This Is Us

On the Other Side of Menopause

Aging is more joyful than we think

Photo: katrien berckmoes/Flickr

When I think about the way perimenopause shook me, broke me, and made me new, it seems unreal. Like a dream, or a nightmare, it crept up and consumed me. Now, here I stand on the other side, awake and wondering what the hell happened.

The short story goes something like this: I was “fine,” busy and distracted with life. A good and hearty marriage, four wonderful and willful kids, a great mess of a house, animals, projects, work and joy and sadness — a big, “normal” life. Then, I fell down. I found myself in a wonderland of hormones and madness, suddenly living in an unfamiliar body, wondering whether death or institutionalization would come first.

The long story is very long and still not completely understood, even by me. Did I fall into that wonderland, or did I slide slowly into it over the course of many burdened and exhausting years? Did I fall because I wasn’t watching my step? Was I instead watching everyone else’s step, hoping to guide them to the promised land (which I know now may not exist and, if it does, would never be found for them by me)? Did I ignore my own promised land while looking for theirs? I don’t know; it’s all metaphor and memory now, here in the bright and quiet morning. The nightmare is fresh but easily shaken off in daylight.

Here, on the other side, the most surprising fact is this: I’m not sad. Not specifically about menopause and not broadly about aging. Most of the menopause literature I’ve read addresses the sadness that many women believe is inherent to the process. They are sad about what they see as waning femininity, about the loss of blood, the passing of their fertile years. They speak of sadness around perceived invisibility or loss of social currency. They mourn a fading beauty.

I, happily, do not.

I don’t feel bad about my neck. I do sometimes feel bad about my thighs, but that’s not aging. That’s a lifetime steeped in a culture that programmed me this way, and that does feel bad.

I don’t fear gray. Bring on the silver, or the dull tin, or snow white. Whatever. I’ve made it this far. It feels like victory.

I don’t miss wolf whistles and oglers. Invisibility is a superpower.

I’m not sad about my age or mourning my lost youth. I feel a little like a kid again (with bad knees, a sensitive stomach, and a taste for the drink).

I feel stripped of artifice, relieved at the shedding of some costume or armor. But also naked and a little raw, unsure how to proceed in this hard world. Not sad, just a bit shaken. And, strangely, very calm.

Perhaps I was born to be an old lady. It suits me.

The world is sad and so are we — what’s to be done?

To be clear, I do wrestle with all sorts of sadness, those unavoidable human sadnesses that don’t care about age or gender. I’m sad about the screaming news, the threat of sickness, the casual cruelty of those in power. I’m sad about the big things, but also the daily small things: the dead raccoon, the fading roses, the unspecified sighing sadness that blooms in the body unbidden and just needs a walk or a glass of wine. I’m sad about the passing of my dear Aunt Evelyn and my mad, cloistered stepmother, older than old. Sad about the dog. The world is sad and so are we — what’s to be done?

This is life, though, the living and the dying, the rises and falls. And life, too, is lush and gorgeous and so full of beauty and good that even that can make us sad. Life is good because it’s sometimes sad. Raccoons die and so do roses and loved ones and dogs — and so do we. Nations rise and fall and headlines scream. A virus will do what it does, have its way with the unprotected and even some of the protected. Textbooks will remember it in 100 years, and it will make our great-grandchildren sad.

I’m not sad about menopause or aging, though, because it doesn’t feel like I’ve lost anything. I’ve changed, certainly, and I don’t like some of the changes — the knees or the nerves, for instance — but the things that make many women sad are not sad-making for me. Not yet, anyway. Ask me again later, if I’m still around. Maybe my meno sad won’t hit in my fifties; maybe it’s waiting. Nothing would surprise me at this point. Right now, I don’t feel a particular loss. I’m glad the blood is gone, along with the way it ruled the calendar, governed my body and my moods, ruined my pants and sheets and a fair number of days. Good riddance.

I don’t feel a loss of femininity or womanhood. I feel more myself now, stronger and clearer and more in charge than at any other time in my life. I was blessed with four kids. It was really hard, and I don’t want to do that again. I also don’t want to be defined by it. I am me now — just me — without the attached cultural currency that came with the role of mother. As for beauty, wasn’t it always an amorphous and subjective construct? Who told you that you were, or weren’t, beautiful? Who decides? When I was young, I felt beautiful at times and wretched at others. Same now — I have radiant highs and ragged lows. It comes from a place that can’t be touched by creams or potions, a place that can’t be manipulated by products or surgery. It’s fickle and fleeting and ultimately not worth much. And it’s not up to anyone else. Beauty is as beauty does.

I’m also not particularly sad about eventual death. I don’t want to die, and I’m not looking forward to it. I worry sometimes that it may come sooner than I might expect or that it might hurt. But it doesn’t make me sad — not yet. Again, ask me later. Carrying a burden of sadness about inevitable death, when we know it’s coming for each of us, is like being at a party and feeling sad all night because you know it will end. That’s one way to live, and some do. It seems self-defeating. Yes, it’s sad — almost everything is — but I’ll think about that later.

Here, in the quiet morning after, I feel fine. The battle was long and hard, rest and recovery will continue, but I’m not sad. It’s a new day, a new chapter. I’m calm and strong enough and oddly hopeful. The sun is up and I’ve got plans.

Write it down.

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