Recently I was asked to write both about my experience of being in my fifties and my menopausal experiences. It’s difficult for me to write in my authentic voice about this. My first reaction is to start doing research and then educate you, my dear reader. If I approach the question academically, then it removes me one step from my feelings. If I think about it, I don’t feel it; however, most of these experiences are visceral, not cerebral.
Looking back two years at my first self-portrait, you can see how shy I was then, how inhibited I was about sharing myself, how uncomfortable I was in front of the camera. I’m different now.
I am standing on the boundary of a new territory. Turning 60 in April feels like a threshold event. I used to think that 60 was REALLY old but I don’t feel as old as I thought I would. I feel like me only wiser, more purposeful, less angst-ridden. I know who I am.
I’ve experienced many Steppingstones* on the spiral journey of my life.
First portal: Maiden
The feelings I’ve had throughout my journey as a woman are as complex and varied as the stars. I didn’t get my period until I was nearly 15. I was so worried that something was wrong with me. I wanted to be like the other girls. I wanted to know what they were talking about.
As a Maiden, I had romantic and foolish notions about becoming a W-O-M-A-N! Once I started my period, I was repulsed by the mess and the (omg) thick, uncomfortable pads and (OMG!) belts and buckles. I was worried about the smell and the “accidents” and bleeding all over my sheets at night.
When I turned 30, I started getting terrible pre-menstrual symptoms. I went to see my doctor because I didn’t know why I was having extreme mood swings with such terrible irritability. HE informed me that PMS “is a disease we have been treating for 10 years.” I never went back to see him. I was offended that he referred to being born female as a disease.
I was at my physical peak in my early 30’s. I trained in martial arts for five years, could run an 8 minute mile and lifted weights in the gym with the college football players. I feel sad to remember that I still thought I was fat when I was at my most lean and fit, but body dysmorphia is a topic for another day.
Second portal: Mother
I am in awe of the sacred blood of women, the life-affirming blood we possess. We bleed without dying. We can create new life and become a Mother. I’m happy that mothers are beginning to teach teach their daughters to celebrate their menses and are creating special rituals for them. **
In deference to all the women who struggle with fertility issues, I hope this passage is not too painful to read. I almost want to apologize for the ease with which I was able to get pregnant. For years I tried not to get pregnant but when I felt ready to have children, it didn’t take long. I was 35 when I had my first daughter and 38 when I had my second. At that time I didn’t know I was tempting the gods by waiting for so long. I was fortunate that conception wasn’t a problem and for that, I am truly grateful.
I loved breastfeeding. I was amazed that my body could nourish my child. What a miracle. And yet, It’s nothing less, and nothing more than planting a seed, growing a tree and harvesting its fruit. The essence of life as we know it is in the nature of our existence.
I loved my 40’s. I was a mother of young children who worked, exercised and maintained a garden. I had so much energy. When my children were 4 and 6, I quit working and stayed home. Motherhood was all-consuming. I took them to dance classes and piano lessons, and became their Girl Scout leader. We did a lot of fun things together as a family, too.
Third portal: Crone? Not yet!
My daughters began going through puberty about the same time I began having menopausal symptoms. My first hot flash occurred on my oldest daughter’s 15th birthday. The girls experienced puberty going forward, confused by their changing bodies. I felt like I was going through puberty backwards and was equally confused by my changing body.
These physical changes are life altering. The body is in charge. No amount of wishing makes it any other way.
Oh, the mood swings worsened as I lurched through my cycles and became irregular. Night sweats caused insomnia. I woke up at 2 a.m. nightly for months. And then, the weird stuff I never heard about began – sensitivity to smells, motion sickness when never before, and lactose intolerance. Simultaneously, weird stuff I had heard of before appeared – the loss of libido, dry and wrinkling skin, chin hairs, and age spots.
After a year of not sleeping, I caved and tried Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). It turned out to be heavenly. Suddenly I had a life without hormonal mood swings. My depression dissipated. I stopped taking the pills after five years because of the health risks, but it sure was a sweet ride while it lasted.
There was a pivotal moment one night in my early 50’s. My husband and my oldest daughter were working and my youngest was away on a cross-country team trip. I was Home Alone in the evening for the first time in eons. I realized that soon both girls would be driving, branching out and moving away as children will do. For over thirteen years I stayed at home with them. My life revolved around them. I thought, “If I don’t do something before they are gone from the house, I will go nuts with an empty nest.”
I kept my eye on the want ads and one day I applied for a part-time job. Next thing I knew, I was working again. With dismay, I realized that both girls were still at home and I had twice as much to do. They still needed me. I had forgotten what it was like to try and juggle everything.
On the job, being older was a perk. I had experience that I could share with my younger co-workers. I didn’t “sweat” my peculiar boss because I was old enough to be his mother. He just didn’t intimidate me. I had skills and education that helped me build an awesome program from scratch.
A lot of friends told me it was “all downhill after 50,” but my physical downhill hit at 55 in Kathmandu, Nepal. I was in a hotel bathroom, looking down at my thighs and appalled that they had turned into cottage cheese. I thought rather innocently that, “I must be retaining water from the airplane trip.” Not. We went from Nepal to Bhutan where there is no flat land anywhere, except for the airport runway in Paro. My knees were killing me by the end of the trip. My knees and legs will never be the same.
I worked in that position for four years before I stopped wanting to work for someone else. I discovered that when the ovaries quit producing estrogen so does the overwhelming urge to take care of other people, animals and plants. I had no clue until I read The Wisdom of Menopause by Christiane Northrup. She explained that when the hormones disappear, so does the desire to meet everyone else’s needs. I found this rather shocking and I believe it’s been an unpleasant shift for my family as well.
The new third portal: Queen
Thanks to Donna Henes***, I know now that I’ve entered into the stage between Mother and Crone. Because of improved nutrition and medical care, women are living longer. This is a significant time of transition for many women. I, too, am becoming the Queen of Myself. I’m not yet a grandmother nor am I elderly.
Eighteen months ago, I quit my job and I started my own business. I brought all of my skills and experiences together when I finally figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up!
“Ridiculous is the new remarkable.” ~Seth Godin
To be continued……
*Steppingstones are defined by Ira Progroff, in At a Journal Workshop, as a process for working in the Life/Time Dimension. “The Steppinstones are the significant points of movement along the road of an individual’s life.”
***The Queen of Myself by Donna Henes