"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china."

Charles Dickens

September 19, 2011

The 'M' Word

"The Awakening Conscience," by
William Holman Hunt, 1853, Tate Gallery, London
How could I not thoroughly enjoy an article that began with this paragraph?
"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."

"In the Loge," by Mary Cassatt, 1878
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Sandra Tsing Loh, a regular contributor for The Atlantic, has written another brilliant article on the state of the female condition in America today. She is 49 and understands our generation of women: many who have been to college, delaying families because of work or enjoying our 20s (a time which, I might add, I was so into my studies and my own life that I was able to spend time with most of the paintings you are seeing on this blog today), and who are now on the cusp of menopause and likely with teenagers in tow. This is a point not lost on me recently: this defies nature, really, and argues for why we might be better at having and rearing children in our twenties and early thirties for this reason alone. She also notes that in the past, women rarely lived to, or past, menopause.

In her article, "The Bitch is Back," Loh gets to the heart of perimenopause and menopause while visiting the revised version of The Wisdom of Menopause by Christianne Northrup (I have a quite tattered copy of her first edition, written ten years ago). [Before you read any further, do yourself a favor and read Loh's article here. Be prepared for outright squeals of laughter and many upright moments of 'YES!' If you are a partner of a perimenopausal or menopausal woman, you might now be able to understand for the first time "what fresh Hell is this," to borrow from Dorothy Parker.]

Northrup notes that women today "between 44 and 65 are the largest demographic group" in our society and that menopause in that context is a huge cultural event. She offers this "juicy core of wisdom" in her book that Loh seizes upon:
"A woman once told me that when her mother was approaching the age of menopause, her father sat the whole family down and said, 'Kids, your mother may be going through some changes now, and I want you to be prepared. Your Uncle Ralph told me that when your Aunt Carol went through the change, she threw a leg of lamb right out the window!' Although this story fits beautifully into the stereotype of the 'crazy' menopausal woman, it should not be overlooked that throwing the leg of lamb out the window may have been Aunt Carol's outward expression of the process going on within her soul: the reclaiming of self. Perhaps it was her way of saying how tired she was of waiting on her family, of signaling to them that she was past the cook/chauffeur/dishwasher stage of her life. For many women, if not most, part of this reclamation process includes getting back in touch with anger, and perhaps, blowing up at loved ones for the first time." 
"Woo-woo! Duck, Uncle Ralph! Go, Aunt Carol!" Loh gleefully adds and then continues with her own analysis of Aunt Carol:
"Fertility’s amped-up reproductive hormones helped Aunt Carol 30 years ago to begin her mysterious automatic weekly ritual of roasting lamb just so and laying out 12 settings of silverware with an OCD-like attention to detail while cheerfully washing and folding and ironing the family laundry. No normal person would do that—look at the rest of the family: they are reading the paper and lazing about like rational, sensible people. And now that Aunt Carol’s hormonal cloud is finally wearing off, it’s not a tragedy, or an abnormality, or her going crazy—it just means she can rejoin the rest of the human race: she can be the same selfish, non-nurturing, non-bonding type of person everyone else is. (And so what if get-well casseroles won’t get baked, PTAs will collapse, and in-laws will go for decades without being sent a single greeting card? Paging Aunt Carol! The old Aunt Carol!)"
Sandra Tsing Loh is one of the best writers working for The Atlantic today (and Corby Kummer, of course, and the occasional and great illumination from Christopher Hitchens). But Loh gets my age group––she is our kind (at 49 she is virtually my age––well, in another month).

"Louise Nursing her Child,"1898, is one of Mary Cassatt's
beautiful pastel depictions of motherhood.
 [And, for the record, I loved breastfeeding my children.]
I've often contemplated the rise in "Mommy blogs" and domestic-related blogs in recent years. What exactly are we doing here? Are we trying to prove to the world, or to ourselves, that we can do it all fabulously? Well, we can't. What you have seen and read on my blogs, which I don't think really fit into one genre, is a product of the best of me, or the part of me I wish to reveal or share on a particular day. They are virtual scrapbooks and travelogues of my life: Catherine's Living magazines, styled and tweaked for your viewing and reading pleasure. Most of the time I am swimming in laundry, fighting off sleep, avoiding dust bunnies and other nasty things in the corner, snapping at a loved one, keeping the dogs from killing the chickens, ignoring the dirt on my mud room floor, losing to my inner hoarder, and basically alluding perfection.

"Morning Sun," by Edward Hopper, 1952, Columbus Museum of Art

But that's all OK, you see, because, according to Northrup and Loh, my real and authentic self is just returning after many years of estrogen-rich dormancy. Yes, I love my family––both immediate and extended––and most days I love my life. However, there are many days where I'd just assume burrow into my room, or a book or my writing and hide. Sleep, when it arrives, is a grand refuge, also, even if it is not as regular as it should be for me to be an effective wife and mother person. This is not depression so much as it is reinvention, a needed cocooning. As I head into midlife and start to loosen the hold of my mothering abilities, I am also letting go of my children, thread by thread, as they become the people they are meant to be. There is still nurturing going on because two of them are 13 and 11. Mothers are always mothers to some extent: some even become matriarchs. As women, we are all daughters but we aren't necessarily all mothers. I can only speak from my experience––but menopause affects all of us. Hormones are not particular.
 
"Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Winslow," by John Singleton Copley, 1773, Museum of Fine Arts-Boston

"Angel," by Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1887
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Most women spend all of their lives pleasing (and even performing) in some form for their parents, their teachers, their partners, their children, their bosses, their grandparents and even extended family, some even for their perception of what would God want. [If you are reading this and you are a Titus 2 woman, you have my support, but also my complete lack of real understanding. My Mennonite friends seem to live by this path but they were born to that Titus walk and know no other. So for those who seek that lifestyle in the 21st century, I applaud you but you also scare me a bit: maybe it's your complete unquestioning devotion to your path. Maybe I admire, but fear, anyone who can be so trusting in a way that seems so dependent on a belief, a way of life, another person. Either way, I do not mean to sound judgmental. Perhaps there is a certain envy in this sentiment.]

"Ophelia" by Sir John Everett Millais, 1851-52, Tate Gallery, London

When I was nine or so, and visiting my grandparents' New Hampshire farm on our annual visit from Ohio in August, my mother took nothing but an old comforter and went up to the field and nestled into the tall late summer grass for an afternoon. After some time we were all looking for her and it was disquieting: I'd never lost my mother before. I had always had her in my sights at home. My father said something like, "Now why would Pat do something like that?" [Now I see it as more of a "Honey, where's my meatloaf?" moment a la William H. Macy in the movie Pleasantville.] 

I wandered up to the woodchuck pasture just behind the farm where I saw the adults had gathered. Where the grass parted, I saw my mother sitting there like a quiet doe. My grandmother steered me homeward with a "there there" and I'm sure I had many questions at the time that weren't answered. In recollection it felt voyeuristic finding her like that and that I was intruding upon her time and space. I did feel a sense of temporary abandonment, and a moment of panic, but now I understand why she did that: it was her 'Aunt Carol' moment. Long before menopause had begun, my mother was saying, in her early 30s, this is my space and time and refuge and you can all cope without me for a few hours. I don't know what prompted that departure, because my mother is not a dramatic person or prone to bouts of "Mommy histrionics," like I tend to be when pressed––and I've never asked. But I do understand: her fight or flight instinct had kicked in and she had lost the fight. Mothers need to hunker down in a space of their own from time to time just as they need to be present and accounted for in their children's lives.

"Le Thé," by Mary Cassatt, c. 1880
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
There's nothing wrong with existing to please others, I suppose, as long as we don't forget who we are in the process. But at a certain point we also need to say, why am I doing this and for what end? Am I losing my voice? Is anyone even listening to me in the first place? And God, wherever he is, would probably like us to assert ourselves on occasion and get some sleep. He's not really that concerned with the kitchen floor or how many children we have or how we should best honor and please our husbands. [After all, they are quite capable of doing that for themselves, with our support.] On our death beds will we moan our lack of perfect Mommyhood and domestic allure and "Good Wifey" qualities or will we say "I wish I'd said it all differently, honestly"? And menopause, of all the rites of passage in our culture, needs to be said differently, and honestly. [Try having a conversation with your mother on the subject and you might agree.]

So I say, hey, here's to the "F@#$ you Fifties"! Bring them on!

You come back when you're ready!

Catherine

NOTE: It is interesting that while Mary Cassatt embraced motherhood in her paintings, she deliberately did not marry or have children so she could pursue her artistic talents. She realized how restrictive a woman's life could be in her era. And yet she wrote: "There's only one thing in life for a woman; it's to be a mother...A woman artist must be...capable of making the primary sacrifices."

I also honor here today the words of a great matriarch in my life, Aunt Sally (and old family friend from my Akron childhood who went to art school and then fully embraced motherhood, as most women did in the early 1960s after college). She once told me: "I tell my girls all the time: you can be anything you want in this life, you just can't do it all at once." No truer words were ever spoken to me because I've realized that we can't do it all, at once. Anyone who thinks they can is fooling themselves. It is humanly impossible. But we can do a lot in life and do it all well in its time. After mourning the passing of my earlier decades I am beginning to embrace the potential of my future ones. The only difference between now and when I was 25 is that time is no longer on my side. Possibility remains, however.

11 comments:

  1. The "m" word is something isn't it? Funny, I went through it like a breeze, my mom not so much. Now, years after, I am experiencing the switch in the brain that turns off the housewifely part of me and turns on something, not sure what. It's going to be fun finding out.
    This was a fantastic post about such a strange time in a womans life.

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  2. I was going to make the point your Aunt Sally did, we can do it all, but not all at once, or not at the same time of life. After working my whole life, and with my intense mothering behind me, and waiting for my period of grand-mothering to begin, I find myself craving domesticity. Perhaps because I never had the time, or I am wanting to slow down a bit and enjoy simple things like chopping vegetables or creating a tablescape. Is it guilt? Am I trying to capture something I missed out on? Or think I did? I don't know the answers of why, but I do know I am enjoying the tinkering. I enjoy reading your blog.

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  3. Hubby and I discussed the "m" word at length last night. I voiced my fears and grief at losing the dream of what my life would look like in "retirement" but made tentative plans for what the new dream may be. Children and pets and being tied to the house will give way to impromptu trips to learn and see and grow. No big dinners on Sundays for the family. Now I understand why my mother tell us kids "invite me over to YOUR house!" Mothering and wifey things will give way to ADVENTURE and GROWTH and my beloved swears he truly looks forward to it all. I'm currently reading Northrup's book and gleaning out the jewels that speak across the board (not giving mind to her new-age leanings as I AM a Christian and that presents a different perspective on it.) I nearly understand Sarah's response now! And Prov. 31 looks rather different too. I believe Titus 2 ladies are the very ones called to speak from the place of "m" wisdom, to teach the younger ones, "do your mommy thing while you are in this stage because, baby, you won't believe what comes next!"
    Thanks for the link on FB and for giving your own perspective here. I have truly learned from both.
    ~t.

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  4. Fantastic post ! How hard you worked. How much I appreciate that effort. For me menopause hit surgically at 38. No time to react as still had small ones at home to raise. Now, 14 years later I am "reacting" all over the place. My brain is crazy filled with ambition and new life careers but body not keeping up well. Quess I'll just keep writing !

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  5. Thanks for all of your comments. I wanted to add that this post was prompted by a conversation with old friends about wanting to push a "reset" button on our lives. And then Loh's article came in my mail (and was glad to find it online so I could link).

    I am fiercely home and hearth oriented and have been for a while. I hope that won't change, just morph a bit so that, overtime, I can feel it is ok to travel further afield (have not been on a plane for 11 years but we drive everywhere). I also want to be a matriarch. A fierce, but loving one. I want to provide the place that the kids come back to where we can have Sunday dinners or family gatherings or whatever. That will never go away.

    However, lately, I feel sometimes like a wild animal might feel like when it gets annoyed with its young who want to nurse too long. I'm convinced this is hormonal! And it can be scary, too. It's not that I don't want my children any more, it's more like I feel this seismic shift in how I deal with them and what I am for them. Of course they still need me but there has to be something to estrogen and nurturing. There is even a new study out about how men LOSE testosterone when they spend a lot of time caregiving their own children.

    Fascinating.

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  6. Outstanding post!! I could go into all the details I related to-from throwing the lamb leg to disappearing like your mother-but I won't : ) I'll just say again Outstanding post!

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  7. Really great post! Read the article by Loh - what an amazing writer she is. I laughed AND cried...crazy. Always nice to know I'm not alone (not that I would wish this "M" stuff on anyone)!

    Needless to say, I have had a pretty hard time these past few years. Menopause has not been an easy journey, but I'm positive the "old me" or a "better me" will emerge one of these days!

    Wishing you all the best on your journey :)

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  8. WOW! Absolutely fascinating post. I can appreciate it from afar like going to a great museum and passing amongst the masterpieces but I can't be a part of it. Being a single woman with no children (but lots of pets), I have nothing with which to compare. As for menopause, a gynecologist induced mine at age 45 and the next day gave me a little bottle of pills that stopped the night sweats and hot flashes. Okay, I do have one occasionally still and they are brutal but those fine little pills stop them.

    I enjoyed my younger days when I still had uterus and ovaries, even though I wasn't using them to reproduce. I enjoy my life now even more. I enjoy my solitude. I would probably have made a lousy mother -- I would either have beaten them to death or would have been too permissive -- but I also don't regret the lack of offspring. I must have been born without a "maternal instinct gene".

    ANYWAY, back to your musings! GREAT post!

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  9. I have always really liked your blog,but feel I cannot agree with much that you say here.Many women sail through the menopause without the awful things you describe,and most have come to terms with that stage in their lives long before it actually arrives.I am 64 and apart from a few hot flushes and heavy periods, which did not start until age 51 and only lasted a few months,had no complications.My Mother was the same,grandmother,greatgrandmother also(they all lived to be 90+)Why should we suddenly want to cease nurturing our families in all aspects at this time ? Much more difficult for me was coming to terms with being widowed at 48 and losing the most important thing in my life,my dearest husband.compared to that midlife crisis the menopause is nothing !!

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  10. A fascinating and favorite post and truthfully, Catherine, I've got to read it several more times to fully absorb it all. I need to marinate on this one a bit!

    Rosemary UK. I am so sorry for your loss. I can only imagine that menopause would pale in comparision to losing your much loved husband at such a young age. Destiny

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