Gray Hairs and Growing Pains

Mother Nature is a cruel bitch. I know that is not an original thought, but it’s true, nonetheless. Why else would she bring a mother to the end of her reproductive life just as her daughter was entering hers? My hormonal roller coaster started to plummet just as my daughter’s began its barrel rolls. Perimenopause meeting adrenarche at the breakfast table each morning. Toast crunching and sparks flying. Just a glimpse of what life would look like when full-blown puberty came face to face with menopause. (If you’re thinking we need our own Pixar characters—I agree.)

From the time of my first period until my first IVF, my periods were as regular as a Swiss watch. After that first failed IVF, I menstruated only sporadically. My FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone) levels yo-yoed, occasionally buoying me with hope when they bounced within normal range. Doctors told me that the infertility drugs did not cause early perimenopause. Rather, my perimenopause caused the infertility issues. In the end it didn’t matter which came last, the period or the egg.

Infertility treatments seemed to launch me into early menopause before my 40th birthday. They also made me a mother. I had spent my 20s traveling to friends’ weddings. My 30s sending birthday gifts to their kids. And just as many of those friends were packing their kids for college, I was giving birth to my first, and only, child. It was what the medical community calls a “geriatric pregnancy.”

As these things go, my perimenopause was, to be fair, an easy transition. I stopped bleeding. Given that I apparently can’t make my own eggs, that was a big “so what?” I had a cute baby, was yoga fit, and could still rock skinny jeans with tall boots. My Change was quiet and unassuming; twelve months must’ve passed without a period at some point, and I moved from perimenopausal to menopausal without my knowledge, or consent.

That is until menopause came out swinging a few years later, without having been called to the plate. Hot flashes, though only occasional, started. It was a bit insulting, really; I hadn’t bled in years. My pituitary gland had to have known that. So why the temper tantrum? Couldn’t we all just get along? I looked in the mirror and tried to blow Ms. Pituitary a raspberry. So what if I’d gained a little weight around my middle? I wasn’t yet waddling toward “pear-shaped.” My hair got more silver. I bought blue rinse shampoo and fielded compliments.

I also started having serious toddler envy. As one of the oldest moms at my daughter’s school, I had friends who were still having babies. More than one baby bump sent me to my car to cry my eyes out for the siblings my daughter would never know. We’d had two failed IVF cycles when she was in pre-school. I’d been sad, but able to focus on the blessings at hand.

Now, five years later, I mourned those un-pregnancies, grieving silently in playgrounds and at birthday parties. Or, crying messily in the car when the tears would roll over me, unbidden. Choking back my sobs, I never recognized my mood dips as menopause symptoms.

More than sad, though, I was angry. All the time. We had just moved cross country for the second time in 18 months and both my husband and I had new jobs. We’d moved back “home,” to a city I’d lived in for more than 20 years, but our social circle seemed to have closed up in our absence. We’d bought a house that I’d convinced myself I didn’t love.

Despite my new job, I felt unfulfilled, unaccomplished, and unwanted. I began to look back on my fifty years and wonder what good I’d done and how I could fashion a path forward that achieved my teenage dreams of leaving the world a better place than I’d found it. I wanted my own version of It’s a Wonderful Life to prove my worth. Even while chairing a record-breaking fundraiser and successfully changing careers, I saw brick walls blocking every dream.

I found a terrific therapist, a woman not quite old enough to be my mother, who listened and helped and eventually suggested that my husband and I go to a marriage counselor.

Not once did she, or the marriage counselor (also an older woman) or two subsequent female therapists, ever mention that my anger and my occasional euphoria or bursts of energy had anything whatsoever to do with menopause. Rather than explore my hormonal reality, they had me question my marriage, friends, and siblings.

My primary care physician suggested all sorts of supplements—Vitamin D, B12 complex, magnesium, Omega-3s. But she didn’t mention that these are nutrients that most menopausal women need to balance mood swings and vaginal dryness. Or that my increased insomnia might be caused by menopause. And don’t get me started on my gynecologist (I found a new one).

My daughter was often angry in those days, too. We pushed each other’s buttons and fought a lot. I’m glad to say that we also laughed a lot and loved each other fiercely.

It took months for me to finally see the reality of our clashes: My baby was just about to come into her young adulthood. She could look around and plan for the person she wants to be and the life she wants to have. As I urged her to have goals and make a plan, I realized that I had not become the person I’d dreamt of at her age. I’d never had a plan.

It was a stark place for me. I woke up after wandering through forty years of adulthood in a desert of my own making. It was a vast expanse, barren, dry, and lonely. I assessed my life and came up short. And despite that, it was my responsibility to nurture a young woman to start thinking about the person she’d like to become.

It’s taken years for me to shake the feeling that being non-reproductive doesn’t have to mean that I’m no longer productive. I’ve reframed productivity and creativity to include all the parts of being a mom and housewife that I love, like planning and cooking meals, gardening, throwing down at Scrabble, and even walking the dog. I measure success in belly laughs and high fives.

In some ways, I think it has helped that I had to learn to manage my anger so that Charlotte could learn from me to manage hers. I’m not always successful. Far from it. But she sees me trying. She knows I meditate daily and that it helps.

Talking openly at the dinner table about menstruation, menopause, and mood swings has helped all of us ride out our growing pains, I’m sure. I want to take that conversation public somehow; we teach our daughters so much about menarche and the onset of menstruation, celebrating their arrival. We should teach them as much about perimenopause and menopause. Because these are not departures. They are simply beginnings of another kind. To be a woman, our daughters need to know, is to be a work in progress.

I’m still assessing my life, but now I hope to avoid despair by planning for my next act, riding my new career to retirement, and maybe learning some new tricks along the way.

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