Navigating Midlife By the Moon

In the next ten years more women will be entering menopause than in all of recorded history. There are forty million women scheduled to go though menopause in the next 20 years. The Baby Boomers, born in the 1940’s and early 1950’s are five times more numerous than any preceding generation. Menopause will not be the same thing once this flood of women have gone through it.

In our culture menopause is cast as a disease. Menopausal women are the largest commercial market in history, with the estrogen Premarin the most prescribed drug in the United States. Descriptions of the horrors of depressed, irritable, shriveled old women fill the medical journals and the pop magazines.

This prevailing attitude, promoted largely by the medical establishment, is that no woman will be able to cope with menopausal changes without the intervention of doctors, through surgery or drugs. Ninety percent of women visiting their doctors in their 40’s are recommended hormone replacement therapy.

Modern medicine and better nutrition are allowing women to live longer, often another 35-40 years after the midlife transition. Living longer, but not always better.

Lack of Respect or Rituals for the Midlife Transformation

In many cultures the post menopausal woman is considered powerful and wise. There are social roles or positions that are not available until a woman has made this crossing. The most powerful shamaness or healer is the woman in her late 50’s or older. In many tribal situations the older woman, with her intimate wisdom gained from the years of nurturing children and managing the family, moves on to nurture and manage the tribe through her position on the tribal council (especially notable with the Hopi and the New Zealand Maori, matriarchal cultures that value women).

Studies indicate symptoms are rarer in cultures where post menopausal women gain power and status that they didn't have in reproductive years. In China, influenced by the knowledge gained through 7000 years of Chinese medicine that values and supports longevity, distressing physical symptoms are uncommon, or seen in a very different light. For example, hot flashes are considered valuable for their cleansing qualities. Heat or fevers are the best means of clearing toxic material, viruses, and cancerous cells from the body.

Midlife is just not recognized for the profound transformational journey it can be. Women who are going through this period of flux and internal change are held up o ridicule. The surgical removal of the uterus, a hysterectomy, is our only cultural ritual to help women mark the shedding of an old life and the taking up of new powers. Consider the roots of the word hysterectomy, “The surgical removal of the uterus, believed to be responsible for the generation of abnormal emotional fears or hysteria”.

Cycles of the Moon in Women's Lives

At midlife, a woman begins to make her transition to the powerful third cycle of life. These three cycles are symbolized in the roles of Maiden, Mother and Crone. Each cycle lasts for approximately 28 years, and ebbs and flows in a manner similar to the cycle of the Moon, from New, waxing to Full and then waning. The light increases, to peak at the Full Moon, then decreases and disappears, just before the next New Moon begins.

The timing and duration of each of these cycles corresponds precisely to the cycles of the progressed Moon. The progressed Moon’s movement can be used by a woman as a timing tool for anticipating opportunities and challenges within each cycle. Peak moments where the significant shifts happen are always associated with Moon changes.

The first cycle, that of the Maiden, is from birth to age 28, approximately (the timing for each woman will be slightly different, and can be seen in the astrological chart). This is the cycle of youth, of the woman coming into her first flowering, exploring and experimenting with life.

The second cycle is that of the Mother, from age 28 to 56. In this cycle a woman is focused upon giving birth to and nurturing something she creates, whether it be a family or a relationship, a talent or a profession.

These roles are symbolic ones, as not all women will become mothers, and certainly not all right around age 28. Some women become mothers in their Maiden cycle, some women never give birth to a child in their Mother cycle. A woman who becomes a mother in the Maiden cycle of her life experiences this role in a different, more childlike, naive way than does a woman who commences parenting in the Mother cycle. A woman needs to nourish and feed an emerging aspect of life during her cycle as Mother.

The third cycle, which begins around age 56, the cycle of the Wise Woman or Crone, is the one we have neglected in our youth oriented culture. This is the time a woman comes into her wisdom. All the experience she has gathered in her lifetime becomes her wealth, to pass on to her tribe or community. She steps beyond the purely personal realms of experience, to share her accumulation of knowledge with others, Her presence becomes a stabilizing force for those around her.

This is a profoundly neglected and ignored cycle in a woman’s life. Powerful, wise women cool their heels alone and lonely in empty nests. They are undervalued by our culture, unable to re-enter the work force in any position that reflects the richness and value of their abounding wisdom and understanding. We have no place for these women to go, at a time when they are potentially more powerful than ever.

There are many women who are entering this phase now, and these are women who are unwilling to “go quiet into that good night”. This is a generation of women who reclaimed birth as a natural process, and know of the power in doing so. In increasing numbers these women are saying no to sedating themselves through their midlife transformations. They are saying no to the dangers of hormone replacement therapy as a means of keeping them in a perpetual artificial youth. They want to be awake and alert to the power they are coming into, and are looking for signs and tools along the way with which to navigate the journey.

The Progressed Moon Illuminates the Path

The progressed Moon is a remarkable tool in the navigation of this profound midlife transformation. The phases of the progressed Moon are the major marking stones along the journey.

Progressions are a system astrologers use to predict developmental stages along the path of life. It takes approximately 28 years for the Moon to complete a progressed lunar cycle. The moon goes through each cycle, moving from New to First Quarter, then Full and Last Quarter, and back to New just as it does in the sky every month. The progressed Moon is a symbolic journey, encompassing years rather than days, though possessing similar attributes. As it reaches New and Full, as it waxes and wanes, it provides clues regarding the nature of opportunities and challenges in a woman’s journey.

The Progressed Full Moon: Age 42

Around the age of 42 there is a peak in the second cycle of life. This is the high point of the cycle of the Mother, which began around age 28. At this time the Progressed Moon opposes itself, creating a symbolic Full Moon in every woman's life.

The progressed Full Moon comes at a slightly different time, and lasts for a varying period for each of us, but consists of a period from between 3 months to 2 1/2 years when the progressed Moon opposes the position of the Moon at birth. During this time, a woman reaches a life peak, a culmination of effort of the last fourteen years. Children are reaching a point of maturity, in our work we are achieving some of the goals we set for ourselves in our 30’s. This is the time to celebrate the fullness of whatever it is a woman has brought to life and nourished, whether this be biological, creative or professional. It can be a professional peak of acknowledgment or the gratifying maturation of gifts and skills in a child.

Full Moon

Time of culmination, emotional peak and fullness as well as potential emotional overload. This is a time many women sense the beginning of a total reorganization of life, a turn of the tide which is going to move them in very different directions in their lives.

The Full Moon is always a time of emotional intensity and volatility, and this is similar for the progressed Full Moon at age 42. This phase is full of powerful emotions which flood the system. One is full up with emotions, overloaded with the emotional care of mate and family. The bowl of motherhood begins to overflow, discharged through rages and tears.

Forty-two is often a watershed year in a woman’s life. Most women experience profound changes in this year, signs of the shift in orientation that is beginning to happen. There is usually some crisis, some break in the weave and rhythm of life as it has been, that acts as an omen of imminent change. The Chinese believe that at Full Moon, when the light is brightest, the forces of darkness are strongest within, readying themselves to break forth with the turn of the light.

The Full Moon has been reached, and the light begins to decrease, preparing for another cycle. After the peak begins the process of dissolution and shedding of this old way of relating to others and to the world.

The Waning Square of the Moon: Age 49

Between 42 and 49 (remember, we each have our personal timing, look to the progressed Moon in your own chart), the old life loses its hold. Boredom, apathy, disinterest in family and work illustrate the shift. Physical symptoms of aging appear, the wrinkles, the hot flashes and irritability, fluctuations or cessation in menstrual flow.

Within a woman’s life and her body appear the signs of the greatest wisdom, that dissolution must precede new life. We forget and are reminded that all of life is cyclic. There is a great round of birth, of flowering and of death, and then of birth again. All of our lives we have this mystery revealed within the cycle of the Moon, and in the cycle of our monthly fertility and blood. the dominant patterns of a woman’s personality are dissolving. She becomes itchy and irritable, uncomfortable like a snake that must shed its skin. She needs solitude and time to reflect.

This is the time a woman is challenged to shed the role of caretaker of all the souls around her. She gets hard to live with, she pushes people away with her irritability. She needs to be alone, to discover what it is she needs to nourish herself. Some of her work is to rediscover what is was that she gave away as she entered the cycle of the Mother. The talents and passions that were put aside in order to get along with mate or family or community, the pleasures or interests that she had no time for when she was nurturing her family, all come back clamoring for attention.

Regret and depression are common as a woman senses a fading of the light. She has peaked with the Full Moon, and is this all there is? Will she get another chance, is there enough time to pursue some of those neglected gifts and passions? Personal failures and weakness loom large in her vision, as do the frailties of those around her. Life is hard, and yet those hard places are potentially the opportunities upon which to scratch and push in order to facilitate this metamorphosis into a new power.

The expectations of family and society have formed a woman’s personal traits and characteristics up to this point, and they no longer work. She is bored and disillusioned with life. Depression, nostalgia and regret drag her down as she witnesses the ending of this way of relating to her world, and yet does not know what, if anything will come in its place.

The progressed waning square of a woman’s Moon to the position it held at her birth, often at age 49, signals an intensification of the dissolution process. Some crisis provides the impetus to surrender more, to shed more skins. In Chinese the symbol for the word “crisis” is the same as the word “opportunity”. At 49, there comes an opportunity.

Solitude becomes a desperate hunger, a necessity in order to listen, to give in to whatever begs to be let loose into her new life ahead. She may appear lost, floundering. She may need to wander in nature, or sleep long hours. She is shedding, clearing away the past, in her dreams, her rages and her tears.

New Moon, New Life: Age 56

So what is this new life, this new promise rumbling just beneath the surface in the late 40’s, early 50’s? How does a woman find this new life, what does she do to let it out? What is it?

In each of us the journey and the outcome will be somewhat different, and much of the work is actually done in the dark of the Moon, in the months preceding the New Moon around age 56. There must be a separation from the comfort of life as it has been. This is not always our choice, sometimes it is brought to us at this time in our lives, through an illness, a death, the loss of a job, a love affair, a terrible depression.

The pattern of the Moon, myths of women’s journeys, stories of those who have gone before, and the wisdom of the body, all are signs along the way. The promise of a New Moon and the experience of cycles must lend some trust that there will be another chance. What you had no longer works, no longer brings you pleasure, and yet you don’t know where to go.

New Moon

There is a new cycle starting, and yet, in those first few nights of the New Moon, the crescent is not yet visible. This wisdom is paralleled in the progressed New Moon, A woman must act upon impulse, she has nothing but her own deep wisdom that leads her in the direction she must go. And yet there is nothing tangible for her to hold onto, just an act of faith, a knowledge that she cannot go back, she must step forward.

Each challenge that she responds to, each demon she faces- in her fears, the blocks and obstacles along the way from people who doubt her or want to hold her back, these are all the gathering of power.

Tools and Rituals of Renewal

There are tools that can help a woman navigate the midlife journey. The body needs tending, nourishing in a different way to do the work well. Use as much as possible the allies that nature provides. There are herbs and foods to help the body, and attitudes and experiences that help the spirit and soul.

Exercise is important, keeping the body supple and strong. It doesn’t need to be aerobic classes, even walking for 20 minutes three times a week will make a big difference in the life force available to you. Yoga, or even stretching exercises improve circulation, coordination and agility, and help with stress management. Take time for yourself. Some kind of withdrawal from your ordinary life is absolutely necessary in order to make a successful midlife crossing. It is only in solitude that a woman can really face the changes in her body and her life. In silence and alone she can come to terms with what needs to go, to die in order for something else to be born. Find solitude in a few hours of stillness away from the week’s routines of life, find it in weekends in nature and alone.

In other times, when signs of menopause and the darkening of the Moon showed that a woman was ready, she was allowed to leave the tribe and go away for a while. These days, we have no positive ritual withdrawal, unless we manage it through a serious health crisis. Perhaps this is something this flood tide of midlife women will begin to demand and create the midlife sabbatical.

Have fun. One of the greatest lessons of midlife is that you no longer have to live by other people’s rules and needs. You are the mistress of your own life. Pick your own company, find your own daily rhythms, sleep less or at different times. If you are called to, nap in the daytime and save the precious night hours for your soul nourishment, dancing, painting, writing.

Eat more fresh, plant based foods, vegetables, grains, tofu. Reduce dairy and animal fats; eat less red meat, although fish and organic chicken (no hormones) are ok. Try to eat organic, unprocessed foods. Avoid additives and preservatives and keep salt, sugar and hydrogenated fats, like margarine to a minimum.

Vitamin E is about the best thing to keep hot flashes to a manageable level and strengthens the heart. Calcium with magnesium keeps the bones strong, and essential fatty acids, found in flax seed or borage oil, are fabulous sources of anti inflammatories, good for the joints and nerves and help skin and hair dryness.

Herbs for the body to help the physical symptoms of the metamorphosis include estrogenic herbs (best for women who have short, irregular or absent periods), such as black cohosh, sage, alfalfa, red clover, or licorice. For women who experience heavy bleeding and frequent periods, try progesterone rich herbs, such as vitex (also know as chaste-tree berry), sarsaparilla, or wild yam. Herbs can be taken as tea- one to two cups daily, as a tincture one dropper one to four times a day, or in capsules, two capsules one to four times a day. The mineral rich herbs such as nettle, oat straw, horsetail or even raspberry leaf make great daily tea beverages that strengthen the nerves and the bones.

If you have unavoidable stress, consider a herb that is known as a stress adaptogen, raising your energy levels and increasing your tolerance to stress, such as Siberian ginseng. It isn’t a real ginseng, which is generally too stimulating for a woman’s body at midlife.

For support to the nervous system and better sleep, use skullcap or oats, which not only calm the system but also help rebuild it. If you are thin and hyperactive, licorice or borage may be your best allies, nourishing your hardworking adrenal glands.

Hypericum, or St. John’s Wort as it is also known, is getting a lot of attention these days as a safe and supportive mild antidepressant that also nourishes the nervous system. Depression is a valuable aspect of any transition. Depression is often a sign that your life no longer nourishes you. Don’t go running for the Hypericum until you have spent some time with the depression, giving it time to reveal what needs to go in your life, unless you are really incapacitated. Sometimes it helps purely to know that you have an ally in the plant world that can help you if things get really difficult, and you may not need to take it.

There are many other plant allies, check with your natural health practitioner, read and get educated, and don’t forget Rescue Remedy (also known as Five-Flower Remedy), a wonderful mild, non-sedating all around and emotional balancer made from the essences of flowers available at your local health food store.

Living the Wise Woman's Way

And so, the Moon comes around again. With the New Moon in the 50’s a woman moves to become mistress of her own life. Her body calms, older and less energetic perhaps, but also more predictable. She has gone into the darkness with the darkening of the Moon at midlife and faced her terrors. She has retrieved her spirit from the Dark Goddess. She begins another cycle of creativity.

Remember, each cycle begins with a spark, and it is only in moving through the cycle that one’s true self and right action emerge. In this cycle, the cycle of the Wise Woman, a truly wise woman pursues what gives her the greatest joy and the greatest sense of meaning.

The more a woman does what brings her joy, the more physical energy is available to her. If this confuses you, just think of one thing that you enjoy doing, and then go do it. Do it, whether it be dancing or taking long walks, sculpture or studying a subject that intrigues you. The more you direct your creative energy, the more energy there will be. Follow your bliss, and wherever that takes you has nothing to do with striving for success or keeping anyone happy but yourself.

In following this bliss and in radiating the happiness that comes with this journey, you do such great service to others, which is another part of this cycle. You inspire the women coming after you, you remind everyone that all things are cyclic, that the New Moon will always follow the dark, that new life always comes out of the old.

Navigating Midlife By the Moon
©1998 Gretchen Lawlor