on the woman.
“It’s more of a self-definition than a cut-in-stone definition. You are a crone when you feel you are,” she said. “I only accepted cronehood last fall after I retired. Until then I was focused on my career, not on becoming a crone. The defining piece for me is not age or grandchildren or anything external. It’s the sense of self; of being able to stand back and see the tapestry you’ve woven and see what the pattern is; when you can start to see the beauty and the flaws. There’s not enough time for reflection when you’re busy with being a mother, working, or whatever your focus is. Becoming a crone is a journey of self-discovery.”
For O’Hara it was a personal affirmation.
“It gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own inner changes and how I relate to the rest of the world,” said O’Hara. “In the process I realized I knew more than I thought I did.”
And sharing that knowledge and life experience with other women is empowering.
“In the business world there’s a tradition of finding a mentor. In the career setting, a younger woman might seek out an older woman to ask how they handled things,” said Moulton. “A wise old woman can offer the same in life – what did you do when your children were sick, or your spouse died, or any of the other things that happened – you’re able to share your experience.”
Croning ceremonies are often performed as part of a women’s circle, whether it be a formal group or a less structured one, comprised of friends and mentors.
O’Hara, Moulton and Littlefield belong to a “Women for All Seasons” group at the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church in Kennebunk. Women in the group range in age from late 20s through mid-80s. In terms of Unitarian Universalism O’Hara said the church has a Clara Barton sisterhood Barton was founder of the American Red Cross and a Universalist that pays tribute to the 80-year-old women in a congregation.
“It [the sisterhood] is the “root and the route” of honoring the wise woman,” said O’Hara. “What I like about the group we have now is it is about women in all seasons of life. There’s a joy in being part of a women’s circle. I like male companionship too, and enjoyed 50 years of marriage but always have had women friends. It’s been perpetual in my life the understanding, acceptance and support are quite important.”
That support is particularly meaningful to O’Hara and Moulton, who are both only-children.
“I have sisters in the circle of women,” said Moulton, “Friends that I can reach out to.”
According to Moulton, having a circle of women to share with forms a strong bond at any stage of life.
“I remember when I was a little girl at school. At recess we would sit in a circle on a hollowed out stump of an elm tree, talking, trading information and misinformation with each other about life and sex. A woman’s circle is an extension of that. We still share information, most of it good although some might still be misinformed,” said Moulton, laughing.
Accumulated wisdom, self-discovery, deepening connections with other women; all are upsides of life after menopause. And no, menopause is not the end of a woman’s sexuality, according to O’Hara, Moulton and Littlefield who all agree that it is actually quite freeing.
“You don’t have to think about birth control or the calendar,” said Littlefield.
“And it’s a lot easier to go camping,” Moulton quipped.
“Yes, it’s delightful not to have to pack supplies,” said O’Hara, laughing. “I have PMZ now. Post-Menopausal Zest.”
Sheila Littlefield, Paula Moulton and Joan O’Hara have all celebrated the transition into life after menopause with a “croning” ceremony. Some women fashion crowns, like Paula Moulton’s pictured here, to wear at their ceremony.