This Is Us

Holding the Phases: On Moons, Moods, and (Peri)Menopause

Maybe menopause is our body’s way of remembering who we used to be

Photo: Sean Payne/Flickr

Waning gibbous: the moon phase between full moon and third-quarter moon. A diminishment of light.

The worst part of perimenopause is the rage.

It starts as a slight edge, a bite that creeps into my voice. An irritated tone, a generalized impatience with my kids. I check the app on my phone with the little pink flower on it. Sure enough, it’s somewhere between 10 and 12 days until my next period is due.

I trade jokey texts with friends about my desire to build a PMS pod. A modern-day version of the red tent — where hormonal women can huddle to await menstruation, removed from society, free from the pestering of children and men. A soothing oasis, stocked with Netflix, sweet and salty snacks, and the softest of sweatpants.

After the rage comes a few days of gray-tinted depression. Weeping and lethargy ensue.

I joke, but it’s not very funny. Some months, the rage roars for days, snowballing and ceaseless, until I can barely stand myself. Those months, I beg for the blood, for the release, for the slow slide back to whoever I am beneath the jolting hormones.

We’re not really supposed to talk about this. It harkens unflattering stereotypes about our “time of the month,” about witchery, about the weakness of women, helpless against the moon and moods. But these forces within me, as I wade deeper into perimenopause, tug and twist, a storm that affects everything.

I try acupuncture. I smear essential oils across my spine. I swallow my vitamins and roasted tofu. I do sun salutations and take winter walks. But still, these forces outline my days, their pull is undeniable.

“Reverse puberty?” my son sometimes asks, just after I’ve apologized for snapping at him.

“Pretty much,” I say.

It’s the only way I could think to describe it to him, this maelstrom I’m in, this far side of fertility. I want my children to know about the unseen forces that govern us. To give name to these hormones that course like sharp rivers, zigs and zags, cliffs and waterfalls. Estrogen. Progesterone. Testosterone.

Erratic and intense. A waning gibbous, falling toward darkness.

First-quarter moon: Half the moon is illuminated. A time of growth.

The year I turn 11, everything changes.

Our family moves from our modest split ranch to the sprawling, wooded house where my dad had grown up.

In elementary school, I’d been a star student.

But now, in sixth grade, my hips widen and my grades plummet.

One terrible morning, the Challenger space shuttle launches and explodes, incinerating the astronauts on board, including teacher Christa McAuliffe. My own favorite teacher, Mrs. Nielsen, had been a contender for the Teacher in Space Project.

Finally, my body drips a dark, rusted blood from its center, pooling in my underpants. I know vaguely that this is my period, and yet the first time it happens, I tell no one. I ball up the rough, industrial-strength toilet paper in the school bathroom stall and stuff it in my underwear.

My appetites blossom. I sneak cans of frosting from the pantry and devour them in my closet with a spoon. I creep to the kitchen at night, filling paper towel squares with chips and cheddar that I inhale in my bed, the gritty crumbs sticking to my budding chest, my hair. I grow hungry for secrets. I pass notes in class to friends, peppering them with questions: Are you a virgin? Have you ever smoked pot?

I collect crushes like comic books, stacking them up, sorting and re-sorting. I sew an enormous pink teddy bear in home economics class, impressing my teacher. She’d be less impressed, I imagine, if she knew how I press it to the length of me at night. How I crave the weight of a body on mine. How I want someone, something to hold me down. Contain me. Fill the hole in my heart, the hole in my core.

I am first quarter moon, restless and hungry. A child unfolding into a woman’s body.

Everything is changing, exploding, bleeding.

Third-quarter moon: the reverse of the first-quarter moon.

A friend once told me she was reframing her approach to menopause. She was contemplating the transition as a return to her girl-body: to a sweet and steady hormonal state, free of the tangles of sexuality.

How tempting, I thought. I imagined cartwheels across lush lawns. Climbing trees, bark beneath fingernails. A body re-rooted in joy and play. I reach back through time, try to find the girl in me, that waxing crescent.

But she’s hard to grasp. Slippery. I can’t remember what it felt like to inhabit that smaller body, lean and loose and uncurved.

How much we go through, these thresholds we pass. How painful it is to morph, to become. We launch through the portal of puberty, through which nothing will be the same again. That’s what it seems like now, glancing back.

But I’m sure it was more subtle, more nuanced. I’m sure that then, like now, there were waves. That it wasn’t one single explosion, but a series of tugs and spikes, a rugged road to a land I could not have imagined.

When I think of menopause, I don’t think of girlhood. I think of desert dryness. Chin hairs and sexlessness. Invisibility.

I remember when ovulation used to sweep over me like a sultry spell, plumping my lips, flushing my cheekbones, soaking my underpants. I’d be somewhere mundane, like the post office, and a surge of sex would wash over me. I’d size up the men in the room, play a quiet, internal game: Fuckable or not fuckable? I’d smirk to myself. Now it’s more like a pinch in my belly, a sputter of hormones.

I fear the disappearing that happens to women once we are no longer capable of producing children. When we are declared, silently, unfuckable. When we join an unseen army, brittle and gray.

But maybe there’s another way to envision menopause. Not as the return to the girl-body, exactly, but as a culmination of all the bodies we’ve ever held, the complete cycle.

As a mother, I sometimes catch glimpses of my children’s younger selves. I see them through the lens of who they’ve been, their cheeks plumper, voices squeakier, eyes taking up most of their faces. Parents hold all these versions of our children, no matter how old they are.

What if menopause, or any oldish age, is like that: a holding of all the bodies we’ve ever been? The girl body, our waxing crescent. The hormone-soaked teenager, quarter moon. The adult, the lover, a waxing gibbous. The midlife mother — whether that be nurturer of children, career, or charity — so full we can barely hold it all. Perimenopause, this wild, waning gibbous. Our past selves nested inside of us, like Russian stacking dolls. Invisible to strangers, but solid enough that we can feel them rumbling and jostling beneath our skin.

We’ve known the rush of blood, the headaches and cramps, the sex and birth, the hot flashes and fits. We’ve existed in each phase, held all that shadow and light, our stories inscribed. Maiden. Mother. Crone.

Perimenopause is the mirror image of puberty. I soften to my younger self, to my own children as their faces narrow, their moods like pendulums, like mine. We are changing, we are changing, we are changing. How hard it is to traverse these borderlands. How very much compassion we deserve.

I am learning — often forgetting, then relearning — to treat myself with tenderness through these jagged moods, this becoming, this unbecoming.

This is what I wish for: a safe crossing. To have survived each cycle of the moon, and to exist, somehow, beyond its tumultuous pull. To appreciate its beauty and alchemy from a slight distance — from this waning crescent, silver smooth, luminous, and loved.

Writer on sibling loss, grief, parenting, wellness and mental health. Voracious reader. https://linktr.ee/LynnShattuck

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