In the United States, we struggle to conjure meaning from this chapter in a culture that has its eyes closed and fingers in its ears. Women in their thirties, who may find their definition in children (as I did) or work (as many do), tend to look backwards for cues from their own experience and from younger peers, rather than gathering information from those women who have already traversed the high and difficult terrain of modern female adulthood. We struggle to keep up with our youth-besotted culture. As we age and things begin to unravel, as they do, our attention is snapped forward, eyes front, facing the unknown wild of the middle. We are left to find clues, maps, and guides to take our hands and show us the way. We are left, paradoxically, alone in a crowd of similarly searching sisters.
In the darkest moments of the past dark decade, I marinated in the brine of menopause forums. An alternate reality jammed with thousands (millions?) of women from all over the globe, these internet gathering places provide immeasurable comfort. No matter the alien nature of your newest symptom, there are many others with the same body oddity and much talk about how to fix it. Or survive it, at least.
I made “meno friends” in Ireland, Australia, Brazil, and the Philippines. I’ve bonded with flashing sisters all over the United States and Canada. Women everywhere are suffering, dragging their wonky bodies through demanding jobs, challenging coursework, and challenged relationships. But they only seem able to talk about it using clever monikers and cartoon avatars. These cathartic characters — TwistedSister, girldown, Stoptherideiwannagetoff, dizzygrl—allow for unfettered raging against the upheavals of their bodies and the disinterest or dismissal of their cultures. Offscreen, they plaster their outside faces on, bolster their faltering bodies, screw up their courage, and get on with it.
The women in the office are not telling the whole story. The woman in the produce section is not, perhaps, okay. Their bodies are in revolt, and though we all do it if we are to live past the middle, bodies in public must be well-behaved.
I have friends in the real world who whisper about these things. Around tables with wine and cocktails, leaning in and checking the crowd, they may admit to something. A heavy period like death. A vertiginous day in bed. A month of unexplained weeping. A sudden desire for divorce. White-hot madness. Some of us (me!) don’t (can’t!) shut up about it. Why aren’t we all talking about this? Our worlds are brand new, filled with terrors and the unknown.
In “The Bitch Is Back,” Sandra Tsing Loh begins:
During menopause, a woman can feel like the only way she can continue to exist for 10 more seconds inside her crawling, burning skin is to walk screaming into the sea — grandly, epically, and terrifyingly, like a 15-foot-tall Greek tragic figure wearing a giant, pop-eyed wooden mask. Or she may remain in the kitchen and begin hurling objects at her family: telephones, coffee cups, plates. Or, as my mother did in the 1970s, she may just eerily disappear into her bedroom, like a tide washing out — curtains drawn, door locked, dead to the world, for days, weeks, months (some moms went silent for years). Oh, for a tribal cauldron to dive into, a harvest moon to howl at, or even an online service that provides — here’s an idea! — demon gypsy lovers.
How are we not all screaming about this? My sense is that we are so enculturated to not talk about it (never mind scream about it), so deferential to cultural norms about quiet, fading, aging women that we play the role dutifully even as our souls and psyches squirm and scream just below the surface. We behave.
However, as Julie Daley writes in Old Woman, Wise Woman, Powerful Woman: The Beauty of Aging, “women are powerful beings, especially as we age.” Think Louise Bourgeois, Toni Morrison, Georgia O’Keeffe, and the Notorious R.B.G. Think Virginia Woolf — without the stones and the river. Women of signature style and fierce intellect; women who grew into their powerful selves despite a culture that challenged them. Women who rule, through the middle and past the middle, with or without lipstick and Botox. Without a cultural stamp of approval.
Imagine a culture that supports us in our metamorphosis, a society awed by our hard-won power, our wrought intelligence, and our blazing hungers. Think what that looks like, if nurtured appropriately. Think what Virginia would’ve been in such a culture. Imagine if we all stepped out from behind those avatars and roared, if we demanded deference and wore our change like the badge of courage and strength that it is. An army of gorgeous, crowing life-built goddesses remaking the world.
Or how about just a little peace, a hand pie, and a cocktail. A compliment, maybe — nice job or nice knees. We can start small. I’ll wait over here in my chthonic headpiece.