Each morning I reach for my glasses hoping I grab the right pair. I need readers when I wear my contacts, and prescription glasses when I do not. If you read this and catch mistakes, I will blame it on my eyes. They are not what they used to be.
It was at the dentist’s office that I first heard the “at your age” sentence. I had developed tooth sensitivity and communicated this to the dentist as I sat draped in a purple bib with a mouth full of dental equipment. “Sensitivity is not uncommon for women of your age,” was the dentist’s matter-of-fact reply. I was 42. I wanted to protest, to assert my youth articulately and vigorously; I could not with the dentist’s hands in my mouth. So, during my next shopping trip, I found myself warily eyeing Sensodyne. Apparently, it is the best toothpaste for people my age.
A few months later, I was lamenting to my doctor that my hair was thinning; a barrage of blood tests revealed no alarms – thinning hair, my doctor said, is normal “at your age.” I cut my hair off and dyed it purple in response.
A month later, my physical therapist joined the choir of youthful voices calling out their aging clientele. While he helped me heal from complications due to an injury received when I was 22, he casually told me it was not unusual for people “at my age” to find that old injuries come back to haunt them. My body has ghosts, my muscles hold grudges, my sinews and cartilage rebel. I can do nothing except make more physical therapy appointments. This time, I dyed my hair blue.
It was not until my annual wellness exam that “at your age” got a name – perimenopause.
My OB-GYN is wonderful, but I left her office and tearily texted my husband, “I have an old vagina!” She never said that per se, but I learned that my once pink and textured vagina is now smooth and pale – a normal sign of women’s aging. “Absolutely normal,” my doctor had told me. It did not feel normal to me — who knew that the color of one’s insides change? I did not.
My doctor also placed me on iron supplements for the now-heavy periods that dot my months, or my every-other-months depending on my body’s mood. She tried to assail my fears about this potentially 10-year process – “it’s all normal.”
“Normal.” One would not know that the total-body take over is normal by perusing books addressing perimenopause. Titles reach out with advice on “surviving” and “taking charge” and finding “natural solutions” to the many side-effects of the oncoming “change.” The rhetoric is dramatic. Perimenopause, it seems, is dramatic too.
When we find that we no longer expect to be expecting, we are often left to navigate the hormonal gauntlet alone. We prepare elementary-aged girls for puberty with school programs, books, and even “period parties.” Pregnant women receive a barrage of advice – solicited and unsolicited – and pamphlets from their doctors and well-worn “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” books from friends. Childbirth classes, midwives, and partners ensure that many women do not head into labor uneducated or alone. Puberty and pregnancy equal information overload; if you’re in doubt of this, just try explaining puberty to a fourteen-year old, or offering unsolicited advice to someone 8-months pregnant. If you’re lucky, you’ll just get an eye roll in response.
In our forties, the public response is silence, but also a cry to rage against the onslaught of time. In a society that celebrates youth, these changes are railed against by many women. Celebrities do not go gently into perimenopause. There are no perimenopause parties with cakes pale like aging vaginas. Beauty products promise to erase the lines drawn by time. “Do not allow age to show” is the message from a marketing industry that makes millions off women’s insecurities about this phase of life. Thus, perimenopause – and its successor, menopause – are often discussed in whispered tones by friends who find their bodies shifting.
None of my friends received a book, a pamphlet, or a website from their doctors, friends, or mothers to prepare them for the changes “at our age.” It has been up to many of us to put together the pieces ourselves. We find that at “our age,” we pee when we cough and sneeze (those postpartum Kegels did not work long-term!), we fight irritation daily even with those we love, we cannot get cold enough, we are breaking out again, our deodorants do not work anymore, libidos go up, libidos go down, things sag, there is hair where it should not be, there is less hair where it should be, we cannot read a menu in a dimly-lit restaurant, we cannot read our texts… we schedule panicked appointments with doctors thinking surely something is wrong. But all is normal – for our age.
I do not want to “conquer” or “survive” perimenopause and menopause. Such terms suggest choice or fate – one “conquers” climbing Mount Everest or a fear of spiders; one “survives” cancer or a hurricane. Perimenopause and menopause are largely inevitable and normal phases of a woman’s life. I want to live it. I want to enter this phase filled with the same thirst for knowledge and curiosity I had at 12 when I hit puberty, and at 33 when I was pregnant with my first child. I want to be in awe of what my body can do in the years it has left. There is life in this body yet – even at my age.
Let us celebrate the changes ahead by no longer whispering about our age and its changes. My first step in this endeavor is to gift my friends with a Perimenopause Package on their 40th birthday; it will include: Sensodyne, a deodorant sampler pack, a hand-held fan, lubricant, chocolate, and a bottle of wine for good measure. Happy Perimenopause, ladies!