|"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
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.]
|"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
|"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
So I say, hey, here's to the "F@#$ you Fifties"! Bring them on!
You come back when you're ready!
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.