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Big welcome back to The Leak for 2024! We’re delighted to start off the year with a blog from Hannah Brown about menstrual story work and the menstrual taboo.

It feels right to start by sharing this powerful quote with you. For me it is a call to arms, a menstrual mission statement and a glimpse into the world I want for our daughters. It also links beautifully to the idea of menstrual story work; a lens through which we examine our menstrual story, as it unfolds – 

At her first bleeding a woman meets her power 

During her bleeding years she practices it 

At menopause she becomes it 

-traditional native American saying, quote in Lucy H Pearce’s book: Moon time. 

Menstrual story work defines the process of exploring how key moments in your menstrual story have impacted on your; beliefs, your lineage, your view of your cycle and your relationship to yourself and your body. I coined this term, influenced by my work with children, to describe the foundation of my coaching which combines social work methods with cycle coaching. Using a narrative approach I support people to examine key menstrual moments in their lives that have happened and those around the corner (e.g. menarche and menopause), as how things begin, can inform how they play out and how they end, it’s all cyclical! 

This exploration of the rites of passage we have experienced and their impact can really help menstruators reconnect with and reclaim their cycles, and with it a new relationship with themselves, as they are supported to unpick and reframe cultural and familial conditioning, and where needed to re-initiate themselves in the way they wish they had been initiated to begin with. 

This narrative approach of linking the past with the present and building a bridge into the future is mirrored in Life Journey Work with children who are looked after, the way in which children in out of home care are supported to understand their story. As a qualified children’s social worker and trainer / consultant I have facilitated lots of group work with professionals on Life Journey Work, reflecting on how we talk to children about what has happened to them and the detrimental impact of saying nothing or not giving an honest account. 

The barriers that professionals describe in engaging in meaningful Life Journey Work with children are the same as the barriers that children experience in accessing meaningful and useful menstrual education – we don’t know how to tell children difficult information!! We worry about telling them too much, telling them not enough, distressing them, but ultimately we lack the confidence to tell children the truth in an age appropriate way. And is this any surprise given how poorly we were menstrually educated? 

Blame and shame 

What happens when children aren’t given the whole story, 100% honesty in an age appropriate way, is that they fill in the gaps, often with magical thinking and often with stories that blame themselves and cause enormous shame. Children who were unable to remain in their family of origin need to understand what happened to them was not their fault, to

minimise the shame and blame they internalised. We also need to try and build a child’s self esteem so they know they are not bad, but that bad things happened to them and they survived. 

Similarly children who were not properly initiated into menarche and were not given the whole story also need to understand that what happened to them was not their fault. A lack of meaningful preparation for this transformational rites of passage is more likely to lead to children filling in the gaps with misinformation, leading to poorer self esteem, and the experience of menstrual shame, which is pervasive. Without this fundamental preparation, these children will go on to be adults who may need to be supported to trace back through their red thread (their maternal lineage), re-examine and reclaim their rites through the process of menstrual story work. 

Since I discovered menstrual cycle awareness and trained to be a cycle coach I have been supported to understand how my experiences around my menarche have shaped me. I was lucky enough to have been supported by my family when I entered menarche and was given black onyx heart shaped earrings as a gift by my Mum. Despite this welcoming, I was still negatively impacted by my Mum’s negative experience of heavy and painful periods and by wider social and cultural messaging. 

By having the opportunity to explore how those negative beliefs about periods and being a female in a body that bleeds were internalised, I learnt that my relationship with my body, and myself had been compromised. I felt like my body was problematic and not 100% my own. This ultimately led to a number of risky sexual behaviours because I didn’t have full bodily autonomy, which resulted in a lot of shame and blame, some of which I am still unpicking. 

Through menstrual story work I now understand that what happened to me was not my fault! I have been lucky enough to start reclaiming my cycle and with it a new relationship with myself which is helping me guide my daughter through her menarche and heal our red thread. 

By telling children the truth about what is going to happen to them as they journey through puberty into adolescence and beyond, and preparing them for these hugely significant and transformational rites of passage, we can reduce menstrual shame and the need for adults 

to have menstrual story work and nurture a generation of menstruators who honour their cyclicity and stand strong in their power. That is the world that I want to live in.

Hannah Brown

Menstrual cycle coach

Hannah Brown is a menstrual cycle coach, social worker, trainer / consultant and Mum of two who lives in South Wales in the UK. She is on a mission to change the menstrual narrative.
She offers 1:1 menstrual cycle coaching sessions, cyclical supervision for practitioners and workshops for children and adults.