Coming of Age
by Erin Chianese
I’ve been transferring photographs from the supposed nasty, acid-filled, photo-eating albums of cellophane and sticky paperboard to the acclaimed safety of the pristine, modern, expensive scrapbooks. I am relieved of the boredom of this tedious task by the darling photos themselves. I’m reliving the days of drooping diapers on my cute pudgy babies. I want to hug my kiddos as I cut and paste photos of them: my older daughter screeching with delight on her first trike, my younger daughter so confident in her walking abilities that she is tromping around in daddy’s huge tennis shoes. We all have sweet memories of our kiddos taking their first steps, saying a first word, losing a first tooth, and, lucky homeschoolers that we are, reading a first book.
Emotional development is much more subtle in showing its achievements, but they inevitably appear: riding his bike around the block by himself, caring for a pet, being left alone in the home for an hour, making the phone call for scheduling a play date or other such important personal business. All of these we parents mull over: is he ready? Can she handle related situations that may arise? Then when we are sure that our kids can take on these new responsibilities, why don’t we get as excited about them as when they first smile or balance on their two-wheeler? I, personally, am grateful for all these miniature acts of independence. These mini-steps remind me to let go my frantic grip that I allude myself into thinking has been keeping my children safe. I know that in reality my children are safer when they can think for themselves and make decisions at crucial moments. These mini-steps give them the practice and confidence they will need to make those decisions later on in life. They are each small empowering acts which our kids must accomplish along the road to maturity, and how much more empowering if we take time to acknowledge them in some way.One woman I know wanted to make a big deal of giving her son a house key. She wanted him to realize what it meant to have that key in his pocket when he was away from home. She wanted him to know how much she trusted him. And she wanted him to know that she knew he could handle the responsibility of owning the key, using the key, and taking care of himself if he entered an empty house. I am sure she presented the house key to her son very ceremoniously. For her it was a big step too.
Traditionally, boys and girls become men and women at puberty. Again, this is not always a fine line and we parents are not always ready for it. There are many coming of age ceremonies that religious institutions and cultures offer such as rituals, parties, or religious ceremonies usually set at age 13-15. It is very exciting to go to a Maiden or Manhood Ceremony, one by one in a community, sharing the joy of the young person in their own milestone. It is an anticipated event by all, made the sweeter by the youth being ready for it in their own personal time. I would like to mention a few here that are homemade celebrations, tailored to fit the youth and his or her family.Male Coming of Age Ceremonies are much more well-known than female ones, although I have heard of girls also using some of the activities of physical strength in their ceremonies. I’m thinking of the night out in a tent alone in the forest, or achieving a Black Belt in karate.
A few of my friends’ sons have had celebrations that were each molded to fit their own circumstances. One mother, whose husband died when her son was ten years old, wanted her son at 13 to be formally accepted and supported by the men in his community. The invited men and the son gathered for a dinner together. A few speeches were made in the youth’s honor, and then each man presented him with a handwritten letter, a testimony of support. The letters were private and would be kept by the youth as a constant reminder of the man’s offering to him in his life. Perhaps an uncle offered him advice or guidance, a friend offered friendship, and a teacher offered a skill.Another 13-year-old boy we know wanted a ceremony but he wasn’t quite ready at that time. He and his family decided that he would have his Manhood Ceremony in one year. In that time, the boy would accomplish some tasks he set out for himself and he would do some spiritual study. He had a lovely ceremony in his Unitarian church which included all ages in attendance. His parents were honored and they each spoke. The community that gathered were given an opportunity to speak and the youth spoke. He was given items of meaning, and he was given letters from his parents and mentors.
The first Maiden Ceremony that my daughters and I attended was held right after sunrise at a park. We didn’t know what to expect. We were asked to bring a flower and some yarn. We went around the circle of women and girls, each person weaving their flower onto a wreath, saying aloud what makes us feel beautiful. The maiden shone with the gorgeous wreath on her head! Next we each added our yarn to a rope machine as we said aloud what makes us feel strong. Then the maiden cranked the machine’s handle which entwined all the yarn pieces and made a rope. Next we each expressed a wish or blessing for the maiden as a woman. Then we all sang “The Circle Game” and tearfully hugged the maiden. The whole ceremony was beautiful and heartwarming. Each person felt a part of it and went away embracing her own womanhood.My oldest daughter had her first menses at 11 and I was not prepared. My daughter was excited though, so we had an evening ceremony a week later. We started before twilight and we all sat in a circle on our patio. I asked everyone to bring some items including a candle. I invited my daughter’s friends and their mothers. And I invited relatives and my women friends who I think were apprehensive to come but who all loved the experience. The ceremony was much like the one I just described, only at the closing, we each lit our candles. It was dark by then and the lovely circle of candlelight emanated the unity and love we all felt. We then mingled and ate together. My daughter thoroughly enjoyed her ceremony and felt proud and honored.
My husband wanted so much to be there but I said, “No, women only.” His reply was, “But can I take a few pictures or video clips?” He cleverly used this excuse to watch the whole ceremony from the shadows. He really enjoyed it and felt a part of it too.Other Maiden Ceremonies I’ve attended have done different activities. At one, the moms brought a photo of themselves as teenagers while the daughters brought a baby picture. We put them up on a board and had fun looking at our youthful selves. At another, we each spoke of our own first and subsequent menses and gave tips to the maiden. We also brought thoughtful gifts to her: There was a journal, a frame, an astrological reading. One woman gave the gift of teaching the maiden one of her skills. Another activity was to write a wish or a blessing to the maiden for when in the future, she would have her first baby. We stuffed these into blown-out eggs for her to crack open after this first birth. For another keepsake, everyone brought a fabric square with a message to the maiden, which would be sewn into a quilt. And at another ceremony, we made two circles, an inner and outer one. The outer circle was made up of women who had had their menses and the inner was made up of those girls who hadn’t, plus the maiden. We then sang and walked in different directions and the mother of the maiden pulled her out of the inner circle to join the outer circle.
My younger daughter also had her menses at age 11. She is a very private person and did not want a ceremony at this young an age. My husband and I gave her a special necklace and wrote her letters. She is the one this time not ready. I feel it is important to let her set her own timetable or to celebrate in her own way.These gentle ceremonies are a loving rite of passage. The youths we know look forward to their own ceremonies. I wish I had one for when I had reached adulthood. Instead of feeling embarrassed and awkward, our kids now feel celebrated and included by the adults in their lives. They realize that reaching this milestone is important and the ceremonies will give them meaning and support throughout the years to come. And we adults feel honored too as models and members of manhood or womanhood. These ceremonies acknowledge us for raising these people from infancy to their shiny new adulthood. They are fleeting moments where we can show how proud we are that they are merely themselves.
Erin Chianese is a homeschooling mom of two girls.