I spent a chunk of this year crunching the numbers, like some kind of gynecological accountant. It boiled down to this: If I got to the end of July with no period, I had probably reached menopause. If I got to the end of August, I definitely had.
A few weeks before my 46th birthday in September, I reached the 12-month milestone, which officially made me a menopausal woman.
Menopause feels like the world is giving me nutrients back. Like both my body and my soul have been thanked for their hard work and given emeritus status and a big budget to simply explore.
I don’t feel wistful about this. With preteen children, my brain has long moved past childbearing years. But it’s surprising that my body followed, wrapping it all up far sooner than I expected. The average age for menopause is about 52, so reaching menopause between the ages of 40 and 45 is considered early menopause (younger than 40 is called premature).
But when hot flashes found me last year, I had a feeling I was on a different course than most other women my age. My periods had been erratic since my early 40s. Other things were happening, too. My sex drive was often lackluster, my moods were more noticeable and something unsettling was happening around my midsection.
My doctor first confirmed it wasn’t a problem with my thyroid. Then she tested the levels of my follicle-stimulating hormone. While not a perfect indicator, the test suggested I was well on my way through the transition.
To get through it, I made a few changes. To combat weight gain and potentially uneven moods, I cut out my daily glass of wine (it helped). I also found a renewed love for running — something I’d been doing for 25 years but came to see as extra important for dealing with stress and keeping my bones strong now that estrogen wouldn’t be around to safeguard them as much.
Hot flashes? I kept wet washcloths in the freezer and draped one around my neck when a flash came (dealing with them in the middle of the night still continues to suck). And as for romance … there was no magic fix on that one, but my husband and I worked to spend more quality time together and have more honest conversations (having published a book this year about the power of honesty, I’m generally a fan of it and how it can spark intimacy).
I found some or other life hack for every symptom. And while I wasn’t sad — I had made my peace with shutting fertility down when my husband got a vasectomy shortly after our second child was born — I struggled with the incongruity of it happening so soon to me.
According to WomensHealth.gov, “natural” early menopause (not due to a hysterectomy or other condition) affects about 5 percent of women. I would never have bet on myself to be in this 5 percent because I’ve always been a late bloomer. I didn’t start my period until the end of my first year in high school, when I was 14. I didn’t date until I was about 20, get married until I was 33, have kids until I was 34.
As a writer who specializes in writing about honesty, this experience offers a chance to speak with candor about a thing so many people don’t want to talk about.
I’ve mostly had a sense that I belong at the tail end. Not only did a September birthday mean I was usually the youngest person in my class, I’m also the youngest of seven children. My brothers and sisters were getting married and tending to teething babies when I was still losing baby teeth. My parents were older, my siblings were older and I was the young one — meandering along the scenic route, a little out of step, though not unhappy to do things on my own schedule.
So how did I wind up in the express lane? How did I go from being young with older parents to being older with young children? My 10-year-old and 12-year-old are on the cusp of puberty, with mood swings and changing voices. They’re starting the thing I’m finishing. The timing feels rushed.
All during my year of calendar-watching, menopause still felt implausible, and even as I was very happy not to have to deal with periods, I found myself whispering to my ovaries, "I think you have the wrong 5 percent."
But several unopened boxes of tampons later, I’ve realized I don’t have a problem being in the atypical 5 percent. Because the atypical 5 percent is actually my comfort zone.
I wouldn’t know how to function outside of a big, generationally anomalous family, where I sometimes identify more with my nieces than my sisters. And I’ve loved defying expectations and going my own way — whether it’s not changing my last name, working for myself or reversing traditional gender roles when my husband became a stay-at-home dad a dozen years ago. All told, the experience of zigging where others zag has been tremendous. I’ve found my greatest joys by skirting away from the expected.
That’s why I’m now thinking early menopause may be my greatest opportunity yet.
First, as a writer who specializes in writing about honesty, this experience offers a chance to speak with candor about a thing so many people don’t want to talk about. If the prevailing wisdom is, "Shhh, don’t talk about hot flashes," you can bet I’m going to tell everyone about them. I believe we should talk openly about the things that happen with our bodies to combat shame, embarrassment and just plain disinformation.
Dealing with menopause right now also puts me squarely in my body at a time of pandemic threat, where taking care of your health is more important than ever. No symptom is going to escape my watch, and I’ll do what I can to keep myself and loved ones safe but active.
The third thing is the most exciting though, and it came to me via an interview I got to do earlier this year with Lauren Hutton.
Hutton has continued to model into her 70s and has pushed for more media representation of vibrant older women. “If my life could stand for one thing, it would be to get women to change the way they feel about getting older,” she told me, noting the strength and wisdom that comes only with age. Something else she said stuck with me: “Women were evolved to think long-term care and taking care of the future.”
I’m not sure I fully understood it then, but I understand it now. So much of my life has felt like a series of short-term challenges, a to-do list of milestones and a great deal of maneuvering as a Gen X girl inside a giant sandwich of both caregiving, where I tend simultaneously to young children and aging parents, and generations, my own flattened between the might and size of the baby boomers and the millennials.
For me, the menopause milestone is the feeling of being lifted out of that sandwich and finally having a clear view to the question: What do I want this next part of my life to be? Something in me feels freed up to focus on generativity — or doing things to uplift the next generation.
Unlike the experience of breastfeeding, where the nutrients are literally being sucked right out of you to sustain someone else, menopause feels like the world is giving me nutrients back. Like both my body and my soul have been thanked for their hard work and given emeritus status and a big budget to simply explore.
The menopause milestone is the feeling of being lifted out of that sandwich, and finally having a clear view to the question: What do I want this next part of my life to be?
That’s meant small things, like building a Little Free Library for neighbors to contribute and borrow books; medium things, like joining a neighborhood group to have difficult conversations about race and then mobilize to create equity; and bigger things, like not being afraid to speak out anymore — whether calling out injustice or challenging the unchecked things people I work and socialize with say.
During a tumultuous year in which I’ve reckoned with both my mortality when hearing about so many people dying from the coronavirus and my white privilege when hearing about the far-reaching effects of systemic racism, I seem to have the emotional bandwidth to look beyond where I’ve been able to before. Being able to tap into this next phase of my life earlier than most feels like an unexpected and amazing gift.
So thanks, ovaries, for the express ride. I’ve got it from here.